The Strength Sensei on the Incline Bench Press

The Strength Sensei on the Incline Bench Press

Determining the right angles on this popular exercise


Charles R. Poliquin was often asked for suggestions on how to improve bench pressing results. After all, the bench press is considered the standard for upper body strength in many sports, including the NFL. The problem is, the Strength Sensei was a strength coach, and sometimes the best upper body pressing exercise was not the prone bench press.

Consider two track and field throwing events, the shot put and the discus throw. For the discus, a bench press with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip could be considered sport specific. For the shot put, an incline of at least 45 degrees would be regarded as more sport specific. Al Feuerbach, a former world record holder in the shot put, said that one of the best upper body pressing exercises for his event was the dumbbell incline press (which makes sense, as you put the shot with one arm).

Let’s look at boxing. Because most punches are performed with a forward lean, an incline bench press would be more sport specific than a prone bench press. And because you punch one hand at a time, as with our shot put champion, a dumbbell incline press would be better. There’s just one problem.

With dumbbells, there is less stability, which means less weight will be used. Exercise intensity is measured by how much weight is lifted. Thus, if maximum strength is a boxer’s priority, their pressing workouts should focus on the barbell incline bench press. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist and former United Featherweight World Champion Yuriorkis Gamboa reportedly incline bench pressed more than double his fighting bodyweight, with a best result of 264 pounds for two reps!

An attentive spotter is a must when using maximal weights on the prone bench press.


The Strength Sensei often used bands and chains to get more out of pressing exercises. The bands provide significantly more resistance at the end of the lifts, whereas chains provide steadily increasing resistance as each link in the chain lifts off the floor.

Because bands produce high levels of eccentric loading during the last part of the lift, they tend to create more soreness than chains and should be used with less frequency than chains. One conservative guideline is that for every three workouts with chains, perform one exercise with bands. For more on chains and bands, check out the extensive writing of Louie Simmons, a legendary powerlifting coach who was the leader of the famous Westside Barbell Club. Simmons devoted decades of real-world research on how to get the most from band and chain training.

To increase upper body explosiveness, contrast training methods can be used with the bench presses, such as by supersetting the exercise immediately with a plyometric exercise. Through a neurological response called post-activation potentiation, the more powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers can be activated immediately during a plyometric exercise if it is first stimulated by another strong muscle contraction.

For example, a heavy low-rep bench press (2-4 reps) could be supersetted with 6-8 reps of plyometric push-ups. With this second exercise, the athlete starts in a push-up position with their hands supporting their bodyweight between two low boxes. Then they drop to the floor and immediately spring back up to return to the start. Other options for a second exercise include clapping push-ups and medicine ball throws against a wall.

Many experienced lifters perform warm-up sets in the bench press without a spotter, but accidents do happen and can be catastrophic with the bench press (tragically, lifters have died from dropping weights across their chest or neck when performing this exercise). Besides safety, a spotter can reduce the stress on the rotator cuff muscles, which can be easily strained when removing the bar from the supports. So, set aside the ego and ask for a spot.

“How much can you bench?” is a question you will probably be asked if you pump iron. Sometimes, the better question to be asking is, “How much can you incline?” (TSS)

– Lead photo by Miloš Šarčev

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