Bench Press

Are You Ready to Bench Press?



Summer is here and that time of year signifies school is out and athletes are heading back into the gym eager to get huge for the summer and prepare themselves for the next school year’s sports season.

It is inevitable that if I get a male athlete who is new or who returns from college to start their summer training program going I will get the question, when are we going to bench press? This is usually followed up with my answer, Let me see 15 pushups.

The bench press is a tremendous exercise for building upper body strength; in fact it is THE exercise where the athlete has the potential to use more weight to train their upper body than any other, which allows for greater strength gains. The bench press is, however, potentially useless and dangerous if you don’t completely understand the movement and train your body to do it properly.

There is much more to the bench press than simple grabbing the bar, smoothly bringing it down to your chest and pressing back up. In fact, go to any commercial gym during the summer and you will see anything but a fluid movement demonstrated by a flock of 16-year old boys.

The bar will be loaded too heavily, their set up will be off- kilter, the weight will plummet like a meteor towards their chest, create a bounce that they use to press it back up while their friends laugh and half-spot and half-save the poor kid’s life from the bar crushing his now concaved chest.

bad bench

In this article it is not my intention to go over the proper technique of the bench press. I am going to move a step back and get you to assess and see if you or your athletes are truly ready to perform this exercise. If you are interested in the technique check out my other article Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier.

Pushup Variations

First and foremost an athlete has to be able to perform proper pushups. I do not have a magic number to complete to be able to graduate to bench press but I’d like to see 12- 15 repetitions with unwavering shoulder stability and good body unity during the movement.

Like most exercises, pushups should be progressive in their degree of difficulty in order to ensure the athlete’s success is gaining the physical and tactical attributes to perform a correct and effective bench press.

I like to start out my athletes using a bar in a rack to not only asses their upper body strength and control but also their push up prowess. There are a few nice components that the bar allows for during the pushup. The hand position, unlike a floor push up, is gripping the bar much like during a bench press so that the athlete can activate more forearm and back muscles during the movement when compared to the hands simply on the floor. The bar in the rack also allows for height variability which can correlate the athlete’s current strength and coordination levels. Simply put; when the bar is higher off the ground the easier the pushup will be. As the athlete gets better with the movement, the bar can be lowered to make the pushup more challenging.

Bar Pushup

After the athlete gets proficient with the bar I like to move to a slightly less stable platform, a suspension trainer, to further increase the demands on the shoulder muscles to stabilize the body during the movement. Because the arms are working independently there is much more demand on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders for strength and more core muscle activation to keep the body in proper alignment.   Shoulder stability during the bench press is crucial for safety and success.

Suspension Pushup

You can take the pushup one step further before moving on with the uneven push up. Utilizing an elevated object, like a medicine ball, in one hand while the other hand rests lower on the floor, creates more demand for work out of the shoulder stabilizer muscles and the core to resist rotation. The goal for the athlete to complete this exercise successfully would be to move through the range of motion with stability and a level body through core stability and strength.

Uneven Push UpDumbbell Chest Work

Before we get to the bench press I like my athletes to get comfortable using variations of dumbbell chest pressing. Unlike the push up the dumbbell chest press allow the athlete to mimic that exact same position that they will be in for the bench press. The individual weights also allow for more shoulder stability development and helps balance strength between both sides of the body so when your athlete moves on to the bench press they will have as much equal strength on both sides to make the bench pressing as strong as possible.

You want to first make sure the athlete is set up properly so they can take it with them when they bench press. Feet should be on the floor, even on both sides and rooted into the ground for maximal stability. Their glutes should be engaged to keep the hips stable during the movement and the shoulders slightly retracted so they are also stable.

When the athlete performs the movements I like to start with two dumbbells and I have the athletes understand lifting in both directions. I impart this to eliminate fast descents with the weight which is not only weaker but very perilous to shoulder health. I like the analogy of compressing a spring where the athlete with pull the weights downward, in control, using their lats and then use the elastic energy to press the weights back to the starting position using their chest, shoulders and triceps.

D.Bell Chest Press

The second variation I like to practice is the alternating dumbbell chest press. While one dumbbell is moving you will have the athlete keep the other dumbbell up and stable; when completing the rep on one side you will switch to the other dumbbell. This variation puts more emphasis on shoulder strength and stability enhancement with the isometric hold while the other is moving.

D.Bell Alt Chest Press

The final variation I like to implement is simply chest pressing with one dumbbell. This puts a great emphasis on core stability because without the other weight to counterbalance the body, you have to tighten the core so you do not move or roll off the bench while the weight is descending on the opposite side.

D.Bell Single Chest Press

Performing big strength movements requires proficiency in the foundational movements and building a base level of strength. If you are willing to take the time to do this, when you incorporate the bench press into your program you will achieve much greater success.

Check out the video below for more information:

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Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier

Arguably the most popular strength exercise, especially amongst high school boys, is the bench press.  Go to any commercial gym during the summer and the bench will be the most used piece of equipment for the next three months.

