Are you struggling to improve your bench press?
The barbell bench press is one of the most popular exercises in the world (and the most popular exercise in our workout log) and is well-known for its ability to bulk up and build your upper body strength and muscle mass.
Getting stronger in the bench press is therefore one of the most popular training goals out there.
But how do you go about it?
If your bench press form is on point, and you’re following a progressive bench press program, the next place to look for gains might be in your accessory exercises.
In this post, we’ll list 25 of the best accessory exercises to improve your bench press, divided into different muscle groups:
Some of the exercises are chosen because they increase the strength in your prime movers in the bench press: your chest, front delts, and triceps.
Others are chosen in the hope that they will improve your training tolerance and lower your risk of injury by strengthening and protecting your joints.
By picking one or two exercises from each section, working them hard, and increasing your strength in them, your newly gained strength will carry over to the bench press and help increase your bench press max.
What Is an Accessory Exercise?
An accessory exercise, or an assistance exercise, is an exercise you do in order to improve, augment, or in any way help your main lifts; in this case the bench press.
It can do so directly, such as strengthening the main muscles involved in the lift, or indirectly, such as working the antagonists (the opposing muscles) in order to maintain muscle balance.
What Are the Benefits of Accessory Exercises?
Why use other exercises to improve your bench press? Why not just bench if that’s what you want to get better at?
The principle of specificity is real, and the best way to improve your bench press is probably to simply bench more. However, bench pressing isn’t the only way to improve your bench press, and not using any other tool than the bench press might limit your progress.
Here are some ways in which assistance exercises might aid your bench pressing.
- Increased strength. Improve your strength in similar movements (for example, dumbbell presses) and it can carryover to the bench press.
- Gain muscle mass. By using a wider array of exercises, you might be able to grow the muscles involved in the bench press more effectively, compared to sticking to the bench press alone. And a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle.
- Less (or different) training stress. Accessory movements can enable you to train with more volume because it stresses your joints and muscles in other ways. Are your elbows limiting how much bench pressing you can do? Do dumbbell chest flyes. Are your shoulders limiting your training? Do tricep pushdowns.
- Isolate muscles. Just like accessories can help you work around current bottlenecks, they can also be used to target your weakest link or do extra work for your prime movers.
- Correct muscle imbalances. If the bench press is all you train, you might get problems with muscle imbalances down the line. By adding in rows and biceps work, you strengthen both sides of your joints, which might help lower your risk of injury.
Do you need to do accessory exercises in order to improve your bench press? No, you probably don’t. You could probably only train the bench press and reach a very high level of performance.
Can it help? Yes, it most definitely can. It’s another (or many, actually) tool in your toolbox, for you to work around injuries, bring up weak points, or build your pressing strength without adding to your pressing volume. Some of my own best bench press gains have come in periods when I focused on other, similar pressing exercises and only did a little bit of bench pressing on top of the other stuff.
The Best Accessory Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Alright, time to take a look at the actual exercises for improving your bench press.
We’ve divided them into different sections based on the muscle group they primarily work, so you can choose to read from start to finish, or jump directly to the part you’re interested in by clicking the list below.
I suggest that you consider your training program and training volume as a whole, to see where you might be lacking or have opportunity for improvement. If you decide, for instance, that you could use more chest and triceps work, then pick one or two exercises from each category and work that into your workout routine.
You can read more about how to program the accessory exercises towards the end of this article.
Chest Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Your chest muscles are the most important muscles for your bench press, and there is a strong correlation between chest muscle thickness and bench press strength.1
Moreover, the pectoralis major (and its neighbor, the front delt) contribute 74% of the joint moment force in the sticking point in the bench press, while your triceps only contribute 26%.2
Thus, building big and strong chest muscles is important.
1. Feet-Up Bench Press
The feet-up bench press decreases the amount of arch you can create with your lower back, and forces you into a more flat bench press technique. This leads to a longer range of motion for your chest muscles, which, in turn, might benefit both your strength gains and muscle growth.
Also, because you cannot rely on your legs for support or leg drive in this exercise, you will have to create a stable base using your upper body and torso alone. After you’ve learned how to do this, you can then benefit from this extra stability in your regular bench press.
Because you cannot use as much weight as in the standard bench press, the feet-up bench press can also serve as a form of autoregulation in your training, suitable for light workouts.
2. Bar Dip
Bar dips require a certain degree of strength and control to even be a possibility. But, if you can perform this classic bodyweight exercise, you have one of the best chest exercises at your disposal.
