The Bench Press – Uncensored, Unplugged, and Uncut

by on July 4, 2012

July 2012: The Bench Press – Uncensored, Unplugged, and Uncut

I know what you’re thinking.

How many more articles are gonna be released online to show you how to “boost your bench” in 6 weeks? Well, this one won’t be as commercial. I promise. There are common mistakes that people tend to overlook because they’re simply too preoccupied with different advanced lifting methods to add more weight to the bar.

The Most Commonly Botched Exercise in the Gym

I may throw this term out often, but I think I’d have to give the crown to the bench press as to the exercise I see performed most frequently wrongly… Now that I think of it, I also crown it as the exercise I see performed most frequently, period! It’s the truth – guys just love to bench. I don’t know what it is about the movement that makes it so appealing to us males; it’s not the greatest determining feat of upper body strength, it has very little functional carryover to sports performance, and it can be pretty hard on you if you’ve got crappy shoulders and elbows. But, it’s the bench press! The first question anyone ever asks when they learn you lift weights is, yep, you guessed it – “what do you bench?”

We can’t go any further without discussing Mondays.

Like earthworms that magically, almost eerily, appear from nowhere after a spring rainfall, “training enthusiasts” and “lifters” come out of hiding at the beginning of the week for their Monday workout – rightfully so! Hell, Monday is international bench press day and they want to join the festivities. It’s a phenomenon that is as rare as it is prevalent. So many bad lifters and poor techniques all congregated in the same place, every week like clockwork. Time for a non-sequitur for the ages.

The Problem

In light of the above, looking at the big picture shows that 9 of 10 people who like to bench press, can’t bench press! I don’t mean follow a basic guide to “keeping the feet flat on the ground, lowering the bar to the chest below the nipple line, and pushing it up over the shoulder”. Anyone can do that. People don’t seem to appreciate that there are serious physics to weight training – especially the larger barbell movements. Keeping in line with those physics will promote a much stronger bench. The key is learning the right things to get there. That’s where I come in.

Just a Chest Exercise?

There are so many people who use the barbell bench press as the prime developer of their chest (pectoralis) muscles when they train. There have been several studies that have supported the idea that the barbell bench press is NOT the most effective developer of the chest as far as peak stimulation, mean stimulation, and the like are concerned. Check out this one by my man Bret Contreras.

That said, we can be certain that under crushing loads, other stuff has the potential to kick in, even when good technique is used – and we want to use good technique, so here’s the down low.

Part 1: The Setup

We have to remember that in a bench press, in addition to the pecs, the triceps, deltoids and upper back muscles play integral roles to facilitate a strong lift. The first thing to know is that the bench press shouldn’t be considered a press away from the chest; rather, you should consider it a press away from the floor. After all, you need something to push into so that you can apply force against the resistance. Fittingly, then, step 1 of your bench press set up would be to simply sit down, and plant your feet in tight. You want to minimize the amount of space between the bar and your feet, meaning a relaxed position where the feet are far out and away from the bench would do you no good. For a person of average height, if the feet escape the length limit of the bench itself, you’re not in tight enough.

Step 2 would be getting your back down to the bench. Don’t move your feet from where you just set them, and carefully lie down. You should notice a good stretch in the quads and tension under the foot when you do this. Your heels may even rise a bit off the ground, and that’s fine. Now that your lower body is set, it’s time to set up your upper body. Take a look at the bar, and chances are, based on what you’ve done so far, you’ll be out of position. Get your lats tight by “packing your shoulders” down your back. This will create a back arch. That is also fine! It’ll help to raise your chest and get your shoulders stabilized. Work your way to eye level with the bar.

So, your feet are firm, your quads are tight, your low back is tight, your upper back is tight. Your chest is high, and you’re under the bar in the right spot. Good on you. You’re almost ready to push some weight. Time to grab hold of the bar. Make sure your grip is even on either side of the bar, and the correct width (more on that later). It’s important the bar stays directly above the wrist, and not rolled back towards the fingers, or palm of the hand. Not paying attention to this can lead to a diminished force production and an incomplete line of energy that doesn’t fully make it into the bar. A lot of lifters (like myself) find a false, or thumbless, grip more comfortable to accommodate proper bar position, and to maximize the triceps activation. Others prefer a closed grip with the thumbs over. Whatever you choose, make sure you squeeze the bar hard!!!

Keeping your shoulders tight, “drag” the bar out over the shoulder level and count for a full two seconds as you prepare for your first rep.

Part 2: The Execution

This is where things get a bit tricky. The information above is pretty much written in stone (in my opinion). There are no real variables to go through when setting up for the bench press. As for the execution of the reps, however, this is where some curveballs can come at ‘ya. Let’s start things right from the beginning. Hand width. A lot of people will reference the rings that are on a standard Olympic barbell as the best markers to determine where the hands belong when benching. Though this is a good marker to ensure you’re even on each side, it may not always be the best benchmark for people of varying anthropometry. As a long-armed guy myself, a lot of “coaches” will say someone like me should use a wider grip than your typical shorter lifter. I’ll say this – The first thing it’s about is comfort. What hand width feels good for you? The second thing is safety. I’ll always use and recommend a slightly narrower grip over a wider one so the elbow position can be closer to the torso. This can be a huge shoulder-saver in the long haul.

Going through the actual motion of the rep is where most people run into the majority of their problems. There’s a general “rule of thumb” that says the bench press bar should stay in line with the nipples on the way down. If this were followed, for a lot of lifters (especially those with longer arms relative to their body), the elbow will be moved further away from the torso, again leaving the shoulder joint susceptible to more stress then it needs to undergo. Indeed, the placement of the bar on the torso is very sensitive to the hand grip you choose. If you use the one I mentioned above, the bar will contact the torso down below the nipples, closer to the xyphoid process or upper abdominals.

What’s important is that there’s a constant “bar” of stability and support under the bar. This is where the bar’s path or trajectory comes into play. At the top of the lift, the bar should be located directly over the shoulder. That way the wrist, elbow and shoulder should be properly stacked above one another to promote a stable finish position. If the bar travelled straight down from this position, however, it would mean the bar would contact the body at the shoulder level, thus killing the chain since the elbow will no longer be under the bar, and the upper arm will no longer be perpendicular to the floor. In summary, the bar must travel slightly backwards from its contact point on the torso in order to maximize the amount of force applied into the ground.

Stuff You’ve Probably Forgotten By Now

When it comes time to put it all together, it’s clear to see that in the bench press, stiffness is the key to a strong lifting set. Through the movement you should be applying tension to the quads and hips through a maintained leg drive, maximizing the drive, of course, on the up phase of the lift.

Your eyes should also be focused on one target (I usually use a spot on the ceiling above my eyes) and the emphasis should always be on getting the bar back to that spot.

I’ve also always recommended a much higher ratio of back work to chest work, as the upper back muscles’ strength and endurance will only help stabilize the pressing muscles – but you already knew that.

The Pressing Facts

Though it arguably has the least functional carryover to any real-life or sport related movement, the bench press remains one of the most popular exercises in the gym. So if you’re going to talk the talk, at least walk the walk! Put these golden chunks of wisdom into practice and you’ll be making skinny bastards city wide hate your guts.

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.