For me, personally, the bench press has always been the lift that has given me the most trouble. I can do a lot of things and get my squat or deadlift to increase, but I feel as though I have to scratch and claw for every little PR when it comes to my bench.
Fortunately for you, my pain is your gain.
Below is an incredibly thorough bench press journey. You’ll learn the benefits of benching, how to do it correctly, numerous bench press variations, and what to do if your bench press has stalled.
Quite simply, this is one stop shopping, bench press style!
But before we get into the meat and potatoes, let me make one thing very clear here:
The point of this article is to teach you how to move maximal weights, should you desire to do that. If your goal isn’t to move max weights, you can absolutely still benefit, but certain aspects of the set-up and techniques that I describe may not be optimal for you.
Finally, a disclaimer of sorts: If you have high blood pressure, be careful about holding your breath and using a Valsalva maneuver. If you have neck issues, be careful about an extreme arch and setting up high on your upper back/neck.
In other words, use a little common sense when lifting weights and you’ll be fine!
And with that being said, let’s get into the article!
Benefits of the Bench Press
Build a Big Chest
One of the most obvious reasons to bench press is to develop the pectorals major, or chest muscles. In all honesty, I’m pretty sure that’s why most of us guys started out bench-pressing in the first place – to develop big chest muscles!
The Metabolic Training Effect
Like any compound movement, the bench press can be used as part of a metabolic circuit to improve body composition. After all, you can get a lot more metabolism boosting benefits from a heavy set of bench presses than you can from a set of tricep pressdowns or dumbbell flies!
Improve Athletic Performance
Finally, the bench press can help us to some degree with improving our athletic performance. While I feel this can often be overstated and overemphasized (especially with regards to the actual carryover of a bigger bench to sports performance), it’s also hard to argue that if your bench goes up, you won’t have a stronger foundation for improved athletic performance.
While we can debate the efficacy of bench-pressing on athletic performance until we’re blue in the face, the bottom line is that a strong upper body is valuable in any number of sports, and bench pressing is one tool you have in your arsenal to develop upper body strength.
How to Bench Press – The Set-Up
A strong bench press begins and ends with a strong set-up. If you’re loosey goosey or simply not stable, there’s no way you’re going to maximize your performance. Start by laying on the bench and simply grabbing the bar with a shoulder-width, underhand grip.
Use Your Feet to Drive You Back
Begin by firmly planting your feet on the floor. There are several options you can try with regards to foot placement:
Tucked back underneath you.
Set-up High on Your Upper Back
Once your feet are placed, they are there to drive your upper body/back into the bench. If your goal is move maximal weights, you want to set-up high on your upper back, almost towards your neck. It may help to “pull” yourself up a bit with your arms to help get you in a more ideal alignment.
As a general rule, the higher you can set-up on your upper back, the stronger and more stable you’ll become. This will also help reduce the range of motion.
Set Your Hands
Next, flip your hands over and place them at the appropriate width. There are three common hand positions you can use:
Narrow/Close Grip– Approximately shoulder width apart.
Bar in Tight to Thumb
Once you’ve set your hand position, try and place the bar as close to your thumb as possible. This will help keep the wrist aligned in a neutral position, which will not only improve your performance but decrease the likelihood of injury as well.
“Screw” Your Shoulder Blades Back and Down
With the bar in tight to your thumb, it’s time to really dial in your upper back position. Start by pinching your shoulder blades back and down. The more stable you are through your upper back, the more strength you’ll be able to display and the less likely you are to strain a pec while benching.
Some people struggle with this concept, so here’s a quick primer.
For pulling your shoulder blades back, think about how you would finish with your shoulder blades pinched back on any sort of rowing exercise. For pulling your shoulder blades down, think about trying to “tuck” your shoulder blades into your back pocket.
Another cue that might work well is to “screw” your shoulder blades back and down. I actually stole this from Charlie Weingroff, as it’s an absolutely awesome cue.
- Extend your right arm out in front of you as if you’re going to bench. From this position, slowly turn your hand clockwise and feel what’s going on at your scapula.
- If you’re cued into your body, you should’ve felt your scapulae “screw” back and down towards your spine.
