The Bench Press “Cheat Code” That Actually Works (and It’s Not What You Think) – Fitness Volt

You’ll often hear personal trainers say that squats are the king of exercises. This makes a lot of sense, given how valuable squats are for building muscle, function, and strength.

However, ask the average gym bro to name the best exercise, and they probably won’t say squats. Instead, they’ll tell you bench presses are at the top of their exercise to-do list.

The bench press is arguably the most popular weight-training exercise on the planet. In fact, get two lifters together, and invariably, one will ask the other, ‘Hey, how much do you bench?’ Use the Bench Press One-Repetition Maximum Calculator to find out.

That’s because the bench press is not just an effective exercise for building a bigger, more muscular chest; it’s also a respected test of upper body strength. Consequently, lifters want to know how much they can bench press and how their performance compares to people of the same gender, age, weight, and experience.

As a 30-year fitness industry veteran and former powerlifter, I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to maximize bench press performance. I’ve also come to realize that the bench press is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s an effective strength and mass builder. But, on the other, it can be a real shoulder-wrecker.

The good news is that there is a cheat code that not only makes bench presses more effective but safer, too. Incorporating this powerlifting secret into your workouts will add slabs of muscle to your chest while boosting your bench press 1RM.

In this article, I reveal the must-do accessory exercise for a bigger, stronger, more shoulder-friendly bench press.

Introducing Paused Bench Presses

Man Doing Bench Press In Gym
Doing Bench Press

Paused bench presses are a traditional powerlifting assistance exercise. However, it’s a movement that most general lifters and bodybuilders are unaware of. That’s a shame because the long list of benefits means paused bench presses deserve a place in most people’s upper-body workouts.

I’ll reveal the advantages of this awesome exercise shortly, but for now, it’s time to learn how to do it. The good news is that if you can bench press, you can do paused bench presses, as technically, they’re very similar.  

How to Do Paused Bench Presses

Follow these steps to ensure every rep of paused bench presses you perform delivers the results you want with the least amount of risk.

The Set-Up

  1. Lie on your bench with your eyes beneath the bar. Reach up and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width overhand grip.
  2. Squeeze your shoulders down and back, and press your upper back and head into the bench. Brace your core.
  3. Drive your feet into the floor so your shins are roughly vertical. Your lower back should be somewhat arched.
  4. With assistance from a spotter, lift the weight off the J-hooks and hold it over your chest.

The Descent

  1. Bend your arms and lower the bar smoothly and under control to the high point of your chest. Imagine you are lifting your chest toward the bar to meet it.
  2. As you descend, bring your elbows down and in toward your sides.
  3. Touch the bar lightly to your chest.

And Pause!

  1. Pause with the bar on your chest for a predetermined time, e.g., two seconds. Do not relax. Instead, make sure you keep every muscle in your body tight, from your legs to your lats to your grip.

The Ascent

  1. Drive the bar back up as powerfully as you can. While the weight won’t move quickly, your intention should be to lift it as fast as possible.
  2. Push the bar up until your elbows are straight but not locked.
  3. Reset your core and breath, and then do your next rep.
  4. Continue for the desired number of reps.

Rerack the Bar

  1. Complete your final rep and then push the bar backward and rerack it. Use a spotter for safety. Do not try to push the bar up and back in one motion, which can lead to shoulder problems and missing the J-hooks. Instead, rerack it with straight arms.

Paused Bench Press – Muscles Worked

Paused bench presses are a compound exercise involving multiple muscles and joints. While a good bench press engages virtually your entire body, the muscles doing the bulk of the work are:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Deltoids (especially the anterior head)
  • Triceps brachii
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Rotator cuff
  • Core

Pro-Tips for Better Paused Bench Presses

Get even more from paused bench presses with these Coach Dale-approved, tried-and-tested tips! 

Stay tight – novice paused bench pressers often relax when the bar touches their chest. Don’t do it! Instead, contract and squeeze every muscle in your body, including your legs, upper back, and forearms. Imagine your body is a compressed spring, and you are waiting to uncoil powerfully, driving the weight up and off your chest.

Adjust your grip width – grip width determines which muscles work hardest during paused bench presses. A narrow grip emphasizes the triceps, while a wider grip hammers your pecs. Adjust your grip to reflect your needs and goals. However, a wide grip usually allows for the heaviest weights (1).

Try a false grip – a false or suicide grip allows you to rotate your arms outward more than a conventional grip. This can help take stress off your joints while optimizing leverage. However, the increased risk of dropping the bar means you should only use this technique in a power rack or with a spotter.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Suicide Grip Press
Arnold Schwarzenegger Suicide Grip Press

Adjust the length of your pauses – you can pause for anywhere from one to five seconds during paused bench presses. The longer the pause, the harder the exercise becomes. However, longer pauses usually necessitate lighter weights/lower reps.

Use wrist wraps – your wrists should be straight during paused bench presses, but that’s often easier said than done! Wrist wraps support your joints, making it much easier to keep your wrists straight. They also provide a psychological boost that may enhance your performance.

Keep the reps low – paused bench presses work best with low reps. In my experience, 4 to 6 is ideal. Higher reps make it much harder to maintain both force production and perfect form. For best results, focus more on quality versus quantity.

Related: How Much Weight on the Bench Press Is Too Much?

