I was first thinking how I could make this article interesting and unique. I wanted to touch upon all the various techniques and cues that make a great bench presser. I had written a few key points down and was going to delve into them when it hit me.
Why don’t I get a compilation of great advice and technical cues from some of the best lifters out there?
So that’s what I did. In this article, you will find multiple quotes from some of the best lifters past and present regarding what makes a good bench presser. You’re hearing their advice straight from them. Everyone had great input and I also learned a bit myself by putting this together.
What I found interesting is, yes, even elite lifters differ on their approach to benching. Some prefer toes back, some prefer feet out flat. They use various means of leg drive, and even various ways to set up and press the bar. However, the guiding principles remain the same. A good bencher needs to set up correctly with their shoulders retracted, they need to execute leg drive, and they need to have a plan regarding how they’re going to press the bar.
This just goes to show you how there are multiple ways to skin a cat, just like in your training programs. Everyone does something slightly different than the other but in the end, they are all great and no one person is “wrong” with their approach. Guiding principles remain the same. Whether it’s your approach to a lift, how you train for a meet, or what program you use, there is a common theme that links all successful plans together.
Let's start with the setup to the bench press. I’m on record as to say that the most important piece to benching happens before the bar even comes out. Your setup will determine your success or failure on this lift. I coach my lifters to take their time setting up and not to rush it. Maximize every millimeter in improved leverage. Get your setup perfect, because as soon as that bar comes out only bad things can happen.
Casey Williams reinforces this concept.
“The biggest piece of advice that helped my bench was from Dave Tate. When getting set up for the bench, create your leg drive and build tension. It should be extremely uncomfortable. The worst part of the bench should be the setup and you should be relieved once you actually unrack the bar and start the bench.”
I can tell when someone is really trying to maximize their setup or just running through the motions. Someone who is setting up correctly is going to be beet red in the face. When I demonstrate a tough set up I point out the fact that I’m practically choking myself out with my shirt. So yes, Casey says it best when he says the worst part of benching is setting up. It sucks!
One of the greatest raw bench pressers of all time, world record holder, Jeremy Hoornstra offers interesting insight on how he approaches the setup.
“If you're comfortable when you lay down on the bench, you're doing it wrong. Shoulders should be pulled back with traps and rear delts, erectors tight, quads tight, abs flexed and pushed out, and your forearms should be engaging by squeezing the bar as tight as possible. I try to leave finger grooves in the bar I squeeze it so hard. That way the forearms are used, which not only controls the bar path itself, but makes it feel lighter. If it's light in your head, it's light in your hands.”
You always hear the “break the bar” cue but Jeremy’s insight on trying to “leave finger grooves in the bar” really stuck with me. Sometimes just adjusting the way you think about things the slightest can change a lift. This is definitely something I’ll be applying in my own training.
His concept of if “it’s light in your head, it’s light in your hands” couldn’t be truer. The mind is usually the limiting factor of a big lift. If you don’t believe you can lift something, your body won’t respond by doing it. If you can create the sensation that massive weight feels light in your hand, you’re one step ahead. It's no wonder Jeremy has set the world records he has in the bench press.
Two other very successfully lifters and bench pressers offered their take on how to create a good arch with your setup in order to maximize leverage. Maliek Derstine explains,
“The key to creating a bigger press is the athlete’s ability to master the upper back arch and retracting the lats and shoulder blades. The biggest misconception is the arch needs to be produced from low back.”
Susan Salazar seconds this concept.
“On my bench setup, I always try to keep my upper back tight and in a locked position. I have found that most people who are starting off do not really understand how to do this. A cue that Tom Delong, USPA Director of Science Education, taught me was to 'retract and depress' my shoulder blades as I set up and maintain that position throughout the entire movement. It works wonders!”
I often hear people talk about how they can’t achieve an arch on their bench press. You’ll see these same people sticking all kinds of foam rollers under their back to help achieve an arch. It has nothing to do with the lower back; it is all about how you set those shoulders! Take a page from Maliek and Susan and begin working on that shoulder retraction. Thoracic spine mobility drills work great and are something I always keep in my warm-up.