- Try this on both sides now – so with the right hand you’re turning clockwise, and on the left hand you’re turning counterclockwise.
Once you’ve assumed the correct upper back position, the key then is to hold it throughout the course of your set.
Hips Tight, Knees Pushed Out
Many people assume that the bench press is solely an upper body exercise. And if your only goal is to develop your pecs, this might be the case.
However, if your goal is to move heavy weights, you’ll quickly realize the bench pressing is a total body exercise!
Starting with the hips, think about squeezing your gluteals, as if you’re trying to pinch a walnut. Not only will this get your hips and lower body tight, but it will also reduce the amount of extension you get through your lower back, which should keep you healthier in the process.
Beyond just squeezing your cheeks, it may also help to think about pushing your knees out. Again, this will help you get more stable.
Heels Down, Quad Tights
With your hips tight, it’s time to get your legs tight as well.
The easiest cue is to think about driving your heels down into the floor, as this will automatically your quads tight. Obviously this is impacted by where you place your feet – if they’re tucked back beneath you, this is really easy to do.
Another cue I like to use is to simply flex your quads and get them tight. If you’re coaching someone, simply slap them a couple of times on each quad and tell them to tighten up – they’ll get the picture!
A little later we’ll talk about how your choice of footwear can actually affect your bench press performance as well.
Big Breath and Tight!
You’re tight and ready to rock, take a big, deep breath into your belly and hold it. No yoga breathing here people – take a deep breath and hold it!
If you’re only performing a rep or two, try not to let your breath out. If you’re doing higher rep sets, take a big breath in-between each rep to reset.
“Pull” the Bar Out Using a Lift-Off
You’ve spent all this time getting tight and dialing in your set-up, so please don’t lose it now!
There are two important points here:
- Get a lift-off.Please note I didn’t say a spot – a spot implies you’re going to miss reps or have your buddy repeatedly haul the bar off your chest.You need a lift-off so you can maintain your stability while getting the bar into the proper position.
- “Pull” the bar out using your lats.If you’ve ever performed a pullover of any type, you know what I’m talking about here.The goal is to “pull” the bar out, so you barely clear the racks. This will help you maintain your upper back stability and positioning, while getting you into the appropriate position to bench. DO NOT press the bar up and out to clear the racks; you’ll lose your upper back tension, and therefore, your stability.
Let the Bar Come Out
As you’re getting your lift-off, don’t stop the guy from doing his job!
Too often, we stop with the bar over our face. Allow the lift-off to come out to the same position where we’d like to finish the lift. Ideally, this is just below nipple line, or about 2/3rds of the way down our chest.
Let the Bar Settle
Finally, before we start the lift, think about letting the bar settle a bit. Don’t just go right into the rep!
Instead, let the weight and plates settle before starting the rep.
How to Bench Press – Performance
Tear the Bar Apart
While this could go in the section above, we’ll put it here for ease of understanding.
Right before you initiate a rep, think about “tearing” the bar apart. This little trick should help you understand this concept:
Place your arms straight out in front of you. Now, think about moving your hands away from each other in the same plane of motion. This is what I mean by “tearing” the bar apart.
I know Dave Tate has also discussed putting a band around the wrists while benching to help facilitate this motion as well. I haven’t used this personally, but the premise is definitely the same.
“Pull” the Bar Down to Your Chest
Start the rep by using your lats to “pull” the bar down to your chest. This will help you control the bar, not only with regards to the speed of the motion but your line as well.
Many novice bench pressers will simply let the weight come crashing down on their chest, and then hope they can time the bounce correctly to get it back up.
Instead, think about keeping the tension throughout.
Tuck the Elbows
As you’re pulling the bar down, think about tucking your elbows into your sides. This will not only help you in pulling the bar down, but it will keep your more stable and reduce the stress on your shoulders as well.
I know I’ll catch flack for this from the bodybuilders, but consistently benching with an elbows-flared position is a sure-fire way to strain a pec or blow out a shoulder.
Instead, tuck the elbows and if you really want to blast the pecs, use some dumbbell variations or throw in some flies at the end of your workout.
Touch Just Below the Nipple Line
The bar should touch just below the nipple line. This is a sweet spot where we can not only maximize the amount of weight used, but also minimize any potential risk of injury.
