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If you are interested in lifting weights there is a VERY high chance that you’re familiar with the bench press. It’s one of (if not THE) most popular movements in the gym and is the foundation of ‘gym bro’ culture everywhere! Putting that to one side, the bench press contributes a TON to our training – strong chest and arms are a foundation for most hypertrophy goals and flat barbell bench press is tested in powerlifting competitions.
BUT, just how much weight should you START bench pressing with if you are a beginner?
At a glance…
- You should try to start bench pressing with an empty, 20kg Olympic barbell
- If this is too heavy then dumbbell bench press is a good substitute to build strength until you can lift the bar
- Progression becomes more important over time – how you structure your weight or rep increases over time to develop
- Simple linear progression programs tend to increase the weight while holding reps static
- You can also use dips, dumbbell flies and press ups to develop your chest muscles if you don’t want to use a barbell
How much weight should I start with on the bench press?
Bench pressing can be dangerous – all you have to do is jump on YouTube and look up bench pressing mishaps to see some cringe worthy incidents! Knowing the dangers then I would always suggest someone starts with a LOWER weight rather than push too heavy when starting.
How heavy should an ‘average’ beginner start?
A standard Olympic barbell weighs 20kg (45lbs) and this is the weight I recommend most people with a reasonable base level of fitness start flat barbell bench pressing at.
Yes, that is a recommendation to start bench pressing with an empty bar! 20kg is a reasonable weight.
Should you include the weight of the bar when tracking weights lifted?
An Olympic barbell is 20kg in weight and 7ft in length. At 20kg (or 45lbs) the barbell is a SIGNIFICANT weight. ALWAYS include it when recording your workouts to get a true reflection of your strength and progress!
Keeping track also means you can switch equipment readily – if you use a 20kg barbell at the gym but have a 15kg one at home you know you need to add 5kg to the bar to get a like-for-like lift when switching between your commercial and home gym.
Or just use this as an excuse to buy a new barbell for home…
Can I start even lighter than 20kg?
YES! Personally I was a below-average beginner and I found 20kg was heavier than I wanted to lift at the time. I used what is known as a ‘standard’ barbell (1” diameter instead of Olympic 2”) with associated plates and worked up from 15kg to the empty Olympic barbell at 20kg. The build up took a couple of sessions and gave me the confidence to get under the ‘proper’ barbell when the time was right. Not all gyms have 1” ‘standard’ barbells however.
Are dumbbells a good way to start bench pressing?
The good news is that the movements are obviously broadly similar so there is carry over with strength and experience in one lift impacting the other favourably. This means if you are new to training and want to start off really light you can kick off with dumbbells bench pressing until you are confident enough to get under the Olympic 20kg barbell.
Dumbbells are prevalent in most commercial gyms and the weights go right down to around 5kg for the typical rubber hex-style dumbbells and often even lower – my old commercial gym went right down to a kilo.
An awesome benefit to dumbbells over barbells is that they are typically safer. You don’t usually get trapped under a dumbbell as they move separately and can be dumped safely on to the floor if needed where a barbell is far harder to get away from. This is excellent if training alone or without a spotter as it means you can lift safely – which is after all the most important thing!
That said a dumbbell bench press is a different exercise from a barbell bench press therefore you are training a different movement. If you did this exclusively your barbell bench press would lag a little due to lack of practice therefore if your barbell bench press performance is important to you then you will benefit from switching away from dumbbells at some point to gain experience with the bar.
Can I start HEAVIER than 20kg?
While I recommend starting with the empty bar, if you feel that is far too conservative (maybe you have trained similar movements previously or are coming back after a layoff) then you can jump in at a heavier weight. A good way to find a starting weight for bench pressing in this situation would be to do a set with the empty bar and assess how easy (or hard) that felt before adding a little weight to lift and assess again. Repeat this as many times as required until you get to a reasonably taxing weight on the bar – this is your starting weight. This technique is what is recommended in the Starting Strength novice program.
BUT how do we define ‘reasonably taxing’? I would say something like “RPE 7” – this means it feels like you could rep the weight for a further 3 reps before failing. So if you did sets of 5 you feel you could do an all out set of 8 at that weight if required, but would be gassed after. That is a great starting weight as you need to a few sets – not just one – so keeping the fatigue in check is helpful.
How much more weight should I put on the bench each time?
So now we know how much we START benching seriously with, the next question is how do we increase this over time?
