Step-Up, Set-Up, and Bench

TAGS: bench, strength, powerlifting, Elitefts Info Pages, barbell, bench press, training

If you look at any of the biggest benchers out there, raw or equipped, two things that they all have in common (besides freakish strength) are solid bases from which to bench and great leg drive. A lot of times these benchers rely on their set-up and leg drive just as much as they do their bench shirts. So, if you are stuck at a 300-pound bench and are sick and tired of seeing all the sexy 500, 600 and 700-pound benchers take your girlfriends, you need to ask yourself two questions:

  • 1) Do I have a good set up?
  • 2) Do I get enough, if any, leg drive?

If the answer to one or both of these questions is ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know,’ it’s time to get to work.

Step One: The Set-Up.

The first thing you need to do is to get in the gym for a benching session and ‘feel out’ how you bench now. What do you do? What do you like and dislike about your bench? Following this session, you need to gather the answers to the following questions:

  • Where do you put your feet?
  • Are you on your heels or toes?
  • Can you arch?
  • If you do have an arch, what part of your lower body is in contact with the bench?
  • Where are your shoulder blades?
  • Where is your head in relation to the bar?

Before we get going, it’s important to know how the ideal set-up should feel. A good bencher takes pride in his set-up and a lot of time to get under the bar. You might have seen these people and thought, “Could you please hurry up?” What they are doing is going over their set-up from head-to-toe to ensure that everything is correct before they even pull the bar out of the racks. They know that if their set-up is even slightly amiss, they won’t get the most out of the bench. It’s a hard thing to describe, but once you have things right, you should feel tighter than you ever have on the bench - almost uncomfortably tight. You should feel as though you might just “pop,” and it should be a little hard getting out of your set-up...that is, if you have it right.

Now that we know where we want to go, let’s work on getting there. We’ll start with your feet. This is a very personal thing to each lifter; there is no one right way. What works for some people might not work for you, so keep that in mind when you go back to the gym and hit the bench again. One of these options will work for you; you’re just going to have to do the “leg work” and find out which one it is.

.Option 1: Feet tucked and on the toes. .

For most people, this is the easiest way to get tight. It is also the easiest to teach and to learn. So, if you are one of those people who just put your feet on the floor, this is the foot placement for you.

How to do it: Bring your feet underneath your body as much as your flexibility will allow, and then try and “stand” on your toes. To do this, start by laying in a normal position on the bench and step back until your hips start yelling at you; at this point, push your hips forward and get on your toes. By getting on your toes, you shift stress to the entire lower body. Your hips need to stay in contact with the bench for the lift to be passed in any real powerlifting federation, but the word “hip” is open to interpretation to some extent. So in this set-up, as long as flexibility is half-decent, your goal should be to have the glute-ham connection (the bottom of your butt) on the bench. And since there is no federation that patrols gyms around the US, anyone who doesn’t wish to compete doesn’t need to worry about this.

Variations: From person-to-person, there will be deviations in the foot placement, both in proximity to one another and degree of the toe point. Find the best combination of tightness and comfort, and go with that one.

.Option 2: Feet tucked, wide, and on the heels. .

This is a variation highly dependent on flexibility, arch, the rules of the federation in which you lift. If your hips start hurting at the mere sight of this set-up, this ain’t for you - that is, unless you are a IPF, USPF, or USAPL lifter. If you lift in one of those federations, start stretching; this is one of the best options you have and just getting in this position is an exercise for everything from your neck on down. If you are an APF, IPA, APA, WPC, WPO, or WPA lifter, you should do a little dance because you don’t have to worry about this.

How to do it: Start by straddling the bench a little bit more towards the bar than you normally would set-up. Get your feet out wide; you don’t need to be doing a split here, as it’s important for you to feel somewhat comfortable and confident that you can a) keep your heels on the ground and b) avoid suffering an injury that would require a hip replacement. Okay…time to squat down to the bench. If you are on your toes, falling forward, and your hips are hurting, you’ve gone too wide. You can either start all over or just wiggle your feet to a point where you can keep your heels on the ground. Now all you have left to do is to “push” your hips forward, arch back, and hit a PR.

Variations: From person to person, there will be considerable variation in foot placement - both in proximity to one another and the direction in which the toes are pointing. Find the best combination of tightness and comfort, and go with that one.

.Option 3: Feet in front, wide and on the heels .

This is the option you bigger guys will like the most, as it yields more comfort with the possibility of the same leg drive in spite of a lack of flexibility. I wouldn’t recommend this for the beginner because - although it is easier to do - it is the hardest position in which to feel really tight and get a lot of leg drive. In other words, when you’re learning this set-up, you need to have someone with a big bench and a lot of experience take a look at you and even force you into position. This position will usually put the lifters weight on their heels and stress the posterior aspect of the legs the most.

