Building a big Bench Press can be frustrating. Sometimes it seems like no matter what you do, you can only add a few pounds here and there. Then you see a teammate hardly having to work to add plate after plate to the bar. It can be a pretty demoralizing experience.
Don’t worry. You’re likely stronger than you think—or at least you have the potential to add strength faster. You just aren’t performing the Bench Press correctly.
Rick Scarpulla, owner of Ultimate Advantage Training and an elite expert on the Bench Press, sees this frequently with athletes who come to his training facility for the first time. But with a few technique tips, he’s able immediately to have them benching more weight than ever before.
We saw this firsthand when Scarpulla helped a STACK intern add 30 pounds to his max in a single 20-minute session.
Sound too good to be true? We didn’t believe it either—until we tried it ourselves. Trust us, it works. Want to try it yourself? Here are Scarpulla’s tips to immediately bench more than you ever have.
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How you set up for the Bench Press is a lot more important than people think. Most folks just lie down, grab the bar and start performing reps. This, according to Scarpulla, is not only wrong, it limits the amount of force you can put into the bar. His fix? Pay closer attention to your legs.
If you don’t engage what Scarpulla calls the “bottom end,” it’s impossible to hit your true max Bench Press weight. “One of the most important factors in the Bench is the bottom end,” Scarpulla says. “There’s an energy transfer that needs to take place. The energy has to leave your hand into the bar, so you have to drive that bottom end into the floor.”
In a proper setup, your legs create tension by driving into the floor, with that energy traveling back up the legs, through your glutes, and into you core. As you press the weight, this energy travels up through your body into the bar.
It’s a simple way to instantly make you stronger—which is why powerlifters use this method. To do it…
1. Lie on the bench, grasp the bar and slide backward so your chin is under the bar. Plant your feet flat on the ground with your heels a few inches in front of your knees.
2. Slide your body forward into your starting position without lifting your feet off the ground. Your knees will now be slightly in front of your heels.
3. Tighten your core and glutes. Your back will arch slightly, but do your best to keep your butt in contact with the bench. Drive your feet into the ground as you press the bar upward to the starting position. Reset if your feet come off the ground.
Tip 2: Adjust Your Elbow Position
The Bench Press is a pec-dominant movement, but the back also plays a critical role. “When you’re bench pressing, the bottom third of the bench is all back,” explains Scarpulla.
Problem is, most people take their back out of the movement with their technique. You are making this mistake if your elbows are aligned with your shoulders to form what looks like a T with your body as you lower the bar.
In this position, your anatomy limits the involvement of your back—your lats, in particular. Also, it places your shoulders in a compromised position, and it’s a common cause of shoulder pain during the Bench Press.
INCORRECT ELBOW POSITION
Instead, what you should do is angle your elbows down and to the sides. Imagine that there were an old fashioned round clock overtop your head and chest. The top of your head is 12 o’clock. You want your elbows to point downward toward 4 and 8 o’clock.
CORRECT ELBOW POSITION
“If your elbows are down, you can bench much cleaner,” Scapulla says. “The human body is most powerful in this position.”
You want your elbows to lock out on every rep.
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Tip 3: Tighten Your Back
Once again, we are focusing on getting the back involved in the movement. To lift heavy weight, you need a stable base to lift from. For the Bench Press, your back serves as the base since it’s directly under the bar.
Don’t set up for the lift haphazardly and ignore your back, which automatically reduces the amount of weight you can lift and leaves your shoulders in a vulnerable position. It’s akin to doing a heavy Back Squat without tightening your core.
To prepare your body to lift heavy weight, you must engage your back muscles. This provides an extra power boost and increases shoulder stability so more of the force you produce goes into the bar and isn’t lost due to instability.
Fortunately, the fix is easy.
Imagine that you are trying to squeeze a tennis ball between your shoulder blades. That will help you get into the proper “chest up” position you should maintain throughout the exercise. To help get into this position, imagine that you are pulling the bar apart with your hands.
Other Bench Press Tips From Rick Scarpulla
Do speed work. Using bands to assist the bar allows you to lift heavier loads. Your body becomes accustomed to holding the weight, which sets you up for rapid gains. And, it helps to develop the explosive strength you need to drive the bar up.
Focus on breathing. Don’t take small breaths in through your nose. Fill your lungs with air before each rep and push the air out as you drive the bar up.
Always use a spotter. Even strong guys like Scarpulla always use a spotter when benching. It’s just common sense.
Attack the weight. Get your mind right before each set, and be ready to attack the weight with every ounce of strength you have. A good cue is to try to move the bar as quickly as possible, even for heavy lifts when the bar might not necessarily travel fast.
Vary your routines. Scarpulla explains that absolute strength is built using 3 or fewer reps. Sometimes you can do sets of triples, sometimes singles. Other times, try incline, or try slowing down the negative and pausing at the bottom of the rep. Continually change things up to challenge your body.
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