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The 4 Best Bench Press Assistance Exercises For Intermediates

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by Yuan

The best bench press assistance exercises not only helps you get a bigger bench, they also need to make your shoulder girdle injury proof which is what creates the fastest long term progress. To achieve this, you will need to work the upper body from every angle using push and pull exercises

Let’s start with the pulling exercises that build your back. It’s simply impossible to build your bench effectively without a strong and stable back. Elite powerlifters will often tell you that the back and triceps play a bigger role in the bench press than your chest.

#1 Chin-ups and Pull-ups

Chin-ups and pull-ups works your back with a vertical pull. It’s the closest thing to a pulling version of the overhead press. Chin-ups and pull-ups should be alternated in your workouts as they hit your back slightly differently.

Best Bench Press Assistance Exercises - Pull ups

This assistance exercise should be added first into your programming because it’s harder to cheat. Start at a dead hang, finish with your chin over the bar and don’t use momentum. Barbell rows can be added later when you have built a basic upper back foundation.

If you want to recruit your back effectively during this exercise, it’s important to lean back as you pull yourself up. It also helps to imagine pulling the bar down towards you instead of pulling yourself up.

I recommend that you do these on ¬†a straight bar because it’s closer to the barbell that you’ll be doing the bench press on.

#2 Strict Bent Over Barbell rows

The barbell row works your back with a horizontal pull. It’s the closest thing to a pulling version of the bench press. It also helps the deadlift because your low back needs to hold the position with a heavy weight.

When performed correctly, heavy barbell rows are the best for building a thick and stable back. Unfortunately, a lot of people struggle with recruiting their back muscles properly and they lack control of their scapulas.¬†Because of this, I recommend starting very light and using high volume (4×12 for example).

The strict barbell row starts with the weight on the ground and finishes with the bar touching your stomach. Once the weight gets heavy in the barbell row, you have to use some momentum to get it started. This makes the exercise easier to cheat on. Beginners and starting intermediates already have a higher tendency to cheat and that would make this exercise worthless.

This is why I recommend for this exercise to be added after you have built basic foundation with chin-ups and pull-ups. At that point, you have more control over your upper back muscles and know when you are effectively working it.

Glenn Pendlay is an olympic weightlifting coach that produced over 90 national champions and 20 international medalists. Currently the head coach at California Strength, he explains how to do a strict barbell row:

Next, let’s go over the pushing exercises

#3 Overhead Press

The overhead press is actually a main exercise that should be included in everyone’s routine. It’s the best exercise to build strong shoulders and rotator cuffs. A stronger rotator cuff will let you bench bigger weights and keep you injury free at the same time.

Nowadays, you see people practicing bastardized versions of this exercise that use only half or 1/3 of the range…’shoulder presses’ as they call it.

Learn how to do the overhead press properly, get your numbers up and I guarantee that your bench press will go up.

Bill Starr is considered by many to be the father of modern strength training. He noticed that once overhead pressing was removed from the olympic games (for being difficult to judge due to political conflicts, not for causing low back injuries), it had a trickle down effect and started being neglected in bodybuilding as well.

According to Starr, after the shift away from overhead pressing to bench pressing, rotator cuff problems became commonplace when it was previously a rare occurrence.

Overhead lifts kept the rotator cuff muscles strong in proportion to the rest of the back. Overhead lifts can even rehabilitate rotator-cuff injuries. Starr recommended starting with dumbbells and gradually working up in weight, strengthening the muscles in your upper back until your rotator cuff no longer bothers you.

It was the exact approach I took to get rid of my shoulder pain and it worked like a charm.

This exercise is an absolute staple. To learn how to do them, check out my post on Overhead Press Form.

To improve your lift, check out my post on 5 tips to take your overhead press to the next level.

#4 Dips

Dips also works the upper body in a unique way with heavier emphasis on the triceps. You’ll find that when your dips get heavy, it will boost your bench press as well as the overhead press.

When doing bodyweight dips, aim to break parallel, where your shoulders dip below your elbows.

When weaknesses show up

As a beginner, your body can grow so fast that you’ll be able to raise your work weight every single session. Eventually, that will no longer be possible and you will have become an intermediate. In this phase, you are only able to raise the work weight once a week or so.

As a starting intermediate, you only need those 4 assistance exercises to progress smoothly. A few weeks/months down the line, you will notice weaknesses. This is where you do more isolated work to correct the weaknesses and it’s a topic for another post in the future.

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