|The Devil Is in The Details - The Bench Press
by Jack Reape
I do not consider myself a great bench presser. I know a couple great Bench Pressers, and I assure you, I am not one of them. Like some of you, I want to be an accomplished Bench Presser. To do that you must be willing to work hard, pursue knowledge, do things you do not like, and pay attention to every detail of training and technique. I have learned much from reading, listening, asking questions, trying, verifying and failing. Many people's ideas, Like Pavel, Louie Simmons, Dave Ricks, the boys at Powerden, Bill Starr, Jesse Kellum, and George Halbert to name a few, have given me great ideas. I tried a lot of things and liked some. My goal is to stimulate your thinking, training, and results.
Technique. BP is a multi joint exercise that uses most of the upper body muscles. There are probably better ways to isolate the pectorals, triceps, and deltoids, but nothing works them better in unison. BP is an ideal beginners' lift as it is not hard to do, just hard to do well. It is a lift people know, fun to do and train, and enormously more complex than I ever thought. Benching is taking a weight down to your chest, pausing for a moment, and then pressing back to lockout. The most important thing is the shortest distance between two points is a straight line-a stabilized straight line! Pressing the bar in an arc shaped path and letting it drift back over your face lengthens the trajectory the bar describes and puts unneeded stress on the shoulders. Get a wide grip and press straight up from your touch point to lockout. The widest grip you can legally use is best. If you are stronger close grip you should still change to a wider grip. No great bencher benches close grip in a meet. The wider grip recruits more muscles and shortens the distance. Close grip benching is a great assistance exercise, with a twist I will cover later.
Questions? I didn't think so. For most lifters, the touch point where the bar touches the "chest" is between the nipple line and the sternum. In my opinion, the heavier the bench shirt you use the lower the bar must go toward your feet. Bringing the bar down higher on your chest with the elbows at 90 degrees to the torso is a bodybuilder Bench Press, great for Flex Wheeler but not for you or I. While arching is what everyone wants to do, the bigger you are the harder that gets. Almost the same result can be gained by pinching the shoulder blades together, sticking out the chest, and not letting go of your air till lockout. Pavel's technique of twisting the fingers outwards when doing one arm pushups carries over well to benching, as does the idea of trying to bend the bar like you are breaking a broomstick and squeezing the knurling as hard as possible with your hands. Twisting your hands like he says will keep your elbows in the proper position and under your wrists. If your hands are closer to your feet than your elbows, instead of straight up and down, your shoulders must do a front lateral while pressing! No lift for you! If your hands are closer to your head than your elbows, instead of straight up and down in line you are doing a tricep extension. Great assistance move, bad technique, red lights for you! Lock up your abdomen, drive your shoulders into the bench with your legs like you were trying to slide yourself along the bench toward the uprights. Get yourself solidly set on the bench. Use shoes that will grip the floor well. Some lifters use scuba shoes or wrestling shoes or shoes with heels. I like an old Adidas basketball shoe with a solid sole and slight heel lift. Get a big breath of air then let some out. Do not let the rest of your air out until you have locked out. Air in your torso will keep your shoulders higher. Letting the air out of your lungs loses your tightness and lengthens your stroke. Make sure your shirt/singlet does not slide on the bench. A bit of chalk and a bit of sweat usually fixes this problem quickly .A good lift off is important; smooth and controlled is good! Make sure the spotter doing the liftoff knows what you want him or her to do! Do not set up too far away from the racks as the farther you are from the racks the harder and riskier the hand off becomes. Lower the bar slowly under control, flexing your lats on the way down (or "hardening your armpit"), pausing the bar momentarily at the bottom but not relaxing! Think of holding the weight a half inch off your chest-a good training technique BTW- then blast it off and drive it to lockout. While decline bench presses are not very useful in my opinion, the groove and feel of pushing toward your feet is a great one to understand and feel. Practice proper technique on every rep you do so it will become automatic. Fatigue and nerves will make your technique very ragged in a meet if you do not practice it constantly.
