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Bench Press

One of the big three powerlifting movements, the bench press is arguably the primary upper body pushing movement. Done right it engages the majority of the musculature in the upper body.

Muscles Used

  • Primary Muscle Groups: Pecs, anterior delts, triceps
  • Stabilizers: Lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps

Classification

  • Primary
  • Compound

Technique

There are different approaches to benching depending on your primary lifting goals (strength, hypertrophy, etc.). Here we'll discuss the nuances of the lift to maximize power.

Equipment

  • Bench: There are a number of things to consider when looking for a bench to use. If you train at a commercial gym, you are at the mercy of what they have available, you may have to pick the lesser of the evils.
    • Rack Height
      • Best case is having a power rack of some type available that is adjustable to the optimum height for your arm length. You want to be able to unrack by simply locking your elbows out, without needing to lift your shoulders off the bench.
      • Most commercial gyms have racks with just two pins - one too high, the other far too low. If that is the case, it is good to have a spotter help you unrack so that you can reset your shoulders after unracking.
      • A third option is to use the power cage and a flat dumbbell bench. These give you the advantage of adjustable rack heights as well as safety bars in the event you have a catastrophic failure.
    • Bench Pad - Try to pick a bench with a pad that is in good condition and that is wide enough to support your shoulders. The pad should not be worn and slick, and should allow you to set shoulders so they do not slide when you apply a strong leg drive.
  • Barbell - If possible use a competition-style bar that is in good condition. It should have decent knurling to grip and most importantly, make sure the bar you use is not bent.  If a competition bar is not available the most important consideration is that the rings in the knurling are at the standard 81cm so that you can place your hands at the same (legal) width consistently.
  • T-Shirt - A very important aspect of bench, if you haven't picked up yet, is the ability to plant your shoulders on the bench. A relatively snug, cotton t-shirt grips a good bench and helps you keep your shoulders planted in place.
  • Shoes - To get good leg drive, you need shoes that let you plant them firmly on the floor and get good traction to drive.

Setup and Body Position

The goal of a good setup is to get into position for the lift before the bar leaves the rack. Before unracking the bar, you want your entire body tight, and as close to lockout as possible so unracking consists of locking the elbows and bringing the bar straight out over the shoulders with minimum adjustment.

I like to think of this in terms of starting at the bar and working your way down the body.

