*Photo Courtesy of EliteFTS
National Bench Press Day.
The day of the week the most lifters look forward to (except for the weird ones like me who love to squat).
My guess to why everyone loves bench pressing so much is because they feel like this:
The bench press has been used by bros everywhere as the universal lift to determine how strong someone is. And while I wouldn't agree that the bench press could be used to solely determine how strong someone is - it is part of the big three (squat, bench press, deadlift). So there is some merit there.
For a lift that body weight has a big impact on performance, I don't consider myself "elite" or spectacular by any means. However, I have bench pressed 1.9 x bodyweight (2 x is close) and I would consider that strong enough to offer a few tips on how you could improve your bench press.
I have learned many things about bench pressing over the years and most of it (well all of it), I wish I knew long before I did.
So my goal for this article is to provide you with five ways you can utilize to improve your bench press performance.
#1 - Improve Technique
The quickest way to adding more weight to the bar is through improved technique.
Bench pressing is a skill just like a golf swing or shooting a basketball. At the base of any skill is technique, or fundamentals. Improving your technique of a certain skill allows you to ultimately perform better at that skill. Therefore, improving your technique should be your first and foremost concern.
Here are the cues I like to use when teaching the bench press
1) Position your body on the bench so that your eyes are directly underneath the racked bar.
2) Grip the bar at a width so that your forearms remain completely vertical at the bottom of the press (may take a few attempts to get grip width right).
*Photo Courtesy of Stronglifts.com
3) Dig your upper back into the bench.
4) Set your feet as far back as you can while still keeping them in contact with ground and keeping your butt on the bench. Start pressing down into the ground with your feet as hard as possible.
*Photo Courtesy of Lift.net
5) Having your upper back dug in, your feet as far back as possible, and your butt in contact with the bench, and driving your feet down into the ground as hard as possible - you should have an arch (extension) in the thoracic and lumbar region of your spine (If you have a history of disc issues or extension based back pain - this is not advised).
*Photo Courtesy of Alex from myweightlifting.com
1) Try to bend the bar in half (like superman would to a pipe).
2) Big abdominal inhale, hold inhale on decent and press until past sticking point.
3) Row the bar to the base of your chest rather than just lowering the weight (this engages upper back and lats).
*Photo Courtesy of Nerd Fitness team member Staci
3) Drive your feet down and out into the ground as hard as you can (yes, you use your legs during a bench press).
4) Squeeze your glutes (this should already be happening if you're really using your legs)
5) Push yourself away from the bar and down into the bench as hard as possible.
#2 - Strengthen Your Upper Back
A lot of people stall on making progress on their bench press because they spend too much time focusing on their chest, shoulders and triceps.
Sounds contradictory, right?
With all the bench pressing and sitting that we participate in, the shoulders tend to become slightly (or very) internally rotated (rolled forward).
The more internally rotated your shoulders are, the more stability you will lack while bench pressing. The less stability you have at the shoulder joint while bench pressing, the less you will be able to control heavier weights and the harder it will be to press the weight off your chest (where most people struggle the most).
Strengthening your upper back (and external rotators) will help pull your shoulders back into good posture, allowing you to create more tension and stability at the shoulder joint, and become stronger pushing the weight off your chest.
*Side note: If internally rotated shoulders are not addressed, shoulder injuries are bound to happen - it's not a matter of if, but when.
Another way a stronger (and bigger) upper back works in your favor while bench pressing, is that it allows you to maintain a bigger arch and prevent you from getting "flattened."
The bigger arch you have, the less distance the bar has to travel. The less distance the bar has to travel, the heavier load you can handle.
#3 - Find Your Weakness/Sticking Point
Weak off the chest?
Photo Courtesy of motorkid.com
What to concentrate on:
Strengthen your chest. Your pecs and anterior deltoids are responsible for the majority of force production when pressing the bar off the first few inches off your chest.
Strengthen your upper back and lats. Your upper back is your primary stabilizer when the bar is at your chest. If you struggle off the chest, your bench press could be improved exclusively from strengthening your upper back.
Be EXPLOSIVE! Utilize leg drive and proper technique to FORCEFULLY drive yourself away from the barbell.
Weak mid-way through the press?
This is often referred to your sticking point. The sticking point is generally the point in the bench press where force production declines in your chest/pecs and increases in your triceps.
What to concentrate on:
Strengthen your triceps. (A list of exercises to do so below)
Concentrate on continuing to "Bend the bar in half" to fully engage your triceps.
Maintain full body tightness. Keep driving yourself away from the barbell utilizing a powerful leg drive.
Press FAST! - A key to blowing through your sticking point is to be as explosive and trying to press the bar as fast as possible.
Weak at the top of the press?
Being weak at the top of the press is rarely the case for a raw (non-geared) lifter. However, if this is the case, then you really need to spend some time bringing up the strength of your triceps.
Some of the best bench press variations to strengthen the triceps are:
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Dumbbell Neutral + Close Grip Bench Press
- Floor Press
- Board Press
Photo Courtesy of musclechronicle.com
Some other exercises that target the triceps include:
- Isolation exercises such as tricep extensions, skull crushers, etc.
Besides strengthening your triceps, the only other piece of advice I can give you is to continue to concentrate on pressing FAST to gain enough speed throughout the lift to blow through the point at which you are weak.
#4 - Use Paused Reps
Paused reps are just like they sound - reps where you pause for a brief period of time (usually 2-3 seconds) at the bottom position before pressing back up.
Pausing your reps accomplishes a few things:
- The pause takes much of the stretch shortening cycle out of the equation and forces you to lift the weight without the elasticity of the muscle and stretch reflex helping out. In simple terms, you press from a dead stop and this makes it harder.
- It teaches you how to maintain tension throughout the lift (you must stay tight as you pause or you will lose positioning and/or your arch).
- More time under tension is also a training variable that can be manipulated to elicit a greater training response (make you stronger).
- It allows you to practice bar placement at your chest and pressing from the ideal starting position.
#5 - Increase Frequency of Bench Training
Increased frequency does not mean that you need to bench press every time you go into the gym. Rather, if you are still doing the once per week "chest day" then you are not going to see the big improvements that you are looking for.
Becoming a better presser will require you to practice or train the movement more than once per week. The more you train a movement (within your limits) and "ingrain" the neurological pathways, the more success you will see.
I recommend starting out by adding one day per week to what you already train the bench press. So if you currently press once per week, then do two days per week. If you currently press twice a week already, then press three times per week.
Below I have put together what a sample week would look like in regards to exclusively your bench press routine.
4 x 3 @ 80-85% Paused Bench Press
3 x 8 Pick a lift that will strengthen your weak point (could include upper back work)
3 x 8 @ 60% Bench Press
3 x 12 Pick a lift that will strengthen your weak point (could include upper back work)
10 x 3 @ 50-60% Focusing on technique and being explosive
Fill in the rest of these workouts (and possible additional workouts) with your normal squatting, deadlifting, rowing/pulling, and assistance movements. Just be cognizant of total volume of workouts.
Utilize these five ways and I promise your bench press will undoubtedly improve!