The bench press is probably the single most popular exercise amongst gym goers. We are all trying to increase our bench press and everyone has been asked at one time or another how much they bench. Since it is such a popular movement, there is a multitude of information out there regarding the bench, such as new supplementary exercises, programs guaranteed to add 30 pounds to your bench in a month, and different technique perspectives.
It can be easy to get lost in the mass quantities of information in the pursuit of upping your bench. However, the basics of the bench never change, and with all the information out there, the basics can become overlooked. By focusing on the simple components of a big bench press we can improve upon the things that matter and ultimately bring us closer to our bench press goals.
1. Using A Handoff
There are so many benefits derived from using a handoff that I’m amazed most people don’t. Self pride takes over and we don’t want to appear like we can’t handle the weight out of the rack. I understand, you want to look macho in the gym, but let me tell you that train of thought is flawed. Unracking your own bar isn’t winning you any style points. In fact, it’s ensuring that you probably won’t make very good progress and might possibly set yourself up for injury.
Using a handoff lets you stay in a good position throughout the press. When you set up on the bench, you need to try to retract your shoulders back and down in order to bring your chest higher to the bar. This protects your shoulders as well as shortens the press so you can bench bigger weight. When you don’t utilize a handoff you will more than likely lose this positioning you obtained during the setup. When you unrack a bar yourself you are relying mostly on your shoulders to drive the weight up and out. When you do this, your shoulders will roll forward and out of the tucked position. Why bother taking the time to set up good if you’re just going to lose it while trying to self handoff?
Another unknown benefit to getting a handoff is better breathing and bracing. In order to transfer force into the bar, you want to breathe deep into your belly and lock in that air for the rep. This is called the valsalva maneuver and powerlifters have been using this technique for decades to press massive weights. You can experience this phenomenon when you brace your stomach as if someone was about to punch you in the belly. When you receive a handoff it affords you the opportunity to breathe deep into the belly without weight in your hands. It is much easier to form a good brace when you don’t have to control all that weight in your hands.
Receiving a handoff also allows you to guide the bar out of the rack with your lats, not your arms. Believe it or not, your back strength plays a big your in your success on the bench press. It all starts from unracking the bar. By having a handoff available to you, you can focus on guiding the bar into position using your lats, almost like performing a lat pullover motion. The way I teach this is by attaching a band to an empty bar, and I make sure the band is pulling the bar back into the rack. In order for the lifter to take the bar out, they are forced to engage their lats to bring the bar into position against the resistance of the band. However, this technique is only attainable through using a handoff as to make sure the shoulders do not take over.
2. Foot Positioning
One of the most massively important elements of a good bench that majority of lifters even at the higher levels are overlooking, or think they already have figured out, is proper foot positioning. How you set your feet during the bench press is going to determine the amount of drive you get from your lower body. Think of it this way: can you overhead press more sitting on the floor doing a strict press or by standing up doing a push press? The answer is standing up because you can utilize leg drive! This is how we need to think of the bench press. It is not an upper body lift, but rather a total body lift.
There are a couple main ways in which you can set your feet on the bench in order to get more drive from the lower body. That would be feet out flat or toes tucked back. Neither is wrong or right, but they both have differences that need to be accounted for in order for the lifter to find success with their chosen foot positioning.
With a toes back positioning, the lifter has their feet tucked all the way back under their butt. You are not actually on your tippy toes but rather on the balls of your feet. In order to find success in this position, the lifter needs to drive their heel down to the floor violently during the lift. Doing so sets their lower body tight and keeps their chest up in a proper position. It is important to note that with this positioning your heels will never actually touch the ground, but the act of driving your heels down brings about the effectiveness of this style.
With a feet out positioning, your whole foot is flat on the floor out in front of your butt. A slight outward turn of the toes helps give you more surface area to push with. With this positioning, you aren't driving your feet quite the same as with the toes back version. Instead, you are thinking about driving yourself back off the head of the bench. It is a forceful drive in the horizontal plane. Often times if done correctly you will in fact start sliding back on the bench until you have enough weight in your hands to hold you down.
Don’t let this be one of the basics to benching that you overlook. Having a great leg drive is key to a better bench press. Experiment with which style of foot positioning you like the most. Everyone will be different with this. What remains the same is that you will never get the most out of your potential unless you change the bench from a strict upper body lift to a total body lift.
3. Holding Breath During Each Rep
As I alluded to previously, holding your breath during your lift is referred to as the valsalva maneuver. It has been the powerlifter's secret to lifting massive weights for years. When you hold your breath you are able to create a total body bracing effect and can transfer more force throughout the body. Even so, I see many lifters failing to take advantage of this useful strategy. It mostly stems from the old personal training adage of being told to breathe out as you press the weight, but quite simply it is just one of those overlooked basic factors to benching big.
Proper bracing occurs when you are effectively engaging your core musculature surrounding your midsection, including your abs, hips, back, etc. To activate these muscles you need to breathe into the correct area. A good exercise to help you with this that you can throw into your warm-up routine is called crocodile breathing. You lie facedown on the floor and think about breathing into your belly and expanding your belly against the ground. This will help you better target your breathing into the correct areas to form a good brace.
