I love the bench press. It’s my favorite lift, and the one I spend the most time thinking about. Although it seems like such a simple movement, high-level benching actually involves many intricate details.
I’m sure some of these tips you have heard before, but hopefully, I can present them in a way that resonates with you and is something you can put to use in the gym.
1: Take care of all low-hanging fruit.
- First, it’s an old-school recommendation, but the best way to increase your bench is to gain weight. Hypertrophy, building muscle, is very important for the bench press. Getting a bigger chest, upper back, lats, and even bigger arms can be beneficial. Adding size specifically to your chest and upper back can actually cut the range of motion as well. You don’t see many big-time benchers who don’t have jacked upper bodies. And if you do, they probably take advantage of a massive arch. So, low-hanging fruit tip number one is to get your upper body jacked! I give you permission to crush some volume on nonspecific accessory work to grow the upper body. Big pecs = a big bench.
- The weight gain doesn’t have to be huge either. From a powerlifting perspective, I think the bench press would see a benefit going from being at the bottom of a weight class to the top of the weight class.
- Rack height– Similar to the squat, we want to make sure the bench rack is set up in the right spot. This is actually pretty important because most benches in commercial gyms have fixed racks meaning you can’t adjust the pin height. I don’t think there is anything in the gym I hate more than a fixed rack bench press. The rack needs to be at a spot where you can just clear the pins when you un-rack the bar. You don’t want it too high so you have to extend and actually lift it up and over the pin, but you also don’t want it too low so you have to do a ½ rep with it either.
- The un-rack — How you un-rack the bar matters. If the rack is in the right spot, you should be able to kind of just lift slightly and pull the bar out, maintaining upper back tightness. This is probably a personal preference, but I like to have the bar at the front of the pins so I can pull against it. This helps me get my back tight.
- Grip width — A simple recommendation that will allow you to lift more weight is to use a wider grip. In general, most people will be stronger with a wider grip. A wider grip shortens the range of motion and allows you to activate more of the chest, which is the strongest muscle involved in benching. Therefore, it’s worth at least giving a wider grip a shot. However, I recommend experimenting with different grips until you find the one where you are the strongest. Not everyone will be stronger with a wide grip. When you make changes to your grip, make changes in small increments, an inch or so at a time.
- How you grip the bar matters too. Try to hold the bar a bit lower on your palm, not up near your knuckles. We want the bar to be sitting on the meat of the palm, so the bar is right over the elbow and forearm, stacked in a straight line. Most people just grab the bar, and it ends up back in the palm up towards the knuckles, that’s not what we want to do. This causes the wrist to bend back and the bar ends up behind the forearm, pulling the bar back. On the flip side, you also don’t want to fight to keep your wrist perfectly straight either. This causes the bar to put a lot of pressure on the thumb and pulls the bar forward.
- When you grip the bar, you want to internally rotate your hands slightly, so the bar is at an angle on the meat of your palm. Really, the outside part of your palm will take the brunt of the weight. I’m not saying you should do a crazy Japanese-style grip or a bulldog grip, but a slight internal rotation of the hands puts the bar in the position we want.
- Additionally, we want to squeeze the bar pretty tight. This is the concept of irradiation. I remember reading about this many years ago in Pavel’s book Power to the People. Smitty from Diesel Strength used to be big on this as well. Essentially, irradiation just means when you grip something tightly it sends a signal to surrounding muscles to activate.
- Get your feet set and don’t move them. We are going to talk a lot about foot position later in the episode but for low-hanging fruit, don’t move your feet during the rep under any circumstances. I’m not talking about sliding a little bit, I’m talking about them actually moving. If your feet move during the rep, your lower body is not tight enough.
- Similarly, do not allow your hips to come up. Man, I see some crazy benches on Instagram, even from respected strength coaches in the S&C world. Keep your butt on the bench.
- If you are a powerlifter, pause every rep in training. This is something I have talked about a lot over the years but as a competitive powerlifter, I don’t see a good argument for programming touch and go bench. It’s like squatting high in training. Even for non-powerlifters, I still like paused benches.
- Lastly, if you compete in powerlifting, this might be the best tip in the article. I have talked about this before, but get used to holding the bar at the top for a few seconds before starting your set. This is the one thing that will crush your bench at a meet that you are probably not thinking about. And, even if you are thinking about it, not enough of us, myself included, do this consistently. Every single you do in training should start by holding the bar at the top for a few seconds to mimic waiting for the start command. Also, get in a habit of getting your elbows locked out and feet flat (in USAPL) asap when you un-rack the bar so you can get a quicker start command.
2: The set-up and leg drive
- The set-up is important for all lifts, but it will really make or break the bench press. But, before we even dig into the setup, I want to talk about foot position and leg drive. A lot of people struggle with the concept of leg drive, and I get it, it can be confusing. The thing is, it’s not even about leg drive per se. The legs are not driving the bar up. Leg drive is all about tension and stability. We don’t want any leaks in the chain. We want to be tight from our toes to our hands.
