By Aaron Mehl
Contributor, Sports+Fitness Network
Much to the dismay of “old school” lifters and coaches, the bench press has become the king of lifts. Squatting, dead lifting, and impressive Olympic lifting feats have been replaced by a lift that many years ago was not even included in powerlifting meets! Even commercial gyms that may not have anything to squat out of (unless you count a smith machine, I don’t) will have a row of benches. The bench has now become the “go-to” lift when someone wants to ask how strong you are. Regardless of how great or how bad a person’s bench press is, the most important thing a lifter can do is to execute it as safely and efficiently as possible.
I teach every athlete, soldier, client, etc. That I have ever worked with to bench like a powerlifter. They inevitably always begin by accusing me of trying to turn them into a powerlifter, but the reasons behind me teaching that technique are both for biomechanical efficiency and injury prevention. When I explain the method behind my madness, we usually all agree that this technique is the best thing for everyone.
The Difference in Techniques
Most people bench press using what I call the high school football method. This method is generally learned when a bunch of football players begin lifting their freshman year while a coach sits at a desk in the corner reading a newspaper (possibly a kindle or Ipad now). The players usually neglect any lower body strength or power exercises, go right to the bench, lay down, and start throwing up weight. This method of lying flat and flailing the elbows out as far as you can get them is generally used for the rest of a person’s life until they sustain enough shoulder injuries to stop benching all together. This is a big part of the reason that anyone I coach learns how to bench like a powerlifter. The whole purpose of powerlifting is to lift as heavy of a weight as you can for one single rep, but in order squeeze out every last pound you can, you have to be the most biomechanically efficient you can be. Using your lower body to help you press, cutting down your range of motion thus making you stronger, and tucking your elbows to take the stress off your shoulder girdles are just three examples of why this technique can be applicable to everyone. Here are some coaching points to further assist lifters of any level using this technique;
The Lower Body
The feet should be pulled back as far as a person can comfortably get them to try and press the heels into the ground and “spread” the floor. This activates the glutes and makes the bench press a full body lift. Sadly, I have trained many millennials that have coordination issues between their upper bodies, lower bodies, and core musculature. This epidemic is presumably due to the lack of PE classes in elementary and the prevalence of video game systems! This technique seems to help by forcing everything to stay tight and work together. Pressing the heels into the ground also gives you more power as the bar leaves your chest during the beginning of the concentric phase.
The posterior chain is one of the most important aspects of a good bench press. You must give your body a strong platform to press off of and keep your shoulders in a safe position where they are not stressed any more than they have to be. The coaching points I use are to squeeze your neck towards your hindquarters, keep the shoulder blades together and tight, and really drive your traps into the pad as hard as you can. Beginners and some novices may find this increases fatigue and can almost makes the lats cramp. If that is the case then you are doing a great job, because that is how tight it should be!
Your abdominals and low back should be tight (you should be noticing a theme by now), but one thing I particularly like to emphasize is taking a deep breath and stabilizing your abs. Typically this means an abdominal press out like you are wearing a belt and trying to break it. This not only adds to your tension, which makes you stronger, but it also helps to cut down your range of motion by elevating the spot that you bring the bar too. It is also very important that your butt stays on the bench and you maintain the natural curvature of your spine, not only for safety, but also for efficiency in power transfer.
One of the most important coaching points is the location of a bencher’s elbows. They should be tucked at a 45 degree angle from the shoulder joint. That external rotation of the joint during the eccentric (lowering) phase creates torque that will be transferred to the bar when you transition to the concentric phase. More importantly, your shoulders are not stressed because you are utilizing your triceps more and have cut down the range of motion the shoulders have to travel (by arching your back), thus protecting them better. The other important coaching points are grip and wrist angle. Many powerlifters wear wrist wraps to lock their wrists completely straight. This is a good idea because all other aspects of your technique can be perfect, but a bent wrist can mean all the power you are generating will be transferred into your wrist and not the bar. I also emphasize as tight of a grip as possible. Remember, tension equals strength.
This is one area that not all coaches agree on, but I have always coached a straight bar path. In other words, you bring the bar to directly above where you are going to touch it (bottom of the sternum), and you bring it straight down, and straight up. During the press, emphasize pushing out towards the weight like you are trying to pull the bar apart from the middle. This really activates the triceps and can increase lockout strength. The other popular method is to press towards your forehead a little and let the bar “drift” towards your face. I am not a big fan of this technique for safety reasons, and I also find many lifters will flair their elbows out in a bad position while learning this technique. It should also be noted that in order to achieve the most out of this exercise, a person should put the maximum amount of force onto the bar. If your bench maxes out at 300 lbs, but you are benching 225, put 300 lbs of force onto the bar and get it moving. This not only helps you to warm up and wake your central nervous system, but it will help your body to recruit the most possible muscle fibers thus making you stronger in the long term.
Depending on your height, weight, gender, arm length, etc. You may find yourself having to adjust some aspects of your bench press (grip width, foot placement, etc.), but this should act as a great place to start to keep you healthy and allow you to steadily increase bench press strength and power. The powerlifting method can be used for anybody who needs to get stronger including athletes, military personnel, recreational lifters, and aspiring competitive benchers. Everyone can also benefit from the decreased injury potential which can prolong a career in athletics, law enforcement, competitive lifting, etc.
Train safe, train smart, and train hard.