When you feel you’ve learned to brace properly, you will notice the difference in how you’re able to transfer force in the bench press. The bracing effect will connect the lower body to the upper body. The force you derive from your leg drive will now transfer to your upper body press without any leakage. This is where you begin to turn the bench press from an upper body lift to a total body lift. You will also notice that you are a lot more stable to the bench as a result. The stability will allow you to keep better control of the weight. When you are stable on the bench, someone can push you and you will remain solid to the bench. If someone can push you and move you around the bench then you need to practice bracing and driving the legs a little bit more.
4. Having a Good Bottom Position
A huge determinant of your success on the bench press is how you look with the bar on your chest. Your positioning at the bottom of the bench press is very telling in how much force you’ll be able to transfer into the bar and what muscle groups are going to be most active. A good bench press is going to have a balance between the triceps, shoulders, chest, and lats, not just be over reliant on one muscle group, which happens from flaring the elbows too wide or tucking the elbows too close.
Where you touch the bar on your chest is going to be critical not only for being able to drive the bar through the best bar path possible but also for engaging all the upper body muscles evenly, as we just discussed. A great trick I learned from elite powerlifter Brandon Lilly teaches you very simply where to touch the bar on your chest. Unrack the barbell and close your eyes. You are going to hold the barbell up high near your neck and slowly move it down towards belly. You are going to keep scanning the area up and down with your eyes shut. There is going to be a certain point while scanning that area where the bar feels weightless in your hands. When that specific point is found, drop the bar straight down to your chest and that is your optimal touch point. This is a very simple trick and it works each time. You always end up in a great pressing position off the chest using this technique.
When we are talking about proper bottom position in the bench press, one factor remains constant when trying to generate as much force possible into the bar. There must be joint alignment throughout the press, and this can easily be seen in the bottom position on the chest. When I say joint alignment, I mean you want your elbows to be driving directly under your wrists and you want your wrists to be locked in straight. When your elbows are driving directly under your wrists you are able to transfer the most force through the joints. When your elbows are inside, outside, above, or underneath your wrists, you are going to leak force from poor leverage. Think about a boxer throwing a punch. You will always see their elbow driving behind their wrist, to not see this would result in inefficient punching power.
Perhaps the most important reason for maintaining a good bottom position on the bench press is keeping healthy shoulders. After all, you can’t do much benching if you’re always injured, and shoulder injuries plague most benchers. Injuries are mostly a result of letting those shoulders become untucked as well as touching the bar too high on the chest. It comes back to what I was talking about before: if you touch the bar too high on the chest you are over relying on the shoulders to do most the work. When you put so much stress into the should girdle you are bound to come away with injuries over time. Finding that balance with your bottom position is what will ensure your longevity with this movement.
5. Move the Bar with Intent
This benching basic really gets overlooked. There are a lot of benefits to moving the weight as fast as possible no matter what’s on the bar, yet most lifters will wait until the weight gets heavy to start driving with maximal effort. When you do this you are missing out greatly on getting stronger in the bench press. Even with an empty bar you should drive through it so hard that you almost throw yourself off the bench.
Moving the bar with intent each and every rep and driving through the warmups just as hard as the working weights increases force development. Ever hear of dynamic effort training? It is training that has become popularized by Westside Barbell and the basis of this training is moving light weight as quickly as possible. Even if the goal of the day isn’t to use light weight, it doesn’t mean you can’t move your warm-up weights with that same intent. Doing so will increase motor unit recruitment and actually cause a training effect. When you move an empty bar super slow you are not even close to recruiting all the muscle fibers possible and you certainly aren’t increasing motor unit recruitment to a great degree.
Typically when you see a lifter moving light weights slowly, you also see them cutting the lockout short. What I mean by this is they do not fully extend the elbows with every rep. The problem with that is the bench press ends with fully locked out elbows. If you do not train to full elbow extension then you will develop a severe weak point over time. Every time you stop the bench press short you are neglecting that little piece of range of motion that comes back to bite you when you go to lock out the max effort weights. To fix this, simply move the bar with intent and punch the triceps through to full extension each rep. Doing this simple thing will put you ahead of 90% of the bench pressers out there when it comes to lockout strength.
What does moving the bar with intent every time mean to you? It means being able to increase your bench press using much lighter weights than having to strain under heavy weights all the time. Every time you move your warm-up weights with as much intent as your heavy weights, it will transfer over to your max effort attempts. The increased force development, motor unit recruitment, and technical proficiency will make you a stronger bench presser. Take advantage of this often overlooked piece to benching.
There you have it, five simple overlooked basics to benching. There is nothing too complicated about these and many of the techniques you learned in this article can be implemented immediately to make you a stronger bench presser. If I could suggest one thing it would be to begin putting these techniques into practice slowly. Things will become complicated when you try to make multiple changes to your technique all at once. Start implementing one strategy and once you feel you got it down and it becomes automatic, then begin implementing another. Remember to keep it simple and keep the basics in mind and you will be boasting a bigger bench in no time.
Nick Benerakis is a strength coach at Gaglione Strength in Long Island, NY. His best competition bench to date is 600 pounds multi-ply. Nick specializes in coaching the bench press. To learn more you can visit his website at bigbenchas.com or email him at email@example.com.