Mastering The Compounds Part 2: The Bench Press
If you want to add size and strength, you need to be in an environment where you can safely add load. No exercise can place quite as many pounds through the upper body as the bench press. This has made it the “go-to” exercise for trainees all around the world when it comes to building the chest, shoulders, arms and back.
The bench press is commonly known as the “comparative” lift. If you say you lift weights it’s usually met with the ubiquitous question “How much can you bench?”. Prior to going through my top 5 points on pressing technique, I’ll first address why how you bench is so much more important than how much you bench.
The Bench Press: Why are you doing it?
“The bench press is THE best possible exercise you can do for chest development”. Now if I were to 100% believe this to be true you’d probably notice I may also have short arms, wide clavicles and broad shoulders. In other words, I’m anatomically designed to bench press. I’m not saying for one second these are the features you have to have to press a lot, but they are the features needed to look like you press a lot.
When it comes to aesthetics, how we look is largely dictated by how we’ve been built. This means different individuals will respond differently to the same exercise. Choice of exercise for muscle growth is essential and you must pick what works best for your own anatomy. If you want to gain size, you don’t have to bench if you don’t notice your body responding to it.
The cues I will be teaching in this article are on how to move the most load. They may not be congruent to chest hypertrophy as that will depend on your own mechanics. What you will be learning here are powerlifting techniques so you can increase strength. So, without further a due…
1. Make the arms as short as possible
In powerlifting, the goal is to make the distance travelled by the bar as short as possible. This can be achieved by setting your body up in a way that maximises (or minimises) your own lever lengths. The base of the upper arm sits into your shoulder girdle. Your shoulder girdle can be depressed and retracted through muscles in your back. If the shoulder blades are maximally retracted, the distance travelled by the bar before it hits your sternum will be less. By pulling your shoulder blades as close to each other as possible, you are technically “shortening” your arms. This improves the overall efficiency of the movement.
2. Hide the Lats
This cue works well in tandem with cue 1. If you “hide the lats”, you will retract the shoulder blades by default. Hiding the lats also contracts the muscle, creating a strong base to push off. The front can only be as strong as the back allows it to. When the lats are contracted, it helps the shoulder girdle stay in a more optimal position to support the press. Before you take the bar out of the rack, think “are my lats tight and compact and ready to support the bar”.
3. Externally rotate the shoulders
External rotation is the clockwise rotation of the shoulder joint. To get a visual, say you were holding a bottle of water at arm’s length out to your side. If you kept your arm locked and poured the water out in front of you, this would be internal rotation. If you poured the water out behind you, this would be external rotation. When you externally rotate the shoulders, the ribcage will move upwards and back. This is useful as it works synergistically with retracting and depressing the shoulder blades.
Externally rotating the shoulders not only improves the strength of your base, it increases the surface area of the chest, meaning you have more muscle to press with. This is important for strength development, hypertrophy and long-term shoulder health.
4. Hit the same point every time
The key to getting better at something is perfect, purposeful practice. When it comes to weight training, maintaining a consistent bar path is essential for strength and skill development. If every time you train, the movement looks different, you won’t be exposing yourself to the same stimulus enough in order to get the desired response. When benching, the bar should hit the same portion of your chest every single time. A centimeter too high or low can restrict power and even cause injury if you lose concentration. Familiarise yourself with a point on the sternum that feels natural. I like to envision it’s glowing red hot so that I can easily gravitate the bar in that direction. Doing this cements the bar path in your nervous system, which in time will lead to the accumulation of strength.
5. Drive your head and shoulders back into the bench
One of the most underestimated muscles in strength training is the neck. Although it largely gets overlooked, the need for it to be strong is quite logical. Our spine is the power line of the body. Our spinal health is integral for muscle strength and development. If the muscles that surround our spine are weak, our spine is much more vulnerable.
When bench pressing, the load is placed directly over our cervical spine. Our cervical spine (neck region) contains vertebra that are much more delicate than the thicker lumbar discs near our pelvis. In order to protect this region, we must utilise the neck and upper back musculature as much as possible to create a stable base. To do this, drive your head and upper back into the bench. This will generate more activity in the muscles and allow a greater pressing force from the opposing muscles. When doing this, imagine you are pushing your body down and the bar is a static commodity. This will increase stability and improve positioning in the lift.
If you incorporate all these cues into your benching you will notice a stronger, smoother, more stable press. Remember though, these tips are so you can move the most load and may not be optimal for hypertrophy. Your growth response will be dictated by your genetics, work load and of course, recovery strategies.