How many times since you’ve been going to the gym have you heard, “Dude, how much can you BENCH?” If you’ve been training for a while, I would venture to guess quite a few. Big bench pressers are always highly revered, especially because someone with a massive bench can inspire everyone, not just powerlifters. To top it all off, the bench press is the only true test of upper body strength in a powerlifting meet. Finally, and let’s be honest here, who doesn’t want a big bench?
The basic warm-up for the bench press is just like the other exercises. A general, total body warm-up prepares the muscles and nervous system for the workout at hand. Any kind of total body exercise will do; just perform about 5-10 minutes, or enough to break a light sweat.
As for the specific warm-up, it helps to warm-up the entire upper body to get the blood flowing. For instance, try a brief circuit with light dumbbells to get warmed up. Try 2 sets of 10 before your next workout, following the circuit below:
- Bench press
- Shoulder press
- Bent over rows
The point of this warm-up isn’t to pre-fatigue the muscle, but rather to get all the muscles, tendons and ligaments warmed up. Thoroughly warming up these areas can help prevent strains and tears, as well as help prepare you mentally for the lifting to come.
Biomechanics of the Bench
In my previous articles, we discussed the basic biomechanical principles behind lifting. Here is a quick refresher for those who didn’t read the first articles:
Work = Force x Distance
Work in the powerlifting sense should be minimized to maximize the weights moved. Distance is self-explanatory; the distance the weight has to be moved. Force needs a little further explanation:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
Mass is essentially the weight on the bar, and acceleration is how fast you are moving the bar (remember, this is a generalization, used to prove a point). In essence, if you are moving 300 pounds, the mass is the same (300 pounds) and the acceleration will essentially be the same from rep-to-rep. However, acceleration in the bench press can and should be worked on, but this will be discussed to a greater extent later on.
Again, the point of all this is to show that to maximize our performance, our mechanical WORK should be minimized. To improve the bench, a two-pronged approach will help us see gains in the shortest period of time. First, we will examine how we can decrease the DISTANCE moved, and second, we will discuss ways to improve our acceleration (or our FORCE).
Ways to Decrease the Distance Moved
I am far from being an elite bencher, but I am constantly working on it. The first thing I knew I needed to work on (especially since I have a deadlifters body), was to minimize the stroke needed to get from point A to B. I started by slowly moving my grip out to the maximum legal limit. This immediately took about 3 inches off my stroke. The next move was to improve my arch. To say that I had no arch was a compliment. I was almost totally flat on the bench! My first move was to start digging my shoulder blades into the bench, and then to pull my legs as far underneath my body as possible. Total back flexibility is at a premium here, especially if you want to improve your bench. One way to work on this is to buy different sizes of PVC pipe and start working on your arch before, during or after your workouts. My current coach (Dr. Mike Hartle, a 518 bencher at 275) stated that at the IPF Bench Press World’s the Japanese participants were warming up with 6 inch PVC pipes under their back! Start with a small size, then slowly progress up to larger and larger pipes, all the while shaving important inches off that bench press stroke!
Ways to Increase Force (especially Acceleration)
Acceleration training in the powerlifting world has really come around in the last decade or so. However, there are several ways to increase acceleration in the bench press. First, you can do plyometric exercises to train the nervous system and related musculature in a semi-specific manner. Options include plyo push-ups, med ball throws from a lying position or bench throws in a Smith or Plyopower machine. The next option is to use methods of accommodating resistance, such as bands and chains. A final way is to simply use lighter weights: when you examine the force equation listed above, you see that force is equal to mass times acceleration. In order to keep the force output the same, if we decrease the mass on the bar (e.g. take it from 200 pounds to 150 pounds), we have to increase our acceleration accordingly. By decreasing the weight on the bar and moving it as fast as possible, we are keeping force output the same or possibly even increasing it, all by improving acceleration.
Muscles used in the Bench Press
The bench press, like all the powerlifts, is an effort to move maximal amounts of weight in order to improve your total. I will explain both the prime movers in the bench press and the muscles that help stabilize the body and “get tight.” Lastly, I will put in a note regarding muscular balance in the bench press.
- Movement: Extension of the Arm
- Muscles: Triceps Brachii
The triceps are the main muscle group that locks out the bench press. Extension of the arm, therefore, is key to having a big bench. It’s important to hit the tri’s using different exercises, especially a mixture of extension-based and press-based movements. Extension based movements include skullcrushers, throatcrushers, elbows out extensions, etc. Press-based movements include dips, narrow grip benches, narrow grip declines, etc.