Unracking the Bar
Now that we’ve perfected the setup, it’s time to take the bar out. I’m glad someone mentioned this important aspect. Legends don’t overlook any details. Steve Goggins says,
“Lock your elbows hard when unracking the weight and bringing it into position. Squeeze the bar hard while pulling delts together and down.”
This is the first area where the setup you worked so hard to obtain can go to shit. If your shoulders come undone here in the slightest or you take the bar soft and loose, you’ll drastically lose your potential to lift max weight. Making sure you take that bar out strong with your elbows locked hard as Steve explains will change your bench press for the better. I can count numerous instances where I took the bar too soft and had a shitty press as a result.
Initiating Leg Drive
Once that bar is in position, it’s time to bench! I cannot stress enough how important leg drive is at this time. The bench is really a total body lift and if you learn to use your powerful legs correctly it will have profound effects on your bench. Who many would call the queen of bench pressing, Jen Thompson, offers her insight on the topic.
“Leg drive is the most common part of the bench that is either left out or executed incorrectly. When I take the bar down I apply 50% of my leg drive. Then when I hear the "press" I thrust the other 50%. Your legs should be pushing as if you are trying to slide your head off the bench. If you are pushing in this direction your butt cannot come off. If it does you are pushing in the wrong direction. The other thing I have seen is lifters pinning their legs behind their hips to lock in their arch. The problem with this is your quads are tied up and you cannot use much leg drive. I'm having the lifters at our Iron Sisters training camps get their arch and then slide their feet toward the bottom of the bench. Then they have leg drive!”
How this woman lifting in a lightweight class with a long bench stroke can move over three plates with ease is beyond me. If you follow her at @jenthompson132 you’ll see what I’m talking about. She has benching down to a science and everyone could learn a thing or two from what she does.
Benching with the feet flat style she uses, the key is to push yourself back off the bench. I see most people getting this wrong. Your objective should be to literally throw yourself aggressively back into your hand off person. This is the direction you need to push to make this style effective.
Feet out flat isn’t the only way to initiate leg drive. Very successful benchers also utilize the toes back heel drive style of benching. One of these lifters is former world record holder and Westside Barbell elite, Greg Panora.
"Heels to traps. Push your heels down and drive yourself back onto your traps. This will create a decline bench effect and make a bench a full body movement.”
“Probably the most game-changing general coaching cue for the bench press is the "heels to traps" cue. The idea is: once the lifter is already set up on the bench with shoulder blades retracted and depressed and feet are back in a position where the knee sits below the top surface of the bench itself, he or she should fill low, expanding the lower torso, brace their midsection hard and drive their heels, locking the top of their traps into the pad and securing them onto the bench. In my experience, this will reduce or eliminate most issues with pain in the shoulders, as well as issues caused by a lack of stability or leg drive.”
Whether you adopt the feet out flat style like Jen Thompson, or toes back heel drive style like Swede and Greg, you can find success. This is one of those instances like I talked about in the beginning of the article; everyone does something slightly different but the guiding principles remain the same. Having leg drive and finding stability on the bench in any way you can make you a very dangerous bencher.
The Correct Bar Path
Now that we talked about how to set up, unrack, and initiate leg drive, we need to talk about how we should be pressing the bar. The bar path on the bench press is the shortest bar path of all three lifts for some. This makes attention to detail very important. One wrong motion with the bar and that could spell the end of your attempt.
Common mistakes I see from lifters include starting their descent at too great of an angle. They start from all the way near the eyes and end up touching low sternum. Not only is this a longer bar path but also leaves a large probability that you’ll mess up your descent with max effort weight. The other mistake I see is lifters pressing away from themselves right off the chest. You’ll see the bar movement out followed by an autocorrect. This commonly causes an up-and-down motion that judges would red light you for. The path the bar will take during the press is determined by the angle of your forearms while the bar is on your chest.
