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

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.bergeron2 Steve Bergeron

    The Dave Tate video made my day lol. “Maybe you just don’t know how to f$#%in bench”

  • deansomerset

    Great article Tony. Thanks for the shout-out!!

  • Matt B

    Awesome article Tony – thanks I needed this! and lol on the e-Penis thing. I don’t know who that jerk was on LiveSpill, but 315 is a great number and you definitely know a lot more about the biomechanics that any random ‘400+ all I do is benchpress’ meat head at the gym.

  • Barath

    Thanks Tony! A very nice article. I don’t BP a lot – hurt my shoulder and am now doing tons of cleans and DB snatches and high pulls that work like magic to heal the shoulder. I am getting back to trying out BP again. Keeping the elbows in is actually very good, though it makes the lift much harder.

    Also, I’ll take a 3RM 301 lbs chin-ups to a 405 BP ANY day. Great job!

  • Mike Silverfoote

    This article is really interesting and goes in depth on an exercise that is very “old school”. I grew up performing all the basic, “old school” exercises. Today, I don’t bench press at all, I just don’t believe it’s the best way to work the chest. In my day, I did 365lbs, with my feet in the air, back flat on the bench, and if I looked “dumb” doing it-so be it. First off, feet on the floor helps you do more weight. Secondly, arching your back helps you do more weight. Great. But, it’s not how much weight your lifting, it’s how you’re doing it. Oftentimes, there’s an ego fest within yourself, and everyone else in the gym. That’s just not my cup of tea. If you want to bail yourself out, have at it. If you really want to isolate the pecs, and give them no opportunity to bail themselves out by bringing in more muscles into the exercise, you keep your feet in the air, and back flat. Of course, feet in the air is harder, that’s the whole point. You have to bring in your core for balance-which is a great thing. If you’re into numbers, I guess it’s a good article. If you’re into isolating your pecs-and only that-it’s not. What cracks me up about fitness is that a lot of so called “experts” walk around like they figured it out. Fitness is just a baby. It’ll always evolve into more and more ways to do things. If you’re wondering, I majored in Kinesiology-Exercise Science and Fitness, so I’m not just pulling this out my ass. In terms of me benching the way I did, exactly the way you say not to do it, it does make sense to me-and many others. My main point is, don’t discount the benefits of doing it that way, it’s not “wrong”, and the other way is “right”. The way I did it is harder, isolated the pecs exponentially more, brought in the core for balance, and for me, prevented injury. Yes, if you’re trying to ego lift and lift too much, doing it the way I did, you’ll get checked real quick-that’s a good thing. I’m all about efficiency, and being able to always maintain quality of life. Everyone has different goals. But, for a lifetime of fitness, preventing injury is on the top of my list. Using less weight-in terms of kettlebells-will provide you everything you need to stay in great shape, and relatively-overall (whole body)-stronger than “old school” ego high weight exercises.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Mike thanks for chiming in, and I by no means meant to “offend anyone.” Given your lengthy – and to be honest, awesome – response, I suspect I did. If you read more of my stuff – and don’t necessarily judge me on this ONE piece (that admittedly, doesn’t encompass my entire training methodology) I hope you’ll realize that I indeed feel that there is SO much to learn and that nothing is set in stone.

      To be fair, I don’t necessarily feel this article was directed towards you – so why take so much offense to it? I mean, you stated yourself that you benched 365 lbs back in the day and that’s pretty fucking good! And, you did it with your feet in the air. Okay, cool.

      For the average Joe Schmo trainee I feel they’re doing themselves a disservice by placing the feet in the air and they’re going to leave a lot of weight in the tank. It worked for you – great!

      I “think” you and I are on the same page, though. I too believe in coaching my athletes and clients on how to perform all movements safely and in the most efficient manner possible. We may agree to disagree on the minutia. but I think you and I can both agree that regardless of one’s goals, teaching (and mastering) the basics is paramount.

      • Mike Silverfoote

        Tony, first and foremost, thanks for taking the time out to reply. Secondly, honestly, yes I was a little put off by it-not a big deal, though.

        I just want to make one thing clear, I know exactly what you we’re trying to do with the article. But, I just wanted to rant a little bit-in general-thanks for the opportunity to do so. We aren’t all reinventing the wheel here, let’s be honest. The discussion on all different types of exercises-and most importantly-WHY-you do it that way is key.
        I know, for sure, this article wasn’t meant for me. But, I was there, too, at one point in my life where, obviously, you want to increase your bench. You’re a man, right? Got testosterone. Got an ego. We all are looking at each other, and comparing ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in, no doubt about it-I include myself in that. I’m just pointing out, more weight isn’t always necessarily a good thing.

        I watched that video above. First off, his feet are planted nicely, he’s arching his back, and his chest is huge-the ROM-is, ironically, exactly the same as mine doing it the way I did. If you’re not bouncing the bar off your diaphragm, grunting, arching the back, you get looked at crazy. What’s funny to me is human beings-in general-have a tendency to follow the pack, or label someone, without even considering other options, or techniques.

        Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s all about your personal goals, and what you want out of your body. The way I did it was the hardest. It was-still-anatomically correct. I wanted nothing bailing me out. I wanted to isolate my pecs as much as possible. My goal wasn’t to lift as much as I could-by any means necessary. I could have easily benched more by doing what’s in the video, but didn’t want to.
        To conclude, obviously, gyms carry an atmospheric ego stench. It’s very understandable. I mean I moved on to a medicine ball dumb bell bench with 125lb, and people looked at me like I was nuts. But, in the end, I knew what I was doing-I knew all the key anatomical points, the technique, and why I was doing them. The people that did come up to me, and ask why I was doing it the way I was, I was more than happy to explain it to them. I may not look like the nicest guy in the world, but if you come up to me to talk, I can be.

        Tony, no offense taken my man, just ranting in general. What it really comes down to is what YOU want to do, and do it correctly. The whole fitness industry is really fascinating to me-evolving on a daily basis-and looking forward to more.
        Godspeed brother, Mike

        • TonyGentilcore

          Mike –

          I get it…..and no worries at all. I completely knew what you were getting at. It just gets frustrating on my end at times (as a writer) because people don’t realize that one article doesn’t encompass my entire training philosophy, nor should it (it’s ALWAYS changing). Most often, anything I write (and think most writers will agree) is just a quick, off-the-cuff thought that I’m thinking and something I want to relay to the masses.

          Plus, too, there’s usually a word count limit. That bench press article was originally slated to be published on Livestrong.com, but it got lost in the shuffle and it never went live. I was “limited” to 1000-1500 words, so it’s not like I could write my entire thought process as it relates to the bench.

          Anyways, glad to know that we’re on the same page for the most part. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me 100% of the time, but it’s nice to know that we could e-hug about it and not resort to nasty name calling……;o)

    • Mr. Portugal
      • Mike Silverfoote

        Brilliant reply. Ironically, that post shows a lot more about you and your intellectual level, than myself. If you do know what you’re doing, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

  • Kyle Schuant

    How are you calculating chinup 1RMs? Counting the whole bodyweight, or what?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Bodyweight plus external load (and it’s 3RM).

  • mckda02

    Hi Tony,

    Why did you say “never, ever, under any circumstance bench press with your feet up in the air” Is there a greater chance of injury or some mechanical reason why someone should not do this? I understand what you are saying – it’s impossible to transfer force. That’s the point!

    Benching with your feet in the air forces you to use the prime movers (chest, lats, and traps) to get the bar off of your chest without using your legs. For a raw bencher, this is a great way to address weakness off of the chest. Just like the floor press addresses the top end, the feet up bench addresses the bottom

    Much like the floor press, it’s another tool in the tool box

    This is an old school movement that went out of Vogue when bench shirts became popular. I can tell you this, when I first started out, there were a lot of big benchers that did conventional bench presses on Fridays and benched with their feet in the air on Monday

    • Kyle Schuant

      The point of putting the feet in the air is that it makes the load unstable.

      That is, you are taking a heavy weight going over your face and neck and deliberately making it unstable. If it does not actually kill you, it will at least ruin your prospects of a modelling career.

      If you have a weakness off the chest, do paused reps. This is after what you’ll do in a competition. Of course in a competition you may be benching 140kg or more. A person who benches 140+kg, like one who deadlifts 200kg, has earned the right to do it however the hell they want. The PTs of the world don’t deal with many 140kg benchers, though, so we tell our clients to plant their damned feet on the ground.

    • TonyGentilcore

      IMO, I just feel it’s a less efficient way to bench. IMO, you’re more unstable and as such, going to use less weight.

      That said, I definitely understand the arguments as to why it’s efficacious. We can all agree to disagree I suppose…..;o) Hopefully the overall message of the article isn’t lost.

      I guess my main point is for the average Joe trainee out there. To me, having them bench with their feet in the air is a waste of time. When we’re referring to advanced benchers, the rules tend to change.

  • Chris

    Tony,

    F*ck the internet warriors. Keep doing you. Great stuff.

    Chris

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  • FreakSammy

    I guess the question is, is the purpose of the bench press to lift (push) more weight, or is the purpose of the bench press to build a bigger upper body? If it’s only the former, then it’s an ego or possibly self-challenge thing. I have a suspicion, however, that the former naturally leads to the latter. I haven’t seen too many scrawny chested powerlifters.

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  • Carl

    Thanks for these tips, will definitely keep them in mind! And hey, check out my new bodybuilding site if you like, there’s an article on bench pressing, might interest you ;) http://theliftingbay.com/2013/03/02/guide-the-bench-press/

  • manuel

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnFlEwK1hdA Can you guys check my form and give me some tips? thank you

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  • Shit bag

    people only think 315 isnt impressive because they are too busy sticking a needle in their ass, 315 natural is vey good

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well thanks shitbag – I appreciate it….;o)

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