Dumbbell Press Tips

There are a couple technique tips I coach on the DB press that don’t show up in your typical technique description:

  1. Keep your shoulder blades pinched tightly together, just like you would for your bench press. Don’t push your shoulders up off the bench when you lock your elbows out.
  2. Angle the dumbbells in slightly – don’t press them up straight like you would a bar; bringing your elbows in a bit to take some strain off your shoulders.
  3. Don’t bring the dumbbells together at the top, push them straight up, then bring them back down. This will keep more tension on your pecs and anterior delts throughout the set.
  4. Bring the dumbbells down with good control, then blast them off the chest with every bit of power you can muster. Visualize driving up hard from the back of your upper arms/triceps. This builds explosive strength and can build greater strength and muscle mass using a lower weight (if you don’t have good control of the dumbbells, and good speed off the chest, they’re likely too heavy).

Have fun ya’all!

Bench Press – The Big Man Arch

A lot of novices and uneducated social media lifters bemoan the bench press arch. There are times a flat back arch is appropriate, that is for a separate discussion. I submit that you should use some level of arch whenever you bench…unless it is one of those times. This discussion also is not about the ‘high arch’ you see in competition. That, again, is a separate discussion.

A strong arch creates a number of benefits to your overall bench press strength:

  • It reduces the range of motion (ROM) of the lift allowing you to move more weight, but that is not the primary purpose of this approach.
  • It creates tremendous full body tightness. With a good arch and leg drive, you should see very little body movement during the bench. As a coach, I watch for body movement as a sign of poor leg drive.

Note: Sudden leg drive, and heaving to create momentum is a technique for a separate discussion

  • Strong leg drive helps you keep your chest up throughout the lift’s ROM which:
    • Gives you a very stable and strong platform to push from
    • Expands the surface area your pecs stretch across, giving you a stronger initial contraction (note: my personal theory).


How do you create a good Big Man Arch (aka leg drive arch)? I like to start at the bar and work my way down:

  • Once you grip the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades tightly together and pull them downward, tucking them into your back pockets. Keep them firmly planted this way throughout the full ROM.
  • Pull your feet back up under your hips. Drive through the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulder blades.
    • Your actual foot position will vary based on your body mechanics and hip mobility. Start with a position on the edge of discomfort and adjust from there.
    • Loosen your core as you push your hips then retighten it once you’ve positioned them; this helps you get to a more stable, tight position.
  • Finally, take a deep breath of air, filling your lungs completely and hold it as you lower the bar to your chest. Don’t begin exhaling until the bar has upward momentum, then snake the air out through your teeth through lockout.

You can find a full discussion on the bench press in my bench press technique article

Two Second Rule

Although ‘it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels’, there are times (particularly with deadlifts), a lift just feels impossibly heavy. When you review the lift’s instant replay, however, you find that it was in fact possibly heavy. All you had to do to finish it was to NOT GIVE UP…and now you want to kick your own ass for quitting.

Enter the Two Second Rule. I established this rule to curb the tendency to give up on a lift before breaking through the sticking point, and reaching the point where you’re sure to lock it out.

It’s quite simple: Even if a lift is obviously impossible, grind it out for (at least) 2 seconds before quitting on it.

I know what you are thinking – “are you fucking insane?!”.

Well yes, but that is beside the point. The Two Second Rule has a number of benefits:

  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you’ve just turned a failed lift into an isometric hold, and gotten some benefit out of it
  • Even if you eventually fail the lift, you are teaching your mind and body to grind; this help you finish out the tough lifts in the future
  • You may actually finish the impossible lifts

In the long run, you’ll be teaching yourself to grind through the tough lifts, and build greater mental as well as physical strength

Four Count Bench Press

Every individual has a limited capacity for training volume they are capable of performing in a given week or microcycle. Your training checkbook has a balance of weight, sets, and reps you can perform and overdrawing it has…consequences. You want to select the primary and assistance lifts for your program that will make the most impact on your training goals, whatever those goals may be.

