by John Gaglione T-Nation
Walk into any commercial gym on a Monday evening and you'll see dozens of devoted lifters waiting to pay their respects at a handful of crowded bench press stations. They're doing this for good reason – the barbell bench press is one of the best exercises to develop upper body strength and size, fast.
Unfortunately, the majority of these reps dutifully performed are a travesty. Whether it's the dude with his partner's hands glued to the bar like some sort of bizarre partner-assisted shrugging deadlift, or the guy that invites decapitation with every rep by bringing the bar down to the neck with elbows out and feet flaying in the air like a freshly snared muskrat, good technique has become as irrelevant as a season of American Idol.
Since most of you are going to perform the bench press anyway, you might as well learn how to recruit the most muscle mass possible. To that end, here's a list of my top eight bench press tips from some of the biggest, strongest, most bad ass powerlifters and strength athletes on the planet. This is your ultimate guide to a bigger, better bench press.
A Good Bench Press
Here's an example of a clean bench press from one of my training partners.
If you watch closely you'll notice a few things:
- He gets his entire body super tight to create a stable platform.
- He uses his lats to pull the bar out of the rack to make sure his shoulders are in good position.
- He pushes his belly up and drives his shoulders into the bench and imagines that he's moving his body to the bar.
- As he tucks his elbows and lowers the weight, he tries to bend the bar and pull it apart.
- He keeps a tight arch and his back tight the entire set.
- His triceps are thick and strong, allowing for a strong, smooth, lockout.
- His upper back and lats are thick, allowing for a more stable press.
- He uses leg drive to start the lift after the press call and keeps his glutes tight throughout the set.
To help you build a better bench, I'll break down each coaching point in detail and provide a few exercises to help you improve your technique and increase strength and size. Follow these tips consistently and you'll be smashing new PRs in no time!
1. Learn to use Full Body Tension
Shoulder, core, and hip stability are all required to establish a stable platform from which to bench. Core stability exercises will also reduce injuries since you're less likely to get into a bad position if your core is strong. This also prevents any "power leakages" and allows for a strong, smooth, press.
It goes back to the popular saying, "You can't shoot a cannon ball from a canoe." If your core is weak and you don't have any shoulder or hip stability, you aren't going to be able to press big weights.
All types of plank variations and rollouts can help since they improve shoulder and lumbar stability, two crucial elements in the bench press. Adding a band around the wrists for traditional plank exercise also "activates" the external rotators and the stabilizer muscles within the rotator cuff. The stronger these muscles are, the more efficient your press.
Here's an example:
2. Pull the Bar Out of the Rack
The set up can make or break your lift. You're more likely to stay in good position throughout the lift when you start out in a great position.
Many new lifters simply press out the bar from the rack when they un-rack the weight. Big mistake. Pressing a weight out of the rack results in the lifter losing shoulder and upper back tightness.
It's crucial the lifter think about pulling the bar out of the rack, almost like performing a barbell pullover or straight-arm pull down. This is going to fire up the lats and put the shoulders in a great position to press from.
If you have access to bands and a power rack, a great exercise for teaching and training the lats for the un-rack are Brocksteins.
This can be used as a teaching drill or an actual exercise to strengthen the lats for a strong un-rack.
3. Pull your Body to the Bar
One of the greatest benchers I've ever met is Vincent Dizenzo who benched over 600 pounds in just a T-shirt. His bench press stroke is extremely short and efficient because of his body position and technique – he literally brings his hips up and rows the bar down to his upper stomach/lower chest area and loads his chest before blasting the weight back up.
One of the best drills he taught me for teaching bench technique is a reverse band bench row. This lift teaches the lifter to bring their body to the bar and really drives home proper bar path as well as body position. To get the bar to touch your chest you need to bring your belly up, tuck your elbows in, and bring your hips up so your body can reach the bar.
When used with heavy band tension it's also a great assistance exercise to build a thick back while simultaneously ingraining proper bench technique, making it a great bang for the buck exercise! See the video below for a demonstration.
If you don't have access to bands, another option is to do body-weight inverted rows and focus on getting your lower chest to the bar. See the video below for a demonstration.
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4. Pull The Bar Apart
There are many great cues for turning on the upper back and rear delts. By pulling the shoulders blades together you put the shoulders in a good position to press from as well as increase shoulder stability. Two good cues are to try to bend the bar in half or pull the bar apart.
A good way to experience what this feels like is to bench with bands around your wrists. One of my training partners does this as part of his warm up to help excite these muscles before he performs a heavy bench press workout.
Other ways to train the rear delts for this pattern are band pull-apart variations. You can also perform band pull-aparts over the course of the training week to get in some extra volume for the upper back to help counteract the bench pressing.
5. Keep A Tight Arch
The shorter your bench stroke, the bigger your bench. If you lie flat on the bench and don't keep a tight arch, your range of motion will be considerably longer. Keeping a tight arch also decreases the amount of rotation in the shoulders and keeps them healthy and in a safer position.
