Mondays are international bench press day. Did you know that?
No, it’s not official (yet), but it’s the tongue in cheek holiday that seems to fit just perfectly. Outside the world of strength junkies, most people typically associate the resistance training crowd with the bench press. It’s the poster child for weigh training and bro-science. And so it’s a bit ironic that most people don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to this exercise. It could be that a lot of guys think they should know all about it. That as men it should be ingrained in their DNA. No so.
And that’s why I have taken it upon myself to outline a few key points that I’ve learned throughout my lifting career. Whether you consider yourself a novice, intermediate or advanced lifter, I’m sure you’ll learn something new.
Why the bench press?
You have to press somehow. It can be a push up or throwing a medicine ball against the wall, but at the end of the day, you need to be pressing. Just like you need to be pulling, carrying, squatting and deadlifting your way to a healthy body. These are fundamental movement patterns and one implies the other.
So, you have a couple choices. Depending on your sport, your activity, your age, and so on, you have a myriad of tools from which to choose. A nationally accredited trainer who knows your movement quality can help you with this. And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you better have good shoulders to be able to press with considerable weight. So be safe.
That being said, for most people who want to build muscle and enhance their strength a barbell is really the only way to do it.
A barbell is the best way to load more weight on your muscles. This is why we barbell bench press.
If your first inclination when you walk into the gym is to make a beeline for your favorite machine hidden among the mythical forest of Nautilus – and thereby avoiding the free weight area altogether – then you’re a novice. And that’s not a bad thing. We all started somewhere. Even the biggest guy in a bro-tank was a novice at some point.
So, assuming you’ve mustered up the courage to walk up to the bench press station and give it a try, here are (4) self checks to ensure that you’ll lift in a safe and effective manner.
Run through this checklist when you set up for the lift.
1. Plant the feet
Did you know that the bench press is a full body exercise? It is. Don’t splay out your feet like you’re lounging on the beach, put them to work! Bend at the knee and keep your feet flat on the floor. When you press the barbell on up, think about pressing those feet into the ground. The idea here is to create tension. If you have a solid column of muscle from which to press off of, you’ll have much greater leverage to press the plates up. After all, that’s all resistance training is – leverage.
2. Overhand/pronated grip
3. Shoulder width grip
4. Eyes on the bar
This is an easy way of figuring out how far back on the bench to scooch. When your eyes are directly under the bar, you are in a good place to safely un-rack the bar and bust out some reps. Does this work for everyone? Probably not, it depends on your own geometry. But it’s a good place to start.
Just think POSE to help you remember the set up.
So there you have it. That’s how you set up the lift. Now, about the movement itself…
Grip the bar – yes, only the bar for now – lift it off the rack and slowly lower down to approximately the nipple line. Press back up on the exhale and press those feet down.
As a novice this is all you need to know to progress to the next level.
However, a couple things to consider. Firstly, if you have long arms you are at a bit of a biomechanical disadvantage simply because you’ll have a longer ROM to pass through than a guy or girl with shorter limbs. Consequently, be sure you have good movement in your shoulder joint because when the bar is all the way down to your chest, you’re putting a lot of stress on that joint.
Secondly, just like any exercise – warm up first! Even I still warm up with just the bar for (5) reps to get the motion down.
Now my intention here is to show you that the bench press is not bro-science, rather, it’s a very useful exercise for just about everyone that can perform it.
If you’re intermediate, then the bench press is nothing new to you. In fact, it’s probably your bread and butter. Your go-to lift on Mondays. Maybe Wednesday’s too. And at this point, you probably have it on lockdown. You practice the set up described above and it now feels as natural as buckling your seat belt in the car.
But, just when you thought you hand a handle on things…
The bench press is a technical lift. That’s why it’s one of the big (3) lifts in powerlifting. There are geared lifters and raw lifters. There are tons and tons of training programs. There are enough periodization programs out there to make your head spin. And we haven’t even talked about the toys – bands, chains, boards, etc.