With its more frequent use so comes the increasing number of technically terrible sets and reps.  It is not uncommon to see a kid load up a bar with more weight than they can handle, receive a poor handoff from their spotter and after a bounce off their chest with shaky arms and tap dancing feet, try and press the weight back up.  I once saw a young guy get pinned with 95lbs and after his three spotters pulled the weight off him they were all so embarrassed they ran away never to perform another set that evening.

Now there are tons of articles about bench pressing out and about on the internet; I even received two this past week in my inbox from popular trainers; however most of the articles talk about how to increase your bench press giving minimal attention to technique.  You can throw as much weight as you want on the bar, try wave loading cycles, use bands and chains and even do heavy eccentric work but without the technical basics you won’t get anywhere but a trip to the hospital with a jacked shoulder or torn tendon.

In this article I am going to focus only on the set up and technique of bench pressing.  Build a solid foundation around these principles and then the numbers will follow.

These technical principals are not restricted to just the bench press; utilize them for your dumbbell pressing and chest flyes as well.

Set it up Right

Before you can press any weight off your body it is important that you are set up properly.  When you lay down on the bench, I prefer that your eyes should be directly in-line with the bar you are about to press.  Many try to line their chest up with the bar but after it is unracked in this position you may hit the rack when you press if your head is too far behind the bar.

Your feet should be rooted into the ground.  Read that last sentence again.  Not tap dancing around or, heaven forbid, on the bench to keep your back flat, They should be firmly on the ground and ready to help support the lift and add pressing power.

Hand spacing is a matter of personal preference.  Some like a narrow grip because they can generate more power and some like a wide grip because the bar has to travel a smaller distance.  Both have their pros and cons.  I say find a zone where you can be the most powerful and maintain proper technique.  You can get a rough idea about where this is by standing up and placing your arms in a position where you would push someone who weighs 100lbs. more than you.  This is most likely the spot where you feel the most powerful and should work well for bench pressing.

One more note about the hands, I would prefer you use a true grip where your thumbs are wrapped around the handle.  I find this to be a safer position, minimizing the chance the bar comes down on your neck; also you will be able to grip the bar more and activate more muscle for strength.  Save the false (thumbless) grip for the professional powerlifters who choose to use it.

Pinch Those Shoulder Blades   

One of the most common complaints I hear about bench pressing is when people say the movement hurts their shoulder.  After watching their technique it is easy to see why; their shoulders are not stable and flopping around while performing the movement.

The fix is pretty simple: pinch the shoulder blades together.  Pinch them to the point where they are not only touching each other but where they are also contacting the bench itself.  The set up itself is not difficult to achieve, however it is maintaining this position that gets challenging.

Practice only with weight and within repetitions where you can maintain this position.   You may have to initially use a lighter weight than you are used to but mastering this technique will not only make you a stronger presser down the road, it will also save your shoulders in the process.

The pinch also allows the elbows to stay closer to the body which, when practiced, makes your press stronger and safer than having the elbows pointed perpendicular to the body.  If the weight is too heavy for you there will be a tendency to lose the proper shoulder position and the elbows will flare outward to press the weight back up.

Do not worry about the increased arch in the lower back; this is a positive result, especially when protected properly.  The next section will tell you exactly how to do so.

Put the Squeeze On

Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my athletes in the gym to “keep their butts tight.”  I am firm believer that the butt protects the low back. By keeping the glutes clenched not only will you keep your hips stable, therefore protecting your low back, but it also creates more tension to move heavier weight.

As far as grip on the bar is concerned, one of the best ways to activate more muscles and move more weight is to create tension.  Grip the bar strong, as if you are going to crush it, when you bench press.  The wrapped thumb around the bar is a good way to apply maximal tension on the bar for bigger, safer presses.

Compress the Spring

It is not uncommon for many novice pressers to focus solely on the concentric (upward) portion of the lift.  They usually do one of two things: literally drop the weight too fast towards the chest and try and press it up or shorten the range of motion so much that they don’t get the weight anywhere near the chest so they can get it back to the top position.

I tell all of my athletes to think about lifting in two directions.  In the bench press you want to set up properly and use your back muscles to pull the bar towards the chest.  This creates tension in the pressing muscles which is like a loaded spring that can be used to drive the weight back to the top.

Press in a Straight Line

Once you are all set up it is time to press.  Pressing in a straight line is important for a good lift.  It is common for someone to press back towards the head as if to rack the weight however when you press the bar back you lose your proper set up and it can be disastrous for your shoulders.

Get your set up, have a spotter help you with the bar placement, pick a line or focus point above you and press within that straight line. When the lift is complete, have the spotter help you rack the weight.

There you have some tips to help your set up for successful bench pressing.  Check the video below for visual demonstrations of techniques described above.


A Good Article from EliteFTS that References My Thesis Study

I’m excited someone read my thesis and did not fall asleep and used it for something.

Check it out….

Muscular Development Training Bytes

By Steve Blechman and Thomas Fahey

Static but not dynamic stretching decreases strength

Until recently, most people stretched before they exercised. Stretching was thought to increase joint range of motion, prevent injury, and increase performance. However, many recent studies showed that stretching does just the opposite. It decreases strength and power output and might increase the risk of injury.

Read the rest of the article here


Wednesday, September 30th, 2009 Articles No Comments


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