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Tips That Changed My Life Part 2: Bench Press

05/17/2020

I am constantly learning and making adjustments to my form and programming to not only build strength but to find what works best for me and maximize the advantages I personally have. Last week I posted the best tips and cues I’ve learned thus far in my lifting career for squats and today I want to provide a few for the bench press. Each of these pointers are ones I’ve learn from coaches, trial and error, and other powerlifters. Keep in mind, anything new to you requires consistent time and practice before it becomes a more noticeably impactful and effective. Hardly anything feels completely natural when you first try it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. That being said, if there is something I mention that you haven’t adapted to yet and you’d like to begin working it into your lifting technique, allow yourself time in getting it right and for it to become more instinctive in your training.  As always, if there is anything you would like me to walk you through a bit more, feel free to email me and I’d be happy to help any way I can. 

Tip #1: Arch

I’m not going to get way into the why’s and how-to’s of arching because I already have a couple posts on this. If you’d like to read my post on the reason for arching and how to get started, you can read it HERE. I wrote another pretty recently about fining tuning the small details of your bench press and have it linked HERE. What I want to point out about arching for this article is you don’t have to have the flexibility of a gymnast to arch. Even just a small arch that only you can feel going on can be beneficial to your bench press. An arch will help your shoulders and spine stay in a more optimal position and increase your ability to produce force from the ground (will get into that in a moment). On top of it protecting crucial structures while moving maximal load, it also benefits the powerlifter by decreasing the range of motion (ROM) that the bar has to move. By decreasing the space between the bar and your chest, you increase the likelihood to move more weight. Considering that is the goal of powerlifting, it’s worth using all of your mechanical advantages in doing so. Arching has a lot less to do with the flexibility in your lower back than it does the mobility of your thoracic spine, so I always warm that area up with a couple T-spine drills so that I can position myself in a comfortable arched position for my bench press sessions. 

Tip #2: Twist your Wrists

Gripping the bar is often overlooked when bench pressing. How hard could it be? Well, it’s not hard but there is an added benefit to the technique you use that can keep your wrists in a stronger, more durable position. There is a fine line between over extending your wrists, causing the load to uncomfortably and dangerously stretch the tendons and ligaments along your wrist (more common), and over flexing them in an attempt to keep it neutral (but tilting to far), possibly causing pain or discomfort as well (less common). Therefore, gripping in such a way to maximize the stability of holding the bar and protecting the structures of your wrists is important. You can use wrist wraps to further aid in this but either way this technique of gripping the bar at an angle and turning your wrists inward has been very beneficial in my bench press with and without the use of wraps. When you begin to grip the bar, turn your hands inward, allowing the bar to sit along the creases through your palms. From there hold on tight and without allowing your palms to reposition, bend the bar to straighten your wrists. This position will give you firmer grip, wrist stability regardless of the load, and assist in a more efficient bar path.

Tip #3: Leg Drive

The bench press is a compound movement. What this means is that there are multiple muscle groups at work during this lift. With that in mind, you want to use those other muscle groups to their fullest potential so that you can lift the most amount of weight. Relying on just one of the many factors involved in pressing, such as your chest and triceps, will result in fatiguing faster and having less “umph” to drive the loaded bar through its ROM. That’s where the cue “leg drive” comes into play. By building up tension throughout your lower extremity and pressing through the ground, the force will help propel the barbell up off your chest. To accomplish this, make sure your ankles are positioned right under or just behind your knees, flex your glutes and quads from start to finish of the press, and as you press the bar off your chest use your grounded feet to push your butt toward your shoulders. This might sound crazy if you haven’t done it before so let me reassure you, you wont actually go flying towards the back of the bench by pushing towards it. The load and the position of your shoulders and glutes have you grounded if you perform this drive through your legs correctly. As long as you use the tension built up in your legs (from flexing) to drive your glutes back towards your shoulders and not up (red light) you are your lift will be solid.

Tip #4: Take your Time/Let the Bar Settle

This one is pretty basic and to the point and not something I struggled with myself, but worth noting because I see it all the time. After you have unracked the bar, don’t go straight into the lift. First and foremost when this is done there is no way you’re in a position where your muscles are activated and in their safest position for the press. If you haven’t retracted your shoulder blades and activated your lats before unracking the bar and regrouping once the bar is positioned over your chest, your press will involve too much ROM and internal rotation of the shoulders. Other side effects of dropping right into the bench press without any preparation will be: Lack of tension recruited through your LE to produce leg drive; core instability and possibly off-balance, having not braced before starting the decent; and a derailed bar path from bringing the bar immediately from the rack directly down to your nipple line. Simply put, this impatient and ignorant act is complete inefficient and a disaster waiting to happen. Instead, take your time. Unrack the bar, position the bar over your chest and let the load settle, get your body in its optimal position to press the load efficiently and safely, then complete the movement. You are in no hurry, so slow down and be intentional with each individual detail. 

Tip #5: Practice Different Positions

​Hand placement changes the level at which certain muscles are being recruited and used during the press. The wider the hand position, the more pectoral and anterior shoulder musculature is at work; the closer, the more the triceps will be recruited. Getting stronger in each position, however, will work in your favor no matter where you are most comfortable and strongest at in competition. There are also a vast number of benching variations that are useful in improving your competition bench. From adding bands, TUT (time under tension), pause and long pause, variations that remove leg drive, the list goes on. All of these can play an incredibly beneficial role in strengthening both your bench and your technique, so don’t neglect movements outside of the competition bench alone. Using other methods builds strength, technique, grit, and prevents adaptive resistance.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of my favorite tips for squats, you can find that article by clicking HERE. As always, thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate it and love when ya’ll let me know you read my piece! I hope this series has been helpful so far and I’m looking forward to finishing it up with deadlifts!

Author: Alyssa Parten