If you’re reading my posts, your training goals are likely to lift as much weight as possible. When you’re deciding what assistance lifts to add to your program, start by looking at where your lifts are the weakest, and plug in (effective) training to fill those gaps.

You may have guessed that for this article the target lift is the bench press. The target portion of the ROM is the bottom end, generating power off the chest. An assistance lift I’ve found that helps this portion of the ROM is the four count bench press. What are some indications that this may be a good assistance lift?

  • Your typical failure point is close to the chest, within 2-3” of the chest
  • Your presses are sluggish and slow off the chest
  • You have poor stability at the chest

The four count bench can help you with these issues by

  • Increasing the time under tension within this target ROM
  • Developing more explosive power off the chest, and control of the weight at this point

How do you perform this lift properly (my version of it anyway)?

  • There are four distinct phases to the lift:
    1. Lower the bar to the chest.
    2. Press the bar 1-3” off the chest and stop – it is important to stop before you hit the point where power begins transitioning from a pec movement off the chest, to a tricep movement at lockout. This generally occurs somewhere in the mid point of the press.
    3. Lower the bar back to the chest again. (and)
    4. Press the bar to lockout.

  • Each of the lowering phases should use a normal eccentric tempo
  • Although there is not (necessarily) a pause, each stop should be very sharp and distinct
  • Each upward press should be very very explosive, generating as much speed as you can muster
  • If you are a competitor, you should use your competition form for this lift. For lifters with high arches and wide grip, for example, I often use a narrower grip and lower arch for other assistance lifts, but for this lift I have them use their competition position.
  • My preferred rep range for this lift is 3-5 reps, using 80-85% of the weight you would typically use for that volume. (Note, this is not 80% of your 1RM).
  • I like to incorporate them either after the primary bench on the primary bench day, or as the primary bench on a secondary bench day.

I do want to point out that if your primary issue with the lower portion of the ROM is instability, you likely have some other work to do to address that problem than just strengthening the ROM, but this lift can be a part of that correction.

Credit to Katja Lariola for recommending this lift!

Bench Press Overloading – Rack Presses vs Board Presses

Bench Press LockoutsOverloading your bench press weight is an important step in building a bigger bench press. You are probably familiar with the two most common methods, Board Presses and Rack Presses (also called lockouts), but what are the differences between these two effective training approaches, and how do you program them into your training plan? Here are a few pointers to help you use them effectively.


Board Presses

Board presses are exactly as the name implies: lay a board or boards on your chest, lower the bar to the board(s) and press back up.

What are the advantages to board pressing?

  • The Partial Range of Motion (ROM) allows you to overload the weight lifted. The more boards you use (typically between 1 and 3 boards), the more weight you can lift.
  • Unlike Rack Presses, Board Presses mimic bench pressing lifting pattern. Board presses have an eccentric (descent) and concentric (ascent) component. This allows you to practice your proper bench press technique with board presses.
  • Because board presses have an eccentric component, board presses take advantage of the body’s stretch reflex to give you more starting power at the beginning of the press.
  • Regardless of the gym or bench you use, you will always have a specific starting point for board presses, based on how many boards you use.

How can you use board presses?

  • Use as a primary exercise: Because board presses use basic bench pressing patterns, you can use board presses as a primary benching lift. You can use them to train the bench press at heavier weights than you use for full ROM bench presses.
  • Train for heavier weight: Using more boards, train your bench press weights above your current one rep max (1RM). As your training progresses train that heavier weight with fewer boards until you can press it from your chest.
  • Equipped/bench shirt training: If you’re an equipped bencher boards are a particularly useful tool. When using a new or very tight shirt, using boards helps you break the shirt in. As you are working up to a weight heavy enough to touch the chest, use a decreasing number of boards as the weight increases, bringing the bar closer to your chest.

