How to Bench: Basics and More
So you want to learn how to bench. It seems simple enough, right? Pick up the bar and lower it to your chest. For a relatively non-functional movement, the bench press is fairly intuitive.
Upon close examination, you will see that the bench press is a complex compound exercise with a myriad of technical aspects. Learning how the bench press functions as an overall movement will allow you to apply the correct techniques that in turn will help you progress beyond the point you’re currently at.
For reference, my bench press without any technical cueing plateaued at 120kg for about 2 years. After applying some commonly understood technical cues, my bench moved up to 160kg over a year and a half. I can guarantee that you will bench more than what you bench now if you read the rest of the article and apply the techniques discussed.
I’ll be covering the following topics:-
- The bench press set up
- Thoracic extension
- Leg drive
- Bar path
The bench press set-up
This is the foundation of a good bench, a good bench set up will translate to a strong bench press and vice versa.
You have three points of contact though with to transfer energy from your body to the bar. It starts at the feet, through the hips, and onto your upper back to finally arrive at your hands.
Key aspects of good set up:-
- Traps are firmly dug into the bench, any slippage at this point and all the tension you build-up will be lost.
- Feet are digging into the ground with your heels applying downward pressure from the point of unracking the weight to reracking it.
- Knees are below the hips.
- A thoracic arch is maintained throughout the bench movement (this may or may not be comfortable, depends on back health and flexibility).
- Bracing of the midsection.
- Squeeze the bar as hard as you can, the stronger the grip the light the bar will feel in your hand. If the bar feels light, you will have more confidence in benching the weight up.
Executing the above properly won’t be effective if you don’t build tension throughout your body, starting at your traps and ending at your feet. Tension is built by pushing your feet back as far as you can and arching as much as you, all the while keeping your entire body stable/braced and engaged.
CAVEAT: This may not necessarily be the most comfortable position to maintain but the degree to which you can build tension will affect the amount of weight you can lift, thus, in turn, lead to greater activation and growth of the body. Please ensure you address any pre-existing health conditions and/or back issues before attempting this style of training. It’s not a style that everyone can execute correctly, but most healthy individuals can work up to a high level by progressing slowly and pushing their limits carefully. Technique is the singular most important aspect and must always take precedence over the weight lifted. If you cannot maintain good technique, you haven’t earned the right to lift the weight
Thoracic extension is the arching of your upper back i.e. puffing your chest. It is important to maintain a neutral lower back while executing a thoracic extension.
Most beginners tend to create a lordotic lower back arch when trying to arch their thoracic vertebrae. This stems from poor muscle control and a lack of awareness. You can improve your thoracic extension via accessory exercises such as the scapula wall hold, half wall hang, kneeling thoracic extension, and the camel. It will help to practice creating a thoracic arch in front of a mirror, at least until you know what it feels like.
Why do you need thoracic extension? There are 2 main reasons.
- It protects your shoulders. The arching of the thoracic vertebrae prevent the shoulders from becoming a primary mover and instead makes it a stabilizer. It transfers the role of primary mover to the chest, arms, and back. Learning to create and maintain a stable arch will greatly reduce the risk of shoulder injury and will increase your longevity in the gym.
- It reduces the range of motion. Reducing the range of motion(within reasonable limits) will allow you to handle heavier weights. It will also allow for greater activation of the chest, back, and arms. Heavier weight => greater stimulus => increase in strength <=> increase in muscle mass.
Leg drive can be tricky, the key is not to think of it as a concentric movement but instead approach it as an isometric movement.
- Concentric movement — contraction of the muscle leads to movement around a joint. E.g. concentric contraction of the quadriceps causes the lower leg(tibia and fibula) to move at the knee from a bent position to a straight position
- Isometric movement — contraction does not lead to movement, instead, it leads to the tightening of the muscle. E.g isometric contraction of the quadriceps does not lead to movement but instead creates pressure between the hip and the knees.
As with most muscle contractions, the quadriceps do not work alone. Activation of the quads will lead to the activation of the hamstrings which will also contract isometrically.
Watch out for hamstring cramps when executing leg drive, always do the appropriate warm-ups and work within your flexibility limits.
How does leg drive work?
- You dig your feet into the ground and force your heels downwards while simultaneously contracting your quads. If your feet are properly planted this should force your hips upwards and backward.
- You then counter this force by driving your hips down which will then build tension throughout the arch you have created, provided you have dug your traps into the bench and have braced properly.
- Once you have lowered the bar down to your chest and your ready to push it up, extending your quads while forcing your heels down which will create momentum that will move through your hips, though your thoracic vertebrae, to your arms, chest, and back. This little push of momentum will drive the bar off your chest.