How to do it: Sit on the bench at the midpoint, and then slide a little bit toward the bar. Set your feet out in front of you where they feel the most comfortable, lay back, and push your hips forward to where you feel you have enough tightness for the lift. If you take the bar out and find out you weren’t tight enough, either crush the weight anyway or rack the weight. Start all over and just push your hips more towards your toes.

Variations: From person to person, there will be considerable variation in foot placement - both in proximity to one another and the direction in which the toes are pointing. Find the best combination of tightness and comfort, and go with that one.

.Option 4: Feet elevated and crossed (feet elevated on bench) .

Best for achieving the cleavage effect and getting a mad pump on…no, really, if this is how you bench, you need more help than this article can provide.

How do I do that? You shouldn’t.

Variations: I have only seen one variation on this classic, and that is where your feet are placed directly on the bench.

Once you have carefully and intelligently selected your foot set-up, it is time to move on to the arch.

.Step 2: The Arch. .

There are only two types of arches that powerlifters concern themselves with: the golden arches and the bench arch. The latter of the two is a little more complicated and not available in take-out form. In simple terms, it is what certain benchers’ backs look like while benching. Essentially, the goal is to reduce the distance between a bencher’s ass and neck; the closer together they are, the bigger the arch. I know this might sound strange coming from a powerlifter, but in this instance, bigger is not always better. What you should be looking for from an arch is a combination of cutting down your bench stroke and providing tightness and a virtual ‘springboard’ from which to bench.

Powerlifters want to arch because it allows you to start your bench with your chest closer to the bar, thereby cutting down the distance the bar would actually has to move. Then, in theory, the less distance you have to move the bar…the more weight you can move. If that in and of itself isn’t enough to inspire everyone to bench with an arch, here are a few other reasons powerlifters and the regular old ‘pec-a-holic’ should bench with an arch.

Arching is the best way to ensure that your upper body is tight, and can help protect your shoulders by keeping the muscles around the joint in place and, more importantly, by limiting humeral abduction. Someone who benches with a flat back most likely is a “shoulder bencher,” which means that their elbows are flared almost to their ears and the bar is way to close to their face. Add in the fact that they have their mid-trap area driven into the bench with their lats hanging off the bench, and it’s pretty easy to understand that these benchers have no upper body stability and in a more dangerous position from both an acute and chronic sense. In the process of writing this article, I went to the gym and benched like I have in the past - almost exactly as I just described as “the wrong way.” I worked to 225 and shut it down after that. My raw bench with the proper technique is approximately 400 pounds, yet when I took out 225 without arching; it felt like a ton - like it was going to fall right through me. I had no control over where it was going to touch my chest. Look at a flat-back bencher and notice how far his elbows dip below the bench; now look at someone who is arching. The difference is night and day, unless the flat-back bencher has a huge gut and T-rex arms.

Trying to teach someone how to arch over the phone or through an article isn’t the best way to do it. You really need someone to have a hands-on session with you to actually show you how to arch. I went to school and played baseball with my great friend Steve Coppola, who is lucky enough to lift with Paul Childress’ crew in Buffalo, NY (which makes him an even better friend of mine!). Early on in my powerlifting days - when I wasn’t lifting at Diablo Barbell and was one of the brave people trying to learn and lift with the conjugate system on my own in a commercial gym - I talked to Steve at least twice a week. After we got through the “Hey; How are ya?” and “How’s the family?” stuff, our conversations were centered on powerlifting and dominated by bench press talk. Steve was able to teach me a lot about benching over the phone, but it wasn’t until I discovered Diablo Barbell that everything he said made sense; I had a bench press epiphany. I needed to see it done and have someone actually put me in the position I needed to be in.

So, before we go on, I want to recommend finding a powerlifting gym or any powerlifting crew. They are out there and are worth the drive, the cold days lifting in a garage, and all the money you will end up putting into them. Your lifts will skyrocket and you just might make some new friends. Also, I would highly recommend any Elite Fitness Systems or Metal Militia workshop; these are the places at which you will get the best personalized advice from the best benchers in the world and be able to have someone actually take a look at you. However, if you’re a cheap-o who is saying to himself, “But Jesse, I live in the woods and can’t afford a seminar,” read on and I will do my best to get you on the right track.

A good arch depends on two things: your hip and neck placement. Obviously, the closer together they are, the bigger the arch, but sometimes you can have a huge arch and no tightness. Almost everyone can grasp the concept of pulling your feet underneath you to facilitate you being able to push your hips farther forward; the Metal Militia guys tastefully refer to this as getting your “balls on the bench.” This is actually the easiest part of the arching process. The biggest problem that I run into is no one knows what to do with their back. Often times, people are so concentrated on their hips they neglect the part of the body that is going to be supporting the majority of the weight they’re pulling out of the racks. So, remember theses words: shoulder blades TOGETHER and DOWN. By getting your shoulder blades together, you are putting a vise grip on your upper back. This cuts down on the range of motion by not letting your scapulae “wing out;” keeping your shoulders in place also adds to the tightness of your arch.