Jeremy Hoornstra has his bar path nailed down in detail.
“Make the bar come from overhead in a downward path towards your feet, ultimately stopping somewhere around your lower chest. Lower sternum area would be an ideal line of descent. When this occurs, you aren't pushing straight out — you're pushing out and upward towards your head. With this path, leg drive can be maximized in that feet will be pushing away from the bench causing extra power in an upward motion.”
The angle back that Jeremy is explaining here is critical to a smooth bench press. Whether your descent is angled or straight down, everyone would agree that the press should take a path towards the head to take advantage of your leverage under the bar. A common cue is “press yourself away from the bar.” This works in unison with the direction of your leg drive as he explains, and allows you to put maximum force into the bar.
Eat to Gain Weight
The world’s strongest bodybuilder, inventor of the Kooler and former world record holder, Stan Efferding, offers insight into perhaps the quickest way to increase your bench press.
“GAIN WEIGHT! My bench press has always gone up and down with bodyweight. Eric Spoto said the same thing when I trained with him. Scott Mendelson was notorious for eating insane amounts of food when training to be his strongest and Kirill Sarychev was almost 400 pounds when he set the world record last year!”
The bench press is often the first lift to be affected by a change in bodyweight. You have likely felt this reality at some point as you dieted down and asked yourself why your bench session was feeling so heavy. Some of the biggest bench presses recorded have been accomplished by some of the biggest human beings. There’s no denying that mass moves mass, and the more weight you have on your side the easier it will be to put up inhuman amounts of weight.
I myself am applying this principle as I train for a big bench in the fall. I am giving myself six months to gain weight accordingly to help attain my goal. I suggest to lifters who may be experiencing a long plateau, spend six to eight weeks gaining some weight and see where it takes your bench press. You can always diet back down but your lifts will thank you in the meantime. Just a pound a week can make the difference.
Applying Overload Training
Stan Efferding also offers his thoughts on using overload training to improve your bench press.
“Use overload training, negatives, Slingshot work, three-board presses, and floor presses to prepare the CNS to handle heavier loads.”
Not only are you training your muscles to handle the heavy weights, but also, more importantly, you’re training your nervous system as Stan said. The benefit to training the CNS to handle these supra-maximal loads is getting the muscles to all fire in unison more quickly. This results in big time strength and power for a lifter. You’ll often see a beginner lifter increase weight rapidly. This isn’t necessarily because they're gaining muscle so quickly, but rather they are training their CNS how to coordinate the movement and fire the appropriate muscles.
You can train the CNS with the tools Stan mentioned above. Sometimes all you need to break a plateau is to get your hands on some heavier weights. Applying overload training can be particularly beneficial as you near your powerlifting meet in order to handle the type of weights you might use in the meet without demanding too much from your body and risking injury.
Specificity of Training
IPF world record holder Blaine Sumner also reminds us the importance of specificity in your training.
“Practice like you play. Get used to touching and pressing big weight using a full range of motion. Boards should only be used sparingly.”
Blaine has benched 904 pounds single-ply, and as an equipped lifter where most are using boards religiously, this speaks volumes. With all the fancy partial range exercises out there, we can’t get swept away in the idea of using them all the time. Blaine reminds us that at a powerlifting meet you need to bring that bar all the way down to the chest and that needs to be practiced in training.
You can press 400 pounds off the two-board all day, but if you can’t press 320 off your chest then what good is it? The concept of practicing how you play is huge. This is what guides sports specificity training. Analyze the demands of the sport, in this case powerlifting, and train accordingly.
Incorporating the Most Muscle Groups
Finding the correct grip and positioning on the bench is critical in order to include the most muscle groups to their fullest in the press. Just like using a low bar squat in order to get more muscle behind the lift, you want not only your chest and triceps involved in the press but also your shoulders, back, core, and even your legs.