Bar dips emphasize your mid to lower chest which is heavily utilized in the bench press – especially if you arch.
The push-up is probably one of the most overlooked upper body exercises out there.
Personally, I’ve twice used this simple exercise to improve my bench press in 10 kg / 22 lb leaps: first from 140 to 150 kg, and then again from 152.5 to 162.5 kg. I don’t believe that there is something magical about the push-up itself, but simply that the accessibility of the exercise allowed me to drastically increase my training volume and frequency without interfering with work or family.
Do them strict and deep to reap the most benefit from them.
4. Dumbbell Chest Press
The dumbbell chest press offers some variation from the barbell bench press. The dumbbells are less stable and will therefore challenge your stabilizing muscles more. They will also help you identify any side-to-side differences in strength. Thirdly, using dumbbells enables you to use a more free range of motion, which might target your pec muscles in a slightly different way.
The greatest disadvantage of this exercise is how difficult it can be to get into position with a pair of heavy dumbbells. Which, coincidentally, gets a little easier in the next exercise.
5. Incline Dumbbell Press
The incline dumbbell press is very similar to the flat dumbbell chest press, with the only difference being that you’ve inclined the bench slightly. An incline of 30° is enough to emphasize your upper pecs and anterior deltoids more than in the flat dumbbell press.
Thanks to the incline, getting into (and out of) the starting position with a pair of heavy weights gets considerably easier. Also, many people experience that the incline press done with dumbbells feels great on their shoulders, and let’s them work in a very comfortable range of motion.
Read more: 5 Differences Between Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press
6. Dumbbell Chest Flyes
The last accessory exercise we’ll look at for the chest is the dumbbell chest fly, which isolates your pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids. A benefit of this exercise is that the hardest part of the movement is at the very bottom when your pecs and front delts are in a stretched position. Training and loading your muscles at long muscle lengths has been proven very effective for muscle growth.
If you don’t like doing flyes with dumbbells, you can substitute this exercise with cable flyes or machine flyes instead.
Triceps Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Next to your pecs and front delts, your triceps are your most important bench pressing muscles. They are particularly active in the top half of the movement, and for locking out the lift.
The triceps only grows about half as much as the pecs does from bench pressing, highlighting the need for extra triceps work if you want to grow them optimally.
1. Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is of course very similar to the traditional bench press, but shifts more of the work toward your triceps muscles because of the narrower grip.
In a wide-grip bench press, your triceps contribute around 22% of the force in the sticking region. In the close-grip bench press, your triceps contribute around 37% (almost double) of the force.
The close-grip bench press is an effective exercise for increasing your triceps strength and getting stronger in your lockout.
Read more: Bench Press Grip Width: Wide vs Close-Grip
2. Barbell Lying Tricep Extensions
The barbell lying triceps extension works the triceps differently compared to the close-grip bench press. In this exercise, you’ve raised your upper arm towards your head, which makes the long head of the triceps (which originates from the shoulder blade) work at a longer muscle length.
The lying triceps extension is a great exercise for working the medial and long head of your triceps, but not the lateral head, which is generally the triceps head that gets worked the most in the bench press.3
This might mean that the lying triceps extension is not useful for increasing your bench press performance, and this study didn’t see any extra increases in bench press 1RM from adding lying triceps extensions to bench press training over a ten-week training period, compared with bench press training alone.
You might interpret this in two ways: either that you don’t need to bother about the lying triceps extension if your goal is to get stronger in the bench press. Or, that it is a great choice of assistance exercise precisely because it works parts of your triceps that the bench press doesn’t, because this will give you a more well-rounded (and larger, in general) triceps development that might be useful down the line. Or at least gives you bigger guns.
You decide, buddy.
3. Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
The overhead cable triceps extension is an isolation exercise for the triceps that, like the barbell lying triceps extension, trains the long head of the triceps at a long muscle length.
One study compared this exercise to tricep pushdowns and found that while they both lead to similar total growth in the long head of the triceps, the muscle growth was distributed differently:4
- Overhead cable triceps extensions led to growth primarily in the distal part of the long head (the part closest to the elbow).
- Tricep pushdowns led to a more evenly distributed growth, in the whole length of the long head.
4. Tricep Pushdown
The triceps pushdown is the favorite tricep exercise of many lifters, simply because it feels so good on the elbows.
Compared to the overhead extensions, the long head of the triceps is at a short muscle length in this exercise. And, as previously mentioned, the tricep pushdown seems to elicit a more evenly distributed growth of the long head than the overhead extensions.