Hitting too high on the chest puts you in an elbows-flared position, which as we just noted, will wreak havoc on your shoulders.
Benching too low (i.e. belly benching) can put unnecessary torque on your shoulders as well, and really doesn’t serve much benefit unless you’re benching in a certain type of bench shirt in certain types of gear (more on this below).
Keep the Tension!
At some point along the way, you’ll want to lose the tension you developed in your set-up.
Don’t let it happen!
Think about staying tight throughout – heels down, quads and glutes flexed, shoulder blades tucked back and down, etc.
Keep the Elbows Tucked and Underneath You
As you’re driving the bar up to the locked out position, many will have a tendency to become “unglued” and let their elbows flare out immediately.
Instead, think about keeping the elbows tucked and underneath you when driving the bar back up. It will be difficult at first but this is where having a great hand-off guy and coach can be invaluable.
Do You Press Straight Up or Towards the Face?
One of the age-old questions when bench pressing is this:
Should I try and press the bar straight up and down? Or should I press the bar back towards my face?
And there’s a reason it’s age-old – because I don’t feel there’s one hard and fast answer!
Numerous things play into the answer:
- Are you wearing a bench shirt or pressing raw?
- What are your limb lengths like? Do you have short or long arms?
- Where are you strong? Are you stronger in your pecs or your triceps?
At the end of the day, I think you need to experiment and figure out what works best for you. I’ve seen and worked with some of the strongest bench pressers in the world, and each of them has a slightly different viewpoint.
If they can all have success using different approaches, so can you.
Bench Press Variations
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the bench press, let’s talk about some of the various options we have at our disposal.
A brief overview of the anatomy will help give you some insight as to which options may be better for you, especially if your goal is aesthetic or physique development.
The pec major has two distinct heads: the clavicular (or upper) head, and the sternal (or lower) head. The pecs as a whole produce several movements:
- Horizontal adduction of the shoulder (think dumbbell fly).
- Internal rotation of the shoulder (think turning the thumbs down).
- Shoulder flexion (clavicular head) and shoulder extension (sternal head).
With a basic understanding of the anatomy, let’s see how this determines which option is best for us.
Barbell Incline Bench Press
The clavicular portion of the pecs is responsible for shoulder flexion, or lifting the arm in front of the body. If you want to target your upper pecs, you need to put the shoulder in a position of flexion, which is why incline variations are solid options.
The biggest difference between a flat bench and an incline is where the bar will touch your chest. In the case of an incline bench press, the bar should touch higher on your chest, about halfway in between your nipple-line and your collarbone. The exact point would be determined by the amount of incline you have – the more inclined the bench is, the higher you would touch on your chest.
Barbell Decline Bench Press
The sternal head of the pecs are responsible for shoulder extension, or pulling the arm down from an overhead position. If you want to target your lower pecs, you need to put the shoulder in a position of more extension, which is why flat or even decline variations are good choices.
Again, the biggest difference between a flat bench and a decline is where the bar will touch your chest. In the case of a decline bench press, the bar should touch lower on your chest, almost at the bottom of your pecs. The exact point would be determined by the amount of decline you have – the more declined the bench is, the lower you would touch.
Another obvious distinction between the flat bench press and a decline bench is that your feet are no longer in connection with the ground. While you’re in a very advantageous position to press, the increased instability can be awkward as well. Make sure that your legs are tucked in tightly to maximize your stability and performance.
Close-Grip Bench Press
While playing with the incline or decline of the bench can affect recruitment of the pec muscles, playing with our hand position can influence how much focus we place on our pecs versus our triceps.
By moving our hands in, we not only take stress off the pecs as a whole, but we also increase the range of motion of the lift. This places more stress on the triceps relative to the pecs, and makes for a great change of pace.
Dumbbell Bench Press
All the variations we’ve talked to up to this point involve using a barbell. Unfortunately, a barbell isn’t always the best option – whether it’s due to lack of a lift-off, crappy bars, or beat-up shoulders, dumbbell variations can be a great option.