Now, pull your shoulder blades down. You will almost need you have the base of your neck on the bench to be able to do this. It will complete the tightness you desire and also add to the arch. In a few instances when I have shown a newbie how to do this, they have had to stop because they start to cramp up. I’m not telling you this because it’s what you need to have happen, but I do hope that it illustrates just how tight you need to be. If you are able to push your hips forward, keep you shoulder blades together and down you will have a solid base from which to bench. Just as importantly, you’ll be halfway to having no excuse for anything less than a 500-pound bench.

With all these recommendations and cues in mind, the best way to put this into practice is to get into the gym and try it out. Do not be surprised if you get underneath the bar, feel weird, and are immediately surrounded by personal trainers who insist that benching like that will lead to you having back surgery before you are 25. That’s okay; it’s normal (both the discomfort and the moronic trainers). Take it one bench session at a time. The key is not to just practice, but to practice perfectly; as my Dad always says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” He might have stolen that from somewhere, but regardless, it is a great quote and something to remember when trying to learn anything.

Step Three: Leg Drive

The last piece to the benching puzzle is the concept of leg drive. It sounds easy enough to understand and explain, but in reality it is an art form that requires considerable time to understand and master. The first thing you need to do is go to a gym on one of the national bench and arms days; you can attend the Monday, Wednesday, or Friday session. Walk around, observe the scenery, and bask in the music; when you are ready, head over to the benching section of the gym. Listen for the group of guys making the most noise in the gym and stroll over their way. After about 45 minutes of talking and checking out chicks, one of the guys might actually attempt a bench press; pay attention to him. Do not look at the three spotters holding the weight for the guy, and please ignore the feet on the bench and his lack of arch and overall strength. What you need to concentrate on is his lower body, particularly his butt. Okay, some of you are scared now. I just told you to look at someone’s butt; rest assured that it is completely for scientific purposes and will definitely help your bench. So suck it up and accept any wisecracks that might get thrown your way; it’ll be worth it. As the bar comes down to his chest, watch as he starts to lift his body off of the bench; he is “bellying” up to the bar. As the weight gets to his chest - if it actually does ever get there - look at him trying to throw the bar upwards with his body. Watch his butt come off the bench in an attempt to turn a flat bench into a decline bench. Then, join in yelling and screaming “You da’ man!” and “You stronga’ dan John Bastow and Joel Marion combined, dude!” After the celebration and subsequent autograph session has ended, it is time to go back home and reflect on what you just saw. Think about how it will help you bench more than the two plates that guy was doing.

You need to learn to belly up to the bar and squat the weight up. Bellying up to the bar is more of as issue for the shirted bencher, but definitely has implications for the raw crowd as well. It’s actually pretty easy to do. When the bar is about 2-3 inches from your chest, or belly, you should try to elevate your body in hopes of cutting down the distance the bar has to travel. You should already be in you set-up with your upper back tight and a deep breath into your belly. As the bar gets close to your touching point, try to tighten your back up a little more and arch harder or push your belly towards the bar; one of these cues should do it for you.

Now, learning to squat the weight up is a little more complicated. You don’t necessarily need coordination or great proprioception, although that does help the process. All you need to be able to do is drive your heels into the ground and squeeze your ass while at the same time keeping your upper and lower back tight, squeezing the bar as hard as you can, and trying to complete a bench press. See, that’s not even easy to say, let alone do! If you only take one thing away from my fitness center story, let it be that you need to learn how to use your legs. A great exercise to practice this is to set up for your bench with an empty bar and bring it down to your chest; without the aid of your upper body, see how far you can get the bar to travel. Play around with the foot positions and find the one where you are the most comfortable and get the biggest pop off your chest. You need to be thinking about driving your heels, the balls of your feet, or your toes into the ground.

Also, really think about trying to push so hard that you lift your ass off the bench. And, speaking of asses, you need to get in the habit of squeezing yours as much as you can throughout the entire duration of the lift. Once you have an idea about how to use your legs, it is time to put a little more weight on the bar. You don’t have to use your newfound leg drive in all your lifts right away, slowly bring it into your routine and your bench will skyrocket.

Putting it all together

Before you get to the bench, go over in your head what you need to do to get set-up, and envision the lift happening. See your shoulder blades pulled tight and forced down. Feel the tightness in your legs as you pull the bar out of the racks. Crush the bar in your hands as you control the weight down to your body. Belly up to the bar, drive with your legs, and lock out the weight. Now go hit a big PR, and Garrett will give you a big hug!

About the Author

Jesse Burdick is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who operates out of the San Francisco/Bay area. Jesse is a competitive powerlifter and original member of Diablo Barbell ( He is also a plus-size male underwear model, and will be a certified massage therapist and a lower extremity ART practitioner at the end of May. His best bench in a competition is 523, although he plans to hit a huge PR at APF seniors in June. You can contact him at

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