It’s a milestone for every young lifter. We all remember that feeling of pushing up 225lbs for the first time. Some of us probably even remember the gym where it happened.
It’s safe to say a 225lbs bench press is a big deal. However, as we advance in our lifting career, the expectations rise. Eventually, it becomes unacceptable to just hit 225lbs for a rep or two. The next goal is to rep it with ease.
The NFL made the 225lb bench press test for max reps famous. Every year the NFL hosts a scouting combine in Indianapolis where college players go and participate in a wide range of physical events. The combine gives teams a chance to see the college prospects display their athletic abilities in a controlled environment. In addition to the bench press, the other events are the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and various shuttle runs.
But, what makes the 225lbs bench test unique, is it gives the average gym member the rare chance to compare themselves to the best athletes in the world. It allows us average folk to see how we stack up against the freaks we watch play on Sundays.
So, how strong are NFL prospects?
300-pound defensive lineman Stephan Paea holds the NFL Combine record with 49 reps. At the other end of the spectrum, Tyrann Mathieu only completed four reps before being selected in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. A lack of upper body strength hasn’t held Tyrann back. He turned into an All-Pro safety. Obviously, bench press ability does not always translate to success on the field.
According to Pro Football Reference, 338 players did the 225 bench press test at the 2021 combine. Note not all players at the combine participated in the bench press.
Here are the results.
Under 10 reps: 17 players (5%)
10–15 reps: 87 players (26%)
16–20 reps: 86 Players (25%)
21–25 reps: 83 players (24%)
26–30 reps: 42 players (13%)
31–35 reps: 12 players (4%)
36–40 reps: 11 players (3%)
After seeing the results, how do you stack up? If you are a beast on the bench, you may be feeling pretty good. However, if you feel a little inadequate after looking at this breakdown, let’s get to work.
Step 1: Improve Bench Press Technique
The best way to get better at the bench press is by improving your technique. I’m sure you know how to bench to some extent. The bench press is one of the first fundamental movements you learn after stepping foot inside a gym. However, very few people outside of elite powerlifters take advantage of the little things you can do to maximize performance.
How to Grip the Bar
A simple recommendation that will allow you to lift more weight is to use a wider grip. In general, most people will be stronger with a wider grip. A wider grip shortens the range of motion and allows you to activate more of the chest. Therefore, it’s worth at least giving it a shot. However, I recommend experimenting with different widths until you find the one where you are the strongest. Not everyone will be stronger with a wide grip. When you make an adjustment, make it in small increments, an inch or so at a time.
How you grip the bar matters too. Try holding the bar a bit lower on your palm, not up near your knuckles. We want the bar to be sitting on the meat of the palm, so the bar is right over the elbow and forearm, stacked in a straight line. Most people just grab the bar, and it ends up back up towards the knuckles. This causes the wrist to bend back, with the bar behind the forearm. On the flip side, you also don’t want to fight to keep your wrist perfectly straight either. This causes the bar to put a lot of pressure on the thumb and pulls the bar forward.
When you grip the bar, you want to internally rotate your hands slightly, so the bar is at an angle on the meat of your palm. Really, the outer part of your palm will take the brunt of the weight. I’m not saying you should do a crazy Japanese-style grip or a bulldog grip, but a slight internal rotation of the hands puts the bar in the position we want.
Additionally, we want to squeeze the bar pretty tight. This is the concept of irradiation. I remember reading about this many years ago in Pavel’s book Power to the People. Essentially, irradiation just means when you grip something tight, it sends a signal to surrounding muscles to activate.
The Set-Up and Leg Drive
The setup is critical for all lifts, but it will really make or break the bench press. But, before we even dig into that, I want to talk about foot position and leg drive. First off, get your feet set and don’t move them. Your feet should not move during the set under any circumstances. I’m not worried about them sliding a little bit, moreso them actually moving. Also, do not allow your hips to come up. I see some crazy benches on Instagram, even from respected strength coaches in the S&C world. Keep your butt down. If your feet move or your hips shoot up during the rep, your lower body is not tight enough.