Rack Presses (also called Bench Press Lockouts)

Rack Presses are performed in a power cage. Set a bench inside the cage and set the safety pins to the desired height and press the bar directly off the pins.

  • Because you’re using a partial ROM, Rack Presses allow you to overload the weight pressed. Note that for low pin positions (at or below your natural sticking point) you may not be able to press as much weight as you could press in a full ROM bench press. This is because (at least on your first rep) you do not have the use of the stretch reflex to assist in starting the press. Second and subsequent reps are typically easier than the first because of assistance from the stretch reflex.
  • Because you start Rack Presses from the safety pins there is no eccentric phase (of the first rep). You must start the first rep from a dead stop with no assistance from the body’s stretch reflex. This makes the first rep much more difficult than a board press, or full ROM bench press, and will build greater strength at that point.
  • Because you’re training in the power cage, you need very little assistance to perform Rack Presses. You don’t need spotter assistance – if you fail you simply return the bar to the pins. You don’t need assistance to hold the boards in place as with board presses.

How can you use Rack Presses?

  • Supplemental Lift: Because Rack Presses technique is not the same as bench press technique, they are used more effectively as a supplemental lift than in place of a full ROM bench press.
  • Single rep sets/Dead Bench Presses: Performing all sets of Rack Presses with a single rep forces you to start each set and rep from a dead stop without the aid of a stretch reflex. This can help build starting strength at that point in your bench’s ROM.
  • Train your sticking point: Setting the pins at the weak point in your bench press (typically the mid-point, where your pec strength declines and your triceps strength takes over) allows you to build strength at that point. Use them to overcome this weakness and lockout heavier weights.
  • Overload the top-end lock out: Training the top two inches of your bench press with a weight far above your full ROM 1RM prepares your body and central nervous system to handle heavier weights. You will find that it gives you much greater control and strength when lifting your full ROM 1RM.

Other Partial ROM Presses

Properly programming these overloading techniques at the appropriate point in your program can help you bust through plateaus, and let’s be honest, piling on a whole bunch of plates for theses presses is just plain cool!

Big Bench Tip #3 – Leg Drive

This is more of a pet peeve than a tip, really. Watching poor form drives me crazy, particularly when a bencher completely ignores half their muscle mass when benching: legs hanging limply off the bench, feet dancing around as the reps get tough, feet up in the air during the press.

Ok, that last example actually has a useful function. However if you’re 5’9”, weigh 155lbs, and are pressing 135lbs with your feet in the air, you’re wasting your time. Learn to bench properly first, add some muscle, build some strength, and then start playing with isolation techniques.

Failing to involve your lower body in the lift is a common error. How exactly do you involve your lower body in the lift? Leg Drive!

What does leg drive do for you?

Driving through your feet creates muscle tension from your toes all the way up to your traps. It helps you maintain stability throughout the lift, and helps you maintain your back arch and keep your chest up. Put together, these lead to a bigger bench.

How do you incorporate leg drive into your bench?

  • Plant your feet flat on the floor. You may have to try different foot positions to find what works for you, but start with your feet underneath your hips.
  • Keep your shoulders firmly planted on the bench (you may need to chalk them so they don’t slide on the bench), drive though the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulders. This will push your torso up into a tight arch.
  • Continue pushing through your legs maintaining the drive throughout the full range of your bench press. Your entire lower body should be tight, from the balls of your feet through your thighs.
  • If your legs are too short to plant them firmly on the floor and drive hard, try placing a plate underneath them as you bench.

If you are maintaining proper leg drive and tension, the only noticeable motion in your bench is the bar moving up and down. Your feet, legs, hips, abdomen, and chest should remain stable and motionless.

Big Bench Tip #4 – Non-Bench Training

You all will love today’s tip. It results in larger ego muscles, a huge upper body, and most importantly, when these results cause people to ask ‘how much do you bench’, you actually can say ‘a lot’ (I don’t , however, recommend using that exact reply to customs agents…or other law enforcement agencies, they generally aren’t amused…so I’ve heard).