Everybody has a different style that they use and are successful with, but ideally, in the bottom of the press you want to be in a position where your elbows form a 45-degree angle from your body and your elbows are driving directly below your wrists. This will ensure you’re able to tap into all of your muscle groups as evenly as possible and also give you the ability to load your lats.
Susan Salazar shares her experience coming from a bodybuilding background to learning the powerlifting technique involved in benching.
“Widen your grip. As a bodybuilder, I used to bench flat backed and close grip. At a certain point, my bench stopped progressing because I was not using all my muscles. DUH! As soon as I brought out my grip, I could maximize my bench by using my chest, front deltoids, and lats.”
One of only four men to bench press 1000 pounds in competition, “The Bench Monster” Ryan Kennelly shares his insight into the correct way to press the iron.
“Squeeze the bar to activate the triceps, and always push the bar in a straight line and spread the bar as you press it upwards.”
His insight brings up an important concept to note. The harder you break the bar and squeeze the bar, the more muscle you will recruit. This goes back to Jeremy Hoornstra’s cue of leaving fingerprints in the bar or Brian Carroll’s “white knuckles” cue. Once that bar is coming out of the rack, you need to be squeezing everything with vicious intent. You literally are trying to break that bar with all the force you have. You should almost be shaking as a result.
Jeremy Hoornstra speaks on the benefit of including the most muscle groups possible.
“Pressing a bar from your chest in a motion that solely uses pecs and triceps is a hard motion to engage other muscles in as well. However, if the line of descent and the press itself are lined up with a few variables, more muscle groups can be used as well which can substantially increase your bench press. The upward motion also allows lats to be involved as well as the deltoids. Using your chest and triceps will never be as strong as using your chest and triceps...and delts, and lats, and traps, and legs. The key to getting used to having all of these fire at different times is body tightness.”
The bench is a total body movement!
Wrist wrapping is definitely atop the list of things I see done incorrectly on a daily basis. Lifters have the intention of adding support to the lift but often fail to do so because they wrap the wrist itself and not across the joint. Just like wrapping your knees, you have the intention of immobilizing the joint. You should not be able to flex your wrist at all.
This is something that doesn’t sneak past an elite lifter like Susan Salazar.
“Wrap your wrists correctly. I used to wrap my wrist below the joint, which caused my wrist to bend back and led my bar path too far back. Now I wrap my wrist across the joint, making sure that my wrists stay straight. This allows me to prevent injury to my wrist and helps me push the bar straight up and slightly back.”
This is something that can help you lift more weight if done properly, so it’s something that should be researched on the lifter's part. Lifters should learn to wrap their wrists with the same pursuit as learning to wrap your knees. They both allow you to handle more weight.
Hold Your Air!
Proper breathing is huge for any lift. Taking in air deep in the belly, obliques, and even filling the back is crucial in order to develop total body tightness as Jeremy Hoornstra talks about. In no circumstance should you let that air escape until the press is fully completed.
Jason Coker holds the highest bodyweight bench press of all time: 4.60-times bodyweight bench of 900 pounds at 198 pounds. Some may consider him one of the greatest bench pressers of all time. This Westside Barbell veteran offers his insight on this subject in the only way Jason Coker knows how.
“People always say 'the shirt is choking me out' or 'I can’t breathe because of the pressure of the shirt.' I say get the fuck over it! Deal with it. You shouldn’t be fucking breathing in the first place! I guess the nice way to put it is 'hold your fucking air!'”
There you have it — the secrets of benching as told by the pros! These are bench pressing tips from some of the greatest lifters and bench pressers on the face of this planet. They say you’re a product of the people you surround yourself with and we have just surrounded ourselves briefly with the very best for this article.
Like I alluded to earlier, there are plenty of variations in everybody’s approach. However, the principles of sound bench pressing remain the same. Everything from the setup, to the unrack, to the press, to all the details in between need to be accounted for. You’ve just heard differences in subtle technique, and agreement in major bullet points.
Adopt some of the techniques and cues you’ve just read and apply them to your training. Focus on one change at a time and soon you’ll be benching with the same guiding principles as the pros!