The bench press; quite possibly the most popular exercise in the gym. When talking with someone about training or going to the gym, the first words out of someone’s mouth tends to be “how much do you bench?” If you are embarrassed to answer this question truthfully, or you tend to add 100 or 200 pounds than you actually bench, this article is for you.
Record Your Session!
The tips you’re about to read are going to be things you should record so you can review what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. You may feel like your back is arched and the bar is directly over your elbows, but when you watch what you just recorded you might find you do something completely different. Record every rep you do and record from different angles so you can properly assess your technique and form.
Recording your sessions gives you the power of seeing exactly what you are doing and helps you find your weaknesses. Posting your form videos online will give you a chance to get tips from experienced lifters. Be warned, there are a lot of couch commandos that may spout off information about your form, but they do not know what it feels like to sink 2 inches into the bench from all of the weight, or the glute cramps you get from maximal weights. Take all information you get in and look at what you have, if it seems to be the general consensus, try it out and see what works. Remember, what works for you might not work for someone else.
Warm Up Properly
Warming up is extremely important for a huge compound lift like the bench press. Warming up helps raise your body temperature and helps your joints and muscles warm up so they move easier. Most importantly, warming up gets your central nervous system ready for heavy loads. Many times the CNS is overlooked and people won’t warm up properly because they do not understand the importance.
Warming up shouldn’t tax your nervous system. You should not feel fatigued before you are into your working sets, but doing a warm up like 135×2, 225×2 and jumping into a 315 working set is simply not enough and you are hurting your progress if you do not warm up properly.
Form Before Weight
Taking the time to learn how to do an exercise properly is extremely important if you would like to stay injury free and start moving heavy weights. Too many times I see someone throwing weight on the bar and just doing whatever he can to press the weight up; don’t be this guy.
Working on good form before you start going heavy will ensure you have good habits and good form before you start developing bad habits. It takes something like 100 reps to create a habit, but 1000 to correct a bad habit; create good habits now or try to fix bad habits later.
The more I talk with elite athletes and strength coaches, the more I see how important the setup is. When you are about to bench, your setup needs to be exactly the same every time. The more you make setup a habit, the stronger you will be able to bench. Ever wonder why you hit 225 for reps last week, but 185 felt weak this week? More than likely you set up differently and your body wasn’t in the best position to press.
As in any compound exercise, full body tightness is extremely important if you want to get results and stay injury free. There are a lot of videos online of elite powerlifters and other extremely strong people who bench heavy. If you notice, their body stays tight and everything is controlled. Next time you are in the gym, watch people bench. You are going to see legs wobbling, bodies moving on the bench, and even worse, legs up. In order to really build power for your bench, you need to have a good solid foundation.
Take a Breath
Taking a breath into your belly when you bench is going to give you stability and extra strength to press heavy weights. Your body will be more rigid from intra-abdominal pressure and you will be able to shorten your range of motion. When you take a big breath in and hold it, your body has extra oxygen to shuttle to your muscles and you really can press more weight when you learn to breathe correctly. Don’t believe me? Try it with sub maximal weights and feel the difference.
Whoever says having your back arched is “snap city” shouldn’t be giving advice about bench pressing. The same goes with the people who say keeping your legs in the air to “isolate the chest.” The bench press is called a compound lift for a reason, your whole body is involved in this press. When you arch your back on the bench, you are creating a shorter range of motion which is going to help keep your shoulders safe and give you the ability to press more weight.
Unless you are wanting to be an elite powerlifter or compete at all, having these extreme arches should not concern you. You do not need to lay on 8″+ PVC to stretch your back out to shorten your range of motion, but pulling your butt closer to your shoulders is going to help keep your back safe. Ever get done with a heavy set and your lower back hurt? A lot of times it’s because your back will round like a deadlift, which causes this pain.
Pull your shoulder blades back and down and try to get your butt and shoulder blades to touch to get the best arch. This is going to keep your shoulders safe, your back safe, and ensure your body will stay the tightest it can be.
Plant Your Feet
Dancing feet is what we call people who move their feet around while they bench press. This is a bad habit and is why you are not benching what you could be. Planting your feet helps create the strong base you need to bench properly and bench maximal weight. Treat every set and rep the same when you setup by planting your feet and do not move them. Placing a 5 pound plate on each foot while you are benching is a good technique to see if your feet move while you bench.
There are a few places that are optimal for feet placement. The video below goes over a couple of the best placements, with great explanations. The bench press is not supposed to be comfortable, so play around with what works best for you.
Once you have set up with planted feet and an arched back, you can use leg drive. Leg drive done properly can add 50 pounds to your bench. This video I found explains it best so watch, listen, and learn.
Bench With Attitude
When benching, being amped up and ready to smash some weight is needed if you don’t want to get pinned under the bar; Treat every rep like your 1 rep max. When you treat every rep like your 1 rep max, you are reinforcing good form, good technique, and getting a good habit down to produce solid bench results.
Think about exploding the bar off of your chest and pressing harder and faster until lockout. Do not bounce the bar off of your chest, it does nothing but ruin your tightness and makes you look silly in front of skilled lifters. Think about “pressing yourself away from the bar” instead of “pressing the bar up.”
When you walk into the gym on bench day, bench first. When you bench first you are able to use every ounce of energy on the most important lift.
Keep Your Eyes Fixed
When you lay on the bench in position ready to unrack the bar, when you are in the locked out position, fix your eyes on the ceiling above where the bar is. Keep your eyes on this position throughout the whole exercise and work on locking out with the bar in the same position every time. This is going to help you get a better feel of your groove and you will be sure to get the most out of every rep. You will see a lot of people looking around and moving their heads which can hurt your form or even worse hurt your neck from straining. Try to keep your head on the bench and your eyes fixed on one position for best results.
