My fitness clients don’t bench press. If they have no special interest in the lift, I think there are safer ways to train chest, shoulders and triceps. Pushups and landmine presses are great for fit, functional shoulders and chest. But, like many, I grew up wanting to bench big, so I continue to bench press in my own training.
But, over the years I’ve picked up good advice about benching from a number of smart, talented people, including Dave Tate, Jim Wendler, Mark Bell, Eric Spoto and Greg Nuckols to name drop a few!
Because of trying their suggestions, I have a lot less pain when I train!
Why should you read what I have to say, instead of learning from them? You shouldn’t — you should definitely read/watch all their stuff if you haven’t already. Jim Wendler explains bench set up here. (To me Jim is super-famous, but if you’re new to all things Wendler, get out there and pick up 5/3/1 and get super-strong and jacked. He’s great.)
With that said, because of people like the aforementioned, I have improved my bench technique a lot. And what I’m trying to do with this blog is to give a curated selection of their suggestions that worked in my own training. For me that doesn’t equate to a world-record bench press. But it does mean I can continue to use this exercise without pain or injury. And if I put together enough injury-free training, even a guy in his mid-forties can improve. And that’s a huge win for me!
Sun Tzu said, “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” In training, the battle is won or lost long before you push, pull or squat.
Setting up — putting yourself into the right position to exert maximal strength safely — is a huge part of success with strength training. A proper set up lets me stay in a tight position, which contributes to controlling the weight, and helps with stopping/reversing the bar. A good set up also puts me in a position that makes the lift easier on my shoulders, which helps a lot if you’re old and creaky (like me!), or even if you’re young with shoulder problems.
Here’s ten things I do to set up my bench press (plus a bonus):
- Lie on a bench, and grab the bar with an underhanded grip. Pull yourself to the end of the bench, with your head dangling over the edge. Your feet are directly below your knees. It’s your choice if you want the feet close together, hugging the bench base, or wider apart, more like your squat stance. Jim Wendler and Eric Spoto both set up with their heads off the end of the bench initially, then slide under the bar in an arched position. Jim keeps his feet close to the bench, and Eric spreads them out more. Both have gotten great results. Try both! Collect data on how it feels to you.
- Keeping your feet in the same spot, slide beneath the bar. At this point, I’m thinking, “Eyes under the bar, shoulder blades together, back and down”. Your feet remain in place while you do this, which automatically begins to put you in a tight, arched position as your upper body slides in the direction of your feet.
- Once you have your eyes under the bar, and the shoulders together, back and down, take your actual pronated grip on the bar. This varies from person to person. Feel free to start at just outside shoulder width, and play with it until you like your hand spacing. I use a full hand grip, with thumb around the bar. Dave Tate sometimes suggests the thumbless grip. Dave is a lifting genius, a constant source of good training information, and has done so much for powerlifting and recreational weight trainees. Try it both ways!
- Grip the crap out of the bar. Don’t try to bend it, but squeeze it like crazy. I used to try to ‘bend the bar’ as a cue. This was a popular cue among strength and conditioning coaches a few years back, and it’s supposed to make you automatically tuck your elbows. But for me it really aggravates my elbows to try to bend an unbendable bar, so I just squeeze the bar.
- Repeat the cue, “shoulders together, back and down”. If you are getting a lift-off, take a deep breath and give your spotter the cue. If you are lifting off yourself, be sure to ‘pull’ the bar out of the rack as Dave Tate suggests in point 5 of this article (as opposed to lifting it up and out of the hooks on your rack). This will help keep your shoulders together, back and down. Since you’ve already gone to some lengths to get into a good position, don’t give it up by changing the position of your chest and shoulders, only to try to regain that position again before lifting. Stay tight the whole time.
- Attempt to ‘pull the bar apart’ as you lower it to around the nipple line (the place the bar touches down may vary from person to person). Try to hit the highest point of your arched chest. ‘Pulling the bar apart’ (a static force, your hands don’t move) will cause you to tuck your elbows into your sides. Meet the bar with your arched chest. That sounds like a small thing, but it’s really important. When you ‘meet’ the bar, you are actively arching, and have a strong, firm contact point. You won’t be pushed down by the bar, which means you won’t have to push it as far.
- As you pull the bar towards your chest, start to tense your legs, thinking, “60%, 70%, 80%, 90%”. You’ll feel a lot of tension on the top of your legs. I got that from this video with Mark Bell and Eric Spoto. Keep squeezing the crap out of the bar the whole time. I used to relax my hands a bit too much — it makes a big difference to squeeze the bar hard.
- Stay very tight. Stop the bar motionless on your chest, think, “100%!”, and try to push your big toes through the toebox of your shoes. Don’t slide your feet forward though — this is a static drive and moving your foot during a lift isn’t allowed in competition.
- The leg drive you just created is a vector of energy that is moving parallel to the ground, in the direction of your face. It doesn’t go straight up. But we want the bar to go up! How can we use this force to move the bar upward? To take advantage of that horizontal vector of force, allow the bar to travel in the direction of your face a bit as you start your press. It won’t travel along the same curve as the downward eccentric of the lift. It will be shoved from the lower chest in the direction of the upper chest, creating momentum. Greg Nuckols explains bar path here way better than I can.
- At that point, continue to squeeze the bar like a crazy person, and think about ‘putting the bar back together’ as you shove it upwards with the combined strength of chest, shoulders, triceps and back. You pulled it apart by lowering it and tucking the elbows to the sides. You used the combined momentum of your leg drive, plus your chest, triceps, shoulders and back to kill inertia and get the bar moving again. Now put it back together, like you are trying to get your hands closer together on the bar. Flare the elbows last, and lock out. Wait a beat to make sure you are locked out, and repeat for the reps you’re after, or in competition, wait for the judge’s command to rack the bar.
Bonus! The bench can be a great exercise in the right hands. Some people can become incredibly strong with this lift, like this amazing woman. Learn the best form you can, and try it in your own training, if interested. But remember, no exercise is holy! Don’t be dogmatic about the bench. Use another exercise if it gives you nothing but trouble.
Like I mentioned, my own bench is poverty AF! But, I only steal from the best! Iron Lion Training is committed to using the best information available to help our clients to the outmost.
I didn’t invent any of this. These tips are just a product of my research. But I’ve experimented with the ideas a lot, and I think they contribute to keeping my shoulders healthy. If you find it interesting, give it a shot! At the very least, do yourself a favour and check out the links in the article! Great information from some of the best in the lifting business.
Co-Owner Iron Lion Training Inc.
1485 Dupont, #312, Toronto, ON