Tips For a Badass Bench Press

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I’ve told this story numerous times via email exchanges and presentations I’ve given, so please forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.

Awhile back I wrote an article on T-Nation titled My Shoulder Hurts: The Finest Whine, and in it I detailed, among other things, some of the more common reasons why someone’s shoulder may hate them in addition to outlining some strategies to help alleviate said shoulder from hating them.

I thought it was a pretty baller article, and it helped a lot of people. At one point I made mention that my best bench press is 315 lbs (raw, no gear) and that one of the reasons why I feel myself – as well as most of my athletes and clients I train – rarely suffer from shoulder pain is because I place a premium on balancing my pressing numbers with my pulling numbers.

Speaking more precisely, in an ideal world, I like to see a healthy “balance” between one’s 1RM bench press and his or her’s 3RM chin-up.

Using myself as an example, my best bench press is 315 lbs, and my best 3RM chin-up is 301 lbs.  Not too shabby if I say so.

Almost predictably, some asshat made a comment in the LiveSpill that he stopped reading the article after he saw that I owned up to only bench pressing 315 lbs – insinuating that that was a piss-poor number and that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about.

I guess in order for it to count and for him to be impressed, I had to perform that for reps.  With my feet in the air.  And with Kate Beckinsale feeding me grapes.

Rather than get into some arcane pissing match with someone I didn’t even know (or had the inclination to use his real name), I made a snide comment back that: “yeah, well, my internet max is like 405 lbs, so that has to count for something.”

Suffice it to say, I recognize that a 315 lb bench press isn’t THAT big of a deal, and certainly doesn’t give me any bragging rights – especially considering some of the insane weights that guys like Vinny DiCenzo, Rock Lewis, and countless other raw and powerlifters put up on a regular basis.

That said, I still know how to COACH the bench press, and below is an article that I wrote last year that sorta got lost in the shuffle and never made it to print.

Lucky for you I happened to find it and decided I post up here.  Enjoy!

Tips For a Badass Bench Press

In the realm of fitness, deadlifts and Shake Weights* aside, no other exercise exhibits as much machismo and general “badassery” as the bench press. Like a moth to a flame, it’s the first thing that most trainees (especially newbies) gravitate toward when they embark on a fitness routine, or, you know, if it’s Monday.

It’s no secret that attaining an impressive bench press – whatever that number may be – is kind of a big deal in fitness circles, allowing one a certain degree of bragging rights; it’s something that many trainees strive for on a weekly, sometimes yearly, basis.

However, not everyone makes significant progress with the bench press and even worse, many often end up hurt in the process — which is ironic, given its overwhelming popularity. It doesn’t have to be this way. A few simple tips can help your bench press soar.

But First, Lets Address the Stuff You’re Probably Going to Skip Anyways

While addressing posture may seem trivial and mundane, and yes, you may prefer to swallow a live grenade, it’s critical to discuss. So deal with it.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of people walking around with less than stellar posture. With many spending upwards of 8 to 12 hours per day sitting in front of a computer at work, not to mention the endless hours commuting, and/or hunching over their iPhone it’s no surprise.

Exhibiting a kyphotic posture – rounded shoulders and upper back, or what I like to call the Mr. Burns effect – will absolutely affect rotator cuff mobility, as well as general joint function, which in turn will affect overall performance and how much weight one will be able to bench press.

Interestingly, it’s often popular for fitness professionals to prescribe copious amounts of direct rotator cuff work to help fix one’s posture in addition to providing more “stability” to the joint – with the idea being that the more stable the joint is, the more proficient it will be at transferring force.

This is true, to a degree.

However, rarely, if ever, is the rotator cuff the issue when referring to bench press performance. Rather, what you need to be more cognizant of is thoracic spine mobility and scapular stability.

As my good buddy, Dean Somerset, CSCS, notes, “while the rotator cuff’s function is undoubtedly one of providing stability to the glenohumeral joint and allowing it to have a pivot rotation versus a gliding within the capsule, it doesn’t need a lot of direct work when training for the bench press, even if the problem is a rotator cuff tear.”

In other words, if you’re walking around with a Quasimodo posture, all the rotator cuff work in the world isn’t going to improve your bench press.

Instead by addressing the real issues — improving t-spine mobility and targeting the scapular stabilizers like the serratus anterior and lower traps, which tend to be woefully weak in many trainees — you’ll improve overall shoulder function and help place the scapulae in an optimal position to transfer force.

Using a great analogy that pretty much everyone uses and I’m no different, it’s sort of like shooting a cannon from a canoe; it’s not necessarily a good idea, nor optimal. Shoot it from solid ground, however, and it’s a different result altogether.

For many trainees, they’re so unstable – due to poor positioning – that they never see any improvements in their bench press. Make the joint more stable – again, by improving t-spine mobility and scapular stability – and good things will happen.

While there are certain scenarios where dedicated rotator cuff work might be warranted – they’re few and far between. Instead, focus on thoracic mobility (rotation as well as extension) and improving scapular function, to set yourself up for success.

Here are a few drills that might help and provide some insight:

Quadruped Extension-Rotation

Bench T-Spine Mobilization

Forearm Wall Slides – 135 Degrees with OH Shrug & Lift Off

Side Lying Windmill

Those are just a few, of course, but should get the ball rolling in the right direction for most people reading.

