5 Top Tips for Improving your Bench Press – by Adam Bishop CSCS

Here is the final instalment in my “5 Top Tips” series and this time we’re addressing possibly the most popular gym exercise of all time, the bench press. While it is the most popular, it is also the exercise that is the least understood by a lot of athletes. The 5 pointers below are there to aid all athletes, from whatever sport, who include the bench press in their training.

Tip 1 – The Set up is crucial

 Far too many athletes merely lie down on a bench as if it were a nice comfy mattress and expect their upper bodies to do all the work. The bench press, when performed properly, is in fact a lift that utilises the whole body in order to press the maximum loading possible. If you ever watch a powerlifting meet, live or on youtube, you will here several phrases repeated over and over again during the bench press. One of these commands is “stay tight.” This “tightness” refers to a state of whole body preparation for the lift to come and ranges from driving the feet into the floor, all the way up to squeezing the bar with the hands.

Now as I have mentioned before in previous articles, the power lifts are all about the transfer of energy through the kinetic chains of the body and ultimately through to the bar in order to initiate movement. If you are not driving through your feet then this is a weak link in your chain and the loading you achieve will be decreased. Minimise the energy lost to maximise the efficiency of the movement and ultimately lift more weight. Here is a simple check list for ensuring a solid set up on the bench:

1)     Are your feet plated solidly on the floor?

2)     Are you pressing your upper back into the bench as hard as you possibly can?

3)     Are your hands squeezing the bar as tight as you can?

4)     Ensure you are “pulling” the bar out of the rack in order to maintain this body position.

Tip 2 – Know your weakness

 As a lifter, you should know where you fail on your lifts by finding where your sticking point is. The sticking point refers to the point at which the bar ceases to move upwards and you fail. Adjusting your assistance exercises to better address your weakness will reap greater gains. For example let’s say lifter A fails his press at the bottom of the lift, ie: on the chest or 1-3 inches off it. This would suggest weak pectoral muscles and suitable assistance exercises would include flat dumbbell bench press, weighted press ups and decline pressing movements. One may wish to perform lower half partial reps i.e. not lock out as to keep constant tension on the pectorals and not the triceps.

On the other hand Lifter B has trouble locking out his presses at the very top of the lift. If you fall into this more common problem then you are in luck as there are many exercises that can be used to solve this problem. A weak lock out usually indicates weak triceps which can either be strengthened specifically (through bench press movements) or non-specifically (through other movements). Here is a list of my favourite lockout strengthening exercises:

BENCH PRESS VARIATIONS

1)     Board press – This involves reducing the range of motion with the use of wooden boards in order to overload the triceps at the top of the lift.

2)     Floor Press – Basically a bench press performed while lying on the floor. This also reduces the range of motion and forces the triceps to be used more. Please note the use of this lift is to make the triceps do the work and thus improve…do not be the idiot that starts lifting their butt of the floor just so they can add more pounds on the bar by attempting to throw the weight up! Let me spell it out to you…all that does is serve to allow the triceps to get out of some of the work! I have seen ‘coaches’ allow this, all this proves to me is that there  is to much egoism present and not enough brains in the coach to know the correct purpose of the lift.

3)     Bench Press with bands or chains – The use of bands or chains provides a steady increase in load throughout the lift thus adding load to the lockout portion of the lift. The big advantage to band or chain work is that it trains the lift through a full range of motion and therefore allows the athlete to improve their pressing technique at the same time. It also teaches the lifter to explode into the lift to overcome the ‘wall’ of resistance the bands provide (see tip 4).

4)     Close Grip Bench press – This lift places a greater emphasis on the triceps and, the closer hand position, the greater their involvement is in the lift. Remember, the hand placement does not need to be excessively close together, just narrower than your standard grip.

OTHER MOVEMENTS

1)     Dips – Everyone who can dip without pain should do so

2)     Skull crushers – Standard bodybuilding exercise to increase the mass of the triceps

3)     Pressdowns with bands – I favour press downs with a band over cables and the band tension at the bottom is greater than the top therefore once again placing more resistance at the lockout.

4)     Tate Press – Halfway between a DB extension and a DB bench press the Tate press is an awesome exercise for improving triceps strength at lockout, especially for those of you out there who compete in equipped powerlifting.

