Here’s an age-old sports cliche: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. When it comes to the bench press, it’s hard to finish what you started if you can’t lock out heavy weights. The lockout relies mostly on the triceps to extend the elbows. And while it doesn’t take much convincing to get most powerlifters to train their triceps (big arms are a nice bonus to having a strong lockout), it’s not necessarily your bodybuilding-style exercises that are going to have the best carryover to the bench press.
Specificity is one of the primary principles of strength training that lifters must adhere to, and in order to have specific carryover to the bench press, your triceps exercises need to closely mimic the bench press itself. Here are my top five triceps exercises to improve your bench press lockout.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is my number one bench press supplementary exercise for several reasons. First, it increases the range of motion, leading to more overall work performed and potentially a greater hypertrophy response. Next, the narrower grip makes it harder to keep the upper back tight, which is often what fails first during a heavy bench. And finally, it provides more mechanical tension via heavier loading than any other full-ROM triceps exercise, making it my go-to option to build triceps strength.
I’ll often program the close grip bench press as the main benching movement on my lifters’ second bench day of the week. We’ll usually work up to a heavy top set of 1-5 reps, then follow up with higher-rep backdown sets that are RIR-based to push the triceps closer to muscular failure.
Slingshot Bench Press
Most lifters experience a sticking point closer to the chest than lockout, making it hard to overload the triceps with a full-ROM bench press. Exercises like board presses and pin presses (more on those in a bit) allow you to skip the hardest part of the bench and just focus on the lockout, but what if you want to actually practice the entire bench press movement while also overloading the triceps? Enter the Slingshot bench press.
The Slingshot is a brand name for a wearable device that provides assistance off the chest. The assistance dissipates closer to lockout as the Slingshot goes slack, leaving your triceps to finish the remainder of the lift. I absolutely love the Slingshot to teach proper bar path, build confidence under heavy weights, and strengthen the triceps at lockout.
Because the Slingshot is an overload technique, we’ll typically keep the reps per set quite low, mostly singles and doubles. Once a lifter learns to effectively use the Slingshot, they can use weights significantly heavier than their raw bench 1 rep max. Our best Slingshot benchers can get nearly a 20 percent increase, although we typically stay in the 105-110 percent range during training.
Close Grip Pin Lockouts
As I alluded to earlier, reducing the range of motion skips the hardest part of the bench and lets you focus on only the lockout. I prefer using pins to board presses because pins force the lifter to stay tighter and develop force from more of a dead stop. Lifters can bounce off the boards or sink-and-heave off of them, which has a time and place. But I’ve found close grip pin lockouts to have the most technical carryover to the competition bench press.
I’ll often place these at the end of a training session and keep the reps higher. Think of it as a triceps burnout using loads much heavier than what you could use for skullcrushers, triceps pushdowns or other accessory exercises.
I disliked JM presses for years because they hurt my elbows, but I always heard some of the world’s best benchers waxing poetic about the effectiveness of the exercise, so I knew I was missing something. Turns out I just hadn’t tried the variation that worked best for me. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to adjust the JM press based on individual preference, such as the SSB JM Press:
The 1-board JM press is another option that eased my elbow stress by slightly reducing the range of motion and giving me the task-based cue of aiming the board for my chin.
I prefer to keep the weight lower and rep ranges higher on JM presses due to the potential elbow stress, but I’ve heard of big-time benches going as heavy as sets of 5 on these, so they’re fairly versatile.
Rolling DB Triceps Extensions
A favorite of Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell crew, the rolling triceps extension gets the nod over any other traditional extension because of the emphasis on the stretched position. By going into full shoulder flexion, you can fully lengthen the triceps and generate a ton of force in this position, which seems to lead to a greater hypertrophy effect.
I treat this like a straight-ahead bodybuilding movement more than any of the other exercises on this list. Keep the reps high (8 or more per set), push the sets close to failure (1-3 RIR) and aim to increase volume before weight.
Lock It Up… I Mean, Out
Wedding Crashers quotes aside, if you want to improve your bench lockout, you have to train your triceps hard and heavy. Rinky dink cable pushdowns aren’t going to solve your sticking point problems. Use exercises that have specific carryover to the bench press and that can be loaded heavily enough to build your confidence with maximal weight in your hands.