Also, using a cable machine instead of free weights lets you worry less about balance and instead focus on working your triceps.
Back Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Can training your back really improve your bench press?
Probably not directly.
Your back muscles are antagonists to your pushing muscles, and I wouldn’t expect back training to help your bench press any more than training your pecs will help your rows.
Directly, that is.
Indirectly, however, it might be a different story:
- It is possible that back training can help increase your stability in the bench press.
- It is also probably a good idea to keep at least some modicum of strength and muscle balance between your pushing muscles at the front of your torso and the pulling muscles on your back. This might protect your joints and lower your risk of injury.
So, while I don’t think back training is going to directly affect your bench pressing in the short run, I still think it is wise to include it for your long-term health and development.
With that said, let’s look at some back exercises for bench pressers.
1. Seal Row
The seal row is pretty much the opposite of the bench press. As such, it is an excellent choice of accessory exercise as it works a lot of the upper body muscles that the bench press doesn’t: your lats, traps, rear delts, and biceps, to name some of the largest.
This exercise is a good choice when you want to isolate your pulling muscles and avoid loading your lower back. It does, however, require some setting up if your gym doesn’t have a bench designed specifically for seal rows (like the one Sandrine uses in the gif above). Placing a regular training bench on top of two sturdy boxes is a common solution.
2. Barbell Row
The barbell row is another popular barbell back exercise and is very similar to the seal row in terms of muscles worked. It differs mainly in that you don’t have any support to lean against. This also means you don’t have to set anything up; just load up a barbell and start rowing.
Just remember that if you want to target the muscles on the opposite side of the bench press muscles, you will have to lean forward quite a bit and maintain that position.
3. Cable Row
The cable row is another rowing variant that usually enables you to focus more on your working muscles. While you still have to use your lower back to some extent, you don’t have to work as hard as in the barbell row. This generally enables you to use stricter form in the cable row.
4. Dumbbell Row
Another exercise that isolates your rowing muscles and avoids loading your lower back is the dumbbell row. Just place your hand and knee against a bench and start rowing.
A benefit of this exercise is that you work with one arm at a time, which can help you even out any side-to-side strength differences. The drawback is, of course, that you will have to do twice as many sets to cover both arms.
5. Lat Pulldown
In contrast to the rows, the lat pulldown consists of a vertical pull rather than a horizontal. This is obviously not as much of a mirror image of the bench press as, for example, the seal row is, but it is still a great exercise for working many of your large back muscles; your lats and lower traps in particular.
For those of you with great pulling strength in relation to your body weight, the pull-up is a great way to work your back muscles in a vertical pulling movement.
A benefit of this exercise is that there is practically no setup at all; you just jump up and grab the bar. Also, it generally lends a nice feeling of being able to control your body.
A drawback is that it requires quite a bit of strength in order to perform it at all.
Shoulder Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Your shoulders are undeniably one (well, two) of the most important joints in the bench press. However, not all shoulder muscles are of similar importance.
We typically divide the shoulder muscles into three sections:
Of these three, only the front delts are prime movers in the bench press, and the lateral and rear delts are, at best, stabilizers.
However, in line with the previous thoughts on joint stability and well-rounded development on all sides of your joints, it is probably unwise to ignore your lateral and rear delts completely. While not responsible for actually pushing the bar up, keeping these muscles big and strong might benefit your shoulder health and lower your general risk of injury.
Let’s take a look at a few different exercises for your different shoulder muscles.
1. Reverse Dumbbell Flyes
The reverse dumbbell fly works the bench press antagonists in your upper back: your trapezius, rotator cuffs, and rear delts.
This exercise balances your bench press work, while still being very gentle and “low impact”. It just doesn’t interfere much or at all with your bench press training.
If you find that your shoulders stiffen from doing too much benching, this exercise will make them feel like butter. It simply feels like you are tipping the scales back into balance again.
Don’t like the dumbbells? Try the reverse machine fly.
2. Band Pull-Aparts
The band pull-apart is pretty much a lighter version of the reverse dumbbell fly. This exercise hits similar muscles in the upper back, but because it doesn’t lend itself as well to using heavy weights, this exercise is better used as a warm-up drill before your bench press sessions.
3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise primarily targets your lateral delts. These are muscles that are not directly involved in the bench press but may act as stabilizers. And once again, developing all the muscles surrounding your shoulder joints might be a wise investment in your shoulder health.
