Bench Press Technique: Why the Hand-Off is Kind of a Big Deal

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I know I’m a bit of an anomaly in saying this, especially considering I make my living as a strength coach and fitness writer, and you know, I’m a dude, but here it goes:  I really, really dislike bench pressing.

Not that I think it’s a bad or dangerous exercises or anything. On the contrary I’d rank the bench press right up there as one of the top exercises one can perform to build overall strength and muscle mass – especially in the upper body.  It’s not considered one of the “big three” (squat, deadlift, bench press) in powerlifting circles for nothing.

And least we forget:  chicks dig a big bench press.  Right, ladies?

Outside of overhead athletes or someone with a significant history of shoulder injuries, where it would contraindicated, the bench press is pretty much a staple exercise in any well-rounded fitness routine.

But back to me for a second. Because, you know, it’s all about me….;o)

I dislike the bench press because, well, I suck at it!

In fact if I had to make a list of things I dislike in this world, I’d place the bench press in the same breath as Jar Jar Binks, Rocky V, poodles, belly button lint, and Tracy Anderson.

Yeah, I hate it that much.

I still do it, of course. But I’ve come to the foregone conclusion that, because of my abnormally long arms, I’ll most likely never be a great bencher.

I just picked the wrong parents in that regard.

Nevertheless, my best bench (so far) is 315 lbs, and I’m cool with that.  If it goes up, it goes up.  If it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world.

So yeah, there you go: I have a personal disdain for the bench press, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love to coach it and help others improve their performance.

I’ve written in the past some common tips that I feel will help improve one’s bench press prowess, so I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of proper foot position, elbow positon, leg drive, bar path, grip, the efficacy of a back arch, or any number of other things that have been discussed ad naseam on the interwebz.

Instead I want to touch on something that hardly ever gets talked about, and something I feel can help improve one’s bench performance almost instantly.

And that is:

Getting a Proper Hand-Off

At Cressey Performance our athletes and clients don’t ask for a “spot.” Rather they as for a hand-off.  Ask any top-notch or world class bencher what one of the main keys are, and he (or she) will say……TIGHTNESS.

You have to get tight.  Especially in the upper back.  Without getting into the extreme details, I like to coach guys to place their feet on the bench (relax, it’s only for a few seconds), grab the bar, lift their hips up, and drive their upper back into the bench.  Simultaneously, I’ll tell them to consciously think to themselves, “together and DOWN” with the shoulder blades.

For the anatomy geeks out there – basically what I’m looking for is that the shoulder blades are adducted  and posteriorly tilted.

Photo courtesy of Mike Robertson

Really it’s all fancy schmancy talk to try to get them more compact and tight so that they’re more stable and able to transfer force more efficiently through the body.

Which begs the question:  Why go through all that trouble to get tight, compact, and ready to hoist a barbell off your chest, only to NOT get a proper hand-off, and lose all of it when you un-rack the bar?

Think about what happens when you un-rack a bar on your own.  You essentially have to press/protract the shoulders just to get the bar off the j-hooks.  As a result, the scapulae abduct and (most likely) anteriorly tilt as well, and stability is compromised.

Seems a bit counterproductive in my eyes, and serves as the impetus behind today’s video.

Bench Press Technique: The Hand-Off

A few points to consider that I didn’t cover in the video:

1. The “spotter” or hander-offer guy isn’t lifting the bar off the j-hooks, but rather “guiding” the bar to the starting position.

2.  Moreover, the lifter shouldn’t think of it as pressing the bar up and into the starting postion, but instead “pulling” into position.  Kind of like a bastardized straight-arm pressdown (albeit on your back).

3.  Getting down the cadence of 1….2….breath….lift off is the key here. It’s going to take some practice, which is why I highly advocate finding a training partner you trust.

3.  If at any point the guy providing the hand off starts chirping, “all you, all you, all you” when he’s clearly got his hands on the bar, immediately rack the bar and scissor kick him in the face.

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