In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I covered how the back and shoulders play major roles in the Bench Press. In this final installment, I deal with the third muscle component of the Bench Press: the triceps.
I'm sure most of you know that the triceps are an important muscle group during the Bench Press. Their primary function is to raise the arms to full extension. The triceps work throughout the entire range of motion, but they are the prime movers during the middle section of the movement. Therefore, they are critical during the lockout. (Avoid these 3 Bench mistakes.)
Genetics play a role in determining how active your triceps are during the movement. If you have a wide shoulder girdle, your shoulders, back and lats play larger roles. A lower and narrower shoulder girdle requires more tricep activation. Either way, your triceps must be strong and powerful if you want a bigger Bench.
In my gym, we cater to people with several different body types. Our guys are all very strong, but everyone has a genetic edge in a different area. As I previously mentioned, I have a wide shoulder girdle, and Eric has a narrow and lower shoulder build. Brandon is thick all the way up and down, yet his shoulders are not as wide as mine. When we do any type of benching movement, I use the widest grip, Eric uses the narrowest grip and Brandon is in the middle. Eric is not comfortable with a wide grip because he has to use more triceps. Therefore, there is not much difference between his close-grip and his wide-grip Bench Press. I have a much larger gap between the two positions.
Understanding the role of genetics will help you maximize your personal build and allow you to develop your body correctly. Have you ever wondered why some guys seem to naturally have a bigger Bench than you, despite the fact that you can outlift them in other areas? It's because of their genetic makeup. (Watch NFL prospects prep for the Combine.)
The key is to understand your body and take advantage of what you were given. Some people are genetically gifted for the Bench; but even if you're not, you can still lift some serious weight if you maximize your tricep engagement during the lift.
Your triceps are most active when your elbows are close to your sides, like when you do a close-grip Bench Press. But this elbow angle is not ideal during the traditional Bench. Make sure to keep your elbows at the four o'clock and eight o'clock positions (described here). This provides the best combination of back, shoulder and triceps activation.
The lifting plane is an imaginary path that the bar must follow to maximize the biomechanics of the human body. If the bar moves outside the lifting plane, you have to fight gravity to get it back into the proper path. The heavier the weight, the narrower the lifting plane.
To keep your triceps maximally engaged, you must press the bar within the lifting plane. If you have narrow or low shoulders, press the bar in a straight path over your chest. If you have wide shoulders, drive the bar up slightly toward your head to get more leverage from your shoulders.
How to Train the Triceps
Regardless of your genetics, you must develop your triceps to become as strong as possible.
Volume, Intensity and Frequency
We work the triceps several times a week to develop max strength. The triceps muscles can used frequently since their type of fiber recovers quickly. I recommend one day of heavy work, one day of moderately heavy work and two or three days of light work each week.
The middle section of the Bench Press is where many people get stuck. Some trainers say that Block Presses are best for improving triceps strength in this area, but I feel blocks are just another tool. I like the analogy of using blocks akin to only practicing running 20 yards when training for a 40-Yard Dash. Your triceps are used in only half of the movement, and they are not prepared when you have to go all out. So you should do full range movements and explode out of the bottom with as much force as possible during each rep.
Also, I like to work my triceps lying down on a bench or floor rather than standing up, because it places the load directly on the entire upper girdle. We do a movement I came up with years ago called the RS Press (see the video below). It allows you to use a loaded barbell with heavy weight through a full range motion and in the same biomechanical pattern as a standard Bench Press.
To achieve maximum pressing power, you must develop all three key muscle groups of the Bench Press: Lats, Shoulders and Triceps. Hopefully this series will open some doors for you and help you get stronger. No matter what sport or direction you take, you have to get all over it!