Big Benching for Strength and Size

There is no denying that the bench press is the king of upper body exercises. It is a matter of pride in the gym and out as well as the most common measure of your weight lifting acumen. We all want to bench big and most of us probably enjoy performing this exercise more than any other. And of course if performed correctly the bench press will give us results that match our enthusiasm for it by adding slabs of beef to our pecs, shoulders and triceps.

So if this is all true why do so many people still possess tiny bird chests and a bench max that looks like an IQ score? Simply lying down on the bench and heaving the weight around isn’t enough, it is performing the bench press correctly that makes all the difference. I’m not only referring to using the correct form, but also proper weight selection, intelligent programming, appropriate assistance exercises and understanding how changes in technique affect both the primary muscles used and the amount of weight that can be moved.

Form/Technique

First, let’s talk about the proper set up for benching since this is both literally and figuratively where we begin. Depending on your primary goals your set up and technique will be drastically different. I will cover both how to set up optimally for moving the most weight possible and what changes to make when your goal is to build the biggest chest possible. The primary difference between the two is the use of the arch and the degree to which you employ it. Powerlifters will want to maximize their arch as this will not only decrease the range of motion but also effectively increase leverage allowing you to move more weight. Bodybuilders will want less of an arch so that the muscle is worked through a greater range of motion.

Setup and Foot Placement

I will first cover the powerlifting type setup since this is the more complex of the two. First lie down on the bench and grab the bar with an underhand grip. Slide backwards along the bench and under the bar until your upper ab area is directly under the bar. Now while staying in this position tuck your feet back under the bench directly underneath your hips with the balls of your feet in contact with the floor and heels raised. While keeping your feet in the same place slide your body back towards the bottom of the bench until your torso is in the proper position to bench. At this point your lower back should be arched quite high. Ensure your hips are in contact with the bench and then dig your traps and upper shoulder blades (which should be pulled back together as much as possible) into the bench. Pinching your shoulder blades back and together not only provides stability under heavy weights it also helps to decrease the range of motion as it pushes your chest up and pulls your shoulders back. Maintain this position while you adjust your grip, unrack the bar and perform your bench press.

For bodybuilders you will still want to set your feet first but they can either be placed underneath your hips as in the description above or flat on the floor out in front of you. If you have difficulty keeping your hips on the bench while pressing I would suggest trying the style with your feet underneath you as this form still allows you to use a good degree of leg drive but is more conducive to keeping your hips on the bench while doing so. Then simply lie back and dig your traps into the bench for stability as there is no need for a big arch as you do not want to decrease the range of motion.

Leg Drive

A lot of lifters are confused about exactly what leg drive is and even more so with how to effectively utilize it, fortunately it is really quite simple. With either foot placement keep your feet planted firmly against the floor and maintain a moderate amount of tension in your legs as you bring the bar to your chest. As the bar touches your chest and you begin to reverse direction push hard with your legs as you drive the bar off your chest. This will help to pop the bar off your chest and the added momentum will assist you in getting the bar through your sticking point and all the way to lockout.

Bar Path

The correct bar path is another facet of the bench press many lifters do not understand. The most mechanically efficient bar path is a gradual arc from just below your nipple line at the bottom of the movement to roughly above the base of your neck at lockout. The exact points will vary slightly depending on your individual leverages. This groove will allow you to bench the greatest weight possible. To perform this properly tuck your elbows in towards your sides as you lower the bar aiming for a point just below your nipple line when the bar is touching your chest. The lowering of the bar must be performed in the correct groove as your body will naturally want to follow that same path as you press upward. The concentric and eccentric portions of the bench press should appear as mirror images of each other. As you begin to drive the bar from your chest continue to keep your elbows tucked but as the bar approaches the midpoint of the movement gradually begin rotating your elbows out until they are fully flared at lock out. This should always be performed carefully as flaring too fast or too much too soon will send the bar back over your head and into the racks and can put a lot of stress on the shoulder joint if done excessively. This technique can also be effectively employed when you hit your sticking point on a difficult lift since the flaring allows you to straighten your arms to a small degree without the bar actually having to move upward.

Elbow Position

Tucking your elbows in at the bottom of the movement not only decreases shoulder rotation taking stress off of the shoulder joint, but it also takes pressure off of the pec tendon decreasing the chance of a pec tear and allows you to lift more weight by improving your leverage. When the bar is at your chest, your elbows, wrists and the bar should all be in a perfectly straight vertical line when viewed from the side. Do not allow the wrists to bend backward with the bar being held back behind the arm. Not only does this place a lot of stress on your wrist, it can negatively affect your leverage. In several cases big benchers have actually broken their arms by using this technique.

Grip

Generally speaking there are three different ways to grip the bar; with a full grip (thumb wrapped all the way around the bar), a false or thumb-less grip with the thumb behind the bar and with the thumb held straight out along the bar. Regardless of which grip you use you should always attempt to squeeze the bar as hard as possible and push out to the sides as if trying to pull the bar apart. This will increase your ability to engage your triceps and allow you to bench more weight.