- Movement: Shoulder flexion
- Muscles: Anterior deltoid and pectoralis major (clavicular portion)
Both the anterior deltoid and the pectoralis muscles function in a similar fashion. From the moment you take the bar out of the rack, you are in a state of shoulder flexion (when you hand moves from the waistline towards the face, this is shoulder flexion). Therefore, these muscles are used heavily throughout the course of the movement. Exercises to work the anterior deltoids and clavicular portion of the pecs include plate raises, forward dumbbell raises, and of course flat and incline benches of all varieties. In essence as you increase the angle from a flat to incline bench, the more involvement you will get from these muscle groups.
- Movement: Medial (internal) rotation of the humerus
- Muscles: Pectoralis major (sternal portion) and anterior deltoid
The pectorals are the prime mover in the lower portion of the bench. As you increase the incline of the bench, however, the sternal portion of the pecs are taken out of the movement and the clavicular portion of the pecs and anterior deltoids take over. Therefore, low level inclines, flat bench, wide grip bench, and especially declines of all varieties are great options for hitting the pecs. Declines are an often forgotten exercise, but they are great for focusing on sternal pec and tricep development while simultaneously reducing the role of the anterior deltoids and clavicular pecs.
Getting the low body tight in the bench is essential if you want to press limit weights. While there aren’t specific exercises you can perform to increase your low body stability, work to bring your feet back closer to your head, which will increase quad activation, as well as squeezing the glutes and hamstrings to maximally activate the posterior chain.
In my first year of powerlifting, I never understood the importance of getting the low body tight, and my bench press lagged behind my other lifts because of it. While preparing for Collegiate Nationals in 2002, I was stuck with a measly 275 pounds on the three-board press. My training partner at the time, Joe Williams, told me to get my low body tight and squeeze my glutes as hard as possible. Not only did I hit 275 for a triple, I went on to hit a fairly easy 300 that very same day, and all I did was get my low body tight!
The key upper body stabilizers are the muscles of the mid-back. More specifically, we are talking about the middle trapezius fibers, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi. The key here is to pull the scapula back to form a solid pressing surface. Newton’s 3rd Law states that for every action (or force), there is an equal and opposite reaction. In essence, the more force you produce down into the bench, the more force will be produced to move the weight back up. This is also why some great bench pressers state to think of pushing away from the bar versus pushing the bar up.
Unlike the low-body stabilizers which are more set-up oriented, you can build the upper body stabilizers. Exercises such as bent-over rows, T-bar rows, face pulls, prone shrugs, etc., can all increase the hypertrophy of the mid-back muscles, and therefore stability in the bench press. Another bonus of hitting the mid-back is that increases in size will also shave some inches off your bench press stroke!
Balancing out your bench
When talking about bench pressing, we also need to discuss injury prevention and its role in the training program. When bench pressing, the shoulder is performing a significant amount of internal rotation to move the weight. However, it’s rare that you see someone in your gym performing external rotation work to keep the shoulder joint healthy and keep the PR’s climbing.
One my clients here at the Athletic Performance Center had the worst case of rotator cuff tendonitis I had ever seen. He was a very strong bench presser, but eventually, the shoulder rotation was too great and he was forced to switch to dumbbells. After a few months of training even the basic dumbbell press became too stressful and he switched to dumbbells using a hammer grip (which further reduces the amount of rotation about the shoulder joint.) Inclines throughout this period were out of the question. It got to the point where he couldn’t even put his arm around his wife at the movies! Orthopedic surgeons stated that he should get surgery to repair the injury, but instead, he came to us for help. The Drs. Hartle performed Active Release Technique ™ (ART™) to break up the scar tissue and muscle adhesions that had formed in and around his shoulder joint. Next, an aggressive rehabilitation program was put together that emphasized strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis), scapular depressors (lower trapezius fibers), scapular retractors (rhomboids and middle trapezius fibers), and posterior deltoids. Stretching of the pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids was also included. Within 6 weeks of therapy, he was back to hitting the flat bench press with no pain, something that he hadn’t been able to do in 12 years! The moral of the story is that if you cover your bases from the start and take care of your body, you will enjoy a much stronger and healthier powerlifting career than if you do just enough to get by.
Pressing max weights
Let’s put all this theory and anatomy into some practical application. The first thing that needs some description is the set-up. Start by pulling your shoulders blades back and together as tight as possible, then really try to “dig” your way into the bench. The higher you can set the middle back and traps on the bench, the better. Next, we need to work on the low body. A shoe with a heel is an excellent choice for benching because it allows you to get your feet back farther back (e.g., closer to your head) than you normally could. By pulling the feet back farther, you get greater quadriceps stabilization and an improved arch. The last thing you need to do is to actively contract the hamstrings and squeeze the gluteals as hard as possible. This should really tighten up the entire low body and get you ready for a big bench. At this point you should be ready to receive the weight from the spotter.
