Bench press 101
February 18, 2020
You have your gym playlist going, you're feeling good. You eventually secure a place on the bench after negotiating hard with the person on there to work in between their rest periods with them.
You un-rack the bar, lower it down and....... proceed to be half suffocated half guillotined because you can't lift the weight up.
I've been that person.
It's pretty frustrating, particularly if you train in a busy gym and time on the bench is more valuable than gold.
Let's face it, everyone wants a big bench - whether they admit it or not!
Like Blaine Sumner above, setting a new world record of 454kg on the bench press (equivalent to grand piano or 300,000 paper clips) we all want to be shifting some heavy weights off the bench.
This article is adapted from the wonderful guide, how to bench press: the definitive guide by Greg Nucklous.
This article is broken down into 2 sections:
1. The basics of your bench set up
2. Executing the lift
1. The basics of your bench set up
1a. Make sure the bench is set up properly:
- Ensure that your shoulders aren't going to slide off the bench. If it's really slippy, you can put a gym mat over it to stop your shoulders from sliding all over the place.
1b. Make sure the hooks or where you place the bench is right:
- You don't want to be having to move the bar 6 inches off the rack before you press. It will depend on the length of your arms but about an inch of clearance is ideal.
1c. Shoulder position:
- Idea here is to pull your shoulder blades back like you are trying to squeeze and orange in between them.
- Some people also like to pull their shoulders back too, or forward. But the key thing is to make sure your shoulder blades are pulled together.
- Without getting too complicated, make sure your grip is around 1.5 - 2 x your shoulder width. Don't go super wide or super narrow.
- Now, once you have hold of the bar squeeze it as hard as you can. There's a couple of reasons why this is good but primarily it will make you feel in more control.
- Make sure your wrists are not cocked back, but pointing straight up. Have them cocked back puts a lot of pressure on your wrists which is going to hurt when you start benching high numbers.
1e. Getting stable and tight:
- A stable lifting position is going to be key to increasing your bench. This might also involve arching your back a little.
- The technique I like to use it to start with your hands on the bar which should be over your throat. Then pull your hips into the position you want them to be. This will create a small natural arch. Once you are in this position, walk your feet back until they are back and out, which should have increased the arch in your back.
- Stick your chest out which will help to decrease the range of motion i.e. you have to lift the weight less distance
- Take a deep breath! You are going to be holding your breath for the whole rep.
You are now ready to lift
2. Executing the lift
2a. The descent
- Two techniques work really well here. Think about ripping the bar in half, and bending the bar. These work because they engage your lats and upper back, giving you more control.
2b. Lowering the bar
- Control that damn bar! Lowering it is crucial to getting the bar back up. Think about lowering it for around 2 seconds. Again this gives you more control!
- Focus on lowering the bar just below your nipples (for the majority of people this is the strongest). Once you know the position you can start to put a bit of chalk on the bar to let you know where on your chest works for you.
2c. Pausing at the bottom
- Depends if you are going to compete in powerlifting or not. If you are, you should get used to pausing at the bottom of the rep. Best way to do this is to let the bar rest on your chest very, very lightly (you don't want to guillitene yourself remember) keeping tension across the chest, shoulders and lats.
REMEMBER - YOU WANT TO KEEP HOLDING YOUR BREATH FOR THE DURATION OF THE REP
2d. Driving up
- Focus on driving the bar up as quickly as humanly possible. You want to create maximum driving force. It helps to think about pushing the bar up and towards your face, and to push through your legs and squeeze your glutes together.
- Don't be afraid to flare your elbows out a little bit as this will create the optimal bar path
2e. Racking the bar
- Once you are at the top of the lift, re-rack the bar and celebrate your personal best bench press!
Once you are in the grove of doing the above cues, you can develop a performance routine....
Establishing a pre-performance routine
Athletes often develop certain routines that they will perform day in, day out before executing a certain skill. Have you ever seen a footballer before they take a penalty, or a cricket batsmen before they face a delivery from a bowler, or a 100 metre sprinter before they line up and take there starting positions?
Odds on, those people are trying to develop consistent pre-performance routines so that they can have control of those elements that are within their sphere of influence. They help to provide stability in a potentially unstable environment, allowing all the good habits they have developed to come to fruition.
Your bench press is the same. It is a repeatable action that can be trained and improved. Try the following cues next time you hit the bench.
- Squeeze the bar
- Rip the bar in half (sideways)
- Keep your chest up and a belly full of breath:
- Push your heels through the floor and squeeze your bum
- Keep your lats tight:
- Let your elbows flare on the way up