How do you get stronger in the bench press as a beginner?
In this post, I’ll outline a simple yet effective beginner bench press program that will give you the quickest gains and the best start to your bench press career.
Not a beginner anymore? Check out our other bench press programs.
Bench Press Training for the Beginner
Bench press training for beginners is extremely simple, yet it is so often messed up.
On a decent program, you can increase your strength fast.
The chart below shows the average bench press gains in a group of seven beginners in a training study from Japan.
Their program was simple: three times per week they bench pressed three sets of ten repetitions. They started with a light weight and increased it as they got stronger.
This is not a bad program for the beginner, and quite similar to what I’m going to suggest that you do.
The Beginner Bench Press Program
Getting a good start in your bench press training is all about learning and practicing the technique while getting your muscles, joints, and connective tissues accustomed to the load.
You accomplish this by:
- Practicing the bench press regularly. About twice a week is a good mark for quick improvements in strength and technique, while still keeping the risk of overuse injury low.
- Starting light. I know you’re eager, but things will get heavy really fast. Temper yourself for the first few weeks of light training, and you will have a much easier time getting the technique right.
- Progressing. Here’s the fun part. Every workout, you will take a step forward in either weights or repetitions (reps).
The Beginner Bench Press Workout
Your very first workout is all about trying the exercise out and establishing a starting point.
The goal is to find a weight that you can easily do three sets of ten reps at. You shouldn’t be anywhere near failure in these sets, and you should have total control over the bar. This is necessary for optimal technique learning and will put you on the path to making good gains later on.
- For a man, an empty standard barbell weighing 20 kg (or 45 lb) is often a good starting point. If it seems far too light, add a few kilos to the bar.
- As a woman, you might need to go even lighter. Either find a 10 kg bar (or 22 lb) or use a pair of light dumbbells until you build enough strength and technique to use the standard bar. A strong woman might begin with the standard 20 kg barbell.
The next workout, which I suggest you do three or four days later (though up to a week is fine), you add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) to the bar or pick slightly heavier dumbbells and do three sets of ten reps again.
If the first workout was super easy, you might make 5 kg (10 lb) jumps between the first few workouts. But pretty soon you should stick to doing 2.5 kg (5 lb) jumps every workout.
Do 3 sets x 10 reps every workout, and when you successfully get all reps in, add 2.5 kg to the bar. Can’t get all 3 sets x 10 reps in at your first try on a new weight? Stick with it for another workout or two until you can get all three sets of ten.
Going From Ten, to Eight, to Five Reps per Set
After a few weeks, doing three sets of ten at progressively heavier weights starts to get challenging. At this point, you can (but you don’t have to) drop the number of reps slightly and keep progressing in weight.
First, you could switch to doing three sets of eight reps and keep adding weight every workout. After a workout or two, drop down one step further and start doing three sets of five reps.
Don’t worry if the next workout is “too easy” every time you drop down in reps like this – you can use the extra rest, and things will get heavy soon enough anyway.
Here’s an example of how the first few weeks of bench press training might look:
|Workout #||Weight||Set x Reps|
|1||20 kg (empty bar)||3 x 10|
(“This felt really easy, just like it should!”)
|2||25 kg||3 x 10|
|3||27.5 kg||3 x 10|
|4||30 kg||3 x 10|
(“This was pretty challenging. Switching to 8’s next workout!”)
|5||32.5 kg||3 x 8|
|6||35 kg||3 x 8|
(“That’s pretty challenging again. Switching to 5’s next workout!”)
|7||37.5 kg||3 x 5|
|8||40 kg||3 x 5|
If you’ve been bench pressing twice a week you’ll be about one month into your bench press training at this point, and your gains will start to come slower. Soon, you will likely not be able to increase the weight by 2.5 kg every workout and do the same number of reps.
What you need to start doing instead is to stay at a given weight until you get all reps in. Here’s how that might look when we pick it up at workout #8 above.
|8||40 kg||5, 5, 5|
|9||42.5 kg||5, 4, 4|
(“Uh-oh. Didn’t get all reps in. I’ll try to improve next workout!”)
|10||42.5 kg||5, 5, 4|
|11||42.5 kg||5, 5, 5|
(“Yes! Next workout I’ll move up to 45 kg.”)
Do you see how this gets heavy really fast? Even if you only add 2.5 kg (5 lb) per week it means you will be adding 130 kg (or 260 lb) in a year. So please: start light. It will get heavy soon enough.
How to Keep Progressing
At this point, you just rinse and repeat. Add weight, strive to reach three sets of five reps again, and when you do: increase the weight by 2.5 kg.
