Far too often I hear people bash the bench press.
“It’s not functional.”
“It’s for egotistical gym-bros.”
“When do you have to lay supine on your back and press a load up in sports?”
“It’s bad for your shoulder.”
“Do you even squat.”
Blah blah blah… I’m not here to defend the bench press, because I don’t necessarily believe it needs defending. It’s awesome and if you disagree, good for you. This post is for those that ignore the hate (and are healthy enough) and want to improve their bench press. Maybe you compete in powerlifting, or you want a strong upper body, or you want to turn heads on Mondays at your commercial gym when you bang out some clean, full range reps with huge weights. Whatever your reason is, here are some tips to help you add weight to the bar.
Learn to Bench
Just lay down and press right? Wrong! There are so many technical aspects to the bench that are simply ignored, resulting in sub-par benching. The bench should be considered a full-body lift, by using your legs to drive yourself down into the bench, staying tight through your hips and abs, and squeezing your upper back hard to stay rock-solid during the lift. Your set-up on the bench will be very individual. Everything from grip width, back arch, foot placement, and even head movement will vary between lifters. The key is to find your perfect set-up and practice it over and over.
Use Your Lats! If You Don’t Have Any, Build 'em!
This is huge. The lats play a crucial role during the bench press, creating a strong foundation to push off of and controlling the bar bath. After you unrack the bar, you shouldn’t simply let gravity take over and let the bar fall to your chest. You should be actively pulling the bar down under control, concentrating on flexing your lats hard. A good cue here is to think about “breaking” the bar in half (external rotation torque!) as you lower it to your chest.
If you can’t feel your lats working during the movement, chances are you just need more lat work. Pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns, and rows all fit the bill. Keep pulling to improve your push!
Do Overhead Work
I believe that overhead work is extremely beneficial to improving your bench. The increased strength in your shoulders, triceps, upper back and scapular stabilizers you will build with vertical pressing will all go a long way in helping you push more in the horizontal plane. That being said, straight barbell overhead pressing is not for everyone. Some may lack the mobility to perform the movement or it just hurts to do. Never fear, there are always options. If you find that overhead pressing with a barbell bugs your shoulders or your back, try landmine pressing. You can still get in some quality overhead work with a more joint-friendly angle.
Drop the bands and chains for a while and stick with straight weight. I think accommodating resistance is a great addition to your training, but if you’ve become accustomed to benching with chains and bands, it may be to your benefit to run a few cycles of training strictly using straight weight. By over-utilizing accommodating resistance you end up avoiding that bottom-range tension when the bar is on your chest. If your goal is to bench big numbers you can’t avoid that tension forever. Perform your heavy work, rep work, and even speed work with some straight weight for a while and rest assured that your strength and power won't wither away without the extra bells and whistles on the bar.
I firmly believe that the strong drive out of the bottom position is KEY to improving your bench press. Even if your sticking point is fairly high up in the range of motion, doesn’t it make sense that if the explosion from the bottom was better you could ride that wave all the way up to lockout? I admit I have been one to analyze a bench press, take note of the sticking point and say “well, it looked like the sticking point was somewhere around a 2-board, so the best way to improve would be a ton of 2-board work.” Board work is great, but you can NEVER be too strong out of the bottom. One of the best ways to increase the strength out of the bottom is paused bench pressing, where you lower the bar to your chest, stay tight and hold it, then press it back up. By coming to a dead stop you kill some of the elastic energy you may have been relying on. Throw in some paused benching to your routine, and although you will undoubtedly have to cut down on the absolute load, you will not be disappointed!
Till next time, keep pressin' on!