Big on The Basics: Building Your Bench Press One Rep At a Time

Big on The Basics: Building Your Bench Press One Rep At a Time

The bench press is ubiquitous in the world of fitness.

If you walk into any gym, anywhere in the world, you’ll see one of three things:

  • Endless sets of curls in front of the mirror
  • Multiple rows of treadmills with people pounding away
  • Bench press racks which seem to stay taken all day

You won’t find a more iconic exercise than the bench press, as it’s usually someone’s first exposure to weight training. 

A high school athlete training for a sport. 

A middle aged client getting back to the gym after the speed of life overtook them. 

No matter who you are, the bench press is likely one of the first exercises you’ll learn. Which makes sense, given it’s an excellent upper body mass builder.

Also, in the world of powerlifting it’s part of the “big 3” lifts: squat, deadlift, and bench. The load for these three lifts add up to determine something called your Wilks score.

Given that it’s literally everywhere, it’s important to understand the technical process of the lift so you stay safe, and see long term progress.

SETUP

  1. Lie flat on a bench with the bar roughly at eye level or eyebrow level.
  2. Place hands evenly on the bar about a hand-width wider than shoulder width.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and set them against the bench.
  4. Grip the bar tightly with all fingers and keep wrists neutral, not bent
  5. Allow your spotter to help you unrack the weight over your shoulders.

EXECUTION

  1. Inhale and hold your breath as the bar descends down, with eyes on the ceiling.
  2. Lower the bar until it touches your chest (i.e. sternum/breastbone).
  3. Push yourself away from the bar as you drive it up towards the starting point.
  4. Repeat.

TIP & TRICKS

  • Ensure 5 points of contact

     Both feet, hips, shoulder blades, and head should all be touching the floor/bench throughout the lift so there are no force leaks.

  • Death Grip

    – The harder you squeeze the bar, the more it activates stabilizing muscles in your shoulder and forearm to help keep the weight balanced.

  • Technique > Weight

    – Form trumps intensity. You can’t bench if you’re injured

  • For Maximal Weight

    – If you’re interested in powerlifting, focus on moving the weight from point A to point B. Don’t worry about “feeling” the muscle working or how much tension you can generate. Just get the weight up with good technique.

  • For Hypertrophy –

    Consider stopping each repetition just short of elbow lockout to keep tension on your chest throughout the movement.

  • Full Range of Motion

    – The bar should touch your chest (without bouncing) on every repetition, regardless of the variation used.

  • Thumbless?

    – Many intermediate and advanced trainees prefer to use a “thumbless” or “suicide” grip while benching as it’s more comfortable to some. While this is a matter of personal preference, it’s safer for lifters to bench with their thumbs wrapped around the bar.

  • Grip Width

    – Depending upon your arm length, you will likely have to use a narrower or wider grip to accommodate your wingspan. If you sense pain in the front of your shoulder or you struggle to get the bar to your chest, experiment with your grip width. Set up a camera or have a friend check that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor at the bottom of the movement. This is a simple litmus test to determine proper grip width.

  • Heels Down

    – In order to provide a stable base of support while you bench, seek to keep your heels down. If you are a lifter with short(er) legs, you may need to add some plates to the floor to elevate your feet and keep them flat while lying down.

    • Note: You may see some powerlifters raise their heels, but this is only in the case when using an extreme spinal arch.
  • Structural Balance

    – While benching is great for developing all of the “push” muscles on the front side of the body, make sure you’re performing lots of pulling lifts, too. A solid bench press is built on the foundation of a strong upper back.

  • Elbows @ 45

     Your arms and upper body should resemble an arrow (elbows down @ 45 degrees).

    • Not a “T” (elbows flared out to the sides @ 90 degrees).
    • Or an “I” (elbows completely tucked in @ 0 degrees).

Bench Variations to Include In Your Programming

  1. DB Bench Press

    – While similar to its barbell counterpart, dumbbell benching is a great option to work the smaller stabilizer muscles within the shoulder complex. You can also add an incline or a decline angle to slightly change which fibers are working. 

  2. Barbell Close Grip Bench Press

    – This one is a great tricep builder given the hands are moved closer and the elbows remain tucked throughout the movement.

  3. Smith Machine Bench Press

    – Smith machines get a bad rap in the fitness industry, but they can be used as a teaching tool to help someone learn what a vertical bar path should feel like.

  4. Floor Press

    – This variation is typically performed in a rack but it can also be performed with dumbbells on the floor. If you’re dealing with elbow or shoulder problems, include it in your rehab plan as you transition back to a normal bench press. Also, these are great for building strength in the top half of the bench.

  5. Pushup Variations

    – Pushups have stood the test of time. Best of all, they strengthen the muscles that control your shoulder blades, as they allow them to move more freely than they would in a bench press. While they may seem easy, there are a number of power and single arm variations. Or, they can be weighted with plates, weight vests, or even resistance bands.

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