Bench Pressing is THE most popular weight resisted exercise performed, yet few achieve or even approach the results they are capable of. Too often training systems and techniques are emphasized incorrectly resulting in stagnation and slow progress. Regardless of whether one has natural bench pressing talents or not, everyone has the ability for great advancements if they apply themselves correctly. Proficiency and maximum improvement is attained through diligent and consistent training on the right program.
The program and details outlined in these pages are the product of much thought, distillation of ideas and principles, and personal trial. A multitude of training methods, assistance exercises and workout philosophies boiled down to a program that I now use with total conviction and recommend with the same assured confidence to the beginner, intermediate or top caliber lifter alike, interested in increasing their bench press.
Following this program and adopting the philosophies described will not only increase your bench press but will also promote excellent upper body development, as the two should, and do, go side by side. The bench press is an interesting exercise and challenge, an enjoyable exercise, and one of the most gratifying ones. Take your incentive from my own results, understand and believe the principles and enjoy the progress you make. Train hard and begin to feel good.
This bench pressing program is not just one of specialization. It can be incorporated easily into a powerlifting framework, bodybuilding routine or strength training regimen. With details explained later, it is based on a four phase cycle lasting around 16 weeks, though this duration can be varied. However, a bench pressing program should not merely be a list of exercises, set and repetitions – there are many further reaching aspects to be considered. I will endeavor in these pages to explain in detail each and every relevant aspect that I feel is important in guiding lifters along the path of greater bench pressing ability and upper body development. My concepts and philosophies on bench pressing vary considerably from those expressed by others. I feel it is therefore essential to explain these philosophies now for emphasis and in so doing possibly denounce some popular misconceptions.
To encapsulate my training philosophy would be to say “train hard and train fast,” but there is much more involved than can be explained in that short phrase. Primarily, you have to divorce yourself from a preoccupation with maximal weights, be it singles or low repetitions, where weight and not work is the motivator. Constantly testing yourself with maximal poundages is a self-indulgent step into staleness slow gains and discouragement. Believe in the notion that if you build useful muscle greater strength will accompany it.
FOR 75% TO 80% OF THE TIME THE KEY WORK IN BENCH PRESS TRAINING IS INTENSITY – WORKING FOR SPEED AND MUSCLE EXHAUSTION, INCREASING WEIGHTS GRADUALLY ONCE THEY HAVE BEEN ACHIEVED SATISFACTORILY.
Consistency of this approach, performing smooth and proficient sets and repetitions over a long period of time, will build the muscular basis for substantial strength gains and ward against premature peaking and staleness.
Only in the last four weeks of the overall cycle should poundage take over as the prime motivator. During this period believe in the groundwork you have laid and expect rapid gains in the poundages capable of being handled from workout to workout, but always – know yourself and listen to the messages your body is giving you – don’t overextend yourself and get discouraged. Intuitively you should know your capabilities, be reasonable and honest with yourself and you will realize your true immediate potential and develop a perfect working relationship with yourself to promote even greater advancements in the future.
BENCH PRESSING STYLE AND TECHNICALITIES
The basic concept of lying on a bench and taking a bar from arms’ length to the chest and back is a very simple one. However, bench pressing with maximum efficiency and power is an extremely exacting art relying on many major and minor principles and utilizing the coordination of the many muscles involved. While there is no one universal style that is perfect to every lifter – hand spacing, degree of arch and foot placement being the most individual variables, there are other aspects that should be applied by all lifters. In this section I would like to consider all these intrinsic aspects of bench pressing technique as correct form is an important feature in increasing bench pressing ability and accompanied muscle growth.
All too often lifters will psyche for the squat and psyche for the deadlift but when it comes to bench pressing it appears that because of the supine nature of the lift their aggression is also flattened. Psyche and aggression for the bench press is as equally important as it is for the other two lifts. Prepare yourself mentally before you approach the bench, don’t linger too long on he bench either sitting or in the pressing position, take a firm, tensed hand-off, lower the bar with controlled determination and explode off the chest, fighting all the way to the lockout. Psyche can manifest itself from within or from without, whatever way, be determined and be aggressive for workout sets and competition maximums alike. Respect the bench press and you’ll be more respectable at it.
Grip and Grip Spacing
As mentioned previously, grip spacing is an individual matter, dependent largely upon structure and relative muscle actions and outputs. A narrow grip requires greater triceps and deltoid strength and less pectoral strength than a wide grip. The maximum grip allowed in competition is 81 cm. or 32 inches measured between the forefingers. I take a 28 inch grip, which is relatively narrow for a lifter of my height, but it is the one I feel most comfortable with, fearing pectoral tears if I go any wider. In order to make full use of all the involved muscles a wide to medium wide grip is preferable.
On gripping the bar itself the thumbs should be around the bar and not back with the fingers. This permits a tight, secure grip, ad allows the bar to be squeezed helping tighten the forearms and upper arms during the lift. With this real grip the wrists can be held extended and rigid allowing a more direct pushing force at the chest.
Again an individual arrangement but it’s important to realize that most of the body’s stability and a degree of the pushing power comes from the legs. Consequently, the feet should be positioned uniformly on each side of the bench in a position that gives the greatest solidity through the legs to the adopted body position without encouraging the buttocks to lift clear of the bench top during the lift. Consider this carefully and build the platform up with secure plates or blocks to achieve the most powerful position.