The dumbbell bench is performed almost identically to the barbell bench. However, instead of keeping the shoulders internally rotated (if you extend your thumbs they would be pointing towards you), a subtle external rotation of the shoulder (turning the thumbs up) can reduce shoulder stress and make the movement feel more natural.
For those with shoulder issues, a neutral grip (where the palms would actually be facing each other) is another viable option.
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
With this variation you get the benefits of dumbbell work (i.e. less shoulder stress, more pec development) coupled with the benefits of incline pressing (i.e. more clavicular head/upper pec development).
Dumbbell Decline Bench Press
With this variation you get the benefits of dumbbell work (i.e. less shoulder stress, more pec development) coupled with the benefits of decline pressing (i.e. more sternal head/lower pec development).
Common Bench Press Flaws and Coaching Cues
Now that we’ve covered all the basic variations of the bench press, let’s examine why you might be missing lifts and how to fix up your technique going forward!
No Leg/Hip Drive in the Set-up
This is incredibly common, especially in newer lifters who think all you do is lay down on your back and start pressing!
Go back and re-read the section on leg and hip positioning during the set-up first. It may help to simply be reminded to “get tight” through your legs and hips – think about driving your heels down, squeezing your cheeks, pushing your knees apart, etc.
Finally, one issue that some people have is getting and keeping their quads tight. Here’s a quick tip I picked up while going through the Russian Kettlebell Certification a few years back – once they’re set-up, slap their quads. Nothing too ridiculous, put this subtle cue will remind them to stiffen up and stay tight.
No Upper Back Tension in the Set-up
Again, this is most often seen in those who don’t yet understand that benching is a total body lift. Here are some of the cues I use when trying to get someone’s upper back tight when benching.
If they don’t understand what it’s like to pull their shoulder blades back and down, I will lay them down on the bench and then use my hands to physically put their shoulder blades where I want them. Often, this alone will make a huge difference and you can almost see the light bulb go off in their head with regards to upper back positioning!
When receiving the lift-off, don’t forget the goal isn’t to “push” up to clear the racks, then pull the bar out. Think about pulling the bar out with your lats the whole time – in most cases, you’ll actually drag the bar on the J-hooks if you’re nice and tight.
Finally, if your only goal is to handle max weights, be sure to set-up high on your upper traps. This will increase the arch in your upper back, and effectively shorten the range of motion of the lift.
Poor Initial Bar Position
When taking the lift-off, we often have a tendency to “stop” the bar too early – whether it’s over our face or simply not far enough over our chest, let the lift-off guy do their job! They have a better visual on where the bar needs to start/finish, and it’s often further out than we’re comfortable with.
Bottom line? Let the lift-off guy put you in the right position.
Lack of Control on the Eccentric or Lowering Phase
When the weights get heavy or you get to the end of a set, things can start to get squirrely. One of the biggest issues you’ll see is that the eccentric (or lowering phase) starts to get really fast and sloppy, which causes you to lose control of the lift.
Remember, don’t just think about lowering the bar – think about using your lats and upper back muscles to pull the bar down to your chest.
Second, while I wouldn’t do this on max effort lifts, you can cue yourself to physically slow down the eccentric, using either a 2 or 3 second cadence to lower the bar. It’s counter-intuitive to slow it down, but often, slowing down will consistently put you in a better position to drive the weight back up to the top.
Not Tucking the Elbows
Both this and the next point are similar, but different in a way as well. Most people who don’t tuck initially are beginners and simply don’t know that they should tuck their elbows.
If this is the case, some of the basic tools above will work great. Start first and foremost by simply cuing them to tuck; this alone may fix the issue. Along those same lines, cue them to pull the bar down to their chest, which should make this movement a bit more natural.
Finally, this could be due to an upper back weakness, where they don’t have the stability necessary to pull the bar down and keep their elbows tucked. If that’s the case, you’re going to need a heavy dose of upper back work (both horizontal and vertical pulls) to get your stability and upper back strength up to snuff.
Elbows Flare Immediately Off Chest
While not tucking the elbows initially is probably more of a coaching and technical issue, this is probably more of a strength-related issue. More specifically, you’ll probably notice specific weaknesses in certain muscle groups compared to others.