  • Hand position - For the purpose of this discussion, you will place your hands in a position that gives you a relatively balanced use of upper body musculature to press the bar off your chest. To do this, select a hand position that causes your forearms to be perpendicular to the floor when the bar is on your chest. Note this position relative to the bar's knurling and knurling rings so you can place your hands there consistently every time. From this starting point, you can adjust to play to your personal strengths.
    • A wider grip can increase the use of your pecs off the chest. It can also greatly reduce the range of motion (ROM) for the lift. If you are a competition lifter, a wide grip and a high arch can result in a very low ROM and some big competition numbers. Because of the limited ROM, this is not the best grip for building strength. For competition, keep in mind that you cannot place your hands outside the 81 cm marking rings in the knurling.
    • A narrower grip can increase the work out of your triceps and anterior deltoids. It can also reduce tension on your shoulders, and may be a good choice if you have shoulder issues. On the other hand, it can greatly increase the ROM of the lift, which could affect your bench max negatively.
    • Rest the bar in the lower part of the palm directly over your wrists. Once unracked you want the bar to be directly inline with your wrists and forearms.
    • Wrap your thumbs around the bar. This reduces the chances of dropping the bar on your chest and, more importantly, is required by most powerlifting federations.
    • Once you have your hands set, don't open open your grip as you finish setting up, as it may allow your hands to slip out of position.
  • Head position - Some powerlifting federations require the head to remain on the bench, some do not. If you are a powerlifter make sure you understand the rules of the federation you compete in. For most lifters, I recommend keeping your head planted on the bench. As a fan of simplicity, I prefer the minimum number of moving parts possible. If you find that you have difficulty keeping your head on the bench, make sure you're not watching the bar. Watching the bar isn't going to help the bench in any way, and you're not going to be able to see where it lands anyway, you need to be able to feel the touch point, and know the bar path to get it there.
  • Shoulder position - There are two distinct parts to setting your shoulders for the bench.
    • Squeeze your shoulder blades together like you're trying to hold a quarter between them. This shortens the ROM of the press. In this case it is good for building strength, not just your comp 1RM. Many novice lifters push their shoulders up off the bench versus just driving their elbows to lockout. This additional movement adds no value to the lift. Keeping your shoulder blades pinched together keeps your shoulders planted on the bench. If you drop the quarter, throw it in the jar. Additionally, keeping your shoulders planted firmly on the bench increases your upper body stability significantly, giving your a much stronger press.
    • Keeping your shoulder blades pinched tightly together, pull them downward. Tuck them into your back pockets. This helps you to keep your shoulder blades under the bar as you bring it to the chest, and it helps you keep your chest up. Keeping your chest up shortens the lift's ROM, and increases the lift's stability.
  • Foot position and Leg Drive - You started at the bar with your hand position, planted your shoulders, now we've moved down the body to the feet and leg drive. As you set your feet and drive, do not move, loosen or adjust your hands or shoulders. There are different approaches to applying leg drive to the bench press. The version discussed here is simple, and it creates incredible bench stability for a big drive off the chest - a couple of my favorite things.
    • Some federations allow you to come up onto your toes as you bench. For the purpose of this approach, you are going to plant your feet flat and solid. Start with your feet at about shoulder width with your toes pointed just slightly outward (you may need to adjust based on your leg length and bench height). Bring your feet back up under your hips, as far as you can pull them back and still keep them flat.
    • Wether you need to keep your feet flat, or come up onto your toes, push through the balls of your feet and push your hips towards your shoulders. As you push, loosen your core to let your chest come up. All of your leg drive should be in the direction of your head, don't push your hips up off the bench - your butt needs to be in contact with the bench throughout the entire set (if you find your butt coming off the bench, try adjusting your foot position until you are able to keep it planted). Keep a strong push with your legs throughout the entire set.
    • As your chest comes up, you'll find your back arches a bit. The purpose of this arch is to create stability. You should find full body tension, from your toes to your traps.
  • Breathing - Before you unrack the bar, and before each rep, breath in deeply, letting the air expand your chest. Hold this air in your chest as you unrack and as you bring the bar to your chest for each rep. This does a couple things:
    • The air in your chest, combined with your planted shoulder blades and leg drive create full body tension and stability. When these things are done right, your body should remain stable and motionless throughout the ROM of every rep.
    • Keeping your chest up with shoulder position and leg drive, and expanding your chest cavity with a large breath increases the surface area your pecs stretch across (purely my theory, I haven't seen studies on this). This gives you a stronger pec contraction at the chest driving the bar off the chest.

Lift Execution

Unracking

  • Set up as described above with your head, shoulders and butt planted on the bench, your feet planted flatly on the floor, and gripping the bar tightly. Maintain this position throughout the entire set.
  • Squeeze the bar as tightly as possible, and extend your elbows as closely to lockout as possible.
  • Take a deep breath into your chest as described above.
  • Lock your elbows out as you drive the bar up out of the rack. Keep your shoulders planted, and with your elbows locked bring the bar straight out over your shoulders. Once set up the bar should be directly over your wrists, arms and shoulders.
    • As described in the Equipment section above, you may not have a bench that is adjustable to the optimum rack height. If you need to, after unracking, pull your shoulder blades together and down to reset your shoulders and bring your chest back up.
  • Keep your entire body as tight as you can get it throughout the entire set.