EVERYONE will have their own view or system for this, but personally I enjoyed a simple StrongLifts style linear progression. This is where the weight is increased but the smallest possible amount (2.5kg in most cases) from session to session, BUT if you hit the reps it IS INCREASED. There is no shying away from it – if you hit the reps in StrongLifts it simply adds another few kilos to the next one!
Linear progression doesn’t last forever
If we start with a 20kg barbell and add 2.5kg each session it won’t be long until each increase feels HUGE. This is completely normal – and at the point it becomes difficult to add weight each session you will need more advanced programming, likely involving RPE (rate of perceived exertion) or similar. We can cover this in another post
One weird trick to extend your linear progression…
If you have access to smaller plates you can increase by a smaller amount when the sessions get tough – as low as 0.5kg at a time. This is known as micro loading and it can add a few weeks to your linear progression training, albeit without adding too much in absolute terms to your lifts.
Men and women progress differently
Male and female lifters usually have very different bench presses with men typically lifting much more both in absolute and percentage-of-bodyweight terms. Woman lifters will typically need more time working with dumbbells before getting to the 20kg barbell and will have shorter linear progressions before switching to RPE-based training.
What about sets and reps for someone new to training?
We won’t dig in to this too much – suffice to say there is an absolute TON of options available for different workouts.
If I was starting out again right now I would jump on the StrongLifts 5×5 beginner program. For bench press this is 5 sets of 5 reps every second workout.
Hitting sets of 5 reps is great as a beginner as it’s a low enough number that the weight quickly increases and FEELS meaningful, but still enough reps and sets that we are getting plenty of practice of the bench press movement in (25 reps is quite a lot for someone new to lifting!)
Of course you are free to try any other program you prefer or suits your needs more!
Is it better to lift heavy or light?
If I had to pick one I would rather lift heavy than light – I find my body reacts well to slightly heavier loads with lower reps compared to lighter weights but for longer sets. That is my experience and I know plenty who do the opposite so this really is personal preference. I also find the heavier weight more motivational and enjoyable to workout with which is important – nobody wants to be bored in the gym 🙂
When starting out I usually suggest others initially aim to lift heavier to build familiarity with higher weights and cement a foundation of strength which future training can build on. Following the StrongLifts methodology discussed previously this is to increase the weight on the bar workout to workout until this is not possible any longer. A maximum effort set of 5 reps would take you right up to around 85% of you theoretical all-guns-blazing, do-or-die one rep maximum lift which would be considered heavy.
The downside of heavy lifting is the increased risk of failure. I have failed more bench press sets during maximal strength training than during any other blocks. I lift alone however I use a power rack to keep myself safe – you will need to think about how you are going to keep yourself safe as well!
Once you have run through the first few weeks or months of training you an experiment with different rep ranges and find a style that suits you and your goals.
How do I know if I am lifting enough weight?
The reality is that there is no magic weight that is perfect for strength, hypertrophy or some balance of the two. In the real world what really matters is VOLUME – so the number of hard-ish sets or reps that we do. There is an absolute TON of different opinions and research out there on this so we won’t go in to much detail here, but suffice to say if you can probably make any weight WORK for you by adjusting the rep range. Weight feels light or easy? Cool – lets up the reps per set then!
The StrongLifts and Starting Strength progressions we have touched on align with this philosophy by adjusting the weight each time we complete our sets. This means we work up to a pretty taxing weight for sets of 5. Other programs tweak the reps and/or the sets. Finding what works for you will be an enjoyable adventure!
Alternatives to bench pressing with a barbell
If you are not sure about bench pressing – either due to baseline strength, personal preference or for safety reasons then there are alternatives that build strength and muscle in similar areas (pecs, triceps, arms, lats):
- Dumbbell bench press – very similar movement but with less risk exposure due to the lack of barbell across your body
- Press ups – fantastic exercise for building muscle and getting a ‘pump’, but usually limited by weight as stronger athletes can do HUGE sets
- Dips – fantastic tricep and pec builder with downside being shoulder comfort
- Dumbbell or barbell rows – building the upper back is important for benching – row to grow!
- Chest fly – I use dumbbells but you can also use a pec deck or resistance bands. I find these with a slight incline really builds my inner chest
The above exercises can also be cycled in with traditional barbell benching to increase volume lifted by the muscle groups and – hopefully – pull up your strength and hypertrophy even further than just flat bench pressing!
So if you are new to bench pressing and are unsure where to begin simply start pressing the empty bar, adding weight each time you train. Your will quickly gain strength and experience that you can use to plan your training going forward.
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