People struggle with the concept of leg drive, and I get it. Leg drive can be confusing. The thing is, leg drive is probably not even the correct terminology. The legs do not directly drive the bar up; they provide tension and stability. We don’t want any leaks in the chain. We want to be tight from our toes to our hands.
Exactly where you place your feet will be individual based on height, limb lengths, etc. You can go with a tucked position, a neutral position (straight down), or put them out in front. I personally think straight down or out in front is best for most people for optimal leg tension.
In terms of width, you can keep your legs close to the bench; or out wide. Either way can work. You may have to just play around and see what allows you to generate the most tension. Feet out wide will provide a little more stability. I personally have my feet narrow and straight down (not tucked or out in front), with my toes angled out a bit.
Leg drive is it’s a horizontal force, not vertical. Think leg extension more than a leg press. The foot pressure should be sliding you up the bench. In fact, you want to be borderline driving yourself right off the pad under the bar. This is why people put bands on the bench pad to create some traction on slippery commercial gym benches. The foot pressure should be driving your toes out through the front of your shoes.
During the setup, use the legs to keep tension on the traps. This is the key to generating and maintaining an arch. It’s all a byproduct of the setup. If you don’t have enough lower body tension, it will limit your ability to elevate the rib cage. This is where most people make a mistake. It’s hard to create an arch just by the back alone.
Side note, why do I recommend arching your back on the bench press? For one, the arched bench press puts the shoulder joint in a more favorable position. Secondly, and more importantly, elevating the rib cage shortens the range of motion. A shorter range creates a more efficient press, especially for long-armed benchers. You will perform better benching with an arch. It is not cheating if it’s allowed ;)
Once you get your hands set, use your feet to drive you into position. The goal is to put your traps into the bench and get the upper back tight. This is where people go wrong. We want to try and get set as high on our traps as possible. This is why you see people bring their feet up onto the bench during the setup process. Doing a glute bridge and elevating your hips can help you get the right angle to drop your traps onto the pad. You can do the same thing keeping your feet on the floor and just raising your hips up from there. The idea is to try and place your upper traps on the bench by any means necessary.
Let me know if this sounds familiar. You retract and depress your shoulders (which we will get into more in a second), get your traps up on the bench, everything is going great. But, when you walk your feet down to the floor, everything goes downhill. This is from a lack of lower body tension. You want to bring your hips down slowly. Once you get your feet set, we want a constant lower body tension and foot pressure. That is what people mean when they say the bench is a full-body movement. As crazy as this sounds, sometimes my quads are fatigued from a heavy or high-volume bench session.
I really think getting a handle on the type of lower body tension you need is the key for most of you to bench press more weight. If you get your traps on the bench, you can use the legs to raise the ribcage and sternum to kind of fold yourself into the arch position.
Getting the Shoulders Set
Before getting too far into it, let’s think about how the scapula moves concerning the bench press. We have retraction (pulling back), protraction (pushing forward), elevation (pushing up towards the ears), and depression (pulling down towards the waist). The two you probably hear the most are retraction and depression.
A lot gets made about scapular positioning. I think how much scapular retraction you need has been a little overblown. I have probably even emphasized it too much in the past. However, it’s still part of the puzzle. Sometimes in fitness, we get into battles of semantics. Coaches are quick to call people out; but end up saying the same thing, just in a different way.
When you look at the best benchers, they don’t have as much retraction as you think, at least not at all points of the lift. Most of the confusion comes down to the difference between spinal extension and scapular retraction. We know we need to get into some thoracic extension to bench the most weight possible. You definitely don’t want to have a flat back. So, we simultaneously arch and retract the shoulder blades, but the thoracic extension can be independent of scapular retraction. We don’t need to lock our shoulder blades in retraction to maintain the thoracic extension.