If you train and compete raw, you need to focus on the bottom of the bench press. You need a low gear to get that weight moving. Pause bench press is numero uno for this requirement. As a matter of fact, if you never use a shirt you should do pauses on almost all your bench sets. If you use a single poly shirt you still need that low gear but some speed work helps. A double or triple shirt that can stop the weight at your chest makes bench pressing a more speed focused lift. I like and use gear and am not interested in a gear debate. I only cover this stuff because mountain bike racing is not motocross. They are very similar but still different and must be approached somewhat differently.
Training. Siff says speed comes from strength. Simmons says speed bench with bands/chains year round. Siff says benching with bands is plyometric and I think doing plyos year round is a pec tear waiting to happen. Pavel recommends lots of low rep sets. My opinion (careful, I was wrong once several years ago) is that you build a base of strength with a large volume of paused BPs and tricep/lat hypertrophy, and then in the meet prep period you work speed, and lockout with special exercises that hit your sticking points. How you do this is really the hard question and depends on many factors-age, fitness, goals, sports background, injuries, size, sex, etc. For example a male 40 year old three lift drug free powerlifter with a challenging job would train a bit differently than a 21 year old male gymnast who wants to be a bench specialist while in grad school and is using steroids, and there would be differences again for a 16 year old HS female powerlifter with no sports background who plans on using no other lifting gear but a belt. Here would be good time for you to read/review the Number of Barbell lift section of my TNT article in the archives. I will assume you have read that and go on. These examples I give are for reference and can and would be changed for each individual. Each of the three example lifters must build the start, lockout, and stabilization/assistance of the Bench Press. Each would use the paused bench press as the basic start exercise. The experienced three lift Powerlifter would bench 2-3X a week and get 100 lifts in per week on average in the bench press/pressing assistance exercises. The gymnast might bench press/pressing assistance 2-4 times per week and get 150+ lifts in per week. The HS lifter might bench 2-3X per week and get in 30-50 benches per week. These reps would be in the 65-85% percent of 1RM range generally. See the Sheyko BP article in PLUSA for an idea how to set up your routine or the Smolov Routine in the newsletter archives for extended examples or go to www.worldpowerlifting.com, training section. This site has lots of good ideas and workouts to ponder and perform. This described the "prep" phase.
In the "contest" phase each lifter would go heavier and drop the volume 15-30%, but the Powerlifter would start mixing in some speed work with bands/chains and heavy rack work/board work, the Gymnast would focus on speed work with bands and getting used to his shirt in the partial and full range movements, and the high-schooler would do more below limit singles to get used to meet technique but avoid bands/chains. All three lifters would have to address lockout. Many sources point out the triceps must be trained very heavy to hit all three heads of the muscle. You won't get very strong doing pushdowns or kickbacks. A great and cheap device you can build easily is to put 2-5 2x6 boards of about 13-16 inches in length on top of each other (use "cull" wood from Home Depot, VERY cheap). This allows you to train very close to your max for reps in the close grip, medium grip, and/or wider meet grip partial range of movement, really hammering your triceps like nothing else. 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps is a good guide for these exercises. You can substitute power rack work here but pushing from a pin in the rack is more prone to cause injury. It is hard to start your press in the right groove from a dead start (Why the DL kicks your butt!) and you can use less weight because there is no eccentric phase to build up tension in the muscle during the lowering of the weight to the board. An important concept is the key to the contest prep period You MUST use some 90% and above weights-weights that limit you to 3 or less reps-in the peaking period for the meet or test day. You CANNOT use 90% weights for very long. After much research and experimenting two workouts above 90% over the last 3 weeks running up to the meet works well, and the last week before the meet is a time to rest. My last workout is Monday or Tuesday for a Saturday Meet and is very brief and below 70% for limited reps, with minimal assistance exercises, if I do anything at all!.
