Intermediate Bench Press Program, 2–3 Days/Week

How do you get stronger in the bench press as an intermediate lifter?

In this post, I’ll outline an intermediate bench press program and also explain how and why your training should be different from the beginner’s.

Still a beginner? Check out our beginner bench press program.

If you’ve left the beginner phase behind, read on.

How Do You Know if You Are a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced?

While there are many ways to classify experience level, I like these definitions from Practical Programming:

  • Beginner: Gets significantly stronger from workout to workout.
  • Intermediate: Gets significantly stronger from week to week, or bi-weekly.
  • Advanced: Gets significantly stronger from month to month, or longer.

By “significantly stronger”, I mean that you can add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) and do the same number of reps, or use the same weight but do more reps.

If you’re still getting significantly stronger from workout to workout, then our beginner bench press program is right for you.

But if you’ve been training the bench press for some time now and gains are harder to come by, you’re ready for intermediate stage training.

How to Increase Your Bench Press Strength at the Intermediate Level

When you’re a beginner, getting stronger is easy.

You just follow a simple beginner program, slap on an additional 2.5 kg per workout, and enjoy the gains.

But after a while, this starts to get difficult.

Soon you will have to make several attempts at a given weight before you get all your sets and reps in (i.e. going from 5, 4, 4 reps to 5, 5, 5). And as soon as you succeed, you’re supposed to add another 2.5 kg and do it all again.

As you near the end of your beginner phase, this will get very difficult and start to wear you down.

The law of diminishing returns dictates that your gains will generally come the fastest and easiest in the beginning, and the more advanced you get, the more you will have to work for every extra plate on the bar.

This pattern is the same for any sport. And just like athletes in other sports, you need to make the same adjustments as you get more advanced, according to the fundamental principles of training.

Generally, all of the following three increases:

  • The necessary training volume. For the complete beginner, just a single set per week will lead to gains in strength and muscle size. But the more accustomed you become to your training, the higher the threshold you must overcome to stimulate continued gains.
  • The need for specialization. For the beginner, anything leads to an improvement in everything. A couch potato that takes up swimming will grow their upper body muscles and improve their one-rep-max in the bench press. But, the higher the degree of performance you want in your given sport or lift, the more you need to specialize your training for that goal.
  • The need for individualization. Similar to the above principle, a beginner program will work for everyone, more or less. As you increase your training volume and degree of specialization, it will become increasingly important to fit the training to your capabilities and needs. One lifter might thrive on bench pressing four times per week, while another will just hurt their elbows. Some will thrive on a high volume program while others gain better on something more moderate.

Intermediate Bench Press Training in Practice

So how should you train the bench press as an intermediate lifter?

Generally, you will need to do three things:

  1. Plan your progress. The aforementioned definition of a beginner is that they get significantly stronger from workout to workout. Intermediate lifters can expect noticeable strength gains from week to week, or at least bi-weekly. Plan your progress rate accordingly.
  2. Increase your training volume. Likely, you will have to increase your training volume in the bench press slightly, since your body is now more accustomed to the stimuli. This is an overarching principle in every sport, and strength training does not seem to be an exception. However, this does not have to be (and should not be) a drastic change. Try increasing your weekly bench press volume in small increments and see how your strength reacts.
  3. Keep an open mind and be a student of the sport. The training program that works for your gym buddy might not necessarily work for you. Your genetics, training history, life circumstances and even things like personality will influence which training program you thrive on. That is why we have many different training programs in our app StrengthLog, and write articles and guides on training in general here on this site: to educate you, and increase the chances that you will find something that unlocks your strength potential.

Alright, let’s get into the outline of the intermediate program.

The Intermediate Bench Press Program

We currently have two intermediate bench press programs in our app StrengthLog: two and three days per week.

The programs are six weeks long, at which point you can start over from the beginning if you think you could benefit from it again, or move on to one of our advanced bench press programs.

When you start the program in our app, you will have to enter your 1RM (one-rep max) in the bench press, and the app will calculate the correct weight for you to use each training session. At least in the bench press; in the assistance exercises you will have to manually choose a weight that enables you to complete the designated number of reps.

Not sure of what your one-rep max is? Use our 1RM calculator to get an estimate.

3-Day Intermediate Bench Press Program

This program uses the classic heavy – light – medium model of periodization within the week:

  • Monday: Heavy
  • Wednesday: Light
  • Friday: Medium

Here is an outline of the training week.

Download the StrengthLog app to see % of 1RM, number of sets, and reps.

Workout 1 (Monday), Heavy

  1. Bench Press: Heavy weights and low volume
  2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
  3. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
  4. Dumbbell Row

Workout 2 (Wednesday), Light

  1. Bench Press: Light weights and medium to high volume
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press
  3. Lat Pulldown
  4. Tricep Pushdown

Workout 3 (Friday), Medium

  1. Bench Press: Medium weights and medium volume
  2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
  3. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
  4. Dumbbell Row

2-Day Intermediate Bench Press Program

While the 3-day program is the one I primarily recommend, the 2-day program is an adaptation for those of you who only can or want to train twice a week.

The light workout is removed, and the set volume of the heavy and medium workouts have been boosted to reach a sufficiently high training volume.

Here’s an outline of the training week.

Download the StrengthLog app to see % of 1RM, number of sets, and reps.

