Most people are much more impressed by the amount one can bench as opposed to a how much one can deadlift or squat. Almost everyone wants a big bench! Now think of how many times someone has asked how much you squat or deadlift? Enough said!
There are generally three movement styles involved with this power movement. The wide grip bench, which is usually better suited for the longer limbed physique; the narrow grip, which is generally better for the shorter limbed individuals; and lastly, the reverse grip, which in the past few years has been declared an acceptable form for competition.
The wide grip, decreases the distance the bar must move. The hands are at the maximum legal length of 32 inches and it recruits more pectoral muscle fibers to do the work. The narrow grip, is usually around 28-30 inches and involves more triceps and anterior deltoid work. The reverse grip, for all practical purposes, will not be discussed in this book. So what body type are you? Now, choose your style.
The head, trunk and buttocks should be extended on the bench away from the uprights of the bench. This will prevent the bar from hitting the uprights when pressing the weight. The eyes should be looking straight up to an imaginary spot on the ceiling. If able, try to arch the back as much as possible, while keeping the shoulders, head, and buttocks on the bench. This position will lessen the distance the bar must travel and will also allow the legs to drive the shoulders into the bench for much greater power.
In powerlifting, any slight movement of the feet, negate the lift. It is necessary that the feet are placed flat on the floor and underneath the lifter as far as possible. This allows for a very solid base and assist in getting that much needed explosive start at the bottom. For those shorter lifters, in competition, you are allowed to build a platform under your feet. It is OK to put blocks, plates or whatever under your feet if you feel it will be of benefit. Just make sure that what ever you use will not slip when lifting.
The placement of the hands is a much debated question. Is it better to use a closed regular grip (thumb around the bar) or the open hand "false" grip (thumb behind the bar)? World records have been set using either style, so apparently this is not what makes world records. However, I have seen many lifters carried to the hospital with broken ribs and internal injuries from using the false grip, so in my opinion, and we know about opinions, the false grip is unwieldy and dangerous. If the bar starts rolling in the hands during the ascent (and it usually does), what's going to stop it? Well probably your chest, certainly not your thumbs, that's for sure! Unless you are in some sort of pain from injury, avoid anything but the regular grip.
The benching movement is started from the vertical position with the elbows locked. When lowering the bar, bring the bar down to the lower pectoral area. Then pause for a split second and explode the bar back to the top. When in the exaggerated arch body position and touching the bar in the lower pectoral area you can easily see that the distance the bar must travel is much less than when in a flat position. The flat position is great for bodybuilding movements, but in powerlifting the goal is to lift big weights. Establishing a proper groove for this lift can be a tedious process. Generally, the lifter should move the bar at an angle or path that feels most natural. There is much discussion among the gurus as to what is the best pathway for the bar to travel.
I am sure everyone has seen lifters wearing wrist wraps and wondered what purpose they serve. Here is the answer. If a lifter has weak wrists or tendinitis in the wrist area, they should probably use wrist wraps. These will not add any pounds to your lift, but will make it less painful if you have them wrapped.
Many lifters wonder if the belt helps the bench press too. I have tried it both ways, and have noted no marked improvements from using a belt. Consequently, I don't feel it necessary unless you just like that tight feeling. If you are using the exaggerated arch, which is suggested, then certainly avoid the belt.
Bench Press Shirts
The use of bench press shirts has not only cut down on the number of bench press related injuries, but they have allowed lifters to set new bench press records. The bench press shirt acts just like the squat suit in that it adds extra support to assist the muscles in moving heavier weight. If you use the bench shirt in training you will be able to train with heavier weights and stimulate more muscle growth. This will eventually lead to new personal records in the bench.
How To Use The Bench Press Shirt: Bench press shirts come in different thicknesses. Obviously the thicker the shirt the more support it will give. Use the bench press shirt just like you would use the knee wraps and squat suit. Start out wearing a loose fitting shirt when you start doing sets of five repetitions, then gradually work up to the contest shirt as the weight gets heavier and repetitions decrease. The contest shirt should not only be a thicker shirt, but it should also be a size or two too small. It will be very uncomfortable, but will definitely help those muscles move bigger weights. Again, there are a few different brands and styles, so experiment around until you have the right shirt for your body.
Warning: Do not lift in a shirt with tear of runners. Sooner or later the shirt will blow out while you are lowering the weight to your chest. This will no doubt cause you to completely lose control of the bar. The chance of injury is not worth the price of a new bench press shirt.
A Word On Training
I feel periodization principles are the best for gaining strength and power. However, if you are consistent with your program and put out 120% effort every time you go to the gym to lift, ANY program will eventually allow you to get results. It is also very important that you train your weak areas in any lift. So, if you are using the wide grip bench, it is very important that you increase the training on the less involved muscle groups (triceps and anterior deltoids). Always train in the gym as though you were under meet conditions! There is no place for touch and go bench or ballistic bounces off the chest. You are missing out on that explosive training at the bottom of your lift, which will result in fewer pounds being pressed to the top. Always use good control in the descent and ascent phases of any lift.
Tom McCullough MS, RD, CSCS, MSS
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Sport Nutrition Consultant