- If executed correctly this initial momentum on the bar can be maintained to the completion of the rep by correctly engaging your chest, back, and arms.
This is the trajectory of the bar from the start of the rep till the end. The downward and upward trajectory will be determined by the force exerted by the muscles involved in each stage of the lift. The degree to which an individual can recruit their muscles and the coordination of these muscles are both important factors that affect the amount of weight that can be benched,
Bar path is usually a good tool to assess if you’re recruiting muscles in the correct order, and it will help identify which muscles are lagging and which are dominant. E.g. If your bar path is inefficient and your sticking point is midway off your chest if probably indicates either weak triceps or improper back activation(or both). Granted it could be a host of other issues such as a poor starting position or lack of a thoracic arch when all variables are controlled, bar path is a useful tool for assessing technique and weak points
What is an inefficient bar path?
The bar path for the bench is unique in that the most efficient bar path is NOT a straight vertical line. With a vertical bar path, the weight is going to sit above the shoulders throughout the movement. This prevents you from recruiting your back and chest muscles effectively. Typically a vertical bar path cannot be maintained as the weight increases.
It’s usually a result of the lifter flaring the elbows throughout the movement. A novice lifter will typically use a vertical bar path since they don’t have the proper motor control. The long term implications of using this technique is poor development of the pectorals, poor back activation, and excessive stress on the rotator cuffs. The rotator cuffs will be working extra hard which can result in the chronic internal rotation of the shoulders, which can in turn cause damage to the rotator cuffs and surrounding muscles.
There two main types of bar paths. They are the back dominant bar path and the chest dominant bar path.
What is a back dominant bar path?
The bar starts above the shoulder joint, move downwards by curving inwards till the bar touches the chest just below the nipples. The press will result in the same bar path but in the opposite direction with the bar moving back up along the path it descended.
The blue line indicates the lowering of the bar and the red line indicates the pressing motion.
Benching this way will force you to rely primarily on your back and triceps. Your rear delts and chest will work as stabilizers.
The significant advantage of using this method is the greatly reduced range of motion. There are some disadvantages to using this method, primarily lack of stimulus of the chest muscles and increased stress on the elbows. It will, however, let you lift significantly more weight. Correctly implementing this technique and proper training can take you from benching 120kg and 160–180kg.
This will suit some lifters but not others, the best way to find out what works for use is to just try it. This technique requires you to maintain a large amount of tension/tightness throughout your body, if you lose tension at any point it will not be effective and could result in an injury.
What is a chest dominant bar path?
This bar path takes an oval shape. The downward path is similar to that of the back dominant bar path, an inward curving slope starting above the shoulders and ending just below the nipples. The difference is the path taken when the weight is pressed up. The upwards portion of a chest dominant bar path is inverse to its downward path.
The blue line indicates the lowering of the bar and the red line indicates the pressing motion.
How do you achieve this bar path? It’s determined by when(timing is crucial) you flare your elbows on the upwards pressing motion. At the starting point, the elbows are completely flared. The downward portion of the lift is initiated by the bending of the elbows. As the bar descends the elbows are gradually tucked into approximately 30 to 40 degrees.
The elbows are tucked in at the bottom of the bench press with the bar touching the chest just below the nipples
As you press the bar up, starting from just below the nipples, the elbows should start to flare out gradually and should be completely flared out at the top of the pressing movement.
The flaring of the elbows is initiated as you start to press the weight up. Do not completely flare the elbows at the start of the press. The gradual flaring of the elbows will allow for better weight distribution and allow your joints to be stacked at each point of the lift, placing you in a stronger position and making the lift safer.
For me, this is the bar path of choice and I recommend my athletes to try this bar path unless they perform better using a different style. It’s important not to get hung up on the bar path. Realize that your body will over time start favoring the bar path that will allow you to lift the most weight. Your naturally dominant muscles will determine the bar path of your bench so even if you train in a particular style, your body will favor the style that is most suitable for you.
Prioritize training your back on the days that you do the bench press, as the back muscles play a major role in the bench press. A strong back and chest along with triceps will go a long way in building a strong bench and vice versa. Remember, the bench isn’t only about the pectorals
Whether you’re benching for the first time or have 10 years of experience lifting weights, you won’t get far without good technique. The difference between amateur gym junkies and successful competitive powerlifters or bodybuilders is that they execute good technique on every rep because every rep counts.
As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your bench. You have to take your time, listen to your body, and be patient. You have to earn the right to lift heavier weights and you have to earn the right to grow(unless you’re a genetic freak in which case this article won’t be of much use to you).
Correctly apply these techniques, do your research, hire a good coach, train consistently with good technique and I can guarantee that you will get the results you want.
Good luck and all the best.