The Bench Press
The bench press is the only universal lift that everyone cares about, yet it is one of the most misunderstood lifts in powerlifting. Contrary to popular belief the bench press is a very technical movement, it’s not simply a push up with a bar in your hand. If you want to build a big bench you have to become a master-technician of the lift. So then the next time someone asks you, “Yo! how much do you bench bro?” You’ll respond, “Whatever I want”.
So you want to learn to bench?
It’s important to remember when trying to learn new techniques that your current max will temporarily go down. It is also important to note that changing some of these things will be extremely beneficial in the long-run. Do not try to over do it by trying to change 17 things all at once. Keep it simple and try to change one thing at a time. Each small change will accumulate into an increase in your 1 rep max. The accumulation of all these changes will result in a drastic increase. It’s like I always say, “100 small steps overtime will get you much further than one giant leap.”
This is often the first mistake people make when benching. The concept of using a wide-grip is best because of the reduced range of motion, but it is not ideal for everyone. Most individuals are not anatomically built to handle that kind of stress on the glenohumeral joint. Ed Coan (the greatest powerlifter ever) has found an easy solution to figuring out your ideal bench width. Simply do a pushup and as you lower yourself tuck your elbows into your body as if you would in a bench. Try out a few different hand positions and you will quickly learn which one feels best. The one that feels best is the width you want to bench with.
From the hands down
Another common mistake during the bench press is not utilizing the forearms. You can quickly see this when someone’s wrists are about to snap backwards the second they take the weight out. This is a horrible position to try and do anything in, let alone try and press a weight off of your chest. When your wrist is in extreme extension it puts you at a major mechanical disadvantage. It partially inhibits your ability to transfer force into the bar while pressing it. The key to fixing this is to maintain a neutral wrist position while benching. The way to accomplish this is to tighten up the muscles in your forearm by squeezing the bar as if you’re deadlifting a new max. In this position the bar will be in-line with both the radius, ulna and elbow, which will allow you to better transfer the force generated by the shoulders, pectorals, and triceps during the press. Limiting wrist extension is why lifters wear wrist wraps during the bench press, however, while wearing them you still need to forcefully grip the bar to help transfer that force.
Your arms are too small!
Triceps are the key to a big raw bench press. While paused on your chest your elbows are slightly adducted and flexed. In this position your triceps are the prime movers responsible to get your elbows back into extension. After you receive the press command your pectorals initially move the bar due to the stretch reflex (Smitley, 2016). Your triceps then take over as the primary movers for the rest of the movement. While benching it is important to keep your elbows tucked (slightly adducted) in order to recruit your lats during the eccentric phase, this will help put your arms in a position to properly utilize your triceps during the press.
If you think you’re training your triceps correctly, think again, because you probably aren’t. According to Mckinley and colleagues (2016) the triceps are primarily made up of type IIa muscle fibres, therefore, you need to be doing low rep heavy explosive exercises. These reps will be in the 3-6 range and should be performed with a focus on overloading the eccentric portion of the lift. The concentric portion should be fast and explosive and the eccentric portion should be controlled. By only doing high rep (10-15) “bodybuilding” style training you will gain size but you won’t necessarily see a huge carryover to your max bench. In order to properly train the triceps one must combine both low rep heavy explosive movements and high rep movements. **do your low rep heavy exercises first**
Biceps are misunderstood when it comes to the bench press. People in the powerlifting community tend to think of training biceps as a bit of a joke, when in reality it plays a role in a strong bench. The biceps and triceps form a force couple in the elbow joint and if one muscle group is pulling too much it will cause problems over time. Bicep training should not be a primary focus but should not be ignored either. Biceps also help to build more tissue around the elbow joint which helps with pressing (Smitley, 2016).
The anterior deltoids don’t really do much. They do assist the pectorals during the initial movement off the chest during the stretch reflex (Smitley, 2016). That being said, it is a good idea to train your anterior deltoids during the offseason. However, during competition prep, specificity is the primary goal, so you should spend that time bench pressing.
The lateral head of the deltoid is not very important when it comes to bench press, however, you should still train them a bit to maintain muscular balance.
The posterior deltoids play a much larger role in the bench press. It is important to work the posterior deltoids and the external rotators of the arm (infraspinatus and teres minor) as they are a part of the anterior-posterior force couple. By strengthening the muscles that form anterior-posterior you will help stabilize the glenohumeral head. This may help prevent deficiencies such as internal rotation of the humerus, which left untreated can lead to impingement issues.
Working the muscles in your upper back is extremely important, as you do rely heavily on your scapular stabilizers during the eccentric portion of the lift. You’re also building a bigger base to press off of (Smitley, 2016). You want to build a huge upper back by destroying your trapezius and rhomboids to help stabilize the scapula.
An important area that's often overlooked is the mid & low trap muscle fibres, which are rarely trained properly. Shrugs and deadlifts work these fibres but they do not isolate them enough to help stabilize the scapula. This is important because while training for a big bench press you will build super strong latissimus dorsi. These muscles will pull down on the scapula, moving it out of position, so you need to work your mid & low trap fibres + rhomboids to help maintain proper scapular position. As you’re benching, you will be retracting your scapulas very forcefully, therefore, you need to strengthen the muscles mentioned above as they’re your primary scapular retractors.
The mid & low trapezius and rhomboids should be trained every single bench workout you perform. These muscles can be trained at a high frequency, using lighter weights for high reps as they are primarily postural muscles.