Again, a weak upper back is something that needs to be examined and addressed when necessary. I honestly don’t feel like most lifters can do enough horizontal and vertical pulling. Make both of these a priority and staple in your training programs.
Another very common issue is when someone’s pec muscles are too strong relative to their triceps. They keep the elbows tucked on the way down, but as soon as it’s time to press up, they flare the elbows in an effort to get more pec recruitment. If this is the case, you’re going to need to build some super-strong triceps, which we’ll discuss in detail below.
Finally, here’s a cue that has worked really well for me – cue yourself to keep your elbows underneath the bar. When your elbows corkscrew around on the way up you lose your stability and strength. When my training partner Stevie cued me to keep my elbows underneath the bar, it immediately gave me the ability to maintain my groove and control over the lift.
Inconsistent Bar Path from Rep-to-Rep
Often when coaching people who have never bench pressed before, you’ll notice that their bar path can vary wildly between reps.
Part of this is simply cuing them on where they need to touch the bar. This can be as simple as cuing them on the appropriate position, and then reinforcing that when they get the groove right. If they’re too high or too low, just let them know.
Another incredibly simple tip is to physically put your pointer and middle fingers on their chest where you want them to touch. It probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but move your fingers before they touch their chest, and if you’re a guy, I wouldn’t recommend this approach with your female athletes!
Finally, consider increasing the time under tension. Make them slow each and every rep down so they actually have to feel it, versus simply blasting through and trying to finish or use ridiculously heavy weights. Slowing down the eccentric is often enough, but there are times if somebody is all over the place that I’ll have them slow down and control both the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.
Gear and Accessories
Wrist wraps are one of the easiest tools to implement when benching. Simply wrap them up and “Voila!” – your wrist is stronger and more stable.
Wraps are not only good for stabilizing the wrist, but for keeping it out of hyperextension as well.
While I personally don’t wear a belt when benching, there are some who feel stronger and more stable when using one.
Instead, what you’ll often find are people who wear a belt when wearing a bench shirt. The belt is tightened up once the bench shirt is set, which keeps the shirt in place versus allowing it to ride up.
Along those same lines, you’ll often see lifters who use a big arch to bench that opt for a thinner belt in lieu of the thicker powerlifting belts. The bigger belts will often get in the way and reduce the arch, so a thinner belt can give you the benefit of keeping the shirt in place while not affecting your ability to arch.
The type of shoe you wear can affect your bench press performance as well by influencing your set-up.
Typically, you’ll see one of two options – either a standard, flat-soled shoe, or something with a raised heel like an Olympic lifting shoe.
For those that aren’t too focused on leg drive or really tucking their feet back, a flat sole is fine. However, if your goal is to really get your feet back and underneath you (and especially if you need to keep your heels on the ground), you may benefit from lifting with an Olympic lifting shoe.
If you’re a powerlifter, chances are you’ve been exposed to bench shirts. Just like I didn’t get too in-depth with deadlift suits, I won’t get too in-depth with bench shirts.
While many back in the day claimed that bench shirts were there to “protect the shoulders” or keep them healthy, the bottom line is this: Bench shirts allows you to move heavier weights. Period.
When it comes to shirts, there are all kinds of different shapes and sizes – single-ply polyester, multi-ply polyester, denim, closed back, open back, a tight fitting back, a soft or stretch back, and everything in between.
If you’re a powerlifter and you compete in a federation that uses gear, it would behoove you to not only spend time with training in your bench shirt, but with others who know and understand shirt usage. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as throwing the shirt on and getting an extra 50-100 pounds on your bench!
Lifting in a shirt is a whole new ballgame. It will affect your set-up, your technique, where your miss lifts, etc. As much as strong raw benches will carryover to a shirted bench, there are so many quirks and intricacies I simply can’t go over them all here.
On heavy sets, chalk is a must. This will improve your connection with the bar and keep it from moving in your hands.
When paired with a good gnarly bar, you have a powerlifters dream!
While we’ll discuss bench press variations below, many lifters are now employing bands in their bench press training. Here are the three most popular ways to use bands:
- Benching against bands (going very heavy/maximal effort).
- Benching with bands (going very heavy/maximal effort).
- Benching against bands (speed/dynamic effort).