4. Dumbbell Front Raise
The dumbbell front raise primarily works your front delts and your upper pecs.
Your front delts are one of the most important muscles in the bench press, which would make the front raise a reasonable choice of assistance exercise. At the same time, since the bench press already works your front shoulders hard, you might want to save your “training budget” for exercises with a little more bang for your buck.
5. Overhead Press
The overhead press is something of a complicated pick when we’re talking about accessory lifts for the bench press.
On the one hand, it is great for developing strong and stable shoulders. It also works your front delts and triceps hard; two out of the three most important bench press muscles.
On the other hand, because it is a heavy compound pressing movement, it also cuts into your overall bench press volume. Every set of overhead pressing generally means you might have to cut one set of bench pressing. The question is of course: which benefits your bench press the most? Doing another set of bench pressing when you’re already training it a ton, or adding a few sets of overhead presses?
I don’t have the answer for you, but I do have made the observation that among competitive powerlifters and bench press specialists, the overhead press is a pretty rare sight, and most lifters seem to prioritize the bench press instead.
If you, however, care more about building a well-rounded physique and building strength in a variety of movements, splitting your pressing volume between bench presses and overhead presses is probably a great choice. One such program for general strength and physique development is our 4-day upper/lower split.
Rotator Cuff Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Your rotator cuffs originate from your shoulder blades and insert on the head of your humerus (your upper arm bone). Your rotator cuffs are very active in upper body pushing and pulling exercises, but maybe not in the way you think.
- When you’re bench pressing, your chest muscles pull your humerus forward. In order to stop your humerus from being pulled out of its shoulder socket, the posterior rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor) pull your humeral head back to keep it in place.
- When you’re rowing, your lats pull your humerus back. Hence, your anterior rotator cuff muscle (subscapularis) pull your humeral head forward to keep it in place.
Your rotator cuff acts as an anchor for your humeral head, activating reciprocally to the large, strong muscles of your chest, shoulders, and lats. When you push, your rotator cuff pulls.5 6
So do you need extra rotator cuff training? Doesn’t your bench press training alone work your rotator cuff enough to handle the specific task at hand?
Maybe. And maybe your rotator cuffs could benefit from some extra work.
Some physiotherapists (and bench pressers!) swear by adding in extra external rotational work for your posterior rotator cuff muscles; the ones most responsible for stabilizing your humerus in the bench press. Others never do a dedicated rotator cuff exercise in their life, and still bench press at the elite level without any shoulder issues.
If you believe you might benefit from doing some extra training for your rotator cuff, I would focus on the posterior ones, which are generally trained by performing external rotations of your upper arm.
Don’t do these before you bench press, other than as a super light warm-up. You want your rotator cuffs to be rested and ready so that they can stabilize your upper arm when you train heavy benches. You don’t want them to be exhausted.
Train your heavy benches and other heavy assistance compound lifts first, then finish up your workout with these.
Here are three different external rotation exercises to choose from.
1. Band External Shoulder Rotation
I actually prefer using a cable pulley that you can set at elbow height for this exercise, but if you lack access to one (like I do in my garage gym), a light resistance band will do.
Try to keep your elbow still at your side, and focus on only rotating your upper arm. Go super-light with the resistance, and focus on good form and contact.
2. Lying Dumbbell External Shoulder Rotation
This exercise is a little more accessible, as the only requirement is a light dumbbell. Also, depending on your body structure, a small pad such as a towel (I used a folded knee sleeve) can be nice to put under your elbow to keep your elbow from sinking into your abdomen, above your hip bone.
Once again, go super-light on the weight and focus on form and contact.
3. Dumbbell Horizontal External Shoulder Rotation
In this variation, you perform the external rotation in the horizontal plane. Prop up your arm on a racked barbell or similar. Then, use a super-light dumbbell and focus on contact and proper form.
Bicep Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
What? Work your biceps to improve your bench press?
No, that is probably not going to happen. At least not (once again) directly.
Your biceps are antagonists to your triceps, which are prime movers in the bench press. That means your biceps flexes your elbow joint while your triceps extends it.
So while we can hardly argue that the biceps will directly help you push the bar up, we can once again speculate that developing strength and muscle mass on both sides of your joints is a good idea. Perhaps some biceps training will aid your elbow health, and enable you to do higher triceps training volumes down the line?
I don’t know. I can only guess, and my guess is that a holistically trained and healthy body better tolerates heavy training.
If you feel like adding a biceps exercise or two in your bench press routine, here is some inspiration.