Along with grip spacing and foot placement arching is the third area in bench pressing technique that may vary from individual to individual. The degree of arch that a person can achieve is dictated somewhat by a person’s anatomy. One reason for arching is to raise the chest higher, thereby lessening the distance the bar is pressed. By arching the back the chest is pushed higher promoting the pectoral muscles to the greatest degree of work and therefore would more naturally accompany wider grip bench presses than ones performed with a more moderate grip. Generally, the heavier the lifter the less ability there is in acquiring an arch, nevertheless, it’s important to feel compact. Again, never arch to the extent that the buttocks are in jeopardy of raising clear of the bench top during the lift.
Regarding body position there are some obvious but nonetheless important points to observe. The body should always be distributed evenly on the bench for maximum stability; and at a position sufficiently close to the uprights so that the adopted body position can be maintained while securing the grip and hand-off, but not so close that the bar might touch any part of the uprights while it is being pressed.
Having just considered foot and body position it’s an appropriate point to mention bench height and width. The present International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) rules state only height, 45 cm (18 in), and one width, 30 cm (12 in), as being mandatory at all sanctioned meets. Many gym benches will be lower than this, some may be higher with greater or lesser widths also. Be aware of this and make the necessary adjustments. Never get accustomed to a bench top that’s too high, build the platform up under the feet with secure plates or blocks; nor one that’s too low without assuming the same height in a meet by again building the platform up. Also, variations in width can create balance problems in a meet. Try to use a bench 12 inches wide. Be aware of these points and always check – just because a meet is sanctioned does not necessarily guarantee that the bench will meet the IPF mandate.
Position of the Bar over the Chest
Having assumed a stable and compact position on the bench, feet positioned correctly, and taken a grip on the bar at the width best suited, maintain a firm and tensed condition as the bar is being handed to you from the racks. Take the bar, not over the throat or upper chest, but right over the crown of the chest before having it steadily released by the spotter(s). This position would interpret when standing upright that the arms would be parallel to the floor, or vertically, at a position about an inch higher than the nipples. It’s important to be in a position at arms’ length that affords the most control and least deviation when lowering the bar to the chest.
Lowering the Bar
From the above position, inhale deeply and lower the bar slowly and with complete control to a position no higher than the nipples and preferably one inch below. During the descent the emphasis is on control so as to make certain the bar is in exactly the correct starting position. With myself the bar is lowered with a maximum acceleration of no more than 103% of the actual weight of the bar, which translates for a bench press of 600 lbs, that on the way down the weight never exceeds 618 lbs when acceleration is taken into account. Most weight trainees lower the bar with an acceleration equal to 130-140% of the actual weight of the bar, which again for a 600 lb bench press translates as 780-840 lbs or 390-420 lbs for a 300 lb bench press. Hence the importance of a slow, controlled descent. To achieve this control keep all the muscles tight, paying special attention to forearms, upper arms, deltoids, pectorals, lats, and legs. Tuck the elbows in towards the lats so the triceps come into contact with them to sustain this condition of inertia – resistance to acceleration, and to be in the strongest possible pressing position. Again, keep the wrists as upright as possible and you will be in a perfect and solid position to receive the referee’s signal in a meet or press out a training lift.
Pressing the Bar
The overall performance of the press is one of coordination of muscular effort coupled with the correct trajectory or path. From the chest, where little of the weight is supported by the rib cage, but rather held on tensed, “recoil-ready” muscles, the bar is pressed with absolute acceleration by exertion primarily of the pectorals, triceps and the front deltoids, in an upward and faceward direction. This momentum and direction takes the bar to about 60% of completion for the medium grip pressers and about 70% for the wider grips. Initial acceleration is more explosive with the narrower grip but shorter lived. The bar at this point should be over the upper pectorals. At this stage the elbows should begin to flare outwards bringing them almost level with the shoulders utilizing side deltoid strength and maintaining the upward movement with the pectorals and now very importantly the triceps. From this point the bar moves vertically, while exhaling, to lockout using largely pectoral and triceps. Triceps requirement being greater with a narrower grip. The final position of the bar over the chest will be directly above the upper pectorals or even towards the throat, higher up the body than the position held before lowering the bar. Obviously with repetitions the first should follow the path described while subsequent ones will need minor adjustments at the beginning of the descent to bring the bar back down to the correct pressing position. It’s the pathway of the first repetition that lays the foundation for faultless competition singles.
During bench pressing the head plays a significant role. Once the bar has been correctly positioned over the chest your eyes should be focused on the point of the chest where the bar will come to rest. The bar will be in the outskirts of the eyes’ vision and neck tensed as the bar is lowered and brought more into focus as it reaches the chest. The head should be on the bench but not pressing into it. Pushing backwards into the bench top with the back of the head comes with the explosion off the chest, with the eyes (if open) following the bar’s progress.
So, that’s bench pressing technique step by step, picking up on every detail. Once it becomes automatic you will be bench pressing with smooth, controlled, consistent and efficient maximum power. Reviewing this again, highlighting the main features, would serve well as a closing paragraph.
Take hand-off to a tight position over the crown of the chest, a slow controlled descent tucking the elbows in towards the body and compacting the triceps on the lats, holding most of the weight on tensed muscles. Muscular coordination is the main principle in the press. Pectorals, deltoids, and triceps make the initial upwards and backwards explosion off the chest as the elbows move outwards concentrating the onus of the lockout on the pectorals and triceps.The Bench Press by Bill Kazmaier,