Having the correct grip width is extremely important if you want to be able to press the most. A good starting place is to put your arms straight in front of you and grab the bar and see how that feels. I prefer a wider grip with my ring finger on the bare notches on the bar, similar to the picture above. It takes a lot of practice and patience to find the correct grip width, but once you do you are able to have consistent presses.
However you measure your grip width, make sure it is equal length on each side so you can ensure an even press.
Squeeze the Bar
After you find the right grip width comfortable for you, squeeze the bar as hard as you possibly can. When you squeeze the bar, your body is going to react by keeping all of your muscles tight as well as keeping your wrists straight on the bar. When you start benching heavier weights, you will see people who chalk up or complain about their hands slipping outwards. The outward pressure you create from rowing the bar down to your chest and engaging your back is extreme and you have to squeeze the bar in order to keep your hands in place and to fully engage all muscles.
Do Not Flare Elbows
Flaring your elbows out while benching puts your shoulders in a weakened position and can (and usually will) hurt your shoulders eventually. A lot of people who complain they cannot bench press because of their shoulders a lot of times kept their elbows flared out which does eventually break down the shoulder.
Keep your elbows tucked towards your body through the whole range of motion. This is going to recruit more muscles which will help you press more weight while also saving your shoulders. A good cue for keeping your elbows in is to try to bend the bar towards your feet.
Row the Bar
After you unrack the bar, instead of letting everything loose and letting the bar drop to you, row the bar down like you would on a standard bent over barbell row. When you rowing the bar to your chest you keep your elbows tucked and engage your lats and back while keeping your entire body tight.
Keep the Bar Above Elbows
Keeping the bar directly above your elbows is something that a lot of people have problems with and is one of the main reasons people “get out of their groove.” Having a wrist dump on you or not keeping your wrists straight is going to be a sure sign you will miss a heavy lift or hurt a shoulder. You want your arm from your elbow up to the bar perfectly straight up and down to get the most pressing power.
Invest in a good pair of wrist wraps if you are having problems with your wrist staying straight. If you notice you bench stronger with a false grip, when you bench with a full grip, your wrists are not staying straight. Work on holding the bar deeper in the palm of your hands and squeezing the hell out of the bar.
The stronger your back is, the better your bench will be. When you do so many pressing movements without any pulling movements, you are going to create muscle imbalances. The stronger your back is from deadlifts, pull ups, barbell rows, and any other rowing movement, the more you will be able to deadlift. A goal I’ve always tried to gun for is to be able to barbell row as much as I can bench. Bring your back strength up and your bench will go up.
Be sure when you set up to squeeze your traps like a shrug and keep your arch tight on your upper back when benching. Engage your lats and row the bar down, explode off of your chest. Be sure to train your rear delts and traps for a balanced and athletic physique.
Central Nervous System
When warming up, you are getting your muscles warmed up and your nervous system ready for muscle recruitment. When you strength train, your nervous system is essentially what you are training; the ability for your body to call upon more muscle fibers and recover from that. When you do not warm up properly you will not be able to lift maximal weights.
On the other hand, if you have been lifting maximally close to your 1 rep max, you will not be able to keep that up for long. Do not test your 1 rep max often. It is bad on your nervous system which can take up to three weeks to fully recover from max effort lifting.
Rest and Recovery
Eat, eat, eat, train, eat, eat, sleep. Eat healthy and get enough rest if you really want to get stronger. No more going out partying every night and working off of 4 hours of sleep if you are serious about getting stronger, leaner, and ripped. There is a reason that you can’t lift as much one week than you did last week; you haven’t been getting enough sleep, not enough food, or sick. There could be a combination of things, but making sure you get enough sleep and nutritious foods is going to be the most beneficial thing you can do.
Train Sticking Points
Since everyone has different limb lengths and builds, sticking points are going to be different on everybody. For the beginner to intermediate lifters, I do not recommend worrying about band work, chains, 1 to 3 board presses, or partial reps. Build a strong base of strength, get your form nailed down to a T and show how every rep is the same whether it is your bar warm up or your 90% rep.
A lot of people I’ve talked to go on about how they need to start doing this or doing that so they can get more ‘pop’ out of the hole. I watch them bench and notice they lose leg drive and get loose, and this is the reason why they cannot press weight off of the chest. The moral of this is to dial in your form and only then once you’ve hit your sticking point should you look into assistance work.
Arm work can be beneficial for the bench press. Working on getting stronger biceps and triceps will help keep the bar path straight and give you plenty of strength for lock outs. I do not condone 20 sets for arms a day, but 3 good sets for triceps and 3 good sets for biceps can help improve your bench.
Having a strong core is a necessity for all compound lifts. In order to get the most power from leg drive and power for pressing, your core needs to be strong. If you bench with all of your muscles contracted like you are supposed to, your abs will be sore after a good bench session.
Work on core exercises and get your abs strong to get the most out of your compound lifts.
Everything in strength training and muscle-building requires patience. There is no magical formula for getting more muscle and stronger other than hard work and proper nutrition. If you are doing all of this, the heavy weights will come. Don’t get discouraged because someone you know benches more than you or if you have gone up 5 pounds in 3 months on bench. I’ve talked to some elite athletes that say a 5 pound gain in a year is good.
Keep your perspective, work hard, and constantly improve everything and you will reach your goals. Find what works for you and don’t be afraid to try something new to see if it may work.
If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!