Before I get into the content of the article, I want to preface with a couple of things….. if you are not a competitive powerlifter or even interested in the sport, this does not mean you cannot benefit from this information. I included “powerlifting” in the title of the article and its’ corresponding video for a couple of reasons. When I first became invested in lifting and began taking my lifts seriously, I had the privilege and pleasure of being mentored by somebody who already had an extensive background in powerlifting. Because of this, the methods and techniques I was learning and growing with are those made popular in the sport of powerlifting (often referenced).
Thanks to Bob Doll (whom you will find bench pressing 405# later in the article), I consider myself fortunate to have learned properly the first time around. What if you did not? Stay tuned. ;)
Let’s talk about the Bench Press. I am not getting into anything too fancy here – I just want to capitalize on the most important component to any movement, with specific regard to one of the oldest lifts in the books.
The bench press is an upper body exercise that zones in on developing the chest while engaging supporting muscles, such as the deltoids, trapezii, and triceps to name a few. You can change up the grip width in order to recruit more/less emphasis on particular muscles – the wider your grip the more your chest is open and engage, thus the closer your grip the more your triceps are engaged.
If you are anything like me, your Bench is the weaker link of your powerlifts. I catch myself saying I do not like to press weight, but that could not be further from the truth. The statement really stems from that voice in my head telling me I am not putting up as much weight as I should in comparison to my other lifts and what I think my capabilities are. The truth of the matter is, I need to work harder and spend more time doing what challenges me the most.If I could break my personal records on the deadlift every couple of weeks, why could I not budge on the bench?
Louie Simmons (Westside Barbell) mentions the following in one of his many helpful discussions,
"If you are strong in one record, you will break any other record you want to break. It is all a cycle. It is all in your mind. Everything is a dream….. my dreams turn into nightmares *laughs*”
I got to thinking about improving my bench numbers by making simple corrections if I needed to, or paying closer attention to the basics of lifting. You can also change up your training program by adding speed or board press days and expanding your assistance movements as needed, but let’s talk about that technique later. I want you to think about your set up and form right now.
Quickest way to get your numbers up is to start correctly before you even think about adding weight. As I was just telling a friend earlier this morning, you could be bench pressing feathers for all I care as long as you are doing so with proper form never compromised. When you learn to call somebody by their name and have known them for a long time, it would be really hard to change the way you address them. The same goes with your form when you are learning how to lift or correcting your current mistakes. While it might be hard to change, it is never too late. Do not be too humble to recognize what you need to improve. ;)
Answer these questions to yourself:
- Where are your feet, and what you are doing with them?
- What are you doing with your shoulders?
- What are you doing with your back?
- Where are your wrists in relation to your forearms and the barbell?
- Where are your glutes?
****Do you learn better by SEEING? Skip the text and scroll down to the photos****
Your feet should be grounded if possible (reason to not be might be hip injury, etc. You could put your feet on the bench, and this will generally be harder than if they are flat-grounded). DRIVES YOUR HEELS INTO THE GROUND. You absolutely have to drive into the ground.
Your shoulders need to kiss together in the back the *$(% best you can. I call it a lateral arch and it pisses people off, so for those of you who get sensitive about me or anybody else telling you to arch your upper back, then consider it retracting your scapula and thus flaring your chest. This will activate your pec muscles much more than having a flat back.
As you could have guessed and gathered from the position of your shoulders, your back needs an arch. You do not have to be like Lamar Gant (photographed above), but having an arch in your mid to upper back to give a solid base and driving foundation for a successful press. Pulling your shoulder blades together and arching your back is going to limit the range of motion, which could ultimately be the few inches difference in completing a lift or not.
Your wrists need to be in line with the barbell. If you really insist on suicide grip (look it up if you are not familiar with it), you are not only risking loss of control over the lift, but you are compromising the engagement of muscle(s) used in the lift. Do not rev the barbell like a motorcycle, because if you are stable and in good form to begin with, you are not driving away anywhere at this point. STAY PUT. Squeeze the bar hard. The wider your grip on standard bench, the better. Again, this limits range of motion.
Your glutes are staying put…. keep them in contact with the bench at all times. I see this often: guy has the sleeves loaded and gets on the bench. He is all wired up wiggling around like a worm. He pulls the bar out and brings it 3 inches from his chest (yep, that guy who does not even try to do an entire lift. He is probably doing quarter squats afterward.) Here is the fun part….. he lifts his body from the bench - squeezing his glutes and using that muscle group to what he thinks is his advantage for the lift. Not only will you destroy your back, but you are nowhere near proper form for a lift worth a thing in the world. Like I said before, the weight does not matter if your form is awful. Glutes stay put, period.
My friend Bob (whom I mentioned earlier) shared a photograph with me to use on the column. The only note he wanted to further make here is that he did not have a spotter in the picture, as they were photographing the lift. Use a spotter when you need one.
Bob, I drew all over your picture and hope you do not mind. This is for the folks who do not want to read a lot or learn better visually. Fancy lift!
A popular training technique in powerlifting to increase your bench press beyond improving your arch is the use of bands and chains (shout outs to Westside Barbell again). The accessories make the press more difficult toward the lockout as the bands are stretched or the chains are loaded from the floor onto the bar. This added resistance was key for me to developing that explosive power when I could not seem to improve my press.
In addition to the use of bands and chains, boards and speed bench, you can change up the angle of the bench to target various supporting muscles. No muscle is every really isolated in a movement. People tend to think bench relates to “arms”, squat relates to “quadriceps”, and deadlift relates to “back”. These are all seriously generalized concepts that are far too limited to actually be true. Simply due to the anatomy of the human body, your muscles are always working together during any movement. Add weight and resistance to the equation and you are recruiting even more proximal and distal mobility/stability. Decline bench for lower pectoralis major, and incline bench for anterior deltoids and upper pectoralis major.
Not to keep kicking the dead horse, but I wanted to include some information from a successful powerlifter before closing.
Louie Simmons and A.J. Roberts, Westside Barball. Photograph: wannabebig
Westside Barbell’s own A.J. Roberts is a remarkable example of what you can do when you work hard and train correctly. A.J. really emphasizes the importance of form on the bench in the following statements:
"There are two ways to set your feet. One is tucked up underneath you, which you see a lot of guys do. I used to do this, but what I found was that it was pretty unstable. If you get to rocking from side to side, it’s hard to keep your balance, so I have my feet out in front of me, basically creating a solid base with my feet. The whole part of the press starts with a foot drive, pushing the heels into the ground. Once you have that solid base, you shouldn’t be able to move anything. You should be rigid.
You have to create what I call a platform shelf that you bench off of. When you bench press, you need to squeeze your shoulders together and make sure your upper back is completely on the bench, otherwise you get a lot of shoulder rotation, so you can move your shoulders up and down. What that is going to do is make you lose force through the shoulder when you press the bar. If you have them pinched under you, giving you a solid base with no movement in your shoulders, there is no place for that force to go but through the bar.”
A.J. goes on to discuss more tips and techniques in further reading and video. I strongly encourage you to take time to read articles and watch videos from folks like A.J., who have added substantial weight and improved overall strength just by training a certain way.
There is a lot of information available to you and anyone in the world who wants to become a smart, stronger human being. You do not have to be a competitive powerlifter to use powerlifting techniques and methods. You do not have to be a marathon runner to have a good pair of running shoes. Invest in your fitness and always make sure you are doing everything as properly as possible.
Thank you for reading! Take care