1. Barbell Biceps Curl
El clasico. Simple, straightforward, and effective. Just load up a bar and let ’em at it. The equipment required is at a minimum, and working both arms simultaneously saves time.
An important thing you will want to consider regarding this exercise, however, is how it impacts your shoulders. Some people, me included, find that barbell curls tax the front of your shoulder in a way similar to the bench press. And this is exaggerated when using poor form, i.e. swinging up the weight instead of strictly curling it by squeezing your biceps. Just be aware of this, and be ready to decrease the amount of bicep curling you do if you find that it takes away from your bench press training volume.
One way to avoid, or at least minimize, that effect on the shoulders is to use an exercise variation in which you almost cannot cheat.
Namely, the …
2. Preacher Curl
The preacher curl steadies your form and minimizes the urge to cheat or skimp on your form. If you find that your bicep training cuts into the amount of work your shoulders can do, try this exercise.
Do dumbbell preacher curls if you prefer to work one arm at a time.
For our last bicep exercise, let’s get a little crazy and throw in another compound lift that also works your back muscles. The chin-up is a pull-up with an underhand (supinated) grip. This position often lets you target your biceps a little more than the regular pull-up.
Once again, be wary of how the extra bicep training in combination with your bench pressing affects your shoulders, so that you don’t do too much too soon.
How To Program The Accessory Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
About now is a good time to reiterate that you don’t need to do any accessory exercises in order to improve your bench press. I know several world-class bench pressers for whom the standard bench press makes up 95% or more of their push training, and where most of the back training simply consists of deadlifts.
That being said, accessory work can still help. They are additional tools in your toolbox, for you to pick and choose from when you can’t, or don’t want to, just “train more bench”.
I believe it is very possible for someone to build their strength using, say, close-grip bench presses and bar dips in the majority of their training, and only switching to competition-style bench presses when a meet is coming up.
For most people, however, I believe there is a golden middle-of-the-road strategy that looks something like this:
- You rigorously work the bench press or a very similar bench press variation for the majority of your push training. Somewhere from two up to four bench press workouts (or a variation) per week depending on your training status and preferences, for most.
- After the main bench press work is done, you complement your training with some light assistance lifts for your pecs, front delts, and triceps. Perhaps just one or two extra exercises, with two or three light sets of high reps to get the blood flowing and a pump going.
- In addition to the bench press training and the extra assistance lift for the primarily working muscles, you do some general back, shoulder, and biceps training in order to maintain muscular balance across your upper body. You either distribute this training at the end of your bench press workouts, or gather it up for one or two “accessory workouts” every week.
Your main challenge is to balance training volume and progression. You will need to train enough to increase your bench press strength, and at the same time: not do too much too soon, forcing you to rest or back down.
How many accessory exercises should you do? That depends on your training program, capacity, and training level. For some guidance, check out this article: How Many Exercises Should You Do per Muscle Group?
Accessory Exercises – Wrapping Up
Hopefully, by now you will have a better idea about how to think about accessory exercises for improving your bench press, what gaps you might have in your current training routine, and some exercises you might add to fix that.
There are a lot of ways to go about getting stronger: from the puritan “bench press only” approach to the varied, periodized approach. No matter which tactic you prefer, the main thing will always be to gradually do more. More sets, more reps, more weight.
As long as you get that part right, you’re going to get bigger and stronger.
That’s it for today.
Thanks for reading, buddy.
Training programs to increase your bench press:
- Beginner Bench Press Program – 2 Days/Week
- Intermediate Bench Press Program – 2–3 Days/Week
- Advanced Bench Press Program – 3 Days/Week
- J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1778-82. Relationship of pectoralis major muscle size with bench press and bench throw performances.
- Front Sports Act Living. 2020; 2: 637066. A Biomechanical Analysis of Wide, Medium, and Narrow Grip Width Effects on Kinematics, Horizontal Kinetics, and Muscle Activity on the Sticking Region in Recreationally Trained Males During 1-RM Bench Pressing
- J Strength Cond Res. 2020 May;34(5):1254-1263. Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- And Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations.
- J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. 2018, 3(2), 28. Triceps Brachii Muscle Strength and Architectural Adaptations with Resistance Training Exercises at Short or Long Fascicle Length.
- J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2011 Dec;21(6):1041-9. Direction-specific recruitment of rotator cuff muscles during bench press and row.
- J Sci Med Sport. 2011 Sep;14(5):376-82. The rotator cuff muscles have a direction specific recruitment pattern during shoulder flexion and extension exercises.