A competition Bench Press can be broken down into three phases. The first phase involves lowering the bar to the chest. Strong upper-back muscles and biceps help control the descent of the bar. By lowering the bar under control, you set up the initial drive off the chest. You want to control the bar, and not have it control you. If the descent is not under control, chances are you won't make the lift. The second phase of the lift consists of the initial drive off the chest to midpoint. Powerful pectoral muscles will blast the bar off the chest and send it on its way. The last phase is from the midpoint to lockout. Strong deltoids and triceps can mean the difference between a successful lift, and one that can't be completed.
In order for you to develop an effective program, you must analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Be honest with yourself. If you are strong off the chest, but your lockout is weak, then, naturally, you will select assistance movements that will strengthen the muscles involved in the lockout, i.e. the shoulders and triceps. Before I list some exercises, I would like to take a moment and talk about something very important. Safety. Do not attempt to do any type of heavy Bench Pressing without a spotter. This goes for the Bench Press and all its variations ( Incline Press, Decline Press, Close-Grip Bench Press.) Always have someone spotting you. If you can't find a spotter, then perform all your Benches inside a power rack. Personally, I think a power rack is the safest, and most effective, way to perform any Bench Press.
The following is a list of exercises that I have found to be effective in improving the Bench Press. Naturally, assistance work does not take the place of the actual lift. You must consistently practice the actual movement in order to become a proficient lifter. And, yes, you should train the lift under contest conditions. Every rep should be done with a pause, even extension, feet flat on the floor. It would be absurd to train one way, and then compete under completely different conditions. Now, on to the assistance work:
1) Lockouts. These are done on a power rack. This will help with the final phase of the lift. Press the bar from the pins to the lockout position. You will eventually be able to work up to very heavy poundages. Several sets of low reps, done after your regular Bench Presses, should be sufficient.
2) Weighted Dips. Another effective movement for helping with the final lockout. Dips have gotten some bad press lately because of the potential for shoulder injury. This is one of those movements that might not be for everybody. If you have never tried them, start slowly. More importantly, do not pause for too long at the very bottom of the movement. If you can do them safely, try to add weight and work you way into doing sets of six.
3) Close-Grip Bench Press. This will strengthen and develop your triceps. This is an excellent movement. Take a close (about 6") grip, and work up to several sets of six to eight reps. You can also do these with an EZ Curl bar as a change of pace.
4) Incline Press. This movement can be done either with a barbell, or dumbbells. This is a good upper-pectoral developer. Utilizing dumbbells will help correct the problem of uneven extension. My friend and training partner, Larry Licandro, loved doing Incline Presses. He actually liked Inclines better than regular flat Benches. On the other hand, I rarely, if ever, used Inclines as an assistance movement. I would do them in the "off-season'" when there were no contests coming up. If I do them now, I usually do them "Dinosaur-style." That is, I do them in a power rack, set the pins at the bottom position and perform the lift from the bottom position.
5) Pause Bench Press. I mentioned earlier that ALL your Benches should be done with a pause. What I'm talking about here is utilizing a good 3-5 second pause at the bottom. This exaggerated pause will develop incredible power off the chest.
6) Rowing/Pulldowns. By developing and strengthening the upper-back you will improve the first phase of the Bench Press. A strong back and powerful Lats will aid in your ability to lower the weight under control.
7) Overhead Presses. There is no better way to strengthen your shoulders than by pressing heavy weights overhead. Military Presses, Dumbbell Presses, Seated Presses. Whichever movement you prefer, get in the habit of doing some sort of overhead movement. Stronger shoulders will help you move heavier poundages. They will also help prevent injuries to a very vulnerable area of the body, the shoulder girdle.
If you are training for a contest, remember that you will have to discontinue assistance movements at some point. Each individual is different, and some people can keep doing assistance work up until about a week before a meet. Others may need to stop much sooner. You will have to determine for yourself the best way to incorporate the various assistance exercises into an overall program. Don't try to imitate others.