Tip 3 – Get your Line right

 I’ve lost count of the number of athletes I’ve worked with who bench with elbows flared out throughout the lift. While many bodybuilders use this technique to put extra stress on the pectoral muscles, it is not the most efficient way to press and will reduce the potential load.

Benching with the elbows out also increases the risk of shoulder injury and should be avoided, especially in those of you who participate in high impact sports such as Rugby. For those athletes with susceptible shoulders, Ben Coker wrote an excellent piece on this here.

This brings me on to the second common command heard at powerlifting meets, “tuck”. While many would argue that tucking in a bench press is more applicable to those lifting equipped, it also has importance in teaching the lifter the right line that the bar needs to travel in. The bar should be touching the chest at nipple height not above that. This is achieved through keeping the elbows close to the side of the body hence the tuck command. This allows for greater pectoral and triceps recruitment in addition to providing greater stability and reducing the risk of injury.

 

Tip 4 – Train to accelerate the bar

 This comes down to making the pressing movement as fast as possible in an attempt to avoid the bar stalling or sticking at any point during the lift. In the same way as squats, bands can be used for dynamic or speed bench in order to better utilise the stretch shortening cycle and produce a faster movement.

The bands work in two ways: Firstly they speed up the eccentric part of the lift resulting in a faster bar speed than normal and increasing muscle recruitment. Secondly they also add accommodating resistance to the lift forcing the lifter to power through the added resistance at the top to complete the lift. While speed bench without bands can be done, it is my belief that it is not as effective as with bands. In the absence of bands, I would personally prescribe different upper body Plyometric exercises such as medicine ball throws or plyo-press ups.

The inclusion of dynamic bench press work could possibly get those bench press numbers moving again if the athlete starts to plateaux.

Tip 5 – Progressive Overload

 Once again I’m going to stress the importance of smart loading patterns for the continued progression of your bench press. Do not think you can go to the gym and perform 1 RMs week after week and see progress. This just does not happen with a trained individual.

Think about your weekly loading and rep ranges and slowly increase the load over time. You can still hit PBs over time working with 5 or 3 reps. As you increase the load week after week, maybe decrease the number of reps you perform and remember to take a break or a deload week every so often to avoid overtraining. It is these considerations that ensure continued progression in your training and separate the smart, educated lifters who get stronger from the gym idiots who get stuck on a weight and go nowhere.

Until next time. Train hard. Train Smart. Be Strong. 

Training Around, Not Through Shoulder Pain – by Ben Coker

The shoulder joint is the most movable joint in the body and with that comes the title of the most unstable. Many ligaments, tendons and muscles are intricately packed into a relatively small area. This leaves little room for abnormality before impingement pain and range of movement becomes an issue.

Shoulder pain is a very common ailment in lifters and the story usually goes two ways. They either carry on and make the situation worse and eventually have to stop lifting, sometimes permanently if taken too far. The other scenario is that the lifter stops lifting, loose what progress they have made, waits until the pain has subsided, then resumes the same exercise protocol. This will lead to a stop start cycle with limited results and quite possibly a progressively deteriorating shoulder.

What many lifters fail to realise that they can alter the mechanics of their squats and presses in order to reduce the stress on their shoulders. This would allow the lifter to train around shoulder pain and not through the shoulder pain or simply stop training.

In throw dominant athletes, e.g. javelin throwers and baseball pitches, their shoulder is their sport and by this I mean that their shoulders are integral to their performance. The extreme forces around the shoulder in such sports give rise to shoulders that are ‘on the edge’ as it is, of injury. These athletes can take advantage of the same mechanical alterations of lifts as a prehab protocol, helping to prevent any flare ups from occurring as a result of training. After all training should aid the performance not deteriorate from it.

Below are some simple modifications that can be used with presses and squats to reduce stress on the shoulder. Please remember that specific pre-hab/rehab drills, rotator cuff drills and complete rest if the injury is severe are not to be ignored. These should be a stable in the programme regardless.

 

Pressing

1) Neutral grip pressing.