It was at this point in my lifting career that I first encountered guys lifting with the ‘false grip.’ Sometimes it has different names, but the gist of it is that you’re not wrapping your thumb around the bar. Proponents of this technique have claimed that you can have a greater pressing power. Whatever. All that really happens is you have a greater chance of dropping the bar on your precious melon and having a very bad day (week, month, year??).
That leads me into my checkpoint list for the intermediate lifter:
1. Pull the bar apart
Don’t just move the bar up and down, instead, imagine you’re pulling that hunk of iron apart into two pieces. Channel your inner Incredible Hulk. We do this because now we can incorporate our lats so that they can help to stabilize the lift. It’s worth mentioning that the bar isn’t actually moving in any direction besides up and down, but by imagining you’re pulling the bar apart, you’re leveraging a very useful mental cue to help turn on your big strong back muscles and stay tight.
2. Grip the floor
You always plant your feet on the floor, right? Now you are going to the next level and will grip the floor. You do this by arching your foot inside your shoe. This is where I’m tempted to diverge on a full-fledged discussion on fascia and meridian lines. Long story short, your body’s fascia is instrumental in moving your muscles. And by arching your foot you are activating the same fascial pathway that runs all the way up to your forehead. In this manner you are tightening your body even more.
Leverage is king.
3. Go heavy
Trust me, you won’t build strength unless you consistently – and smartly – go heavy with a progressive periodization program. It won’t happen. You’ll just be treading water after your initial gains as a novice.
(Sorry, no nifty acronym – you’ll just have to remember these (3) 🙂 )
Shoulders up or down?
So this seems to be an area of controversy among advanced lifters.
For years, many of us millennials were told to keep ‘our shoulders back and down’ for everything! Lat pulldowns and the bench press come to mind. The idea being to pull your scapula down and ‘stack’ your shoulder as a way of keeping it safe during a lift.
But for the bench press, respected coach Christian Thibaudeau makes an argument for slightly ‘shrugging’ the shoulders upwards in order to get more pressing strength. I’ve experimented with this technique myself and I do think there is something to it. However, usually I’ll find that I resort back to keeping my shoulders down – more out of habit than anything.
Regardless, this is indeed an area of contention among strength coaches with everyone seeming to have the ‘right’ answer. Therefore, I consider this technique advanced because you need to know your way around a bar before you start getting into the subtleties of bench pressing – whether you come from a powerlifting or bodybuilding background.
(What’s your take? Is this not the first time you’ve heard of this technique?)
To reiterate, I see Motus as a forum for lifters of all backgrounds – do you have any experience in this area? If so, send me an email or comment because I want to hear what you think.
1. Use a fat bar (sometimes)
Training with a fat bar is great. It changes the geometry just enough that your grip will be challenged in a big way. Then when you go back to the standard bar, it’ll feel like a breeze! The hard part will be finding a gym with a fat bar.
Oh yes, chains.
They look super cool and you feel like a monster when you throw a few links over the barbell. Why? Because the plates aren’t enough for an iron-crushing-Smith-machine-bashing lifter like yourself, right?!
But in all seriousness, chains add an interesting element to your lifting regime. The intent is to pile a portion of the chain on the ground when the bar is at your chest. This way, there is less effective weight on the bar. Then as you press up, instead of remaining unchanged, the load will increase because you’re lifting the chain off of the ground. This is important when you’re working your sticking points.
You’ll need a power rack before you’ll need bands because that’s where the bands need to attach to. But the idea is not unlike the premise behind chains (definitely not as cool though – yes, I like chains 🙂 ) where the load increases as you press up. But they are easier to carry around the gym!
Is the above list exhaustive? By no means. There are plenty of ways an intermediate and advanced lifter may enhance his/her workouts, but this should at least get you started.
Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below.
By Ryan Wagner
T Nation: 20-minute Muscle BuilderNo nonsense tips for the bench press by Ryan Wagner