I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what my Bench Press max is. The exercise most associated with upper-body strength has almost mythical standards. I can still remember my first 225-pound Bench, my first 300 and my first 315. With so many people concerned with their bench performance, why do most people have an average Bench Press? Lack of maximum performance has less to do with strength and desire than it does with technique. The Bench Press isn't usually thought of as a technical lift, since anybody can complete it with a little instruction or coaching. The way we learned to bench in the basement of a friend's house with sand-filled weights is the way we continued to bench our entire lives.
But as with any exercise, there is a proper mechanical protocol to be followed for maximum results. Below, I outline the steps to follow to turn your average Bench Press into a great one.
Average to Great
- Don't sabotage your lift before you begin. The setup is most important. It needs to be the same every time, with the same sequence of movements. The first thing you do is establish your grip. To maximize your bench, move your grip as close as possible to the 32-inch marking. A max grip has your index finger on the ring (32 inches) closest to the plates. If you are benching with a closer grip, move your grip out one finger spacing every three weeks. A wider grip gives you shorter range of motion and activates larger muscle groups. Don't try to move your grip too much in a short period of time, as this will exert unneeded pressure on your shoulders.
- Establish your feet. Position them as close to the width of your hips as possible. Your feet can be flat or off your heels, but make sure they do not move during the movement so you can drive through them as you lift.
- Pull your torso toward your feet and place your upper back on the bench. Do not slide your torso across the bench because you will flatten out your touch point. Now squeeze your shoulder blades together. This shortens the range of motion and puts your arms in a groove that promotes pulling and pushing the bar.
- Squeeze your glutes together. This firms up your body on the bench and eliminates any unnecessary movement. This setup creates a bubble for the bar to touch. It will be located right below your chest at the upper part of your abs.
- Finally, give a 3-count to your spotter. Never bench without a spotter and always get a liftoff. Your shoulders will thank you later.
6-Step Bench-Press Setup
- Grip the bar
- Establish your feet
- Torso toward feet
- Shoulder blades squeezed together
- Squeeze glutes
- Give a three-count
The Bench Press Movement
Take a deep breath. Pull the bar from arm's-length toward your upper abs right below your chest line. Keep your wrists firm and in line with your forearms. Bending your wrist puts more pressure on your triceps. As the bar descends, keep your forearms perpendicular to the floor. This stops your elbows from flaring. Think about pulling the bar apart with your hands. This will better activate your lats.
Ideally you want to bench with all your muscle as opposed to relying on just your triceps. The ideal bar path puts the bar at the top of the abs, which (if you set up properly) is the highest point on your torso. Do not anticipate the touching point, because this will cause you to brush the bar at the bottom of the lift and create a slight movement toward your belt. Don't let it get to your belt, as this will not allow you to push past any sticking point. You want the bar path to be in a direct line to the bubble you created. As the bar ascends, push it back over your eyes. Get comfortable using your leg drive during this phase. Good leg drive helps you power through sticking points. Exhale slowly as the bar reaches the apex of the lift.
If you are not familiar with these techniques it will take time for your body to adapt. With patience and good form, the techniques will increase your bench.
4 Steps to Executing the Lift
- Take a deep breath.
- Pull the bar to top of your abs.
- Push the bar up to where it came from.
- Exhale as the bar approaches its apex.
The goals of this method are to shorten the range of motion, use as many muscle groups as possible and put the body in a position of power. Follow the setup protocol in the same order and try to improve your body's position every three weeks by moving your grip, positioning your feet or creating a better touch point. Technical soundness is crucial to maximizing your efforts. When you perform the movement, concentrate on pulling the bar down and pulling it apart. This technique takes practice but it will ensure you do not brush the bar at the touch point and that you stay under the bar. As your body gets accustomed to these changes, watch your bench go from average to great.