Disclaimer: this article is not for the pencil necked trainers and athletes out there who got embarrassed failing a light weight on the bench, and subsequently decided that bench is “bad” or “isn’t functional”, and now play around on the smith machine or do dips or dumbbells instead. This is for those who recognize bench as the ultimate exercise for building a powerful, strong physique, and want to increase their power and get ROCKED.
Here’s three cornerstones for building a big press:
This is the most important point. Without good technique, an athlete will be left with a weak press, and even worse, mutilated shoulders. Some keys to good technique:
-Tuck your elbows
For a bench that takes stress off the shoulders, and allows you to over time hammer big weights, the bar should be dropped on the low pec line, not mid chest or higher as a bodybuilder would do. Bring your elbows in and tuck, so that the bar stays in line with the forearms throughout the lift. Your arms should be in the exact position they would be to throw a punch: elbows not too far in (overtucking), elbows not too far out (flaring). A correct bench is a weighted punch.
-Set up TIGHT
A lifter should be tight head to toe in the press; this ensures higher performance, and most importantly, safety. When a lifter is loose and wiggling with the bar, its only a matter of time before they acquire shoulder pain. The scapulas should be pulled down and the rear delts squeezed together to provide a strong upper back platform for the lowering and reversal of the bar; it should feel like your entire bodyweight is on your traps. The legs should be equally tight, and whether you are heels down or heels up, good leg drive in the press starts with tight legs, knees out, glutes squeezed, air held in the belly and lower back.
-Good bar action
On the descent the bar should be ROWED down, not crashed, all the time trying to bend the bar. On the reversal, the lifter should drive his or her upper back into the bench; this will explode the bar off the chest while keeping the shoulder from getting involved. Lastly, the lifter should then actively try to “tear” the bar apart on the way up; this will accelerate the bar and lead to a strong lockout.
Technique must be emphasized at all times; for our Max Effort sessions on Sunday, as soon as an athlete breaks technique, we stop. This way bad technique is never reinforced.
2) Train your weak points
Contrary to gym bro dogma, bench is an upper back and triceps exercise. Unfortunately for most athletes raised on a regimen of dumbbell fly’s and front raises, the upper back and triceps tend to be very weak. The effect is the commercial gym bench, where the lifter bounces the bar off their sternum like a trampoline, while flaring their elbows, leaving him or her with a weak press, and lots of shoulder pain. However, if you’re going to build a solid bench, and for the powerlifters, one that consistently garners white lights, you’ll have to learn to row the bar down, not crash it. And for that you’ll need a massively strong upper back. You’ll also need strong triceps to be able to keep a correct bar path, and lock out big weights. While a modicum of direct chest and shoulder work can be beneficial for some lifters, most would have much more success by switching over their accessory work to a steady diet of tricep and upper back work.
3) Smart programming
While there are many lifters who avoid benching out of embarrassment, there are also just as many well intentioned athletes who’s love and enthusiasm for bench was sapped by the dreaded plateau. In my experience both personally and in training both sport and strength athletes, bench is the hardest lift to increase for the drug free lifter. Once the honeymoon period is over, drug free intermediate and advanced lifters can often toil for years without achieving a substantial PR. It’s rare to see a drug free athlete actually bench (no bounce, butt on bench) in the 3’s. However, we’ve had a lot of success in the press (20 athletes 275+, 6 315+) and a lot of that is from the knowledge I gained from my own personal toil in the press. As an extreme ectomorph I had to fight for every gain I made, and doing it all drug free made me have to break plateaus through hard training and smart programming, not injections. There were no shortcuts or big jumps, and from that I learned a lot about what ACTUALLY works for drug free athletes (unfortunately 95% of the literature is written by coaches who are enhanced themselves/train enhanced lifters). We are constantly evolving our programming means and methods, and experimenting and tweaking. The best advice I could give someone who loves to bench and is stuck, is get feedback on your technique; train at a gym where there are others with your same goals; and above all else, persevere!