Training with bands is a great option for several reasons:
- Many lifters will report that lifting with bands (versus straight weight) reduces joint stress to a degree and allows them to lift heavier with less pain.
- If you lift in a bench shirt, you’ll often tend to miss lifts at the top versus the bottom of a lift. In this case, benching with or against bands can apply greater overload at the top, which allows you to bring up this weakness. Using implements like bands or chains that make the lift more difficult as the leverage improves is based on the principle of accommodating resistance.
- Finally, for athletics, speed benching with bands can be effective for training power or strength-speed.
Much like bands, chains are another option to either mix up your training a bit, or to bring up weak areas. In this case, lifters typically use chains in either a max effort (heavy) or dynamic effort session (speed/power).
A final option you have at your disposal is the use of boards. Board pressing is also good for developing lockout strength, but the shortened range of motion can also reduce stress on the shoulders and upper extremity.
Bench Press Modifications
Now that we’ve covered the gear involved in benching, let’s look at some of the modifications and tweaks you can use to really take your bench press to the next level!
The floor press is a simple bench press variation that not only increases the loading/stress on the upper body, but reduces range of motion to a degree as well.
To perform the floor press, simply lay on the ground and bench press like you normally would. Instead of going through a full range of motion, you’ll obviously stop when your upper arm comes in contact with the ground. While I’ve seen them performed with both legs straight and with knees bent, I feel the knees bent/feet flat on the floor option is probably easier on the low back.
As mentioned above, floor presses are good for developing the upper body, as you simply cannot get the same amount of leg drive in a floor press that you can a bench press. If you find that you’re incredibly reliant on your lower body for moving the big weights, using floor presses as an assistance exercise could help in boosting your numbers.
Others like the floor press because (like board presses) it decreases the range of motion and typically places less stress on the pecs, shoulders, etc.
Along with the basic barbell floor press, you can also implement bands and/or chains into the mix as well to really overload the top position. Finally, dumbbell floor presses are another great option, but can be incredibly cumbersome to get set-up without a partner or spotter.
The board press is a bench press variation that shortens the range of motion by lowering the bar to a 2”x6” board (or boards). Performance of the lift is identical to the bench press.
Board pressing is a great bench press variant for several reasons:
- Much like the floor press, the decreased ROM you use in a board press can reduce the stress and strain on the shoulders, pecs, etc. However, even this can be argued as you’ll often see people use much heavier weights on the board press versus what they can typically bench.
- The board press is a fantastic option if you tend to miss lifts at the lockout. This is especially true if you bench press in a shirt – often the shirt will blast the weight off your chest, and you’re forced to lock it out. This makes the board press a fantastic supplemental lift to the standard bench.
- Finally, you can’t discount the psychological component of getting accustomed to holding heavy weights in your hands. Especially on 3, 4 and 5 board variations, you can move much heavier weights than you’re used to. This should increase your confidence and get you psychologically ready to handle them in powerlifting competitions.
When board pressing, it isn’t uncommon to see people using anywhere from 1 to 5 boards based on where they tend to miss lifts, where their sticking point is, etc.
Again, beyond the standard barbell options, you can also employ bands and chains to further overload the lift at the top if you so desire.
Reverse Band Bench
The reverse band bench is our first option that focuses on using accommodating resistance. As we lift a heavy squat or bench, we all know the hardest part of the lift should be in the bottom. This is where our leverages are the worst.
As we get towards the top of the lift, our leverages improve considerably. Accommodating resistance takes this principle and reduces the load where our leverages are worst, and increases the load where our leverages are best.
The reverse band bench is identical to the traditional bench press, with the exception being that bands that are attached to the top of the power rack support the barbell. Obviously, you’ll need a quality rack to do this – I’m a huge fan of using the racks from Elite FTS.
One thing I would recommend when performing reverse band benches, though, is to not get too carried away with the band you use. For example if your max bench press is 200 pounds, you don’t need to be using the heaviest band that you can purchase from EFS or Perform Better.
Bench Press Against Chains
Bench-pressing against chains is our second option for accommodating resistance. Obviously you get the overload at the top, which is desired. Furthermore, the chains have a tendency to “sway” from front to back, so you’ll find you really have to lock down your entire body and get tight to move the weight effectively.
