The bench press is the favorite exercise of all lifters worldwide, and everyone wants to know how to bench press heavy.
Gym-goers all over the world love to brag about their bench press numbers. The number one question asked to any jacked guy in the gym is, “dude, how much do ya bench?”
One may wonder that what is it so special about bench press that most guys associate it with manliness?
Does Bench Press really deserve this extra attention?
Well, first of all, plenty of accomplished strength athletes had credited bench for their superior upper body strength. Secondly, bench press possesses a fairly good indication of the transferability of pressing strength to the sports performance (Baker; Garcia Lopez et al.). Thirdly, just the fact that bench press draws so much attention from the lifters and researchers worldwide (McLaughlin et al.; Elliott, B. C. et al.; Graham et al.) makes it special and worthwhile to give it a try even if just for fun.
Bench Press And The Big Numbers
One of the most coveted goals of ‘serious’ lifters past their first year of ‘serious‘ training is to achieve 3/4/5 level at power-lifts. For those who didn’t get this, it means lifting 3 twenty kg plates loaded each side of an Olympic bar on Bench Press. 4 plates each side on Squat and 5 plates each side on Deadlift. Heavy loading is great for performance and results in greater muscle activity (Pinto et al.; Schick et al.; McCaw & Friday.). Most of our athletes, bar a few with leverage disadvantages or some specific sports requirements, reach this level within a couple more years of serious training.
Contrarily almost all regular lifters, in spite of great interest in bench pressing heavy, never reach the much sought after 3 plates each side bench over their entire lifting span. It is unsurprising given the fact that most lifters never understand how to program training to meet a certain strength goal. Nor do they learn how to perform a technically correct bench press best suited to their individual leveraging advantage.
We will discuss today the major contributors to your strength misery on the bench press.
Lack Of Technical Mastery
Failing to learn how to perform a bench press correctly and efficiently will never allow you to perform adequately. If your each rep doesn’t look alike then instead of mastering one exercise you’re practicing a different variation of the same exercise on every rep!
The cure to achieve technical efficiency is practice, practice, and practice.
But before you start practicing like a maniac, take your time to learn the proper set-up for bench press. It is crucial. The best way to learn is to practice under the eyes of an able coach. But regardless we’ll give you a few pointers to keep in mind.
- Assume a proper grip width (ideally about 1.5 times shoulder width) and grip type (false/thumbless grip or full grip) as per requirement or preference.
- Create as much a solid base as you can for big pressing by pulling your shoulder blades together and secure them at a place on the bench.
- Create an arch in your back by pulling back your feet towards your body and lifting your chest up (A large arch is not mandatory except for powerlifting performance). Your knees should be below your hips. This is the most common technique used by lifters to create an arch effectively.
- Use a spotter for liftoff. In case you’re un-racking the bar yourself, set yourself a little upwards so as not to press out the bar in an awkward position. Failing to do so will make you lose your stability achieved in step two.
- Before lowering the bar, get cognizant of the bar placement and fixate it at one stationary point. This point is obtained with your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints all stacked in a straight line with the bar directly above. You should feel the tension in the whole body & particularly the legs (think of leg extension) to get a proper leg drive.
- Lower the bar in control and slowly on the eccentric (descent) part of the repetition. You should use the cues like ‘squeeze the bar‘ to activate as much arm musculature as possible. Also, forget about cues like ‘tuck the elbows‘, they don’t make sense for a raw lifter. Instead, your elbows should stay right below the bar at all times which mandates some degree of elbow flare at the bottom rather than tuck.
- At the bottom, lightly touch the bar to the chest at or just below the nipple line. You should touch the same point on the chest each rep.
- As per your program either take a short pause at the bottom or just lightly touch the chest and push explosively on the concentric (ascent) part of the rep. The force should initiate from your feet & legs through core into the pressing musculature. Pressing with as much force as possible is crucial for the pressing gains (González-Badillo, JJ et al.). Flare your elbows as you press the bar.
- Finally, you should be pressing in the backward direction from the chest towards your face. The bar should end its motion just above the clavicles (collar bones) or slightly behind.
- Also, take into consideration the proper breathing pattern during the exercise. Take a deep breath in your belly before lift-off and hold your breath during the entire rep. Exhale at the top after completing the rep.