Paused Bench Press Benefits

Not sure if paused bench presses deserve a place in your workouts? Consider this laundry list of benefits, and then make up your mind!

No more cheat reps – some lifters use their rib cages to bounce the bar up, claiming 1RMs they haven’t really earned. Pausing eliminates bouncing, making every rep more quantifiable and honest. So, instead of asking someone how much they bench, a better question is, “How much can you pause bench?”  

More shoulder-friendly – bench presses are a common source of shoulder pain. Many lifters eventually quit barbell bench presses because of the shoulder issues they can cause. Paused bench presses are much easier on your joints and often provide relief from shoulder pain.

A demanding workout with less weight – pausing mid-rep increases time under tension, making paused bench presses more challenging than the conventional version. As such, you can get a great workout with less weight. This is a valuable benefit for anyone with limited weight available or exercisers who don’t want to train heavy.

Blast past sticking points – paused bench presses teach you how to explode the bar up off your chest. This can help you drive the weight past the most common sticking point, typically halfway up. Adding paused bench presses to your workouts should mean fewer missed reps.

Build a competition-ready bench press – powerlifting bench pressing involves a pause. This will be a big shock if you don’t do paused bench presses in training. Therefore, if you plan on lifting in an official PL competition, you must master the paused bench press.

Increased muscle mass – paused bench presses keep your pecs under tension for longer. Combined with a purposeful eccentric and explosive concentric phase, this will make every rep you do a potent stimulus for muscle growth.

Programming Paused Bench Presses  

There are several ways to incorporate paused bench presses into your workouts. Here are a few of my favorite paused bench press programming strategies.

As Your Main Chest Exercise

Paused bench presses are such a powerful exercise that they’re potentially better than conventional bench presses. With more benefits and fewer risks, there is a solid argument for making them your main chest exercise.

A few months of paused bench presses will have a marked effect on your upper body size and strength. They’ll also boost your regular bench press performance.

Alternate with Conventional Bench Presses

While Monday might be national bench press day, if you want to get better at this exercise, you need to train it twice a week. However, it would be a mistake to do the same variation each time you work out.

Alternate between regular and paused bench presses to maximize your progress while minimizing your risk of injury and overtraining.

For example:

 

Workout One

Workout Two

Exercise Sets/Reps Exercise Sets/Reps
1 Conventional bench press 4 x 4-6 Paused bench press 4 x 4-6
2 Chest-supported row   3 x 10-12 Seated cable row   3 x 10-12
3 Incline dumbbell bench press   3 x 8-10 Dips 3 x 8-10
4 Pull-ups   3 x 12-15 Pulldown   3 x 12-15
5 Pec deck 3 x 12-15 Dumbbell flyes 3 x 12-15
6 Triceps push-down 3 x 15-20 Skull crusher 3 x 15-20

Paused Bench Press Ladder

This is one of my favorite ways to do paused bench presses. It’s a mechanical drop setwhere each rep is slightly easier than the one before. Simply put, you start your set with a long pause, and each subsequent rep is paused for a shorter time.

Here’s an example:

  • 1strep – 5-second pause
  • 2ndrep – 4-second pause
  • 3rdrep – 3-second pause
  • 4threp – 2-second pause
  • 5threp – 1-second pause

Rest for a couple of minutes and then repeat for 2-3 more sets.

Paused Bench Press Variations

Paused bench presses are an excellent exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to do them all the time. Here are three variations to keep your upper body workouts challenging and productive.

Spoto Press

The Spoto press was invented by champion powerlifter Eric Spoto. With this exercise, you pause with the bar a few inches above your chest instead of touching it. This demanding variation feels more awkward than regular paused bench presses. It is a great way to build strength at the most common sticking point.

Paused Dumbbell Bench Press

Despite its shoulder-friendly reputation, some people still find paused barbell bench presses hard on their joints. Switching to dumbbells may help alleviate this problem. In addition, the larger range of motion should produce better muscle growth.

Paused Push-Ups

No weights? No problem! You can enjoy similar bench press benefits with these paused push-ups (2). Descend as usual, but then pause with your chest hovering just above the floor for a few seconds. This is an excellent way to make conventional push-ups more challenging.

Conclusion

Outside of powerlifting, you won’t see many people doing paused bench presses. That’s probably because the pause forces you to use less weight, which can be a real slap in the ego.

However, it’s a case of short-term pain for long-term gain because paused bench presses are one of the best ways to boost your conventional bench press performance.

So, check your ego and embrace the pause – the real cheat code to a bigger, more productive bench press.

Related: The Paused Deadlift: The “Secret Weapon” Trainers Use to Build Explosive Strength

References:

Fitness Volt is committed to providing our readers with science-based information. We use only credible and peer-reviewed sources to support the information we share in our articles.

  1. Schick EE, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Judelson DA, Khamoui AV, Tran TT, Uribe BP. A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Mar;24(3):779-84. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc2237. Erratum in: J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):286. PMID: 20093960.
  2. Kikuchi N, Nakazato K. Low-load bench presses and push-ups induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2017 Jun;15(1):37-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jesf.2017.06.003. Epub 2017 Jun 29. PMID: 29541130; PMCID: PMC5812864.

If you have any questions or require further clarification on this article, please leave a comment below. Patrick is dedicated to addressing your queries promptly.

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