Finally, using chains in your lifting program immediately makes you 10% cooler. This is pretty much scientific FACT!
Bench Press Against Bands
Bench-pressing against bands is very similar to bench-pressing against chains – the primary goal is to accommodate the resistance, overloading the top.
However, while the chains have a tendency to sway front to back, the bands present a different challenge. All you have to do is unrack a band bench press and you’ll immediately feel the bands shaking you all over the place. Quite simply, if you don’t get tight, you won’t be very stable with your bench!
I remember a discussion I had with Dave Tate on this very topic a while back. He stated that he might use a very light bench press against bands even with beginners. The goal wouldn’t be to get them stronger, but to teach them how to really get tight and lock down their body early on.
I don’t know if Dave ever ended up employing this technique, but I can definitely jive with the rationale.
Finally, as mentioned above, many lifters will report that mixing bands into their training programs decreases the stress on their joints versus using straight weight alone.
SWISS Bar Bench Press
One final option I’d like to describe is the SWISS bar bench press. This is a specialty bar this is sold via Elite Fitness Systems, which places the lifter in a neutral (versus pronated grip) when they bench.
One of the issues many lifters have when barbell bench pressing is the stress it places on their shoulders. The internal rotation at the shoulders can close off the subacromial space, which can irritate an impinged shoulder.
To rectify this, most will switch to dumbbells where they can use a neutral (palms facing each other) grip. This opens up the subacromial space and allows them to keep benching.
The SWIS bar gives lifters the option of using a neutral grip, while still maintaining the feel of a barbell bench press.
Accessory Lifts and Strategies to Fix Your Bench Press
Finally! The section you’ve all been waiting for – how to increase your bench press when it’s stalled!
If you miss at top of the bench press…
For many raw lifters, this will never be an issue. However, if you lift in powerlifting federation that allows you to utilize a bench shirt, this section will definitely apply.
If you miss at the top of the lift, start by working on improving your lockout strength. Supplemental lifts to try in your program could include close-grip bench presses, board pressing variations, reverse band bench presses, and even floor press options.
As an aside, you’ll find that the more “pop” you get out of your shirt, the higher you will tend to miss due to lockout issues. For example many lifters who use a single-ply shirt will probably get the most benefit out of performing 2 or 3-board variations, as that mimics where the benefits of the shirt will run out.
In contrast, guys that lift in multi-ply feds who get even more out of their shirt may benefit most from 4 and 5-board variations; this will apply maximal overload where they are likely to miss the lift.
From a more general perspective, think about bringing up the strength of the triceps. In this case dips, skullcrushers, pressdown variations, or just about any lift that brings up the general strength of your triceps could be a viable option.
If you miss at bottom of the bench press…
Typically lifters who miss in the bottom of a bench press have one of two issues: Either they have weak pecs, or they have poor upper back stability.
Let’s examine both options.
Pec strength is easier to tackle. If someone lacks pec strength, one of the primary assistance exercises I’ll recommend to them are dumbbell bench variations – this could include flat, incline, or even decline.
Unfortunately, I think pec strength is rarely the reason most people miss at the bottom. Instead, I feel most people miss at the bottom of a bench press because they get unstable through their upper back. When the weights get heavy we have a tendency to become unglued a bit, and this lack of stability puts us in a poor position to effectively move the weight.
Low-level options to work on recruitment include shoulder I’s, T’s and Y’s. For more information on these exercises, take a minute to watch the video below.
Once you’ve learned how to effectively recruit these muscles, it’s time to load them and get them strong. I can’t describe in words how important a strong upper back is, and this can only be built by using big bang exercises like vertical (pull-up/chin-up) variations, and horizontal (rowing) variations.
Quite simply, if you miss at the bottom, take a few months and really bring up the strength and stability in your upper back. Chances are you’ll see a profound difference in the weights you’re using on the bench!
If you miss at 90….
In all honesty, this is the most difficult section to write. Not only because this is where I tend to miss, but also because this is where most raw lifters will miss their bench press.
I would begin by saying if you skipped the previous two sections, take a moment to go back and read them. People who miss at 90 tend to display characteristics of both people who miss low, as well as those that miss high.