While most lifters realize that using a wider grip will focus more on the chest and that a close grip hits the triceps hard few people realize that not only where but also how you grip the bar affects muscle recruitment. Selecting the appropriate grip is critical to ensure you are working with and not against your own strengths and leverages. Changing the position of your thumb affects the position of your elbows. The full grip rotates your hand outward to a greater degree thus rotating your elbows out and as such utilizes the chest to the greatest degree of the three grips. With the thumb-less grip the hands are turned in more towards the body making it easier to tuck the elbows on the decent and recruiting the triceps to a greater degree. Gripping the bar with the thumb along the bar is a compromise of the two. So a lifter with a comparatively stronger chest (or one looking to work the chest to the highest degree possible) would benefit most by employing a wide full grip whereas a lifter with extremely strong triceps would be able to lift the most weight with a relatively narrow thumb-less grip.

Assistance Exercises

The proper selection of assistance exercises is determined by the lifter’s strengths and weaknesses. Maintaining balance among your muscle groups is not only vital to preventing injury but it allows you to lift the most weight. Identifying your weaknesses in the bench is relatively easy assuming the problem is not technique related. Difficulty locking out the weight at the top of the movement is nearly always due to a relative weakness in the triceps, whereas having difficulty getting the weight moving at the bottom of the movement is typically related to a weak chest. However, if the bar is barely leaving the chest or isn’t moving from it at all that can sometimes be attributed to a lat weakness again assuming the problem is not form or ego related. However, if you’re unracking the bar and it’s stapling you to the bench, odds are that you just aren’t being realistic as far as your true strength levels are concerned.

Strengthening Your Lockout

Reverse Band Presses

The exercise I prefer most for fixing a lockout weakness is reverse band presses. The reasons for this are several fold. Even though the exercise focuses on your lockout it still allows you to work through a full range of motion and to press the bar in your normal groove. It also teaches you to push the bar from your chest explosively because if you fail to do this the momentum from the bands will be lost and locking the weight out will be extremely difficult. To set this exercise up simply loop a pair of the strong bands around the top of a power cage (one on either side) and then hook them around the ends of the bar where you would normally place the collars. Place a dumbbell bench inside the rack and you’re all set to bench. This set up will typically take approximately 150lbs off of the bar when it is at your chest and next to nothing at lockout depending on the height of the cage, the bench height and your arm length.

Board presses

Board presses are another very effective tool for fixing your lockout. Depending on your arm length and where specifically the bar stalls when you’re pressing you will use between 2-5 boards (this refers to the thickness) when performing this exercise. Typically the “boards” are constructed from 2”x 6” pine boards and usually nailed, screwed or glued together to achieve the desired thickness. I have found that making the pressing area about 18” long and having a 6” handle works quite well. To perform this exercise you simply have a partner hold the boards on your chest while you’re benching. If you don’t have someone available to do that I have found that the boards can be easily held in place by securing them to your chest with a single knee wrap tied around you.

Strengthening the Bottom Portion of the Press

Technique issues aside, the ability to drive the bar off of your chest largely comes from your pectoral muscles and lats. Since I covered back training thoroughly in my last article we will focus on strengthening the pecs here. Any exercise that allows you to work through a greater range of motion will typically help improve the “pop” off of your chest. Dumbbell benching and the use of a cambered bar are the methods I prefer most when addressing a relatively weak chest. Dumbbell benching prevents the lifter from bouncing the bar off of his/her chest and also allows us to work through a greater range of motion by allowing the lifter to get a deeper stretch at the bottom of the movement.

The cambered bar is also sometimes referred to as the “MacDonald Bar” in honor of legendary bencher Mike MacDonald who often used this bar in his training. MacDonald once held every bench press world record from the 181lb class all the way up to 242lbs. The bar has a 2” camber to it allowing the lifter to lower the bar 2” further than with a standard bar. One very important thing to note here is that you must be very careful when first using the MacDonald Bar or injury can easily result due to the increased range of motion. Also expect the amount of weight you can use with the MacDonald Bar to initially be significantly less than your normal bench, especially if your primary weakness in the bench is the bottom of the lift.

Programming

Effective programming for the bench press involves a well planned progression in the amount of weight used, sufficiently addresses and prevents over training, stimulates hypertrophy and reinforces proper technique. The following program is one that I frequently use with clients that are looking to add not only pounds to their bench press but some pec mass as well. With this program, it is not uncommon for me to see a 20-50lb increase in a lifter’s bench press over a sixteen week training period.

The key to using this program effectively is starting with an accurate max. All too often lifters overestimate their max or use a number they were previously capable of. It is essential to use your current true max that is obtained using proper form. Failure to do so will only result in over training and difficulty in progressing from week to week negating the effectiveness of the program. In plain English check your ego to make the most of this program.

Example 16 Week Weekly Weight Progression

Week One
5x10x60% (5 sets of 10 reps @ 60%)
Week Two
5x8x65%
Week Three
5x5x70%
Week Four
5x3x75%
Week Five
5x10x60%
Week Six
5x8x70%
Week Seven
5x5x75%
Week Eight
5x3x80%
Week Nine
5x10x60%
Week Ten
4x8x75%
Week Eleven
4x5x80%
Week Twelve
4x3x85%
Week Thirteen
5x10x60%
Week Fourteen
3x8x80%
Week Fifteen
3x5x85%
Week Sixteen
3x3x90%

2 Responses to “Big Benching for Strength and Size”

  1. Ant June 17, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    Nice blog. I used to read your log on the elitefts website. Always enjoyed your articles on tnation as well, keep up the good work.

  2. kalonji October 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Very nice. Thanks for post this!

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