A Quick Guide to Building a Better Bench

By September 29, 2015Blog, Featured, Get Strong

If you have spent any amount of time at the gym for an extended period you have probably encountered the question, “So, what’s your bench?”, or any version similar to this question, that seeks the same answer.  Today’s post is to pay homage to that question, and in the process help you build a better bench.

I have never been a “natural” bench presser.  I have had to experiment, train, and really work on getting my bench press to a place where I feel confident in the lift.  Below I would like to share, with you, some of the tips I have learned during that process, in a way that I might coach someone through the lift.

Chin Under the Bar

When you lie down to bench I usually ask people to start with their chin under the bar.  The reason being that you will be “shortening” your torso, to some extent, when you try to achieve tension.  The act of “shortening” your torso is done by walking your shoulders into place that is going to be most beneficial to begin your press (this idea is demonstrated in the video below).  When you are successful and “shortening” your torso you will eventually end up with your eyes under the bar and it’s from this position you will begin your bench.

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Tuck Your Shoulders

This refers to a movement known as scapular retraction and depression.  Essentially you are squeezing your shoulder blades together and trying to tuck them in your back pockets.  This is usually a cue that helps people understand but it may take some time to sink in.  When setting up for you bench you can achieve scapular retraction and depression be “walking” you shoulders into place, as I have mentioned above and is demonstrated in the video below.  You will see how your body get’s “shorter” as you walk your shoulders into position.  The end position will be shorten torso, with tucked or packed shoulders and your eyes underneath the bar.

Pinkys on the Rings

If you have every examined a barbell you will find that there are two smooth rings on both sides of the bar.  These are typically used to make sure your grip is symmetrical when performing a lift.  When it comes to benching I usually recommend that your pinky fingers, at the very least, should touch the smooth rings.  Once you get more familiar with benching you can start to experiment with hand width, but for now have your pinkys reach the rings

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Foot Placement

This will largely depend on what positions your feel the strongest and most stable.  In the videos where you see me bench, you see that I create an arch with my feet placed underneath me.  This is a position that took me a long time to figure out, and I imagine that if a bigger bench is what you are after you may have to dedicate some time to figure a position that best supports your leverages.  But there is one thing that MUST happen you are deciding where to place your feet, and that is your knees MUST be below your hips.  Having your knees below your hips will allow you to optimally utilize your leg drive without having your butt come off the bench, which can place your in a precarious position and do more harm than good.

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Knees below the hips

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Squeeze the bar tight and break it in Half

There is a reflexive response that occurs with your rotator cuff when you squeeze something tight.  Those little SITS (rotator cuff) muscles fire in an effort to stabilize your shoulder, and a stable shoulder is critical for a better bench.  When we cue “break the bar in half” what we are trying to accomplish is getting your lats to engage.  Your lats provide a kind of “global” stability that will help you create a firm base, and help you transfer force. 

Touch Low

I usually recommend that you touch low, somewhere around your sternum, below your nipple line.  For some they may feel more comfortable touching right around the nipple line, but again that is going to take some experimentation.  In my experience touching low is easier on my shoulders and allows me to get a better position through my wrist and elbow which I will touch on below

Bar Stacking 1

Unracking the Bar

When you unrack the bar it is important that you do not sacrifice the position you have worked so hard to attain by “unpacking” shoulders to unrack the bar.  In any case, having someone give you lift off is usually your best option, but if you do not a regular training partner I know this can be difficult.  So when you unrack the bar act as if you are doing a straight arm lat pull down while lying on your back.  In essence you are trying pull the bar away from the rack rather than pressing it up and allowing it to “drift”into place.  In the video below you will notice that once I get my shoulders into place they do not move from the position.

Stacking the Bar, Wrist and Elbow

When you begin the lowering of the bar it is important that bar, wrist, and elbow stack one on top of the other.  The placement of the bar in your hand needs to be as close to the heel of your palm that you can get it.  This will place it as close to being “on top” of your wrist as possible.

correct open

Bar as close to the heel of the palm as possible

Correct Closed

What it should look like once you grip the bar with the bar as close to the heel of the palm as possible

This is what it SHOULD NOT look like

incorrect open

Bar is too far from the heel of the palm

Incorrect Closed

Incorrect Closed Position

When Lowering the bar you are trying to create a “pillar” which consists of bar stacked over wrist, wrist stacked over elbow.  This creates the most optimal position to press from.

Bar stacking 2

Bar over wrist; wrist over elbow

Bar Stacking 1

Bar stacking

Leg Drive

This is a very nebulous concept, much like the idea of “tension”. Leg drive is something you have to feel, but when you get it right you can literally feel weights, you once thought to be somewhat challenging, fly off your chest.  I like to tell people to imagine that the bar is on your waist and you are trying to thrust the bar off of your waist toward your face.   For some this cue makes sense, for others more creative cues and tactics may have to be employed.  The best thing I could do is demonstrate it in the video below.  Pay close attention to my hips and the heels of my feet.  You will see a very slight movement when I initiate the press and you will see my heels try to drive to the ground.  This allows me to engage my glutes and transfer the force I generate from the ground.

Conclusion

These tips will most definitely help you build a better bench press, especially if you found that you are not already employing some of them.  Now there are other versions of bench pressing, but I believe that these tips provide a solid foundation to build from.  After you have mastered these basic techniques you can move into more advanced variations of bench pressing.

Above all, have fun and be a student of the craft!