Bench Press 101
As a personal trainer I see many trends throughout gyms I have worked at or visited. My current location in Chichester is no exception. The first day of the week always looks the same. It’s International Chest Day. Simple and effective, but is the bench press for you? And if so what are the basic technical points for bulletproofing your bench press.
It’s Monday morning the weekend’s over, back on the diet and eating clean. You rock up to the gym, water bottle in hand and headphones turned up to 11. Your gaze sweeps across the room; over the cardio machines, past the stretching area and finally settles on the most prized piece of equipment any gym can have on a Monday … the Bench Press.
So what is it that makes the bench press so popular? Why do we start every week with International Chest Day? And why the fuss over one exercise?
It all starts with that age old question every gym-goer asks, “how much you bench”. I can count on one hand the number of times over the last 5 years I have been asked how fast I sprint, how high I jump and how many plates I deadlift (not as many as I’d like is always the answer). I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked this month “how much you bench”?
The truth is also that the bench press is incredibly effective and beneficial, if utilised appropriately, and is seemingly simple to perform. Coaching is easy: lie on your back, lower the bar, raise it, rinse repeat. When we combine these two principles; simplicity and effectiveness, we create an exercise that can remain a staple in any personal training program, but should you include it in yours? And if so what are the basic technical points to bulletproof your bench press?
Step 1) Is the bench press for you?
As a personal trainer based in Chichester I see a range of clientele; not all of them bench press however! Less than 50% of the clients I see or program for perform the bench press, for many individuals it’s just not necessary. It all comes down to the person in question and their goals.
Want a bigger chest? Dips and dumbbells (plus a whole lot of push ups).
Looking to increase strength for your sport? Medicine balls and overhead pressing.
Struggling with shoulder discomfort or don’t have the required mobility? No bench press for you!
The issue with the bench press for many stems from the use of a fixed barbell and the load placed on the shoulders. Dumbbells allow the user to rotate the hand into a more friendly position, rather than being stuck in pronation (palms facing down). For many with longer levers, the stretch and load placed on the shoulder joint can increase the risk of pec tears and/or impingement. Dealing with 6’3″ and taller rugby players from Chichester and the surrounding area, I can attest to many simple having levers that are too long to warrant the risk that comes with benching. So who does get to bench press? If you can tick off the following personal training pre-requisites, then you are amongst the chosen few.
- No current shoulder discomfort.
- Full internal rotation at the shoulder; go from vertical angle to 90 degrees – I am not getting the full range of motion so I fail (see photo below).
- Full pronation of hands (can point palms fully to the floor when arms parallel with ground).
- Your sport requires it (powerlifting) and/or you want to perform it.
So you’ve set the bar up, and ready to go, now how do I bench press again? Simple, just follow these next steps.
Step 2) Preparation
Take the time to prepare your body for the bench press, no that does not mean 10 reps of an empty bar, 5 reps at 60kg then go for a PB. Always warm up properly for your training session (see https://daviestraining.com/2016/12/09/warming-up/ for more info). Utilise the following structure:
- Warm up the muscles of the upper back using light weights and high reps (face pulls, pull-aparts, rows).
- Drive scapular upward rotation (quadruped breathing, wall slides and reaching drills).
- Mobilise the shoulders (arm swings, banded rotations).
Step 3) Performing
Here are a few easy-to-implement technical points I use with personal training clients, and recommend you use them too:
- Pull the bar apart and try to bend it. You should feel your whole back light up doing this. This will lock your shoulder blades in place and provide a great base to press from.
- Shoulder blades back and down. Think about putting your shoulder blades in your back pocket. Don’t let them flail around with that much weight hanging over your chest!
- Pull the bar to your sternum. Think about actively rowing the barbell to your sternum, not your upper chest.
- Elbows tucked. Flaring your elbows out at 90 degrees in relation to your torso fine on the rare occasion, but for many will lead to injuries and aches if used long term. Elbows should be approximately 45 degrees in relation to the torso for most people.
- Dig your heels into the ground, arch back slightly and spread the floor. Unless you are a competitive powerlifter, a super-tight arch is unnecessary and puts tremendous stress through the front of your hips. That being said, having a flat back can be just as detrimental. The bench press is one of few exercises where a global arch/extension posture is preferable. Keep the heels on the floor and spread the floor to engage the glutes (butt cheeks) and hamstrings to support your upper body.
- Touch your chest! If I asked you to touch your toes and you got halfway down, you wouldn’t claim you touched your toes! So if you claim your PB is 500kg when the bar doesn’t lower past the first few inches, then lower the weight and leave the go for another day.
Step 4) Programming
“So I know how to bench, I know why and who should bench press, when do I include it in my training week?”
The bench press is a great lift to improve general strength through the upper body, and improve throwing/punching power (if used correctly). As a rule of thumb, lower repetitions for higher sets is preferable. Sets of 3 repetitions are always a better choice than 20. Alternatively performing faster repetitions at a lighter weight for power is also beneficial. Many of the local athletes I deal with in Chichester, West Sussex and the nearby area perform the lift in this manner.
Strength: 4-8 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70-85% 1RM
Power: 5-10 sets of 2-3 reps @ 35-60% 1RM
If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle gain) then I would prioritise other horizontal pressing movements such as dumbbell pressing, push-ups or incline barbell pressing. Multiple tough sets of 12 repetitions can often create unwanted pain through the anterior part of the shoulder.
Bonus Step 5) Creating Balance
During a bench press the goal is to move as much weight as possible, as fast as possible, in the most optimal position as is possible. That means getting driven down into a bench with a significant amount of weight 2 feet from your chest. The shoulder blades should be pulled back and down to achieve this; but long term this is not the healthiest position for them. To create balance and to counter the effect bench pressing can have I recommend performing some long sets of quadruped breathing (see photo). This will drive the scapular forward so they sit on your ribcage and restore a better resting position. This “reaching” should also take place through close-chain exercises such as push-ups (see this blog post for further detail https://daviestraining.com/2016/12/07/girl-push-ups/).
So there you have it, a quick guide into everyone’s favourite lift; the bench press.
Has your bench press plateaued? Find your shoulders hurt when going too heavy? Get in touch with Davies Training today to learn how you can improve your performance from Chichester based personal trainer. Currently running offers until the end of January on all Personal Training packages.