Want a bigger bench? Want a bigger chest? Get both. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s your best bench press tip?
I once endured a five year period where I couldn’t do any type of horizontal pressing without shoulder pain. Then a friend suggested I give benching another try but with a full one-second pause at the chest, which I’d never done before, cause, ya know, I’m a dude and a pause might lower by bench by 5 or 10 pounds.
Much to my surprise, that bench workout was pain-free, and I’ve been regularly benching 2-3 time per week. I’ve never experienced shoulder pain since I made the pause a personal rule.
The mechanism behind this fix is simple. Your shoulder is most vulnerable when the bar is at its lowest point. That’s when mechanical forces are at their highest. So by pausing at the chest you’ll reduce those forces, sparing your shoulders while forcing your pecs to work harder at the same time.
Bottom line: Less joint stress, more muscle stress – this is what we should all be striving for right?
Oh, and although the pause did in fact limit the weights I could use initially, this was quickly overcome by the fact that I could now bench hard, 2-3 days a week without pain. Who woudda thought?
When it comes to the bench press, most technical issues are related to lack of full body tension – pressing without a stable base. This leads to pain in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists… and it even causes strength plateaus.
So if you’re benching for strength, you need to generate force FROM the ground, through the feet, legs, and torso, and you need to launch this force from your upper back!
Using the analogy of a bow and arrow, think of everything that doesn’t move (legs and torso) as the bow, and think of your chest and other upper body pressing muscles as the bowstring. A tight and tense bow will produce the most force for the launch. Compared to slow “muscling” of the barbell, pressing with full body tension will catapult the barbell from the chest.
So where does the “hip thrust bench press” come in? It’ll teach you full body tension and require you to press from a stable base. To do this drill, place your upper back on the edge of a regular bench. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Raise your hips and dig your feet into the ground (press them forward and out). Play around with different stances to find your most stable position.
You can either do the drill with a static hold in the top position (similar to a hip thrust), or you can actually do a bench press from this position with an empty bar.
This is a great drill for teaching full body tension because the position is so specific to the bench press, and most people “get it” pretty fast. The only real difference is the ass not touching the bench.
One of the most critical components of the bench press is learning to row or pull the bar into position by activating your upper back and lats. This is something professional powerlifters have been advocating for years, suggesting that it’s the “make or break factor” for a powerful bench press.
Why is it so effective? It produces maximal co-contraction of agonist and antagonist muscle groups during the eccentric or lowering phase. This promotes optimal reciprocal inhibition during the concentric or lifting phase where the antagonists (upper back and lats) release allowing the agonists (chest, shoulders, and triceps) to maximally contract. Ultimately this produces the highest levels of power output, force, and torque during the press.
Think of it like this: Using the back to help pull the barbell into position creates a slingshot effect. In essence the body ends up producing a coiled-like sensation similar to a spring-loaded device where the muscles are ready to launch the weight up as soon as the lats release. This allows the pressing muscles to unload with maximal torque.
But many lifters have a difficult time transferring their lat strength and rowing mechanics to the actual bench press. This concept can be tricky to grasp. One of the most effective drills I’ve used to reinforce this rowing concept is the reverse bench press/reverse inverted row.
Anchor bands to the higher pins of a squat rack, then attach them to the barbell and do your favorite bench press variations.
The reason this is so effective is that it provides nearly the same bar path and osteokinematics as the bench press, only with the antagonist activation patterns. It directly teaches you how to row the bar into proper position during the bench press. I’ve used this with many of my NFL athletes to increase their bench strength.
As a bonus, the mind-muscle connection in your upper back and lats is phenomenal, making this a powerful strength and hypertrophy builder. But if you decide to go heavy, you’ll need to place a few chains on your body or wear a weighted vest to keep you anchored down.
Try supersetting these with the barbell bench press during your next several workouts. Not only will your horizontal pressing mechanics feel better, but you’ll notice that you can handle substantially heavier loads.
I’ve found this to consistently be the number one thing guys can do to increase their plateaued bench. Despite all the talk about doing a bunch of repetitive triceps and back work, if your bench is really stuck, it’s likely your bodyweight has been the same for a long time.
Don’t believe me? Spend the next two months not giving a crap about maintaining a sexy body composition and eat until you hurt every day. Then watch what your bench press does. It’ll skyrocket.
However, from a “tip” standpoint, I advise guys to bench with a closer grip because it allows you to get much tighter in the upper back, providing better stability through the shoulders and providing more protection for them.
If you’ve been benching with a wider grip, you’ll take an ego hit because obviously you won’t be benching as much as you had been before this switch. But rest assured, you’ll eventually climb back to where you were. Your pecs and shoulders will thank you for it.
As a collegiate strength coach, transfer from the weight room to the court or field is a primary concern when designing programs. If the exercise or technique isn’t preventing the likelihood of injury, it better be increasing sports performance. All else is a waste of time.
