“How much ya bench?” Let’s face it, we’ve all been asked, and we all want to be able to reply with some decent numbers! It’s the unofficial test of manliness! People say nothing satisfies them more than the primitive feeling of a heavy deadlift, I disagree, to me there’s nothing more satisfying than quite literally pushing a weight off your chest with your fists clenched tight and your teeth grinding together knowing that if you don’t make the lift and the bar comes back down you’re, well, fucked (I can’t be the only one that trains alone?!) Many people struggle with it, I love it and hopefully after reading this you’ll see an increase in your bench press performance and learn to love it too! I’m going to start at the bar and work my way down the body right to the toes, here goes:
First things first, the bar should be set at such a height where your arms are almost (but not quite) locked out when you reach up and grip the bar, you should never have the bar set so low that you end up having to do a half a bench press just to get the bar off the rack and into position, likewise you shouldn’t have to reach excessively up to it either.
Gripping the bar:
Grip width is a highly individualised and can come down to personal preference in bench pressing. There is no ‘one size fits all’ perfect grip width as it depends on the person’s anatomy, structure, and technique. Those that use a bigger arch tend to have a wider grip and those who have a more flat back tend to be narrower. An easy way to find a grip to start with is to get on the floor and get into your ideal press up position, your body will almost always instinctively put your hands/arms into the most anatomically advantageous (strongest) position, so take note of that position and then recreate it under the bar.
Your thumbs need to be wrapped firmly around the bar. I recommend using a thumbless or ‘suicide’ grip, it’s dangerous and provides no additional benefit. Besides, placing the thumbs around the bar will keep it more secure, maximise recruitment of the pec and shoulder muscles and stop you from dropping the bar and potentially dying, win/win.
Wrists needs be firm so as to place your forearm directly under the bar. From where the bar sits in your hand it should be an almost straight line through your forearm and down to your elbow. Think if a plum line was hanging from the bar, the line should run almost alongside your forearm, not behind it.
If you have difficulty maintaining this position (which I’ve noticed particularly in females) and you find your wrists “flopping” or falling back (so that your palms are pointing to the ceiling), then you may need to strengthen your forearm flexor muscles with wrist curls (not sexy, boring, won’t make a good Instagram video but it should be effective!)
Side note: Invest in a good set of wrist wraps, longevity is key in powerlifting and these will help to keep your wrists stable during your heavy sets, I personally use Titan signature gold 24” and have nothing but good things to say about them.
Typically I have found if technique was taught by gym instructors or gym rats the lifter will have excessive flaring of the elbows, which puts the pec muscles in a dangerous position at the bottom of the lift. Conversely some lifters will have excessive tucking due to watching big equipped bench presses on YouTube or misunderstanding the cue to tuck your elbows in. There is a happy middle ground for elbow positioning as seen in the photos:
Many lifters find the mental cue to “bend the bar” helpful in achieving this position.
Shoulder/scapula position is in my experience the most common technique mistake in lifters, quite often even in advanced lifters. The anterior deltoids (front of shoulder) should be behind your chest at all times during the movement, focus on retracting your scapula (pulling your shoulders back and squeezing your shoulder blades together) hard before you take the bar out, and maintain this position throughout the movement. This is crucial to maximize stability. Keeping the shoulders retracted as you press minimises the distance the bar has to move also.
If you’ve been taught to bench press by anyone other than a competitive powerlifter then you’ve likely been taught to lie on the bench with your back flat. As powerlifters or anyone interested in maximising the amount of weight they can move, we should aim to make the most of our leverages and shorten the range of motion within reason. This can be achieved by utilizing a back arch. Only your glutes (butt) and upper back should be in contact with the bench, your lower back should be arched with your belly pushed up. At the least, somebody should be able to slide their hand between your lower back and the bench with ease. There are different ways to set up an arch and again it comes down to personal preference how you want to get into the arch position.
It is important to note that this IS a safe position for the back and spine for healthy lifters as there are no significant compressive forces being applied to or through the spine in this position when lying on a bench.
You should be utilizing your whole body to create tightness and move the weight, including your legs. As you’re setting up, you should put your feet flat on the ground and slightly behind your knees, or further back with heels elevated, but never legs/feet out in front. Some powerlifting federations require feet to be flat which will limit how far back you will be able to put them so bare that in mind when you’re practicing, practice the technique that will be required of you in competition if you plan on competing.
Once your feet are set you should be focusing on driving your legs into the ground and as a result flexing quads and glutes. Maintain this level of tightness until it comes to pressing the bar at which point you’ll aim to “kick” the legs down in to the ground and forward (legs should not actually move!) similar to a leg extension exercise this is what is known as “leg drive” in the bench press.
Remember, the strongest position to bench press in is the correct way. So, when it gets hard and you have to grind, DO NOT kick out your legs or wiggle your butt or anything else, this will only lead to losing tightness and possibly injuring yourself, and of course would not pass in a powerlifting competition either. Stay tight and maintain position at all times.
The bar should be moved as fast as possible during both phases of the lift.
People transitioning from a bodybuilding background will also likely be in the habit of performing more slow and controlled eccentrics (side note: this is a good idea for maximal hypertrophy stimulation and I do recommend using slower eccentrics for assistance work or where hypertrophy is the goal) For competitive powerlifting purposes or where lifting as much weight as possible is the goal, take the bar down to your chest as fast as you safely can. Strong emphasis on ‘you’ and ‘safely’ , people will vary in how fast they can take the bar down, so as said, take it down as fast as YOU can and don’t worry about if someone else is faster/slower. Speed work will help develop the confidence and motor control to improve this.
Likewise for the concentric or ‘up’ phase you should always aim to drive the bar as hard and as fast as possible, even on your warm up sets. This will help you get in the habit of always moving the bar with maximum force and contracting your muscles as hard and as fast as possible which is obviously what we want for our heavy sets or 1 rep max attempts.
I’ve tried to be as comprehensive as I can here as regards technique if you put all steps together it should help to improve your bench press, as said there is no one perfect technique however there is simply some right and wrong ways of doing things and that’s what I’ve aimed to address here!
If you have any further questions or would like help with any aspect of your training please do not hesitate to contact me.
Kaizen Strength Owner & Head Coach