I call this the non-bench training to train your bench.

I generally don’t follow workouts you find in the literature. I don’t believe in one size fits all workouts, and feel a lot of them are posted to sell magazines or web site views. I also generally don’t believe in ‘workouts’. Notable exceptions are some of the proven strength training program templates you find out there and, of course, BWOW. That painfully long introduction is to say this isn’t going to be a workout plan. It is meant to tell you what to train to build a bigger bench.

Pectorals do not build a big bench. Your pectorals are simply one piece of the puzzle. A powerful bencher has learned how to turn their entire body into a bench pressing machine. Your pecs help you drive the bar off the chest, but they do not do it alone. If you do not have a powerful back, your press off the chest will be weak. Did I mention that if you do not have a powerful back, your press off the chest WILL be weak? A powerful back gives you stability at the chest. Working jointly with your biceps, it allows you to control the bar as you bring the bar to your chest. Pressing with a strong back is like pressing off a granite slab, it helps you thrust the bar explosively off your chest. A strong back is also responsible for a huge upper body, and the classic v-taper.

Strong pectorals do not help you with a strong lock out. Your pecs can help you press the bar, but as we discussed in Big Bench Tip #1, finishing the bench is about locking your elbows, not pressing the bar up. A strong lockout is created with powerful triceps. What is the sticking point in your bench? It’s the point where your pecs begin to weaken, and your triceps must begin to take over the lift. Your triceps play a major role in half of your bench press. They also play a major role in over half of your arm size…

How do you put this knowledge into action? A good training program balances upper body pushing with upper body pulling. You should have as many pulling sets in your weekly program as you do pressing sets. Given it is a smaller muscle group, your triceps don’t (necessarily) warrant as many weekly sets as pushing or pulling, but they do warrant more than the finishing isolation exercise on chest day (and they really should never be insulted with tricep kickbacks). Include at least 3-4 sets of a compound lift for the triceps, and then finish them off with the isolation exercises.

Including the right non-bench bench press training in your program will build an impressive bench press as well as an attention getting, balanced upper body build.

Big Bench Tip #1 – Tight Shoulder Blades

This tip is quite honestly the easiest way there is to add weight to your bench. It’s a relatively simple technique tweak, and doesn’t require any increase in strength (although a BWOW circuit will help considerably).

Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bench.

How can squeezing my shoulder blades together increase your bench press?

Whenever I’m helping someone new with the bench press, the first thing I watch is the shoulders. Most untrained benchers don’t pay attention to their shoulders as they bench.  They simply press the bar up haphazardly. Their shoulders remain loose throughout the lift and they often raise them off the bench with each rep. Even those who keep their shoulders on the bench for the easy reps begin lifting them as they tire to push the bar up.

Squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly keeps your shoulders on the bench and reduces the range of motion of the press. If a movement does not add to the power of your lift, or does not make you bigger or stronger it should be eliminated. The thing to realize is that the bench press is complete when your elbows lock, it does not matter how high you press the bar. Lifting your shoulders off the bench to raise the bar higher is wasted motion. It wastes energy and distracts you from completing the lift. Instead of pressing the bar up, concentrate on locking your elbows. This prevents you from lifting your shoulders and helps you engage your triceps decisively to finish the lift.


How do you maintain tight shoulders throughout your bench?

Plant your shoulders on the bench. Find your hand and foot position, and drive your CHEST UP. Once you have your lifting position on the bench, squeeze your shoulder blades together and continue squeezing them throughout the full lift. Imagine you are trying to pinch a quarter between your shoulder blades, squeeze it and don’t let it go until your set is complete. As you lock your bench out, concentrate on locking your elbows, don’t press the bar up.

Practice this technique from your first warm-up to your heaviest set. Done correctly, it can add weight to the bar in your next bench session.

