Ask A Swole Woman: My Bench Press Sucks

Embrace strength over size, and arch your back.

Image: Abbey Hambright
Can you write a SWOLE WOMAN about bench presses? I am stuck at 70 and am super frustrated, especially because my squats and deadlifts keep going up. I have done a full 5X5 at 65. My bench presses keep failing at that weird transition point in the upward press? My lifting partner says it’s where everyone fails and I should do more tri-lifts and dips to strengthen my triceps. — Molly

Let me preface this by saying I dreaded bench for a long, long time, and I think bench is the most fraught lift for women for a number of reasons. A big reason for me for a while was I had a lot of trepidation about getting bigger arms and a bigger upper body (EVEN THOUGH I spend what seems like all of my time telling people lifting is not going to make them bulky without their express intent) I was content to sort of just get in and get out of that exercise. But eventually my frustration at always being shaky on bench, never being able to add weight or reliably grind out a rep rather than failing, outweighed my fears of looking like I lifted.

Bench is intimidating, especially if you’re in a pretty bare-bones gym where the benches don’t have safety arms, because it’s the only lift where you’re at risk of getting trapped under the bar and having to be rescued by some dude or having to do the roll of shame. Bench is also just hard for most women to be good at, because our upper bodies are generally underdeveloped. It also drives me personally insane that when men spot you on bench, their loose shorts dangle right in your eyes and you better not look in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, because most women don’t come to bench as naturals, there is a LOT of room for easy improvement, before we even get into diagnosing and targeting weak spots. Also fortunately, none of it has to do with having someone with spot you (though for legal reasons I’m going to tell you you should always have someone spotting you).

Tip zero: you cannot get stronger if your are not recovering from your exercise properly. You have to drink enough water, rest, eat, and sleep enough in order for this whole thing to work.

Tip zero point five: mentally embrace the idea of getting stronger above all else, especially above looking a particular way. I know this is much easier said than done for virtually all women, but until you are clear about your goal, that self-sabotage is always going to sneak in at little moments that will mess up your progress, as in “oh well, it’s fine if I skip that last set or don’t go for that last rep or put off my accessory work; I don’t wanna get too big.” You won’t get too big, first of all, but if it helps, know that muscle is as easy to lose as it is hard to gain. If you did, somehow, totally by accident, manage to end up looking like Arnold, your muscles will go away again if you just stop working them so hard. Take Jessica Biel as an example. She has had nice arms and shoulders even since the 7th Heaven days. She got pretty ripped for Blade: Trinity circa 2003; in one video about how she trained for it, she is benching 95lbs for reps. She doesn’t have full range of motion, but whatever (quote: “I like bench press a lot; it makes you feel really strong and powerful.” Yas queen slay etc). Here she is at the LA premiere; here she is in 2005, 2006, 2007, and just recently at the Golden Globes. Buff shoulders completely gone. Once, if, you manage to let go of this fear of bulk, you might even be surprised how much you enjoy and are proud of having (slightly) bigger arms and shoulders; I am surprising myself.

Tip one: work on your setup. All lifts start before you even touch the bar, and bench is no exception — you should be all warmed up, of course, but your upper back has to be tight and positioned securely on the bench. To get it in position, shrug your shoulders up, pull them back, and then pull them down. This gives you a little shelf between the top of your shoulder blades to rest on and keeps your shoulders from flopping around.

Tip two: bench is more than just an upper body exercise. Part of lifting is developing a whole set of “cues,” or mental mind-body tricks, that let you do feel all your muscles and do the right things with them at the right time. Benching is mainly your upper body, but the more of you you feel tight and driving, the better. Leg drive is a thing for bench — your legs should be securely in place and driving on the way up. Squeezing your butt, surprisingly, will help you drive the bar up too. One of my cues for myself is thinking about “packing” the muscles in my mid and upper back, like my lats, with energy as the bar descends, and then pushing with all that stuff as well as my arms/shoulders/chest. I feel like I couldn’t do half the weight I do if I were focusing on only, for instance, my arms. Feeling your muscles and activating them is not something you can’t do one day and can suddenly do the next; it’s part of the whole lifting journey. But your eventual goal is to get and stay as tight as possible, feeling and pushing with all your body, not just your arms.