 

By using this grip (palms facing) you actually open up the sub acromial space and thereby reduce impingement. You can do this by using dumbbells and parallel handles on a machine. Now, neither of these are as good at developing true absolute pressing strength, when compared to the straight bar. To not lose out in the maximal strength department you can use a Swiss or football bar to press with. These bars are awesome. Essentially they are a straight bar but have handles that are in a neutral grip position.

Swiss or 'football' bar

2) Pressing with dumbbells

 Dumbbells will allow for a more natural movement pattern, even without the hands being in the neutral position (although this will reduce stress further). Deloading and switching bar pressing with dumbbell pressing say every 3rd session is a good way to prevent shoulder flare ups.

3) Take a narrower grip and tuck your elbows

A narrower grip will be the safest on the whole for most athletes. It has been found that anything outside of 1.5 times shoulder-width puts your shoulders at noticeably greater risk of injury (1,2).

To further save your shoulders one should tuck in their elbows and not flare them. This point to a degree comes as a result of varying grip width i.e. wider grip is usually accompanied with flared elbows and narrower grip is usually accompanied with more tucked elbows.

It is also important to remember the functionality of pressing. On the whole, most direct pressing movements in sport occur in a relatively narrow grip width. Think shot put, defensive lineman block, fend offs in contact sports, and even chest passes in basket ball and netball.

4) Use partial presses

Now, don’t take this as an excuse to not press with a full ROM, it isn’t. It is however good advice to intelligently use partial ROM reps in the form of pin pressing, floor pressing and board pressing to enhance training (by handling heavier weights, potentiating the CNS, breaking through sticking points and developing strong lockouts), whilst serving to deload the stress on the shoulder joint, if used say every 3rd to 4th session.

Squatting

1) Safety bar or cambered bar squats

Straight bar back squats put the shoulder under heavy strain in a vulnerable position (abduction and external rotation). Safety bars allow the lifter to hold the bar out in front of them and the cambered bar allows the lifter to position his shoulders lower and further forward. Both positions take the shoulders out of the ‘at risk’ position, whilst not compromising the loading and thus the effectiveness of the movement.

Safety bar

Cambered bar

2) Or use front squats

Front squats are a great way of taking stress off of the shoulders due to an altered bar racking position. Now flexibility is an issue for many in front squats in regards to racking the bar in the clean grip (I am one of them). One option is the crossed arms approach typically used by bodybuilders (but this method has some of its own disadvantages). The other method is to use lifting straps to create handles as it were that reduce the range of motion require to hold the bar in the clean grip position.

Simply put the straps around the bar (as you would your wrist) and hold the strap flap with your hands whilst in the clean grip position.

Now again as with dumbbell and flat bar pressing, front squats don’t allow for as much maximal strength to be generated (due to less hamstring recruitment as they are in a shortened position). Therefore I suggest using them as a deload again every 3rd to 4th session.

Some extras

1) Do less crunches and more thoracic mobility work.

Chronic obsessions with crunches serve to tighten the abdominals and pull the rib cage down to the hips. This results in a kyphotic posture which in turn closes acromial space leading to increased shoulder impingement. Train your abs in the way they are meant to work (resisting movement) and increase your thoracic mobility and you will find that impingement in overhead pressing and barbell back squatting reduced.

2) Use a full grip and squeeze hard

When a lifter grasps the bar as hard as possible (achieve through a full grip and a conscious squeeze), a process called irradiation occurs and in short a signal is sent to the rotator cuff to switch on and tighten or ‘pack’ itself (as it is often referred to) This provides more stability to the joint.

Remember. Train hard. Train smart. Be strong.

 

References

1. Fees M, Decker T, Snyder-Mackler L, Axe MJ. Upper extremity weight-training modifications for the injured athlete. A clinical perspective. Am J Sports Med. 1998 Sep-Oct;26(5):732-42.

2. Elliott BC, Wilson GJ, Kerr GK. A biomechanical analysis of the sticking region in the bench press. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1989 Aug;21(4):450-62.

Press like a Powerlifter, Pull like a Bodybuilder – by Ben Coker

This article outlines a training philosophy that I feel holds much credit: ‘press like a powerlifter, pull like a bodybuilder.’ This philosophy carries over to most sporting disciplines that involve strength and power. Why? Because it works in unison with the way the human body is designed to work.