Before taking the bar, a big breath should be taken while simultaneously “puffing” out the abdominals and chest. This will help finalize the tightness of the body, as well as reducing the distance traveled a little more. A hand off is critical on all work sets as it allows you to maintain your arch and tightness. Without a hand off, you will see someone lose their upper back/lat stability, therefore making the bench that much harder. The hand-off should take the bar to an area above the lower pectoral or high abdominal area (see note below!). At this point the bar is lowered, with the elbows tucked, down in a straight line or at a slight angle to the lower chest/upper abdominal area. The bar must be completely motionless, and then pressed following the same path as it was lowered.
Especially when wearing a bench shirt, you must be conscientious of what your body is doing. Gear reduces the body’s natural kinesthetic awareness, so you can’t “feel” the movement as well. Therefore, you must learn to stay tight within the shirt. If you go loose in the shirt on the eccentric phase, you increase your reliance on the shirt, which sets you up for failure. You will most likely miss the weight because you aren’t ready when the shirt strength runs out, or you will slip the groove and push the bar horizontally towards your waist or back towards your face. By staying tight throughout the movement, you not only keep a better line, but you utilize both your strength and the boost from the shirt to blast the weight up to the top.
A final note on benching: Know the rules of your federation. Some federations state the xiphoid process as the lowest point the bar can travel to, while others don’t specify or are more lenient in their interpretation. At the USAPL Collegiate Nationals this year, I saw several lifters miss otherwise good attempts because they were lowering the bar to their abdomen instead of the xiphoid process. Again, know your federations rules (and your gear) to ensure your success come meet day!
Where is your sticking point?
Let’s face it, unlike low body exercises like squats and deads which you can sometimes “muscle” up, the bench press is a different beast because it’s rare that you see someone grind through a sticking point to get the lift. Therefore, the goal of this last section is to obliterate those sticking points and hit some new PR’s!
If you miss at the bottom or can’t get the bar off your chest:
If you have a weakness here, you need to work on pectoral strength and increasing acceleration. First off, check to see if you are lowering the bar too slowly. More often than not people who miss near the chest are doing about a 4 or 5 second eccentric, virtually negating the stretch-shortening cycle. If the eccentric speed is ok, then increasing pec strength and/or acceleration can help to alleviate this problem. Heavy dumbbell presses, cambered bar presses, speed bench work with bands, plyometrics, etc., can all help to improve your strength and speed off the chest. The final option is that your ego is stronger than your body, so think about lowering the poundage and using weights that better match your strength!
Especially in powerlifting competitions where bench shirts are allowed, it is a rarity that someone misses a weight off their chest.
If you miss at the mid-point or top of the lift:
This is probably the most common sticking point for the bench press, especially when it comes to powerlifters. Again, the bench shirt is there to help you blast the weight off your chest, but it’s up to you to lock that weight out.
The midpoint of the lift is tricky because this is the point where the shirt is giving out and you are taking over. If you hit this point and come to a grinding halt, then either the weight is too heavy or you need to work on speed to drive through the sticking point. Again, speed work with bands or chains can help train the body to drive through the sticking point and lock out the big weights.
Another possibility is that you slipped the groove of the bench shirt and the bar either moved towards your feet or back towards your face. This usually causes the bar to drop slightly somewhere along the way, and even if you do lock it out (which is tough), the red lights will probably fly. The best advice here is to make sure you get the shirt on at least 2-3 times before your meet to break it in and learn the proper groove of that particular shirt.
If you miss above the mid-point or at the top of the lift, the triceps are the key. Increase your triceps strength and your bench press will go up. If you are training bench twice a week, I would make sure one day includes extension-based movements and the other is geared towards press-based movements. Extension-based movements such as skullcrushers, elbows out extensions, etc., tend to “isolate” (for lack of a better term) the elbow extensors and overload the triceps in a direct manner. On the other hand, the press-based exercises such as dips and narrow-grip benches use the anterior deltoids, pectorals, and triceps in concert, and therefore more weight can be moved. More weight equals more muscle and strength, and hopefully a bigger bench press.
The last option is that you aren’t used to having heavy weight in your hands. If your speed is good, then I would suggest using your accessory bench day to perform some heavy lockout work. Not only does this improve your lockout strength, but it also increases your confidence with heavy weights. Options include exercises such as reverse band floor presses, basic floor presses, board presses, board presses with bands, etc.
While the bench press is probably the least functional of all the powerlifts, improving your strength and technique will increase your total all the same. Hopefully this article has shed some light on what muscles are working while benching, how to train them, and ways to improve your bench press from start to finish.
This also completes my series on the biomechanics of the powerlifts. It should be stated that well-planned training, proper nutrition and recovery, and a great deal of dedication and courage are a must to be successful at this sport. Beyond this, I hope you will use the biomechanical principles I have explained in these articles to take your lifting and performance to the next level!
About the Author:
Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]