By limiting the amount of shoulder rotation in the bench press, you can keep a better position and thus put up bigger weights while reducing shoulder injuries at the same time. Increased strength and less injuries? Sounds like a win-win.
Some lifters argue that arching in the bench press is dangerous, but remember a few things about the spine before jumping to conclusions:
- You have a natural lordsis (arch) in your lumbar spine.
- Your spine isn't under any direct load like in a squat or deadlift.
- A lot of the range of motion in an arch comes from your hips and thoracic spine.
Check out these two drills:
Both these drills can be used as warm up exercises in your bench press routine or as "fillers" to get in some extra range of motion work before your heavy bench attempts as you build up in weight.
For example, if your program calls for 5x3 on the bench, you can add in hip flexor mobilizations in between your sets.
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Bench press with pause 5 3
A2 Hip flexor bench mobilization 4 6*
* per side
By adding some extra mobility to your upper and lower body you'll take a lot of stress off the lower back and still be able to get in a good position to reduce shoulder stress and limit your range of motion to put up big weights.
6. Train your Triceps for Lockout
If you're a regular T Nation reader, you probably know the importance of strong triceps in the bench press. But you need to work your triceps for both strength and hypertrophy.
A bigger arm is going to be a potentially stronger arm. Louie Simmons talks of training for increased size around the joint itself with lifts like JM presses. Barbell, dumbbell, and machine extensions are also great for hypertrophy. If your elbows are jacked up, performing band pushdowns instead of free weights to reduce elbow stress.
Here are two of my favorite band triceps variations:
What's awesome about these two variations is that by using bands you have much more freedom in the range of motion as compared to machines and cable attachments. I find most triceps rope and cable attachments either too short or just poorly designed. Most place you in a position of internal rotation so you can't get full contraction of the triceps.
For example, let your arms hang by your side and contract your triceps as hard as possible. You'll notice your arms come out at a slight angle and don't extend straight down. This is why I like the X push downs – since you go through a more natural range of motion, it will let your arms and shoulders move more freely than a fixed bar or short rope. If you have access to a long triceps rope that would be a good option, or you can perform the triceps rope pressdown one arm at a time.
Another thing to consider is that some movements have more lockout emphasis and others more elbow extension emphasis. Lockout emphasis variations are more specific to the bench press and require more technique than the extension movements. Things like board presses train the lockout portion of the bench.
This is also a great way to overload the movement so you can feel heavier weight in your hands. This allows your nervous system to get used to the supramaximal loads and adapt accordingly. The next time you go full range of motion the weight will actually feel lighter and will give you some extra confidence when attempting a new PR.
Here are two great ways to train the triceps for a strong lockout with minimal equipment:
Bar pad press. This is a great substitute for board presses when a board isn't available. You don't even need someone to hold the boards and bar pads are usually readily available at most commercial gyms. At least you found one good use for that girly squat pad!
Floor press pin press. The floor pin press is a great lockout variation to focus on training just the arms and takes your legs out of the equation.
7. Train your Back
The lats and upper back have many functions in the bench press. For that reason, it's crucial to train it for both strengthand stability.
The bigger the lats and upper back, the more stable your base of support when you bench. Think about if you had to bench from a narrow and skinny platform. Do you think you'd be able to handle a lot of weight? No, because you're extremely unstable with that narrow base of support.
If the lats and upper back are thick you're going to have a huge base of support and a great foundation to press from. All the bent row variations from my Perfect Pulling Exercises article are great for both size and strength.
Other ways to work the upper back are face pulls, rows, and pull downs like the J-pulldown. This pullover-row hybrid was popularized by Joe Defranco in his Westside for Skinny Bastards program and is a great way to train for the un-rack of the bench press and add thickness to the lats.
Stability is another huge part of a smooth and efficient press. The lats mainly contract in a static fashion (isometrically) to stabilize the bench press at the top of the lift, so doesn't it make sense to train them in this manner?
Exercises like dumbbell batwings, isometric inverted rows, and the flexed-arm hangs are all great exercises to train your lats isometrically to stabilize the bench press. For all these exercises it's important to keep the shoulders packed back and down just as you would in a bench press.
Here's an example:
8. Train Your Legs!
Even if your only goal is a bigger bench, don't forget to train your legs. Leg drive is crucial – it helps drive the bar off of the chest and sets up a strong lock out by assisting in the start of the lift.
Squats and deadlifts are great but also include bent-leg hip dominant movements like the barbell glute bridge and single-leg glute bridge, which train the posterior chain in a more bench press specific position.
Think about how your hips are moving at the start of the bench press. It's very similar to a hip thrust on a bench. By getting your glutes strong you're going to develop a much stronger start for your bench and be able to add some serious poundage to your lift.
The bench press is extremely technical and requires practice and perseverance. Start by reviewing these eight tips and dial in your technique. Next, identify your weak links and attack them intensely and consistently. Toss in a little bit of patience and I can almost guarantee that good things like PRs are just around the corner!
If you have any questions about any of the exercises or methods found in this article, feel free to post a comment in the LiveSpill!