The function of the muscle involved in pressing movements from an evolutionary perspective is that of high force/velocity contractions. Think of this in terms of survival:

  • We thrust spears and punches for attack and defense
  • We fended off predators or attackers with our arms and thrust them off us with our legs hips if we were supine and crouched.
  • We jumped
  • We ran after prey or ran away from predators

I quote Christian Thibadeau saying ‘Pressing is performance…it’s the bodys’ primary movement pattern.’ All these movements are fundamental movements of human beings and the common factor in all of them is high force/velocity. It becomes easy to see how this basic design carries over into sports performance.

It makes logical sense therefore to train such movements with high force velocity/contractions and in order to obtain this you find that the rep range is usually lower (1-5 reps). Every pressing rep should be performed as fast as possible. The actual speed of the bar is irrelevant to a degree its all about attempting to explode into the bar and trying to move the weight as fast as possible. You can read more on this in a previous article on maximum motor unit recruitment .

Press like a powerlifter

 

This type of contraction and rep range should be utilised for bench press, shoulder press, squat, deadlift and sprinting training. Now, just to answer the question many of you are now probably thinking – but yes the deadlift and squatting are presses. Squatting is quite obviously the movement of pressing the floor away from you in order to stand up right? Well so is a deadlift. You do not pull the bar off the floor with your back (if you do your probably injured or will be soon). You press the weight up with a strong leg drive obtaining hip and knee extension whilst maintaining spinal extension- an isometric contraction.

Now lets look at pulling movements from an evolutionary perspective:

  • We grabbed prey and held onto it
  • We grappled and wrestled with prey and predators
  • We held on and pulled ourselves up when climbing trees, rocks etc
  • We maintain posture throughout the day, often having to do this often under a load, usually for duration i.e.carrying objects over a distance.

The back muscles are largely comprised of type I fibres which are slow contracting and fatiguing. This explains the evolutionary role of such muscles.  As outlined in my article highlighting the benefits of farmers walks, it is clear that performance-wise we need our pulling musculature to be trained to stabilise our bodies thoughout any high force pressing. This creates a rigid platform from which we can better transfer forces and thus perform. It makes sense therefore to train such muscles/movements using higher volume using fatigue and constant tension methods such as rest pause, drop sets, isometric holds and eccentric less pulling exercises (for extra volume without undue eccentric damage which prolongs recovery). A good article titled ‘Curing Imaginary Lat Syndrome’ follows on this idea.

Pull like a bodybuilder

On a side note Joe Defranco adopts such a training philosophy with his athletes, not just for the obvious performance results the blend produces but also for the great results it has for shoulder longevity. Again I quote ‘we train the bench press like a powerlifter and the back like a bodybuilder… The upper back will always get twice the volume of our pressing muscles… [using] bodybuilding form and technique.’

Now there are a few exceptions or should I say instances where pressing movements can be trained more along the fatigue methodology. Our legs carry our body all day, everyday, and resultantly have a large amount of type I fibres. Its not surprising therefore that they will respond well to higher volume and or fatigue training too. I am a huge fan of volume training for legs. Now if you are clever you will realise that utilising both methods of training will be advantage for progressions sake in the leg department!

Some people may raise the question – ‘If deadlifts are training pressing and thus using lower reps, why is it then that they develop your back musculature so much?’ The answer: The back is working in an isometric hold for the entire duration of a rep/sets. In a set of 5 reps for a heavy deadlift the back is under isometric tension for about 20-30 seconds! Exactly how I prescribed the back to be trained.

I also understand hypertrophy specific methods can be added into a programme but on the whole the concept of press like a powerlifter and pull like a bodybuilder forms a very solid template from which to structure the majority of your training, especially if performance is more important to you. Lets not forget that training muscles in the way they were designed to work is going to lead to substantial hypertrophy regardless.

Now lets put this all together. To perform we need (1) to press with high force and (2) our pulling muscles must create a rigid platform for us to transfer those forces. To do this efficiently we need our pulling muscles to be trained to stabilise our bodies throughout any high force pressing, or over multiple presses. Therefore train the pressing muscles like a powerlifter; heavy and powerful for fewer reps whilst training your pulling muscles with fatigue and constant tension methods for higher volume. The perfect blend for a healthy and truly functional athletic performer.

The result: Athletic performance on a big scale!

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