Lifting

  • Take a deep breath into the chest as described above before starting to lower the bar.
    • Note: Breathing in while lowering the bar will not allow you to fill your chest cavity completely with air. However, when lifting lighter weights (greater than 5 reps per set), you can relax the strictness of your breathing, and breath in and out without stopping to reset.
  • Lower the bar with a quick but controlled tempo, and touch lightly on the chest.
    • Typically you'll find your optimum touch point to be between the nipple line and the base of the sternum. You may need to experiment to find the strongest position.
      • Bringing the bar higher on the chest with the elbows flared out creates a lot of additional strain on your shoulders.
      • Lifters with an ultra-high arch for competition will want to touch at the highest point they can reach in the arch to minimize the lift's ROM.
    • As you bring the bar down, try to visualize and feel your pecs stretching across the rib cage like rubber bands ready to snap, driving the bar up explosively.
    • Touch the chest consistently in the same place every single rep, including warmups. Bar should come to a complete, controlled stop quickly with a light touch.
      • Bar should touch the chest lightly and not sink in.
      • Excessive movement at the chest will delay the 'press' command in competition. Exerting greater control over the bar will get you the command more quickly and give you a more powerful press. If you have difficulty controlling the bar at the chest, you may need to improve your upper back and bicep strength.
      • Note: For sets above 5 reps, stopping on the chest is unnecessary, but the touch and goes should still have just a light touch on the chest, not bounce, or sink in and heave.
  • Drive the bar explosively off the chest and extend your elbows to lockout.
    • Bringing the bar down, you've loaded your pec muscles like a spring, or rubber band. After stopping on the chest, explode upwards releasing all that stored energy.
    • Contract your lats hard as you drive up to aid in thrusting the bar off the chest.
    • Use the momentum created off the chest to carry the bar past the sticking point where emphasis shifts from pecs to triceps.
    • Instead of 'pushing the bar up', focus all your energy on locking your elbows - when the elbows lock the rep is over. Pushing up can result in loosening your shoulder blades and pressing your shoulders up off the bench.
      • You can also visualize pushing yourself away from the bar, versus pushing the bar up.
  • Once the bar is moving with momentum, begin snaking your air out through your teeth.
    • Don't release all the air at once, or start exhaling with the bar at your chest, this will reduce your stability and the power of the drive off your chest.
    • Continue exhaling until lockout, then take a new breath for your next rep.
  • Bar Path
    • Start with the bar directly over your shoulders and bring it down in a straight line to the point described above on the chest. Make sure you hit the same spot on the chest every rep.
    • As you press off the chest, drive the bar toward your head, and drive it up to finish directly over your shoulders again.
  • Note: sinking the bar into the chest, stopping, then using an explosive leg drive to thrust the bar off the chest is a valid benching strategy, but is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Common Mistakes

  • Exhaling suddenly or too early: Exhaling before you have upward momentum on the bar, or exhaling all at once versus slowly as you press reduces your chest stability, and the power of your upward drive.
  • Dropping your chest as you bring the bar down, or as you lockout: Allowing your chest to drop also reduces your upper body stability and the power of the bar's rebound. It absorbes the power of your upward drive, reducing your power.
  • Bouncing off the chest: Bring the bar to the chest with a quick but controlled descent, and a light touch on the chest. Bouncing off the chest results in poor control of the bar at the chest and will limit your long term progress.
  • Lifting the hips off the bench: Driving your hips off the bench to aid in the bench results in poor control of the bar; it also reduces the ROM of the lift and uses body momentum to start the upward motion, limiting the training effect.

Safety

  • Use a spotter when lifting heavy. Consider using 3 spotters when lifting very heavy (or when using a bench shirt). You can get into trouble very quickly on the bench. And...you're under the bar.
    • If they're available, consider using safety bars, or benching in a power cage when possible.
  • Avoid bringing the bar down high on the chest with elbows flared out widely. Bringing the bar down to the lower portion of your chest with your elbows naturally tucked can reduce strain on your shoulders.

 Variations

  • Grip Width: Varying the width of your grip can change the training effect and the muscle groups emphasized, as noted above.
  • Back Arch Height: Benching with a 'high arch' for competition coupled with a wide grip can dramatically reduce the ROM for some lifters and significantly increase their competition bench.
  • Leg Drive: If you have difficulty maintaining leg drive by pushing your hips towards your shoulders as described above, try bringing your feet further back under your hips until you're up on your toes, then drive your heels down through the floor.
  • Heaving: As you bring the bar down, let it sink into your chest slightly. After coming to a complete stop, give a strong leg drive, pushing your chest up to create initial upward momentum of the bar.
    • Note that to be legal in competition, and maintain control of the bar, you must stop before heaving upward. This is not a bounce.
    • You need to be able to keep your butt on the bench as you drive your chest up; push your hips toward your shoulders to bring your chest up without lifting your hips.

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