If you miss at 90, the best thing you can do is to really hammer upper back stability, while also throwing in options that develop your lockout strength. What you’ll often see is lifters who miss at 90 become a bit unglued, their elbows flare, and everything kind of falls apart at the top.
You need their upper back stability to keep you tight off your chest, paired with the tricep/lockout strength to keep you from flaring as you move the weight up.
From a technical perspective, think about keeping the elbows tucked especially when you drive the weight back up, and keep control of the bar throughout. Pulling the bar down will help keep you in a better position overall to drive it back up to the top.
If the bar always feels heavy…
As my good friend Jason Pegg has been known to say, “at some point everything feels heavy.”
I couldn’t agree more. Just because the weight is heavy doesn’t mean you can’t move it – it’s just a matter of if it moves faster or slower!
If the bar always feels heavy in your hands, here are a few things to try.
Start with really perfecting your set-up. I’ve found that no matter how stable you feel, you can almost always get tighter and more stable. If you think you’ve maxed out, I would implore you to work with someone who is stronger than you and ask him or her to watch your lifts.
Another option is to try overloaded holds; this can be done either before your work sets or after. Quite simply, load the bar up with 5-10% more weight than you’re actually going to lift that day, and simply hold at the top for approximately 5 seconds. It doesn’t need to be any longer – after all, you’re not trying to burn yourself out!
Finally, heavy lockout variations such as reverse band bench presses and board press variations can get you accustomed to holding heavier weights in your hands much like the above option.
If you can’t pull the bar down and stay controlled…
This is common for two reasons:
- You don’t know you’re supposed to pull the bar down, or
- The weight is simply too heavy and you can’t!
The first issue is easy – you need to actively pull the bar down to help maintain control!
The second is pretty easy as well; take some weight off the bar and do it right.
If you find you’re somewhere in between these two, you can always try slowing down the time under tension, option for slower eccentric (lowering) phases ranging from 3-5 seconds to make sure you stay controlled. A ton of upper back work (but especially horizontal pulling, in this case) can help as well.
If you flare too soon…
Part of correcting this issue is knowing you flare too soon. Having a great lift-off guy and/or coach watching you can make a profound difference.
As far as assistance work goes, again, upper back work can help with regards to keeping you tight and stable as you “pull” the bar down. This will help you consistently get into a better position to drive the weight back up.
This could be a tricep strength issue as well. If your triceps aren’t strong enough, your body knows and immediately flares out to recruit more anterior delts and pecs right from the get-go. Bring up the triceps and this will help.
Finally, it could just come down to loading. If you find yourself consistently flaring on each and every rep, leave your ego at the door, drop the weight, and focus on keeping tucked and tight throughout.
A Simple Bench Press Routine
One of my favorite routines for beginner and intermediate lifters alike is a slight tweak to my “Modified 5×5 Squat Routine” (which I’ll discuss in a later post).
To execute the program, you’ll need to know your current bench press one-repetition maximum, and then base your numbers off 90% of that!
If you don’t know your current 1-RM, you can probably make due with some educated guessing – just be sure to err on the side of caution and don’t kill yourself on the first week!
The program is simple and looks like this:
Week 1 – 3×5@~70%
Week 2 – 4×5@~80%
Week 3 – 3×3@~65%
Week 4 – 3×5@~85%
Follow up with some heavy rowing, supplemental tricep work (dips, close-grips, etc.) and some shoulder rehab/prehab work.
If you want to bench a second day…
I think beginners and even many intermediates would do well with a lighter speed/technical bench day, using multiple sets of 2-3 repetitions. This would be followed up by vertical pulls, some accessory tricep work (pressdown variation, skullcrushers, etc.) and some direct bicep work.
For high-level intermediates and advanced lifters, they’ll probably benefit more from a second big compound press (board press, floor press, lockout work, etc.) and then still use the same accessory work that I’ve outlined above.
Keep in mind there are definitely sexier bench press programs than this one, but if you want a good starter program that gets your bench moving in the right direction, you could do a lot worse as well!
So there you have it – close to 7000 words all about the bench press! I’ve enjoyed writing it, but more importantly, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it!
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