If this set-up sounds like a lot of work then you’re exactly right. And it requires a whole lot practice to master this art. Again, a good coach is Gods blessing at this point.
Failing To Program For Strength
A sound programming is required to get great results from training. If you fail to program your training reasonably, you’ll keep spinning your wheels for a long long time with only disappointment in the end. The lack of results will push you towards experimenting with other undesirable objects like PEDs or steroids, whereas what you actually need is just a decent programming shove to keep progressing.
Programming for strength has two facets.
General Raw Strength
It refers to the development of strength capacity in general, like getting strong at performing overhead pressing, close-grip bench press etc. This type of strength development makes your body efficient in coordinating coherent force output. It also promotes strength balance in various muscle groups and better agility overall.
It pertains to building strength and efficiency in a particular movement pattern by practicing bench press with high frequency, utilizing periodization etc. Specific strength development leads to better neuro-muscular connections, synchronized muscle fiber firing, and rate coding. It’s crucial in mastering a particular lift and putting really big numbers.
Ignoring Weak Points
Neglecting the weaknesses or failing to troubleshoot the weak points lead to a stagnant lift essentially. If you don’t zero-in on the specific weak point in the lift and target them with suitable remedies, your performance won’t improve. You’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Improving weak points help to avoid numerous training injuries which occur due to strength imbalance in the primary and secondary movers of muscular structure.
Let’s take an example to better understand the application of strengthening the weak points. Most new lifters have trouble generating enough force at the chest level, and just above the chest is the sticking point for bench press. To strengthen this part of pressing, a lifter can utilize paused bench press with a 1-second pause at the chest on each rep. This will improve the explosiveness from the chest and recruit more fibers due to some stretch reflex loss in the muscles. But keep in mind that you shouldn’t lose tension during the pause, muscles should remain tense and under stress.
Secondly, weakness at the bottom position is typically due to weak deltoids (Van den Tillaar & Ettema), and it’s a very common cause. You may need to start working on the strength and functioning of shoulder muscles to bring them up to par with your chest and triceps.
In all, lifting heavy is as much an art as it’s a science. You need to get precise in your approach but also flexible in practice, so as to accommodate the weak point work as well as master the lift.
PS: The technique tips mentioned above are suitable for a raw bench presser. Shirted bench pressing requires a different setup and execution. If you don't know the difference between raw and shirt then don't bother, just try to learn what's been explained above to the best of your ability.
- Baker, D. (2001). Comparison of upper-body strength and power between professional and college-aged rugby league players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 15(1), 30-35.
- Elliott, B. C., Wilson, G. J., & Kerr, G. K. (1989). A biomechanical analysis of the sticking region in the bench press. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (21), 450-62
- García-López, D., Hernández-Sánchez, S., Martín, E., Marín, P. J., Zarzosa, F., & Herrero, A. J. (2014). Free-weight augmentation with elastic bands improves bench-press kinematics in professional rugby players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
- Graham, J. F. (2003). Bench Press Barbell. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 25(3), 50-51.
- Juan José González-Badillo, David Rodríguez-Rosell, Luis Sánchez-Medina, Esteban M. Gorostiaga, and Fernando Pareja-Blanco. Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. European Journal Of Sport Science Vol. 14 , Iss. 8,2014.
- McCaw, S. T., & Friday, J. J. (1994). A Comparison of Muscle Activity Between a Free Weight and Machine Bench Press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 8(4), 259-264.
- McLaughlin, T. M. (1984). Bar path and the bench press. Powerlifting USA, 8(5), 19-20.
- Pinto, R., Cadore, E., Correa, C., da Silva, B., Alberton, C., Lima, C., & de Moraes, A. (2013). Relationship between workload and neuromuscular activity in the bench press exercise. Medicina Sportiva, 17(1), 1-6.
- Schick, E. E., Coburn, J. W., Brown, L. E., Judelson, D. A., Khamoui, A. V., Tran, T. T., & Uribe, B. P. (2010). A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(3), 779-784.
- Van den Tillaar, R., & Ettema, G. (2013). A comparison of muscle activity in concentric and counter movement maximum bench press. Journal of human kinetics, 38, 63-71.