In fact, instead of locking our shoulders in deep retraction, we should lock them in depression. It’s actually scapular depression we are after to create tension and stability. Getting your shoulders in the correct position is a two-part process. You want to retract your shoulder blades a little and then depress them down hard, which locks them into depression. If you retract your shoulders hard and try to hold that position, it tends to elevate them. Which prevents you from being able to depress them down. You need some retraction, but you don’t want to over retract and minimize scapular motion. We want retraction, but not at the expense of depression.
I know this sounds a little complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. Try not to overthink it. I recommend retracting during the setup but focusing more on depression. Get the lats tight when you un-rack the bar and get set. The good news is the horizontal leg pressure keeping the tension on the traps will make scapular depression easy. I like to flex the lats after un-racking the bar to help increase upper back tension and stability.
So to recap, start in scapular depression at the top with a small degree of retraction at the bottom. You should allow your shoulders to move out of retraction as you press. It’s ok to have the scapula move during the lift. This equates to better muscle function.
The take-home point here is to avoid locking the scapula down hard in retraction during the entire range of motion. Don’t fight to stay in retraction. Fight to maintain depression while the scapula moves from hard retraction at the bottom to slight retraction at the top.
When we bring the bar down, we want to touch the high point of the chest. You can also think of it as trying to bring the sternum up to meet the bar. This is important to avoid touching too far down towards our belly or too far up towards our neck. Really try to drive the sternum up towards the bar and touch the high point on the way down.
The bar path of the best benchers has a slight J curve to it. The bar goes up and over towards the face. However, this mostly just has to do with just the way you set up. As long as you get set up in the correct position, you don’t really have to think about pressing up and back. In fact, I do not recommend thinking about it. I have never actively thought about pushing the bar back towards my face, but if you watch my bar path, that is the path it takes. I just focus on pressing the bar straight up.
Elbow position is one aspect of the bench press where people often need some work. A “bodybuilding bench press” involves flaring the elbows throughout the range of motion. Keeping your elbows out wide may provide the best stimulus to the chest, but it’s not the best or safest way to lift the most amount of weight. For maximum performance, tuck your elbows slightly on the way down, and don’t let them flare out until the bar is about halfway up.
Step 2: Improve Absolute Strength
Once you learn how to bench the most efficient way possible, now you need to get stronger. It won’t get much simpler than that.
Absolute strength is the maximum force that a muscle can produce in a single voluntary effort. Essentially, it’s a one-rep max. Generally speaking, the stronger you are, the more reps you will get with 225lbs. The higher your one-rep max, the lower percentage 225lbs is.
For example, if your max is 405lbs, 225lbs is only around 55% of your 1RM. On the other hand, if your max is 300lbs, 225lbs would be about 75% of your 1RM. What can you do more reps with — 55% or 75% of a 1RM? At that point, muscular endurance is not going to matter.
The bench tends to benefit from lifting heavy and benching with higher frequency. A tip that will help blow it up is including weekly singles between 85–95% of your 1 rep max pretty much year-round. Yes, you can keep bench press singles in all the time.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying maxing out every week. I’m saying submaximal singles each week. 85–95% is about a 6–9 RPE. I think 7–8 RPE is the sweet spot for most people. The trick is not getting attached to a specific number. For some people, simply programming the single based on RPE works well. For others, I need to specify the exact weight to use. There will always be ebbs and flows to performance.
For the most part, I like to progress the singles in a step-loading fashion, meaning I am not trying to linearly increase them. Increasing the weekly single linearly even at lighter loads is a mistake. To step load, you essentially just stick with the same weight until it’s noticeably easier. I may start someone off with a single at an 8 rpe programmed out, and we will be consistent with that weight for a long time until it’s a 6–7 rpe.
At least one bench press training session per week should be devoted to absolute strength to increase your 1RM. Hit a heavy single at 85–95% and do most working sets above 80% of your max. Progressive overload is key with the rep work. Try to add 5–10lbs to your working weight each week. We will go over a sample weekly template below.