Assistance Exercises. Some bodybuilding exercises are useful for hypertrophy in the triceps, deltoids, and lats. Here is why benching is so much fun, proper training makes you grow! Bigger isn't always stronger, but usually it is! The fun loving, patriotic, mass quantity consuming Powerlifting crowd you are hanging with now never met a buffet that could not be cleaned out! Sufficient nutrients/calories combined with proper volume and intensity will build a lot of muscle. Sorry, you can't build muscle or your Bench Press on Tofu, Tuna, and steamed Veggies. Train! Eat! Rest! You get stronger at the buffet and in your bed, not the gym! Disagree? Test your bench after a good meal and a good nights sleep and a good breakfast. Now test your max after your full workout! When are you stronger? The point is if you want to be strong you will have to give up a bit of tripping the night fantastic, eat well, and limit the alcohol and forbidden dances of Love. Sorry, but consuming even 2-3 drinks lowers the testosterone measurably. I told you there would be things you would have to do that you would not like in order to bench big. Just a matter of priorities!
Dumbell tricep extensions and skull crushers, if your elbows are OK, done after or alternatively with the board presses are helpful on bench days. The 10 sets of 5 is a great rep scheme here. These do not count as Lifts for the week. Stabilization is really the training of traps and deltoids. I am not a fan of lots of front delt work! Heavy Benching already can lead to shoulder impingement, a tendonitis condition in the front of the shoulder, so working rear delts with dumbbell bent flyes or rope pulls to the face is sufficient. External rotation is the one time where you will catch a Powerlifter using the cable machine, if they do not have a spring chest expander! That old device-or a heavy rubber band-is a great external rotation exercise. Higher reps are OK here. 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. Slow and controlled reps are best for delts. The Lat muscles are the key to Bench stabilization. Work pulldowns with various handles, pull-ups with various grips, and rows of different types. I have done 5 to 10 sets of 5 to 10 reps. Neither extension movements, delt nor lat work count as lifts for the week.. Lats can be trained 3-4 times a week if you vary the exercises! Bill Starr was big fan of 40-50 reps per assistance exercise for 4-5 sets of 10, and Pavel likes 10 sets of 5. About 50 reps. Try it! If you really want to be a wild man try 7x7! Little bit beat? Cut it back! This where the Art of training becomes more important than the Science, when you have to make Micro adjustments to your Macro plan. Only you can make those calls. A hint-most people WAY over train the Bench Press assistance and under utilize the bench movement! The Gym Rat who does multiple sets of Flat, Incline, Decline, and Dumbell Benches before starting the cable work and pec dec is not going to make the progess his $100K per year of drugs consuming bodybuilder Role Model promised. If you have problems at the bottom of the bench press and pausing your reps doesn't correct it, dumbbell flyes are a good remedy. Cambered bar bench presses work well here also but be very careful to not go to far beyond your normal range of motion. Sticking one of those 2-5 board blocks you built for tricep work on your chest will allow you to control the range of motion using the cambered bar. I have rarely done these so I will not belabor this point. If you are pressing on the bench either Paused, with boards or Cambered Bar, count it toward your NBL-Number of Barbell Lifts. The Gymnast can do more and heavier assistance than the 3 lift Powerlifter, and a great deal more than the High School lifter. The Gymnast's background, lack of other lifts to train, low stress and extra rest, top of the line gear and steroid use would allow this extra work. The Powerlifter is limited by all the factors that assist the Gymnast. There is only so much recovery ability available from your body, so prioritize what is weak or lagging. Your chiseled delts will be of little comfort if you can't lockout a bench due to tricep weakness! The High School lifter is not ready for anything but the basic assistance and should focus mainly on the Bench Press itself until a groove and training base are built.
Last thing, Larry Pacifico says the best two ways to increase the bench press are to gain weight and do close grip bench press. Your bench is very affected by weight loss and gain, maybe more than the other two lifts. Good to keep in mind.
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Jack Reape is a Graduate with Merit of the US Naval Academy with a BS in Operations Analysis. He serves in the US Navy and competes locally and nationally when time permits. He is a multi time State, Region, and US Military National Powerlifting Champion.
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