(A quick side note here: a bench covered with slippery material, like cheap vinyl, will make it hard to both stay tight and execute forces like leg drive. To give yourself a surface to push against, you can lay a yoga mat or some resistance bands on top of the bench to make it stickier. This is not cheating; competition benches for powerlifting are pretty high-friction. I have a little set of small resistance bands I keep in my gym bag, and I put one band under my shoulders and one under my butt.)

I will call this Tip 2b, because some people won’t be into it, but there is no reason everyone can’t do it — learn to arch your back in your bench. It shortens the range of motion you have to move the bar, and protects your shoulders, and in my experience, makes it possible to get your setup even tighter. Plus, IMO, it looks cool.

Now — your setup is tight and your learning to activate more, but maybe you’re still stuck on a weight. If your current rep scheme — say, 3 sets of 5 reps — isn’t letting you progress, and you know your setup is good, NOW it’s time for more volume. The first thing that will help you get better at benching is benching more. I like to do occasional Smolov Jr. cycles, which have me benching every day I’m in the gym for at least 5 sets. The great thing is that the weight always feels manageable, you never need a spot, but at the end of the cycle, you can magically bench more! This alone has gotten me through several plateaus.

A thing to keep in mind with lifting in general is that women, on average, have less capacity than men to grind out a one-rep max; their 2-rep max is much closer to their 1RM than men’s are, per Mark Rippetoe:

Women can use a higher percentage of their 1RM for more reps than men can, because of their inability to recruit maximum numbers of motor units into contraction. Women can do more reps closer to 1RM because they don’t use as many of their motor units for each rep, and fewer of the available pool used per rep means more unfatigued motor units to use in the next rep. More reserve capacity means more reps per set at any submaximal intensity. A female’s 1RM performance is therefore not as efficient in demonstrating what in a male would be his true absolute strength.

This means women can, on average, complete more reps with a weight closer to their 1RM than men can. What might be a relative 2RM for a man — say, 95% of their 1RM — might be a 3RM or even 5RM for a woman.

But the converse of this rule is women also recover faster, both set to set and workout to workout, than men do (it takes less to repair smaller muscles). So where a lot of sets might really tire out a man, a woman might be just fine, at relatively the same weight. This applies in particular to benching because the main muscles used are small, and it’s not the whole-body exercise that, for instance, deadlifts are. You can take advantage of your faster recovery time by integrating more sets per workout, as with a Smolov Jr cycle, and benching more days per week. (The Smolov Jr. cycle works just as well, in my experience, doing three days a week for four weeks, it just takes longer.)

I think there’s a strong chance you will get a lot of mileage out of these first three(ish) tips, as a newb. Tip 4 is basically this whole excellent piece from EliteFTS on building a bigger bench for women, which advocates for adding a lot more bodybuilding-type training with lots of accessory exercises. I would say you can’t correctly diagnose your weaknesses without having all these other pieces I mentioned in place first. Your training partner may be right about your weak spot; you can roughly identify them based on when you fail (this is a nice tight little guide to which muscles are connected to which weak points for squat, bench, and deadlift). But if your elbows are not getting past 90 degrees, it’s probably not your triceps; it could be your pecs (flyes, incline bench), anterior delts (overhead press, front raises), or lats (pullups, rows).

The most minor of admonishments here: the kind of training EliteFTS describes is the kind designed to make your muscles physically bigger. However, it will not take you from “noodle arms” to “definitely on roids” before you even notice. I will never get tired of saying it — it is incredibly difficult for women to build muscle, for strictly science-related reasons. Even going from something like this to something like this will take years of dedicated effort.


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