Workout 1 (Monday), Heavy

  1. Bench Press: Heavy weights and medium volume
  2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
  3. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
  4. Dumbbell Row

Workout 2 (Thursday), Medium

  1. Bench Press: Medium weights and medium volume
  2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
  3. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
  4. Dumbbell Row

Progression Method

Most people will probably think that this program starts off pretty easy. (If you don’t, you might want to lower your entered 1RM a bit.)

However, the weights increase every week, and you’ll soon find yourself pushing the boundaries of your previous strength limits.

The light and medium workouts “feed” the heavy workout. Meaning that before every new heavy workout comes around, you have been doing one or two workouts to boost your muscle and strength gains.

This type of progression is called wave progression, or wave periodization, and the concept can be illustrated like this:

Wave progression
In wave progression, or wave periodization, the load increases in rising and falling waves.

Compare this to the training of the novice lifter, where the load goes up almost every workout for several months.

That is no longer possible as an intermediate lifter, and you need these microcycles before you can take another step up.

Later on, when you are even more adapted to training and have entered the advanced stage, you will need even longer cycles before you can take a step up.

Accessory Exercises in the Intermediate Bench Press Program

This program contains plenty of accessory exercises to improve your bench press. The point of these exercises is to aid your muscular development without inducing more fatigue from additional bench pressing.

This probably won’t make a big difference in the short run. But in the long run, your muscle mass is one of the primary determinants of your bench press strength.1

Let’s take a closer look at each of the accessory lifts.

1. Dumbbell Chest Fly

There is a strong correlation (r=0.87) between pec muscle size and bench press 1RM, and the dumbbell chest fly is an effective exercise for growing your pecs and front delts without having to use the heavy loads of the bench press.2

Pull your shoulder blades together, keep a slight bend in your elbows, and go very light in this exercise – about 10% of your bench press 1RM per hand or even less. Don’t chase the weights, chase the muscle pump to build up your chest.

Possible substitutes:

2. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension

Your triceps contribute about 25% of the force necessary to lift the bar in the bench press, and barbell lying tricep extensions is a great way to strengthen them.3

If you (or your elbows!) don’t like this particular exercise, feel free to substitute it for another tricep exercise.

Possible substitutes:

3. Incline Dumbbell Press

On the light day, you will be doing some incline dumbbell presses. These will work your chest and shoulders slightly differently from the bar path of the flat bench press, and many lifters feel that these are easier on the shoulders.

Don’t go overboard with the weight on these as you’re already doing three bench press workouts per week. Instead, focus on muscle contact and chasing the sweet pump.

The incline press works your front delts, upper chest, and triceps.

Possible substitutes:

4. Tricep Pushdown

The tricep pushdown is for most people an elbow-friendly way to get some extra triceps work in.

Once again, the exact exercise you chose is not important, so pick one that you like and that let’s you work your triceps well.

Possible substitutes:

5. Dumbbell Row

In order to maintain some measure of balance between your pushing and pulling muscles, you’ll be doing plenty of rows in this program. The dumbbell row is an excellent alternative, but feel free to switch to another rowing exercise of your liking.

The dumbbell row works your lats, traps, rear delts, rotator cuffs, biceps, and grip.

Possible substitutes:

6. Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is the second pulling exercise you will be doing in this program, and in contrast to rows, it has a vertical line of pull that targets your lats more. In addition, the lat pulldown works your rear delts, rotator cuff, biceps, and grip.

Possible substitutes:

Training Days and Extra Rest Days

Training Days

Note that the weekdays stated in the program earlier are only examples. Train on whatever days you feel like, but generally try to get one rest day in between each workout in the 3-day program, and at least two days of rest in between workouts in the 2-day program.

Extra Rest Days

For most intermediate bench pressers, doing three workouts in a week is about right. But because we all have different recovery capabilities, you should not hesitate to add an extra rest day here or there if you are feeling beat up. You might get the best results when you rotate through this program on eight or nine days, and someone else might get better results going through it on six days.

As long as you’re going forward, you’re good.

When You Reach The End of The Program

The bench press weights keep increasing for six weeks, at which point you have reached the end of the program.

At this point, I recommend that you test your 1RM before you start a new program. Alternatively, you can use our 1RM calculator to estimate your 1RM from one of your best sets.

But which program should you do now?

  • Did the last week feel easy, and you think you can handle another cycle? Start the intermediate program over but enter your new 1RM.
  • Did the last week feel heavy, and you don’t think you can handle another cycle? Then it’s probably time to move on to a more advanced bench press program.

What About Peaking For a New Max / PR Attempt?

The intermediate lifter should focus more on building her or his strength rather than testing it. This program is focused on training, not testing, and therefore does not end with a peaking phase and a PR attempt.

If you would like to do a peaking phase, simply do a few additional weeks where you practice with slightly heavier weights in the 1–3 rep range. Then, when you’ve got some practice under your belt and feel like you might have a good day (which we never know, do we?), go into the gym with a training buddy to spot you and test your 1RM.

You can use our calculator for warming up for a 1RM, and then just keep adding 2.5 kg or 5 lb to the bar until you fail.

Just make sure you have someone to catch the bar, or safety racks set up so that you can put the bar down on them if necessary.

Follow This Bench Press Program in StrengthLog

This program is available in our app StrengthLog. The app is completely free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app where all the basic functionality is free – forever.

The app also has a bunch of free programs and workouts. However, our more advanced programs (such as this one) are for premium users only.

Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

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  1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Feb;86(4):327-36. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance.
  2. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1778-82. Relationship of pectoralis major muscle size with bench press and bench throw performances.
  3. 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
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.