The bench press. The litmus test for strength. Why this is, I’m not 100% sure. To me the deadlift is the litmus test for strength due to the muscles recruited and the amount of weight per lift but who is asking me? All I get is “What’cu bench?”
Since so many people focus on the bench and how much they can lift, I thought I’d address some of the form issues I’ve seen and add some helpful tips I incorporate or are currently trying to incorporate in my own form.
Let’s start from the bottom with the feet. I’ve seen people put their feet up on the bench, which I’m guessing is to either to gain leverage when pushing or increase instability to recruit more core. That sounds contradictory but I’ll give a brief explanation on both. When you put your feet on the bench and elevate your hips and lower back this decreases the angle that you lift. You are doing more of a decline press than a traditional bench press. Granted you can lift more but you aren’t performing what you are trying to do. The more important point, with the feet up on the bench your supporting base is narrow (think about if you stand with your feet close together and someone tries to push you over. Jerks) This instability recruits more core muscles to stabilize you. This is really stupid. You have a couple of hundred pounds dangling over your head and you want more instability? IF you decide to do this make sure you reserve a room at the hospital beforehand.
When properly bench pressing you feet should flat on the floor. Your knees should form a 90° angle. A stable base is maintained and when the weight gets heavy in the last couple of reps you can push your heels down giving your hips a slight lift to get the weight up.
We are going to combine some touchpoints here and simply call this the core which is going from the shoulders to your butt. Out of this section only your butt and shoulders should be touching the bench. Your lower back should be slightly arched to remove any pressure. The arch of the lower back is a more natural and stable position for your lower spine. Take it from a guy that had lower back problems, the bench press with your lower back flat will cause excess stress. When you lay down on the bench scootch your butt towards your shoulders just enough to elevate your lower back from the bench. This makes your head, shoulders and your butt the only touch points on the bench. Congrats you now have a stable base to work with. Now draw your shoulders back to stick out your chest like you are in some alpha male competition. This way we can get a full stretch on the lowest point of the movement. Position your head so the racked weight is about mouth/nose level. A lot of work before we even touch the bar huh?
There are many ways to grab the bar, which will emphasize different muscle groups. For example, a close grip will emphasize the triceps while a wide grip will emphasize the chest but at the expense of your shoulders. Typically, a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width grip will hit all your looking for. The main thing to keep in mind is your forearms should be completely vertical the entire time for the most power. Anyone who has taken a basic physics class will tell you that.
Grip is another thing I see done I wouldn’t say wrong, but in an unsafe manner. The safest way to hold the barbell is with your thumb wrapped around the bar in what is called a closed grip. See a lot of people using an open grip with their thumbs on the same side as their fingers. My biggest concern with using an open grip, is someone walks by my bench and accidently hits the barbell while I’m lifting it. With an open grip I could drop the weight on my throat while with a closed grip, I have more control of where the bar goes or doesn’t go.
After 25 mins, we now have the proper position on the bench and the right grip to save us from a trip to the ER. Take the unloaded bar from the racks and hold it with your arms fully extended over your nipples. Slowly lower the bar to your chest keeping your arms at a 45° angle from your body. You lower the weight, don’t let the weight lower itself. Too many times I see guys with their arms flared out. All that does is put unnecessary stress on your shoulders. Shave your shoulders and tuck in the wings. Touch the bar to your chest about in line with your nipples and then push up. I emphasize touching the bar to the chest rather than bouncing the weight off your chest. If you want to cause fractures or broken ribs then be my guest and bounce away. The touching of the chest removes all momentum from the bar which causes your to actually lift all the weight with your chest. Wanna get seriously strong? Control the weight at the bottom of the movement rather than bouncing it off your chest.
This is the part that I have the hardest time with. When pushing up keep the wrists straight. Breaking your wrists (back of your hand towards your forearm) and a inside bend in the wrist not only limits how much you can lift but it also puts more stress on your wrists. A trick I’m trying to incorporate now to keep my wrists straight is to try bending the bar in the middle by pushing my hand out. This keeps my wrist straight and the stress on my chest not my wrists.
There you have it, the art that is the bench press. At first, all the steps take a while to get used to like anything else. Go through the checklist and you can bench safely.
- Feet flat on the floor.
- Arch your back.
- Draw back shoulders.
- Grip bar where forearms are vertical.
- Wrap your thumb.
- Control the weight down.
- Wings in.
- Push your hands out when pressing.
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