This begs the question: Should athletes even bench press? It depends.
If it’s done with a wide-grip, legs-relaxed, pure upper-body technique, I have a hard time justifying its use for the football, basketball, or baseball player. Upper body actions in these sports require strength and stability from the legs and core – not what you see in a typical bench press at most gyms.
However, if the technique involves the core, hips, and legs, there’s much more opportunity for increased sports performance because the exercise is now full-body.
Involving the whole body actually makes you better at it. Telling athletes to push their feet through the ground and fire their glutes has added pounds to their bench press and made the movement much more transferable to sports actions. Remembering this cue yourself might get you similar benefits.
Not only is the transfer better, but having the ability to brace and create tension in the core, hips, and legs has potential to increase resilience and prevent injury.
This method breaks one heavy set into several short sets. You do a set, rest 15-30 seconds, then continue doing smaller sets until you effectively double the number of reps in the set or reach technical failure.
Here’s what to do:
- Perform 3 sets ramping up in weight with 3-5 reps per set to warm-up and fire up your central nervous system.
- Your rest-pause set will use about 85% of your one-rep max, or a weight you can do for 5-7 reps, depending on your strength levels and muscle fiber composition.
- Go a little heavier if you’re purely focused on strength rather than size gains; I find 85% to be the sweet spot for a mix of both.
- 65% x 5 = 205 pounds
- 70% x 5 = 220 pounds
- 80% x 3 = 250 - 255 pounds
- 85% = 270 pounds
- 270 pounds x 6 reps, rest 15-30 seconds, then…
- Do 1-3 reps, rest 15-30 seconds.
- Do 1-2 reps, rest 15-30 seconds.
- Do 1-2 reps, or as many reps as needed until you double the rep goal.
Use a spotter and stop sets earlier if your rep range is compromised or you reach technical failure.
Here’s why it works: If you lift a heavier weight for more reps you provide the stimulus for building strength and size. This is precisely what rest-pause training allows. You’ll lift heavy enough to train high-threshold muscle fibers and create progressive overload to build size and strength.
Plus you’ll have enough rest to partially recover adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine (ATP-PC ) energy systems used for immediate power. And you’ll have enough rest to increase growth-inducing metabolic stress on the later sets.
The resistance curve of the bench press makes it hardest at the bottom and easiest at the top. Your ability to produce force is opposite to this. You’re weakest at the bottom and strongest at the top. As a result, the bench press doesn’t cause high levels of tension in the pecs across the entire range of motion.
This limits its effectiveness as a chest builder. Mechanical tension is a key element of hypertrophy. Exercises which fully challenge a muscle across their entire contractile range are more efficient muscle builders. Using accommodating resistance (bands and chains) can address this issue and help to match up the exercise’s resistance profile with your strength profile.
Even with the addition of accommodating resistance, the very top of the lift presents an opportunity for your chest to become relatively unloaded and take a brief “rest.” As you finish the lift and your arm is fully extended, the joints of the wrist, elbow, and shoulder are stacked on top of each other. Because of this, little tension is going through the chest as you lockout.
By using the coaching cue of “squeezing” your hands towards each other you can help to create tension through the chest. While your hands don’t actually move across the bar, the intention of squeezing inwards creates friction. Friction is the force that opposes sliding motion. In this case, it creates a new line of force acting on the muscle and helps to create a sustained challenge throughout the entire range of the lift.
With the combination of accommodating resistance and squeezing your hands towards each other near lockout, you fight gravity hard throughout the whole lift, and when you become mechanically advantaged you use friction to keep tension where you want it. This creates high levels of mechanical tension across the entire range. More tension over a longer ROM equals more muscle.
Try any of these four tips:
Keep your body tight and focus on pulling the bar apart. This will require your triceps more throughout the movement and will also keep the bar moving in a straight line. A mini-band can help. You double the band up and wrap it around your wrists while you bench. This forces you to pull the bar apart and grasp the barbell tight. If not, your hands will be pulled together.
This is a very simple concept, but it’s very seldom practiced. Most lifters will unrack the bar and lower it to the chest without setting the bar first. This is usually done by habit and will cause you to lower the bar in a diagonal pattern that will result in you pushing it back up in the same pattern. When you push the bar back toward the rack there’s more rotation and less emphasis on the triceps.
You need to unrack the bar, then “set it” in the same exact position in which you want to finish. This should be directly above where you lower the bar. If you bench to your lower pecs, then the bar should start above the lower pecs. This will create a straight line both on the eccentric and concentric. Remember, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
You need to make sure you’re pressing as fast as possible to bust through any sticking points. A slow press won’t build enough momentum to bust past your sticking point. If you’re trying to open a stuck door would you try to open it slowly, or would you bust into it as hard as possible?
This is my number one coaching cue for the bench press. Rather than thinking about pushing the bar away, think about pushing yourself into the bench.