- So, when it comes to foot placement I guess the first thing we need to talk about is heel up or down? In the USAPL, it’s required to keep the heel on the ground. However, I actually think a flat foot is optimal from a stability standpoint. My daughter walks around on her tippy toes all the time and it’s not a very stable position haha…with the feet flat we have more connection to the floor, and it allows us to drive through the front of our shoe better.
- The one advantage to being up on your toes is the ability to tuck your feet underneath you more. It’s debatable if this is even advantageous vs. a neutral position or feet out in front position. But, if you like to keep your feet tucked under, one option is to try benching in Olympic lifting shoes. The elevated heel will allow you to keep your feet flat but still tuck them underneath.
- Exactly where you place your feet will be individual based on height, limb lengths, etc. You can go with a tucked position like I mentioned, a neutral position (straight down), or put them out in front. I personally think straight down or out in front position is best for most people for optimal leg tension. You can also go with a narrow stance with your legs close to the bench or a little wider almost in a squat stance. Either way can work, you may have to just play around and see what allows you to generate the most tension. Feet out wide will provide a little more stability, but I actually prefer a little more of a narrow stance myself. I have my feet narrow, straight down (not tucked or out in front), with my toes angled out a bit.
- The most important point about “leg drive” is it’s a horizontal force, not vertical. Think leg extension more than a leg press. The foot pressure should be sliding you up the bench. In fact, you want to be borderline driving yourself right off the bench. This is why people put bands on the bench to create some traction on slippery commercial gym benches. The foot pressure should be driving your toes out through the front of your shoes.
- During the setup, we want to use our legs to keep the tension up on the traps. This is the key to generating and maintaining the arch. The arch is a byproduct of the setup. No lower body tension will limit the arch greatly. We use the leg drive to help elevate the rib cage, most people try to create an arch just by the back alone.
- Once you get your hands set, use your feet to drive you into position. The goal is to drive your traps into the bench and get the upper back tight. This is where people go wrong. They put their backs on the bench vs. their traps. We want to try and get set as high on our traps as possible. This is why you see a lot of people bring their feet up onto the bench during the setup process. Performing what looks like a glute bridge on the bench, elevating your hips up can help you get the right angle to drop your traps onto the bench. You can do the same thing keeping your feet on the floor, but raising your hips up. The idea is just to try and place your upper traps on the bench.
- Let me know if this sounds familiar. You retract and depress your shoulders (which we will get into more in a second), get your traps up on the bench, everything is going great, but then when you walk your feet down to the floor, everything goes downhill. This is from a lack of lower body tension. Once you get your feet set, we want a constant lower body tension and foot pressure for the duration of the set. When people say the bench is a full-body movement, that is what they mean. As crazy as this sounds, sometimes my quads are fatigued from a heavy or high-volume bench session.
- Also, you want to bring your hips down slowly. If you just drop them down fast, you are more likely to lose some tension.
- I really think getting a handle on the type of lower body tension you need is the key for most of you to bench press more weight. If you get your traps on the bench, you can use the legs to raise the ribcage and sternum to kind of fold yourself into the arch position. The arch shortens the range of motion, but it also creates a semi-decline position which is a stronger position.
3: Scapular depression, retraction, and execution of the lift
- Before we get too far into this let’s just think about how the scapula moves in relation to the bench press. We have retraction (pulling back), protraction (pushing forward), elevation (pushing up towards the ears), and depression (pulling down towards the waist). The two you probably hear the most are retraction and depression.
- A lot gets made about scapular positioning. I think how much scapular retraction you need has been a little overblown. I have probably even emphasized it too much in the past. However, it’s still important. Sometimes in fitness, we get into battles of semantics. Coaches are quick to call people out as being wrong but really just say the same things in different ways.
- When you look at the best benchers, they don’t have as much retraction as you think, at least not at all points of the lift.
- I think a lot of the confusion comes down to the distinction between spinal extension and scapular retraction. We know we need to get into some thoracic extension in order to bench the most weight possible. You definitely don’t want to have a flat back. So, we simultaneously arch and retract the shoulder blades, but the thoracic extension can be independent of scapular retraction. We don’t need to lock our shoulder blades in retraction in order to maintain thoracic extension.
- In fact, instead of locking our shoulders in deep retraction, we should lock them in depression. It’s actually scapular depression we are after to create tension and stability.
- Getting your shoulders in the right position is a two-part process — you do want to retract your shoulder blades a little and then depress them down hard locking them into depression.
- If you retract your shoulders as hard as you can and try to hold that position, it tends to actually elevate them preventing you from being able to depress them down, which I what’s most important. You need some retraction, but you don’t want to over retract and prevent scapular motion. We want retraction, but not at the expense of depression.
- The shoulders will retract at the bottom, and protract a little as you press.
- I know this sounds a little complicated but it doesn’t need to be. Try not to overthink it.
- What I recommend is retracting (pulling them together) during the setup, but focusing on depression, and getting the lats tight when you un-rack the bar and get set. The good news is, the horizontal leg pressure keeping the tension on the traps will make scapular depression easy. I like to flex the lats a bit after I un-rack the bar to help increase upper back tension and stability.