Big Bench Tip #2 – Chest Up

A few years back I was reffing a powerlifting meet, and a kid benching got crushed by his second attempt. He was going to pass on his 3d attempt, I wouldn’t let him. I made him put in his attempt, and gave him these CHEST UP tips, and he killed it on his third.

Chest Up

Keep your chest up throughout your bench, from the moment you unrack, until you lock out each repetition. Keeping your chest up does a number of things for your bench:

  1. It reduces the range of motion you’re lifting. As a powerlifter, a shorter range of motion increases the amount of weight you can lift. That being said, for most lifters keeping your chest up limits your range of motion to a useful range of motion. In other words, you could move the bar farther, but the additional motion is not effectively building power or mass.
  2. It increases the stability of your bench. Driving your chest up and keeping it there throughout your repetitions significantly increases the stability of your upper body. When done right (and in conjunction with my other Big Bench Tips), your entire upper body will be tight, you will control the weight to your chest, the bar touches your chest without sinking in, and drives explosively off your chest.
  3. Keeping your chest up expands the area over which your pecs stretch as the bar comes down. This can increase the power of the stretch reflex*, helping you drive the bar more powerfully off your chest. As a muscle stretches out, it has a reflex in which it tries to contract. You can take advantage of this stretch reflex by driving the bar up powerfully in conjunction with your pectoral and triceps muscles attempting to contract involuntarily giving you more explosive drive off your chest. If you let your chest collapse, you lose some of this energy with your chest sinking as you attempt to drive the bar up.

Driving your chest up and expanding the area over which your pectoral muscles must stretch can increase the power of the contraction, increasing the drive off your chest (this is purely my own observation, but check it out).

What does keep your chest up mean?

I’ve covered a bit of why you want to keep your chest up. Now how exactly do you do it?

  1. Chalk your shoulders and plant them firmly on the bench. This will help keep your shoulders from sliding as you drive your chest up.
  2. Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Drive through the balls of your feet and push your hips towards your shoulders. This will result in an arch in your lower back. Maintain this pressure and arch throughout the lift.
  3. Take a huge breath of air before you start bringing the bar down and hold it – don’t breath in as the bar is coming down, this will prevent you from filling your lungs completely. Hold the air in your lungs until the bar passes your sticking point on the way back up, and exhale through lockout.

Keeping your chest up, a simple technique you can use to add pounds to your bench press even without increasing your upper body strength.

Proper Lift Setup – Tight is Right

The problem: Many strength trainers spend hours, maybe weeks, researching the perfect workout or trying out the latest lifting fad. More experienced lifters focus their effort honing in the technique for their squat, deadlift and bench press. Far too many, however, miss one of the most fundamental aspects to lifting big weights – perfecting the setup.

The solution: Neglecting your setup is a huge mistake. A proper setup leads to stronger lifts. The setup is the one point in the lift you have the time (and your wits) to enable you to do everything perfectly every single time. To set up correctly your entire body needs to be tight before the bar even comes out of the rack or off the floor.

How does a tight setup aid your lift?

  • Efficiency: An improper setup leaves you expending more energy than necessary before even starting to lift.
  • Stability: A tight set up allows you to control the weight easily, giving you greater stability with which to start your lift.
  • The Weight Feels Light: Setting up tightly gives you a mechanical advantage. The weight feels much lighter coming out of the rack, or off the floor. Although it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels, the lighter the weight feels, the more confidently you will attack your lifts.

Squat Setup: The idea for this article came up while watching one of my lifters setting up to squat. Before unracking the weight she dropped down slightly, and then slammed up into the bar. Extra movements like this do not help with the lift and by doing so she loosened up before lifting the bar.

Keeping your body tight allows you to transfer all of your power from your legs doing the work directly to the bar on your shoulders and eliminates energy leaks. Done right, the bar feels lighter and moves more easily, wastes less energy, and mentally prepares you for your lift.

