Building A Strong Bench Press For Athletics by Matt Wenning, BSU Strength Coach
As many lifters do, I started my bench-pressing career as a teen doing lots of pec, front delt work. This gave me a pretty good physique and some impressive shoulders, but other than that, the progress was minimal after my bench hit around 470. Stuck at this point for some time, I was to say the least frustrated. At the time, I thought my technique was good. After watching many elite benchers lifting, doing lots of reading, and asking lots of questions, I reanalyzed everything and this is what I found. Your First lesson is that the true pressing movement for a high caliber bench press is anything but normal and easy.
Pressing movements when done correctly take much of the shoulder out of the movement. This means keeping the elbows in tight and prying the bar apart with the hands (as if ripping the bar in half in the middle). This puts the emphasis on the real pressing muscle THE TRICEPS AND LATS. Pressing in this fashion keeps the shoulders healthy and gives you more strength and progress. Now outside of Westside Barbell, these ideas are rarely used. Many of us think we just let the bar down and push it back up, but there are many underlying things happening in an elite bench press.
Lesson Two If you want a strong bench, you better have a strong and massive back and rear delts. Think about this for a minute, how many people that you have seen in person or seen in magazines that can press a shit ton of weight, and donít have massive backs, thatís none for me (this goes for gear, gearless, or athletes in general). One of the main reasons that I think this is true has to do with the CNS. In your muscles, you have golgi tendons and other sensory organs that tell the body, the length, tension, and speed of the muscular movement. The body will shut down muscle fibers if it feels that itís in a position to be damaged, hurt, or the imbalance of the muscles is too great. So a large back will allow the shoulder to have support, and stability while you press. This will allow the muscles to work as hard as you want them to, and also have added insurance both on the field and in the gym. Do most of your backs work in a supine (reverse of a bench press) position. This has always seemed to make my back get stronger much quicker, and have more relevance to all around back strength.
Mike Schwanke Launching a 700 Pound Bench - That's Power
Traps are also an important muscle group in the back. They take a lot of pressure in the bench press and also help to hold the scapula secure. When benching correctly the traps should be flexed isometrically and therefore assisting in retracting and retaining the scapular position of retraction. This will decrease range of motion in the press by as much as 4 inches (less distance equals bigger weights), and also put your body in optimal pressing mechanics. The traps should stay flexed throughout the entire press, especially at the top, to keep the scapular motion minimal and distance short.
Lesson Three You must have max effort and dynamic days, along with chains and bands in order to press massive weights. When you train reps (the repetition method which is used way too much in all forms of lifting), primarily in the core lifts, your training the muscles and the nervous system to conserve energy, not expend energy. A great lifter will be able to put tons of force into the bar in the first rep, then less and less and each rep is completed. Training reps on a consistent basis will have adverse effects on controlling volume and minimize potential. You will have the muscle to press the weight, but the CNS will lack efficiency and coordination with max effort weights.
For powerlifters to complete a 1-REP all out max in the bench it takes about 3-4 seconds. This is how long it should take to do dynamic sets (the energy systems are similar in both) that are why Westside advocates 3 rep sets on bench in the dynamic day. Training the energy system too long (failure sets, lots of reps) will give you hypertrophy, and training for too short of a time (singles and not optimal loads) will hamper your 1-RM pressing endurance and make it less specific.
Max effort days are a must for developing absolute strength. Absolute strength will bring up speed strength, and explosive power, and also help with coordination and ligament, and tendon density (injury prevention). Most coaches max in the beginning and the end of a semester or a training cycle, but when used correctly, can be used week in and week out. Lift heavy weights, get big and strong: simple equation.
Trent Nelson's Strong Bench Comes In Handy When He Plays Rugby
Chains and bands will manipulate the strength curve, and make the lifts harder and point where the body wants to slow down, or change leverage. They will create explosive starts (accelerating strength) and aggressive lockouts. Look at Westside recommendations for chain and band amounts for different levels of strength. This also has a lot to do with athletics, quicker starts, and acceleration through external forces, and also gives the coach more stimuli both physically and psychologically. This equals less burnout and constant progression.
Lesson Four Triceps need to be freaky strong. This holds true for athletics as well as powerlifters. Triceps are the prime mover, and most times the limitation for all pressing movements, and if the triceps are strong, then the weights used in the presses will be bigger and all the other muscles will get bigger and stronger as well. Donít think that the pecs are involved to the degree that most think. Something Iíve always pondered is the amount of motion that the shoulder joint does in comparison to the elbow. The elbow joint seems to have more motion than the shoulder joint when performing the bench, so if the elbow does move more, then that means the triceps do the most work. (I may do some pilot data on this for reassurance). This has worked for me raw and in gear. I would say 40% of my assistance work upper body is dedicated to the triceps and their development.
The main exercises we use here are JMs, band and cable tricep pushdowns, narrow board presses, and various DB exercises. We also JM press the safety bar, which creates a fulcrum for rotation, and not to mention a very strict position. Chains and bands are a must for increased development of the triceps.
Lesson Five Learn to push through your feet without raising your butt. This helps you to push in a straight line and stay tight on the bench. When you learn to do this, your stability will increase and as we know from training the back, when stability is increased so is the weight. Stability is a big key especially with beginners, we have all seen it, but have we all corrected it?
Lesson Six Keep the shoulder joint as flexible as possible, and work on external rotators on off days. The external rotators if weak (which most peoples are), they will inhibit pressing power, due to (in) stability within the AC joint. Not only will getting this muscle group strong and flexible help with your pressing power, it is cheap insurance to shoulder injury. Great coaches have showed the importance of this muscle group, by doing just external rotators with an athlete in whom the athlete was sub par, and with no pressing movements in 4 weeks or so, and the athletes bench went from mid 300s to over 400, not bad huh for just working external rotators. This will be a big key for advanced lifters. Whether you want to or not, when your upper body becomes very strong, you get tighter. I always know when Iíve been neglecting my flexibility, because I start to get pain and discomfort from my shoulders. So keep the shoulders as flexible as possible and stay on it all the time. The longer your joints stay healthy, the more weight you will move in the long run.
Lesson Seven Do mini workouts for lagging muscle groups. Lagging muscles hold back your progress, create imbalances, and eventually promote injury. In my workout, I do anywhere from 6 to 10 mini workouts per week, focusing on lagging muscle groups as well as GPP. To get better you must do more work. The key to this is constant progression and selection of exercises. Remember that to lift more, you must be more frequent, and volume must increase, but the hard part is that squatting more or benching more may not raise those particular lifts, you must keep changing the stimulus.
Coaches of all types: Benching is an exercise done by all of athletics, whether the lifters are in the weight room under our supervision or away for break, the bench press is one exercise that is going to be used (itís a favorite). Itís our job as strength coaches to ensure that the bench is strict.
I hope some of these tips have helped you the lifter or coach re-evaluate your benching and assistance work. Another paper out there with similar ideas is Dave Tates article on benching 600, as well as various Westside articles.