- So to recap, start in scapular depression at the top with a small degree of retraction, at the bottom of the rep there will be a hard retraction, and you should allow your shoulders to move out of retraction as you press. It’s ok to have your scapula move during the lift. This equates to better muscle function.
- The take-home point here is to avoid locking the scapula down hard in retraction during the entire range of motion. Don’t fight to stay in retraction. Fight to stay in depression while the scapula moves from hard retraction at the bottom, to slight retraction at the top.
Before we move on, I want to go over a few points on rep execution.
- When we bring the bar down we want to touch the high point of the chest. You can also think of it as trying to extend the sternum up to meet the bar. This is important because we want to avoid touching too far down towards our belly, or too far up towards our neck. Really try to drive the sternum up towards the bar and touch the high point on the way down.
- The question often comes up about using a soft touch vs. sinking. I am more in favor of a relatively soft touch. I think it’s safer than sinking, and it also allows you to get a faster press command in competition. Remember, you won’t get the press command until the bar stops moving, not when the bar touches your chest. Are there big benchers who do the sinking method? Yes, of course, but there are always outliers. Generally bigger guys get better results with it than everyone else.
- I’m ok with a little sink, but just make sure you maintain full-body tension.
- The bar path of the best benchers has a slight J curve to it. The bar goes up and over towards the face. However, this mostly just has to do with just the way you set up. As long as you get set up correctly you don’t really have to think about pressing up and back. In fact, I don’t recommend thinking about it. I have never actively thought about pressing the bar back towards my face, but if you watch my bar path, that is what happens. I just focus on pressing the bar straight up. I actually wrote about this in the OG Absolute Strength book.
4: Two programming tips — do a lot of singles at 85–95% and try higher frequency.
- This is something the gym bros kind of have right, the bench tends to benefit a lot from lifting heavy and benching with higher frequency.
- A tip I think will really help blow up your bench is including weekly singles between 85–95% of your 1 rep max pretty much year-round. Yes, you can keep bench press singles in all the time.
- Keep in mind, I’m not saying maxing out every week, I’m saying submaximal singles each week. 85–95% is about a 6–9 RPE. I think 7–8 RPE is the sweet spot for most people. The trick is not getting emotionally connected to the number. For some people simply programming the single based on RPE works well. For others, I need to specify the exact weight to use. There will always be ebbs and flows to performance.
- For the most part, I like to progress the singles in a step-loading fashion, meaning I am not trying to linearly increase them. I actually think trying to increase the weekly single linearly, even at lighter loads is a big mistake people make unless you are progressing towards a meet or testing.
- To step load, you essentially just stick with the same weight until it’s noticeably cleaner, faster, and/or easier. I may start someone off with a single at an 8 rpe programmed out, and we will be consistent with that weight for a long time until it’s a 6–7 rpe. That is more of an offseason strategy. I like building consistency with one weight until you own that weight so to speak. This method changes if we jump into a meet prep or do a testing block.
- The second programming tip is frequency. You have probably heard me and others say this before, but the bench responds very well to a higher frequency approach. You want to at least try benching twice a week for a period of time to see how it goes. And, if your joints can handle it possibly even try 3 or 4 times per week. Of course, as with everything it comes down to what you can recover from. However, unless you have chronic shoulder or elbow problems, most people should be able to handle benching 2–3 times per week with no issues.
- I noticed a big benefit to my bench when I went from once-a-week benching to twice-a-week benching, to three times a week benching, and benching four times a week is what eventually helped get me to 405lbs. Since then I have gone between 2–4x a week depending on my program. When I hit 425lbs I was benching 3x a week.
5: My two favorite variations — Close Grip Bench Press and Long Pause Bench Press (3–4 sec)
- I wanted to include three variations as I did with the squat, but I don’t really have three favorites. I have my two favorites and then a bunch tied for 3rd.
- I think a big reason for this is simply most people can handle a lot of regular benching so the need for a ton of variations is a little less with the bench.
- I like the close grip bench because most people bench with a wider grip, so doing a close grip gives us an opportunity to hit the triceps and extend the range of motion a bit.
- The long pause bench is great to get people more comfortable with pausing the bar on their chest. If you get comfortable with a 3 or 4-second pause, a competition pause will seem like nothing. Plus, this takes away some of the stretch reflex at the bottom.
- The lifts I have tied for third are — Larson Press, a long pause Spoto Bench, Tempo Bench (3–5 second eccentric), Dumbbell Bench flat and incline (higher reps), machine chest press. You can build a ton of volume with a dumbbell bench press and machine chest press. I love dumbbell bench work. Remember, I hate to get beat up from assistance exercises. If I am going to get beat up from something, I want it to be the actual lift. That is one benefit of dumbbell work. I have really missed it working out in the garage, really the only thing I have missed. I like high rep dumbbell benching 10–20 reps simply because once you get strong enough the big dumbbells are just a pain in the ass to use. Yes, the 150lb dumbbells look cool on Instagram but the fight to get them into position and the 5 half reps you do is not that cool. I would rather just hit sets of 20 with the 100s
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