For Those That Skipped the Nerdy Stuff, You Can Start Reading Here

It All Starts With the Set-Up: Part I

How you set up for the bench press can make or break your performance, and subsequently, long-term progress to boot. While conventional wisdom will dictate that the bench press is a fairly innocuous exercise that anyone can just show up and perform (kind of like pooping), it’s actually a bit more complicated.

Firstly, rule number one of bench pressing — especially if you’re looking to push some respectable weight – is to never, ever, under any circumstance bench press with your feet up in the air. Unless, of course, you’re actually trying to make people laugh at you and/or want to be weak.

If that’s the case – have at it!

Think about it: By placing your feet up in the air, you’re making yourself more unstable, and in turn, less capable of transferring force efficiently. Resultantly, this will affect how much weight you’re able to use, which defeats the purpose if you’re looking to improve your bench pressing “badasstitude.”

It also looks dumb — really dumb. And no one wants to look dumb.

With that out of way, you need to understand some very basic set-up parameters that will undoubtedly help clean up your bench technique and lead to more weight on the bar.

Step 1: Set your Feet. Dig your feet into the ground!

Don’t just haphazardly flop them out in front of you like a pair of dead fish. Literally, corkscrew those mofo’s into the ground – to the side and underneath you — and use them to push your back into the bench. This is called leg drive, and it’s a trick that many powerlifters utilize to help engage more of the entire body into the movement.

That’s because the bench press is more of a full-body movement than one might think, and by incorporating more leg drive, it’s not uncommon to see an instant increase in the amount of weight used.

Step 2: Grab the bar as if you want to choke it to death.

Too often, trainees gingerly grab the bar as if they’re scared they’re going to hurt it. Grab it and strangle it! By doing so, you’ll force the rotator cuff to fire and provide more stability throughout the shoulders.

Step 3: Place your shoulder blades in your back pocket.

As Mike Robertson, CSCS and co-owner of IFAST training facility located in Indianapolis, IN, notes, “The more stable you are through your upper back, the more strength you’ll be able to display and the less likely you are to strain a pec while benching.”

Grab the bar with your hands – remember, crush it! – lift yourself off the bench slightly and try to pinch your shoulder blades together and depress them by visualizing placing them in your back pocket.

For the visual learners in the crowd, you can always just watch this superb video by Dave Tate.

It All Starts with the Set-Up: Part II

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, placing a little more of an emphasis on technique very well may be the missing ingredient to a badass bench.

Still reading? Well, you made it this far, you might as well keep going!

Step 4: It’s okay to arch your lower back.

There’s a major misconception in the fitness community that it’s somehow detrimental to arch one’s lumbar spine while benching. While this practice may be problematic for some individuals, it’s a bit remiss to make such broad generalizations.

For starters, the lumbar spine already has a natural lordotic arch to it anyway, so why would maintaining that arch be dangerous? In fact, increasing one’s arch is another useful trick many powerlifters advocate because it helps shorten the distance the bar has to travel.

Secondly, and more to the point, Craig Rasmussen, CSCS and one of the program designers at Results Fitness located in Santa Clarita, CA, says, “I believe that many people simply confuse the (correct) advice of keeping your butt on the bench with the bogus advice of keeping the lumbar spine on the bench. This will entail having a curve in your lumbar spine. You don’t need to press your lumbar spine into the bench as you perform a bench press, but you do need to keep your butt on the bench or you’re changing the movement into an unsupported decline bench press, which is not a good idea.”

Step 5: Get a hand-off.

It sounds borderline trivial, but it’s anything but. Getting a hand-off – as opposed to a “spot” – is an often overlooked component to the bench press.

Remember all that talk above about proper upper back positioning when you bench, and how, if it’s not optimal, it can drastically affect how much weight you’re actually able to lift?

No? What the F, dude?  It was like 30 seconds ago!  Go back and read it again!

Well, when you don’t ask for a proper hand-off, you’re essentially setting yourself up for failure. Think about what you have to do to unrack the bar on your own: “press” the bar by protracting your shoulders and allowing them to anteriorly tilt – losing any semblance of upper back tightness in the process.

Conversely, by getting a proper hand-off, you’re able to keep the upper back compact and “tight.”

In reality, a hand-off should assist you only in the sense of “gliding” the bar over the j-hooks – the hand-off(er) should not lift the bar out of the hooks for you.

Also, just to throw it out there:  every time you yell out “it’s all you, it’s all you, it’s all you” when spotting, a dolphin gets punched in the face.  Stop it!

Step 6: Keep your elbows from flaring out.

Watch any elite powerlifter bench and what do you see? Well for starters, you won’t see them with their feet in the air. Seriously, stop it! Secondly, you’ll probably notice how they tend to keep their elbows from flaring out. Why? Namely, it prevents your shoulders from hating you.

Allowing the elbows to flare out – while true, does place more emphasis on the pecs – places infinitely more stress on the shoulders, and you want to protect them as much as possible.

Instead, when lowering the bar, try to keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle from the torso. In other words, if taking a bird-eye view, your arms should make more of a “W” shape than a “T” throughout the duration of the movement

It may be awkward at first, and it will definitely take some practice, but it will keep your shoulders healthier in the long run. And that’s a huge step in the right direction for long-term bench pressing success.

And that’s it!

*Yes, I’m kidding.

**Top Photo courtesy of BodyBuilding.com

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