Do You Even Bench?
I once had a complete stranger come up to me in a mall with the question: “How much do you bench?” It was completely unexpected, yet both funny and flattering. I guess I didn’t even realise that I looked like I lift!
Bench press is obviously super important to most dedicated athletes, weekend warriors, and those people whom only visit the gym on Mondays.
In this article I’m going to breakdown the setup of the bench press with the coaching cues I use for myself and with my clients to ensure maximal muscular recruitment, safety, and maximal overload. That means lifting more than you currently do in the safest way possible.
There is a lot more to performing the bench press than simply pushing the weight off your chest.
Some key setup goals are to keep your elbows tucked in, retract your shoulder blades, keep your chest up, keep your feet tucked behind your knees, and keep your bum down.
In simple step order, this is how we break things down...
1. Lay on the bench with the bar in line with your mouth or chin. This will ensure you are far enough from the bench to not hit the rack at any stage of the movement. If you were to lay lower it would become more important to have a spotter unload the weight.
2. Pull your feet back so that on a side view they are well behind your knees. You can have your feet flat if you are taller and have the flexibility to do so, however being on your toes is not a concern.
3. Hold onto the barbell while it is loaded but still racked, and pull your shoulder blades back. This will create an arch in your back and will raise your chest. This will allow you to utilise your chest more and shoulders less. It will also keep you stable and tight.
4. With your feet tucked behind your knees and your shoulders retracted, lift your bum up and move it as close to the bar as possible before re-setting your bum and feet, creating a further arch in your back.
5. There should be 3 points of contact at all times. Your feet firm on the ground, your bum firm on the bench, and your shoulders firm on the bench.
6. Now that you are setup, ensure you are centered and take grip of the bar. A wider grip means more chest load and also lesser range of motion. A closer grip means more triceps load and increased range of motion. Find a grip that is most comfortable for you.
7. Squeeze the bar and imagine you are trying to bend it, which will force your elbows to tuck forward. This is the elbow angle we want to maintain throughout the entire lift.
8. Take a deep breath, lift the bar up and bring it over your chest. Because your elbows are tucked in you will be able to hold the bar above the lower part of your chest, which is ideal. Let your air out once you are in position.
9. Take another deep breath and bring the bar down towards your nipples or slightly lower. You should bring the bar down in a controlled manner and drive it up as fast as possible.
10. As the bar travels down try to also lift your chest towards the bar. This may not visually make a difference but mentally it will ensure you stay tight and strong.
11. Once the bar touches your chest, apply force through your feet and drive the bar up strong. If you are on your toes, consider trying to push your heels down, which will also apply force and keep you tight.
12. It is ideal to take a deep breath at the top of each rep and hold your breath throughout the movement, until you return to the starting position or past the sticking point (hardest part). Some people prefer to breath in as they come down and blow out as they move up. If this is you, I would suggest a compromise of breathing as the bar comes down but holding your breath as you drive it back up. Blowing your air out only once you have past the sticking point or completed the rep will keep you tight and will also create a greater urgency to complete each rep.
13. Once completed, rack the weight. You have successfully improved your bench press.
An additional consideration is pausing on your chest. This may reduce the amount of weight you move initially but will also create greater control throughout the whole movement. It will break the momentum of the lift and improve your strength at the bottom. Pausing will also marginally increase time under tension so if you are one of those people who opt for lightweight and slow reps for the sake of bro science and feeling the burn, you will appreciate this (but please, please consider heavier loads in a controlled not slow manner).
That wraps it up! If you have any further questions I am open to answering them via firstname.lastname@example.org .