Step 3: Improve Strength Endurance
Strength endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended time. Essentially, strength endurance comes into play in high rep sets, anything over 12 reps.
For many of the NFL prospects, the 225lbs bench press is a better test of strength endurance than anything else. Improving the ability to perform on high rep sets can make an impact. Strength endurance can be the reason why one 400-pound bencher does more reps with 225 than another 400-pound bencher.
On the other hand, if you can’t hit 225lbs for 12 or more reps, improving your muscular endurance will not be a factor. In that case, you would be better off focusing all of your efforts on just increasing your absolute strength.
Training to improve strength endurance involves low to moderate training intensity and high volume. The training is set up with lighter loads and shorter rest periods.
A technique I use with my athletes is called AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets. An AMRAP set is all-out for maximum repetitions. This is not only a great way to increase volume, but it also reinforces the skill of training to failure. In general, I don’t recommend pushing to failure often. However, when training for the 225 bench test, learning how to grind reps is an important skill.
How to “Hack” the Test
I’m typically not a fan of “hacks” or shortcuts, but in this case, there are a few little tricks to help you perform better on the day of the test.
Hack 1: Start the day off with a big meal and lots of water. This is not an excuse to hit up the breakfast buffet, but you also don’t want to be underfed. Have a mixed meal containing protein, carbohydrates, and a moderate amount of fat. As for water, again no need to overload yourself, but sip on water all day to make sure you are well hydrated. Even a modest dip in hydration can negatively affect performance. Don’t be afraid of some sodium, either. In fact, throw 1/4tsp of salt on your meals.
Hack 2: Dial in your warm-up on the day of the test. I can not stress this enough, a well-structured warm-up can literally add a couple of reps.
45lbs Bar for 1 set of 10 reps (yes, start with the bar)
95lbs for 1 set of 5–10 reps
135lbs for 1 set of 5 reps
185 for 1 set of 3 reps
225lbs for 1 set of 1
250lbs+ for 1 set of 1 (~75–80% 1rm)
That’s not a typo. I recommend going over the 225lbs testing weight during the warm-up. I do this to excite the nervous system and elicit a form of post-activation potentiation. Also, I think there is a mental benefit to it as well. When you hold a heavier weight, it will make 225lbs feel lighter once the test starts.
Hack 3: Last but not least, move the bar fast. This is not the time to do slow negatives. Most people fail around 45 seconds into the set regardless of how many reps they performed. Try to get it done as fast as possible. Do not stop for rest; keep pumping out reps nonstop until you fail. The goal is to get as many reps done in under 45 seconds as possible. The lactic threshold is a function of time as much as it is work. It is a sprint, not a marathon. There is no need to pace yourself.
I would never tell you to do this at any other time, but let the bar come down fast. In fact, you can even pull the weight down to speed the rep cadence up.
Putting It All Together — Sample Weekly Bench Press Routine
Now is the time to put it all together. Below is a sample week of bench press training for an upper/lower routine. One day is devoted to absolute strength, and the second day is focused on strength endurance. The assistance work is set up to build a lot of volume, specifically for the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Have at least two days between day 1 and day 2.
Upper Body Day #1: Absolute Strength
- Bench Press 1 x 1 @85–95%3–5 sets x 3–5 reps @ 80%+
- Close Grip Bench Press 3 x 5–7 reps
- Chest Supported Row 3 x 10–15 reps
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 x 10–15 reps
- Lying EZ Bar Triceps Extension 3 x 10–15 reps
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl 3 x 10–15 reps
Upper Body Day #2: Strength Endurance
- Bench Press 4 sets x 12–20 reps *last set AMRAP
- Dumbbell Bench Press 3 x 15–20 reps
- Machine Chest Press 3 x 15–20 reps
- Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown 3 x 15–20 reps
- Machine Shoulder Press 3 x 15–20 reps
- Bodyweight Dips 3 x failure