Building more muscle and gaining more strength may be as simple as improving your form on the bench press.
I know I’ve been ranting and raving on here about this exercise and how you need to wait and do the other steps first. I’m right, and you know I’m right. It’s important to get stronger with the basic bodyweight exercises first, but as I’ve said with everything I do, I’m a realist. I know you’re still over there lying down on the bench and trying to push weight. I understand that’s what people do when they go to the gym. So let’s get into what you need to do to be safe and strong on the bench.
First, let me set the record straight here. The bench press is a total body exercise. It’s not a total body lift in the same way as a clean, or a snatch, but your entire body is involved while you perform the bench press. Important: Do not lie down on the bench take the bar out, bounce it off your chest and throw your hips in the air as high as possible. We call this “the heart massage dog hump” in my gym, and you are immediately punished and picked on for this. I know you’ve seen it. Some dude picks a weight up, bounces it off chest and then throws his butt so high in the air that air traffic control is looking around like there is a UFO in your town. It’s great for two things: looking like a douchebag and… nothing. So, now that’s out of the way, let’s go through how you should bench press correctly. We’ll talk about your whole body in each “phase” of the bench.
Phase 1 – Set Up
This might be the most important part, because if you screw this up, you’re out of luck the rest of the way, like calling a chick the wrong name on a date. No matter how much game you kick after, you probably blew all your chances of things working in your favor. So, let’s get the best setup possible here. Setting yourself on the bench is also where, in my opinion, all the new athlete’s that walk into my gym get it wrong. Let’s go through this step by step on how to get set on the bench.
Sit down on the bench with your knees bent and your toes on the ground directly under your hips.
Lie down on the bench by reaching your shoulders back (watch out for the bar). When you’re on the bench you should only have your butt, shoulders and head touch the bench. Your feet are still in the same position, heels up and toes under your hips. You should be comfortable, but may have a slight stretch in your quads here.
Grab the bar and pull your shoulders blades down and back as far as you can. Think of this as almost pushing your shoulder blades and shoulders together with your arms. You may have to lift your shoulders off the bench to do this. That’s fine. We want you to get your upper back as tight as possible since we are trying to get your shoulders “on the bench.” This is to help protect your shoulders and give your body a stable place to set on the bench. When you do this you should have a slight arch in your back.
Your hands should be anywhere from a thumbs length in on the knurling (see the rough part of the bar) to your pointer finger on the ring. You do not go any wider than that. I could get into this whole long drawn out thing about why, but I can make it short and say this: because I said so. Once you find where you want your hands and you have your shoulders set, try to crush the bar in your hands. That means your thumb is wrapped around the bar and you are squeezing it as hard as you can.
Squeeze your abs and you butt as hard as you can, and while keeping your shoulders and butt on the bench push your heels into the ground. This could add to the arch of your back a little bit and tighten you up on the bench. It will also bring you up on more of the upper part of your shoulders. This is exactly where you want to be. Now you’re tight on the bench (which is huge), you have a strong position to push off of (which is vital) and you are set to take the bar out.
Part II – Taking the Bar Out
Now if you’re in a great set up position, all you can do is screw it up here. I would INSIST that you have a spotter help you get the bar out so you don’t ruin everything you set up. A lot goes into just getting the bar off of the rack to where you want to start pressing from, so take your time with it and you’ll be more successful.
Pull the bar out of the rack while your spotter helps you get it out. Your body should be tight and your shoulders kept down. You want to actually try to pull the bar out to you while your spotter is helping guide it out. What the spotter isn’t doing is pulling it as hard as possible and ripping you off the bench. This is grounds for you to rack the bar and smack your spotter in the face. If they pull you out of position you need to re-rack the bar and start over, or you won’t be able to get set properly.
Bring the bar out so that it lines up with a landmark on the ceiling. You may actually want to figure this out before you get set (my bad should have told you sooner). Just get in the bench and put the bar where you want to start. Find a point on the ceiling that it lines up with. That is your “target” for every rep. You are going to constantly focus your eyes on that point. We’ll talk more on this in a little bit. We have beams in the ceiling that we use, but it might be just a spot, a tile or whatever you see up there that works for you.
You are still squeezing the bar as hard as possible. No matter what, squeeze the bar like your life depends on it with your thumbs wrapped around it.
Push yourself away from the bar to go to “full lock out”. Don’t just take it out and lower it. That’s a recipe for disaster. You drop this thing down to too fast at this point and you’re definitely going to eat it. And trust me, Texas Power Bar taste awful. Once you have the bar lined up with your target, push yourself away from the bar (into the bench) and lock everything out completely.
Part III – The Decent
This comes down to 2 things: focus and pull.
Now, we’re set, and the bar is in line with our target. Pull the bar to you and do so all the way until the bar touches your chest. That may be a bit confusing, but this movement needs to be under control. Doing this will reach your chest/ribs to the bar and help you pull the bar to you so that you stay tight.
Also on the way down you are focused on your spot on the ceiling thinking “drive to the spot, drive to the spot, drive to the spot” the whole way down there. Control the bar and you pull it down towards you, but the entire time think about being aggressive as you drive the bar away. Controlled aggression. Hmmm, heard that before? Yeah, it’s what makes people good at sports.
Touch the bar to your chest, do not bounce it. Instead, touch it softly with a minor pause. You’re not trying to give your spine a massage through your chest, so pause it on your chest gently.
Part IV – The Ascent
Oh yeah, now it’s time to actually push it.
Now you’re paused on your chest with a nice soft touch. From here you are thinking DRIVE! You are driving all the way to your target, but here’s the trick. You are trying to push yourself as far away from the bar as possible. You are pushing your shoulders down into the bench and driving your heels into the floor. Keep your butt and abs tight and drive all the way to lock out.
When you drive your legs, you are not driving from your toes. Remember to drive from your heels. While doing this, keep your butt on the bench. If you’re butt comes up it’s not good, and you look like a tool.
Your grip needs to stay rock solid on the bar the whole way to the top.
Win the race to the top. What I mean by this is do not slow down. You can hit it hard early and try to ride it out, but that will get you in trouble. I want you to race the bar to the top, the whole way thinking “drive to the spot and push away from the bar.”
Once you lock out, make sure you’ve kept your shoulders down and back. Otherwise rack the bar and start over. If you did, you’re good to go and can repeat the rep. So think of it as you’re finished when your elbows are locked out. You don’t need to push your shoulders up towards the bar. That’s just setting you up to get hurt on the next rep, and making you do useless work.
Drive your heels into the floor, shoulders into the bench and push the bar towards your target. It’s simple physics. You want to get as many force vectors going in opposite directions as possible. So you want to get a vector going away from the bar, and one going towards through the bar. This will cause the bar to move further faster, which is what we want. We want you to produce force.
And that’s how you perform the bench press. It’s a bit more complex than you thought, I’m sure. Now you know why I want you to get strong at the body weight movements first. There is so much that goes into benching you need to be strong first to be able to be good at it. Everyone in the gym wants to talk about the bench press, but seriously, check your ego at the door for a few workouts and learn how to do it right. You’ll see massive gains in muscle and strength, and you’ll keep your shoulders healthy doing it properly. Once you figure it out, watch out, because in no time you’ll be moving some real weight on the bench.
To maximize your muscle and strength gains on the bench press 1R would recommend the following supplements:
Cytosport Creatine – By increasing your body’s ATP production creatine will help you become more explosive, more powerful, and more athletic when taken before or after lifts