Don’t worry if it takes a few workouts, meaning you might have to go through:
- 4, 4, 4 reps
- 5, 4, 4 reps
- 5, 5, 4 reps
- 5, 5, 5 reps
That is still fast progress, and you should stick with this kind of programming for as long as you keep moving forward in any way. You’ll never gain strength this fast again, so milk it for as long as you can.
The key is to write down the weight and reps you used during the last workout, so that you know what you must do to beat it the next time you’re in the gym. Tracking your workouts like this is one of the most important things you can do for your strength. Fail to track your workouts, and you drastically increase your risk of not making any strength gains.
Because this is so important, we’ve developed a great workout tracker for you to log your workouts in: StrengthLog.
It is 100% free to download and track your workouts in, and it even comes with this beginner bench press program for free.
You can download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below.
When you’ve downloaded the app and created an account, go to the “Program & Workouts” tab. Under the free programs, you will find the Beginner Bench Press Program.
As you’ll see, there are two programs to choose from:
- Bench Press Only
- Bench Press & Accessory Exercises
Let me explain the difference.
1. The Bench Press Only Program
This program is super bare-bones. Just two workouts per week with three sets of bench press per workout.
You’ll start off doing three sets of ten reps for the first two workouts, then three sets of eight for the next two workouts, and then finally settle in for three sets of five for all the following workouts.
The weight will automatically increase by 2.5 kg every workout.
- Want to make bigger jumps in weight? Just edit the weight to your desired load. We’ll add 2.5 kg next workout.
- Need to stay at a given weight longer until you get all reps in? Just adjust the weight, and the next time we’ll add 2.5 kg to that.
- Want to do another number of reps than we suggest? Change it. Although next workout we’ll suggest the original number of reps again.
If you think this program seems dead simple, you’re right. It’s simple and extremely effective for making quick strength gains as a beginner.
Simply practicing the bench press alone for three sets twice per week will be all you need to get stronger at this phase of your training. However, if you also want to train the rest of your upper body every time you’re in the gym to bench press, the other program offers a suggestion for how you can do that.
2. The Bench Press + Accessory Exercises Program
- Bench Press: 3 sets x 5–10 reps (just like the first program)
- Dumbell Chest Fly: 2 sets x 10 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 2 sets x 10 reps
- Barbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 2 sets x 10 reps
If you want to train a complete upper body workout every time you’re in the gym, this is a great start.
Feel free to change the exercises to something similar. Cable flyes instead of dumbbell flyes, cable rows instead of barbell rows, and so on. Just like with the bench press, you should increase the weights you lift in these accessory exercises as soon as you hit the target number of sets and reps.
Both of these programs are available for free in our app, so make sure to download it now.
Bench Press Form Tips
If you are going to be doing a lot of bench pressing, you might as well do it right. Here are some tips on bench pressing with proper form and in a safe manner.
- Starting position. Lie down so that the bar is resting above your eyes. Adjust the rack height so that you only need to extend your arms slightly to lift it out from the rack.
- Strong base. Heavy weights need a strong base of support. Pull your shoulder blades back and down towards your back pockets. Place your feet firmly on the floor and keep them still throughout the whole set.
- Grip. Grip the bar about shoulder-width apart, or sligthly wider. Most people are stronger with a wide grip than a narrower grip, but you will have to find your strongest grip width.
- Grasp the bar. Use a grip where you have your thumb on the opposing side of your other fingers. Do not use a thumbless grip, i.e. where your thumb is on the same side as your other fingers. That grip is known as the “suicide grip”, because of the high risk of the bar slipping out of your hands. Speaking of which …
- Use safeties. A proper bench press rack should have safety racks on the sides, on which you can place the bar if you fail a lift. A power rack has these built into the design. Adjust these safeties so that you can wiggle out from under the bar if you get pinned under it. No safeties available? Be even more conservative about the amount of weight you use, or ask someone to spot you.
- Track your workouts. Seriously, it’s that important. Write down how many sets and reps you did and at what weight, so that you know what to beat next time. Our StrengthLog app is a great, free option for that.
For more tips on proper bench press form, check out our main bench press article.
What to Do When The Beginner Program Stops Working
The stronger you get, the more you are going to have to work for every additional kilo on the bar.
As a beginner, you can expect to get significantly stronger between every workout, and our beginner program takes advantage of that.
Sooner or later, however, you are going to have to do more training before you see a significant strength gain. A significant strength gain in this sense means that you can add 2.5 kg to the bar and do the same number of reps, or that you can do more reps with the same weight you used last time.
The book Practical Programming has a nice classification for lifters, based on how often they can expect to see a significant strength gain:
- Beginner: from workout to workout.
- Intermediate: from week to week.
- Advanced: from month to month (or longer)
When you no longer get significantly stronger from workout to workout, it means that you have left the beginner stage behind and have entered the intermediate phase, and your training program needs to be adapted for this.
It is time to move on to the intermediate bench press program.
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