Pec flyes make you good at hugging
If you’re in pursuit of giant pectorals like Arnold, you might be in the right place. Building your pectorals is extremely important while benching. They are the primary muscles responsible for breaking inertia off your chest after receiving the press command. You don’t want to train them solely the way bodybuilders do because you’re not looking for just size. You’re looking to build strong pectorals that can maintain a solid isometric contraction, then contract hard and explosively. Rather than doing endless amounts of pec decks or pec flyes for your pectoral accessory work you should practice different types of bench press or even push ups. Some great examples of this are Spoto press, incline press, floor press, and wide-grip bench.
Latissimus Dorsi- It’s time to fly!
Along with triceps the Latissimus Dorsis are extremely important for building a big bench. Building big strong Latissimus Dorsi is essential for all three of the powerlifts and should be programmed with as much priority as the main 3 lifts. To bench big weights, you need big lats. It’s just that simple. Lats are hugely important during the eccentric portion of the bench press. As you’re lowering the bar onto your chest your lats are playing a big role in stabilizing the humerus. This will help you to maintain your elbow adduction angle (elbow tuck), which will allow you to utilize your triceps properly during the press. While you’re lowering the bar to your chest your lats should be doing the majority of the work.
Think of benching like loading a spring. If you load the spring fast and release the tension quickly you won’t release much power. If you load a spring slowly and build a ton of tension over time and then release that tension quickly you will produce much more force.
As you’re lowering the bar to your chest your lats should be taking the majority of the load. It’s also advantageous to lower the bar slowly in competitions with long pauses (IPF) which judges reward lifters who control the eccentric portion of the bench. They are rewarded because the bar is almost motionless the second the bar touches their chest, so they get a quick press command.
Learning to activate your lats is different for everyone and must be learned while performing accessory work before you’ll see a carryover onto your bench. Personally I found visualizing my elbows being attached to my hip by one big muscle while doing pull ups worked best for me. As I pulled my body up I imagined I was shortening that muscle and that seemed to work for me, but everyone is different. The main thing to think of is retracting your scapulas into the bench then trying to move your scapulas in a downward direction and slightly adducting your humerus by engaging the lats. A cue that’s worked for my clients is to push your shoulder blades into the bench and try to bend the bar as if you’re going to fold it in half. As you perform this motion you will notice your elbows will automatically tuck. This means you’re on the right track.
The day after you do a bench session and your lats are super sore, that’s when you know you’re benching correctly. You can train your lats at a high frequency, meaning multiple times a week. For every pressing motion you do you should do a minimum of one pulling motion for your lats. When performing these movements, change up the exercises frequently and experiment with different rep ranges. Don’t be afraid to do a heavy set of 5 with bent over rows or lat pulldowns. You want to build size as well as strength in your lats so you should do a combination of high reps and low heavy reps.
When building a program for bench you will be able to have a higher frequency than your squats and deadlifts. This is because overall there is a lot less muscle mass utilized during the movement and the weights are much lighter compared to squats or deadlifts. The body can handle anywhere from 1-9 sessions in a week (Smitley, 2016). The key with bench training is to find the right amount of frequency/volume for you.
With a higher volume per session you will want to program fewer bench sessions i.e, less frequency. With a higher frequency of bench in a week you will want to program a lower volume per each session.
That being said, as a beginner you want to very gradually build up your frequency. You could progress your frequency by adding an extra day and slowly building the volume on that day over the course of weeks to months.
You want to become a master technician of the lift in order for it to improve. Like any other thing in life, how can you expect to become a master of that craft by practicing it once or even twice a week?
When programming, your goal should be to build mass in the muscles I have described above. The goal is to be well rounded, thick, and strong. You don’t see many lifters benching big weights with small upper bodies.
For every single rep you do while benching be sure to take in a massive breath of air, really fill up your lungs and belly. This will help increase your intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure. This will help you transfer force from your lower extremities. It will also help the lifter maintain tightness throughout the lift.
Which brings me to the next point...
Benching properly is not a comfortable thing at all. You have to be maintain your tightness which can be difficult, so prepare to feel very awkward.
When arching, the key is to arch your upper back rather than your lower back. You want to decrease the range of motion, which is best accomplished by arching your upper back. You make sure to continually fire your glutes and quads to maintain tightness. As you throw the bar off your chest after the press command, drive with your legs and glutes, like you're trying to push your hips up and back towards your head (while keeping your butt on the bench).
After the press command really push your head and upper back into the bench. Don’t think of it as pressing the weight but rather trying to push away from the bar. Push your head and upper back very forcefully into the bench while you’re pressing the weight.
When pressing you want to push the weight back towards your starting point. Some people prefer a straight up and down motion, but working with clients I’ve found that pushing the weight back towards your face (to the starting point) allows you to overcome sticking points a bit easier.
When trying to find your ideal starting position take the bar off the rack and play around with the position a bit. Move the bar back towards your face and then down towards your belly button. Once you find the spot where the weight feels light you’ve found your starting point.
Try to fix one thing at a time don’t try to reinvent the wheel in one session. These changes take time so be patient.
Becoming technically proficient with this lift is very important but you also cannot neglect your accessory training. Being technically-efficient will improve your max in the bench press but once you hit a plateau it’s your accessory work that will take you to the next level.
McKinley, M. P., O’Loughlin, V. D, Bidle, T. S., (2012) Anatomy & Physiology: An Integrative Approach (1st ed.) Chapter 4, New York: McGraw-Hill Education
Smitley, B. (2016, October 6). Building the Raw Bench Press. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from https://www.elitefts.com/education/building-the-raw-bench-press/