The bench press is an exercise that is often used as the benchmark of strength, ‘What do you bench?’ is a phrase most have heard at one time or another. The bench press is also a lift that I’ve never been brilliant at, so I’ve had to learn a lot about how to optimise the bench press to get mine to a decent level.
Why Bench Press?
The bench press didn’t earn its position as the test of upper body strength by chance, it replaced overhead pressing (another very good exercise) as it was a very effective, and more measurable, upper body exercise.
The bench press is an exercise that focuses mainly on the triceps, pectorals and anterior deltoids but as the weight increase it truly becomes a full body test of might – cramps in the upper back and hamstrings muscles are common when benching heavy.
The main reason most men gravitate towards bench pressing is to develop the chest muscles, which it does. If your goal is appearance over strength, I encourage you to focus on the incline bench press and supplement with the regular bench press.
Keys To A Good Bench Press
Have Good Spotters Or A Good Rack
The bench press is arguably the most dangerous exercise to perform on your own because if you get pinned under a heavy weight, you have a serious problem. While it certainly isn’t common, people have been found dead from bench pressing irresponsibly. You don’t want to be the person calling for help from under a barbell, or worse yet found dead under one.
Another benefit of good spotters, in addition to making sure that you don’t die, is that a good spotter will help you lift more. Strength is a very psychological thing, if you don’t feel confident then a number of reflexes kick which often work against you but with a spotter you trust you’ll get a good hand off, your positioning will be better and you’ll be able to focus better on moving the weight.
Create A Really Strong Base To Bench Press From
I don’t know where I first heard the saying, ‘You can’t fire a canon from a canoe’ but it’s a great phrase that really applies to bench pressing. When you want to move a decent amount of weight you need a good base of support, this is a recurring theme in all strength exercises, it’s the same reason you don’t squat in running shoes. When you have a good base of support you will be able to move more weight with the same amount of force because the force is applied more efficiently.
When you set up to bench press you want to start with a wrestler’s bridge, generating as much tension in your back muscles and glutes, then lower your legs whilst maintaining the tension. Screw your feet into the ground and push into the floor to generate some tension in your hamstrings. By now you should be pretty uncomfortable but very solid. Pinch your shoulder blades together hard, bring your chest up and Imagine pulling your elbows together through your body, a lot of these cues make no literal sense whatsoever but help to create the tension needed for better performance. Now you’re ready to bench!
Those with a good understanding of physics will also realise that it’s not just you that needs to be stable, the bench needs to be good too. The bench will need some padding to be tolerable but ideally it shouldn’t ever feel shaky or less than secure. A good, non-adjustable, flat bench is often the best option for heavy bench pressing.
Line Up Your Joints For A Bigger Bench Press
If the bar is not aligned with the force driving it upwards then force will be lost, in the bench press there are a couple of points where this happens quite commonly, at the wrist joint and at the elbow joint.
Grip the bar low in your palm near the wrist and turn your hand inwards slightly, this lines up the bar perfectly with your forearm for the best force transfer possible.
Don’t over-tuck your elbows, many people have taken advice from the powerlifting world and begun tucking their elbows but this isn’t ideal if taken too far (as quite often happens) this powerlifting tip is aimed at equipped powerlifters not those performing the regular bench press, thus the confusion. The bar should start and end over your shoulder joint, it makes contact with your body somewhere between your mid-chest and upper abdomen which causes some correct tucking of the elbows but not a great deal. The elbows and wrists must stay in line for efficient force transfer.
How To Perform The Bench Press
Lie back on the bench, grip the bar just outside shoulder width and create a strong base in the way described above. Your eyes should be directly under the bar as you prepare to unrack the bar.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together, squeeze the bar hard and with the help of a spotter lift the bar over your body.
Take a deep breath and lower the bar to your chest and pause for around a second before driving the bar back up. Hold your breath and all of the muscular tension during the pause. Initiate the press by pressing your feet into the floor and your back into the bench, think of ‘pressing with your elbows. Once the bar is around halfway back up you can flare (or un-tuck) your elbows to bring the bar back over your shoulders as you finish the movement.
Bench pressing can put a lot of stress on the wrists, if you work in an office or with computers, theres a good chance that your wrists give you trouble from time to time anyway, so wrist wraps can be a great idea for reducing discomfort that can occur with heavier weights. You will have reduced most of the stress to the joint by lining up your joints properly but you’ll probably want to get yourself a pair if you intend to do any low-bar squatting too, they’re good to have around.
Assistance Exercises for the Bench Press
Unsurprisingly, most of the best bench press assistance exercises are presses. These movements train similar muscles and similar movement patterns but with a different emphasis to bring up weak points of the movement.
Incline Bench Press
This exercise is fantastic for building upper chest mass and strengthening the chest and delts. It can be used well with lower reps for strength or higher reps for mass.
Pause Bench Presses
For raw bench pressers, the weakest point is almost universally at the chest or a few centimetres above. By including a 2-3 second pause at the weakest point of your bench press you can develop the weakest part of the motion resulting in a stronger, smoother movement.
Varied Grip Bench Presses
Generally, the chest and delts are what get you through the first half of the press and the triceps finish the movement, using varied grips allows you to target different parts of the movement. Close grip bench press is great for the triceps and a wider grip is great for the chest. There is carryover from both however, using a variety of grips in your bench press training gives your body a changing stimulus and helps you work through plateaus.
The overhead press adds some balance to the shoulders while still strengthening many of the muscles involved in the bench press. If you bench press, you should overhead press too.
This exercise for strengthening the muscles of the shoulders and rotator cuff, should be a part of every serious bench presser’s programme. A few minutes spent on these after each session strengthens the rotator cuff and keeps the shoulders healthy.