  • Hand Position: Bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders on the bar increases the tightness of your upper back. Bring them in as closely as your flexibility allows, while still enabling you to drive your elbows forward under the bar as you lift the weight.
  • Bar Position: Bring the bar down from on top of your traps (high bar position) to the shelf between the base of your traps and your delts.
  • Tight Back: Once you have your grip on the bar, and have positioned the bar on your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together to contract your lats and tighten your upper back.
  • Big Air: Take a large breath of air into your lungs, and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure, providing stability to your spine.

What is Big Air?

When I get under the bar very very tightly it feels like my body is a loaded spring. Let it go and it drives the bar up easily out of the rack, even with a loaded down bar. For more tips on your squat setup, read ‘A Perfect Setup Leads to a Bigger Squat’.

Setting up your squat

Bench Press Setup: You’ve seen a lot of guys do it, hell I used to this before I knew what I was doing: before unracking the weight, he pulls his body up off the bench and as his shoulders come back down onto the bench he unracks the weight. This is probably the worst thing you can do to prepare for your bench press. Before unracking the weight you want to have your body in the perfect position and completely tight. There is no way to properly set up with a moving target!

  • Shoulder Position: Place your shoulders on the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades and holding it there throughout your full set.
  • Leg Drive: Place your feet under your knees with your toes pointed slightly outward. Push through the balls of your feet driving your hips towards your shoulders. This will push your lower back into a slight arch, and it will tighten your entire body from your toes through your traps. Maintain your leg drive throughout all reps in your set.

Note: If you have lower back issues, consult your doctor before benching with an ‘arch’.

  • Lock Your Elbows: Squeeze the bar tightly, and try to lock your elbows before unracking the bar. You want to be able to bring the bar straight out over your chest, instead of lifting the bar up then bringing it out. This works best when you have a bench with adjustable height. With the perfect rack height you can nearly lock your elbows before coming out of the rack. Your spotter should have to just bump the bar up slightly, then help you guide the weight straight out, at which point you’re already locked out and ready to begin your first repetition.

Deadlift Setup: Deadlift setups are the trickiest. I watch deadlifters squat down to the bar loosening their entire upper body, and then jerk up as hard as they can to pull their new PR. Let’s look at this approach – loose upper back, heavy weight, jerking the bar with all their strength. Let’s say you’re going to tow your friend’s car out of the ditch with your Chevy. Do you connect the chains between the vehicles leaving 30’ of slack, then floor it getting your truck up to speed before the chain tightens and jerks the bumper off your friend’s car? My first thought is usually ‘well they won’t be wasting space in my gym too long’.

A proper deadlift starts with a tight upper body and a smooth, strong, steady pull:

  • Big Air: Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine. This is best done before you drop your hips down into the starting position. Once you drop your hips you will be unable to pack your lungs full of air.
  • Tight Back: Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightening your back. As opposed to your bench press technique, where you try and pinch a quarter between them, try and tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. This will reduce the shortening effect on your arms while still allowing you to tighten your upper back (shorter arms equals a longer range of motion).
  • Pull the Slack out of the Bar: Pull upward on the bar before starting your deadlift eliminating any slack between you and the bar. You should have a smooth, strong pull when you start your deadlift, and not jerk the bar upwards.
  • Don’t Squat to the Bar: Rock back bringing your hips down and your head and chest up. Keep your back tight and upward tension on the bar as you rock back, dropping your hips to the starting position. Don’t squat down to the bar letting your knees drift forward over the bar and loosening your back and arms.

A tight setup on the deadlift allows you to transfer all of your pulling power directly from your legs to the bar. It allows you to turn your upper body into a solid lever, minimizing energy leaks as you begin your pull.

I probably frustrate many of my lifters. When squatting I’ll make them rerack and start over several times before they even take their first repetition, but the setup is that important. A proper setup can easily be the difference between a missed lift and a new personal record.