Earn Your Bench Press

Mondays are usually reserved for national holidays.  We have Labor Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day is coming up in two days, and Bench Press Monday is held on a weekly basis.  Bench Press Monday is the start of the most common training program ever.  No, it’s not a Smolov Squat Cycle, or Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1.  It’s the most common training split ever:  Bench press and Curls, all day ‘ery day.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with bench pressing since I began training; I avoided it for years because I didn’t want to be weak, finally trained it to a semi-respectable point, and have rotated it into my programming on-and-off for the past two years simply to avoid sucking at it.  I’m currently in the middle of a let’s-not-suck phase, and have been pressing regularly for the past 6 weeks. I was benching off of a 4″ PVC pipe at a recent training session, and one of my clients asked me about incorporating it into his own training.  I explained to him that there are far safer and effective exercises I could select for him to make progress, and that bench pressing isn’t necessary at 12 years old.  He seemed satisfied at the moment, and went on his merry way.

While I’m definitely a fan of developing strength, I seldom program the conventional barbell bench press for people.  It’s not particularly conducive to most goals, and there are infinite variations of dumbbell presses and push-ups that provide great neural and metabolic stimulus with reduced injury risk.  Despite the questionable need for benching, there are still people that want to bench, that take the red pill instead of blue.

When this happens, we begin to look at the bench press as a lift instead of an exercise.  Just as with the other big lifts, bench pressing is limited by technique.  Benching for the sake of benching is probably not the best idea, but benching to get a stronger bench, I’m okay with that.  Here’s are several things I like to see from people when they’re focusing on their bench press:

A strong upper back.  It’s probably safe to say that everybody can use additional upper back work.  This includes a variety of horizontal and vertical pulling variations.  My preferences include inverted rows, chin-ups, cable/TRX facepulls, band pull-aparts.  dumbbell rows, and chest-supported rows.  Any pattern that trains the upper back musculature to retract and depress the scapulae is good in my book.

Thoracic Extension.  Upper back strength (and shoulder health) is going to be limited by your ability extended the thoracic spine.  if you walk around like Quasimodo all day, you’re probably going to struggle in this area.  There are a number of factors to address in any individual case, but as a blanket approach, I’d combine a mobilization strategy with one of the exercises listed above.  For example, here’s a thoracic extension on a foal roller followed by a tripod row:

Use your legs.  After we address thoracic extension, scapular mechanics, and upper back strength, I like to see lifters properly applying leg drive to their lifts.  It’s horrendously underused in commercial settings, but is an important component of a strong bench press.  It allows for a stronger set up, due to a more effective pressing angle (biomechanical advantage) and the development of full-body tension.  Tension elicits strength.

As much as I love the Bret Contreras’ fueled hip-thrust campaign, there shouldn’t be a glute-bridge/bench press combination lift.  Leg drive is used to drive the traps into the bench, not to simply lift your hips in there air.  This is no bueno:

If your bench press set could be confused for one of Madonna’s Like  A Virgin performances, you need to address your use of leg drivein  the bench press.  Your feet should be set steadily for the duration of your set, and I hate seeing feet come up in the air when p someone begins to struggle with a lift.  Tap dancing may be good for developing agility, but I promise you it will make your bench press totally suck.  Applying leg drive provides you with a better upper body position and greater tension throughout the body, which translates into better lifts.

As you can see, the factors that I find have the biggest impact on the bench press are not related to the chest, triceps, or shoulders.  In fact, they are the same things that need to be considered for most other aspects of training that people neglect:  upper back strength, thoracic extension, and lower body strength.  When these 3 factors are properly addressed, I’m sure you’ll see improvements in not only your bench press, but your other lifts as well.

3 Replies to “Earn Your Bench Press”

  1. The only thing I struggle with is keeping my legs driven into the ground. I have a really bad habit of lifting my heels when I struggle, so I’ve been trying to focus on my feet more. It’s funny when I tell people the area of my bench press that needs most work is my feet! I get a very puzzled look in response.

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