The measure of true ego and boasting rights in the gym: The Bench Press. Of all exercises in the gym the bench press is by far the most utilised. In order to increase your gym status one will have to look at postural positioning and technique to improve power and explosiveness.
If we look at an exercise as a chain and each muscle involved in that exercise as a link, we may be able to create isolated correction which will improve better overall performance. Now looking at a bench press automatically people think that only the chest, triceps and shoulders are involved in the movement, these may be the prime movers but are only half of the power equation. Stability and elasticity are factors of the antagonist muscle groups which can provide us with more explosive power. The legs, abdominals and even the back are the other half of the power equation and in order to have a stronger exercise chain we need stronger muscle links.
The next ten points will enlighten the weak to become strong with a few adjustments of posture and technique.
1. Use the right equipment! Make sure to use well balanced barbells that are not too flexible. Place your hand equally apart on the bar and use bars marked with ring placing. Ensure that the bench is not too high, you need as much hip stability as possible when doing a bench press and if a bench is too high you may find yourself being displaced. Ensure the bench is not too wide, you want to keep your shoulders protracted and if the bench is too wide it impairs full range of motion and nerve response to the press. Padding on the bench is vital and there should be enough flexibility in the bench to assist with taking the pressure when pressing the bar above the chest.
2. Initially when taking the bar off the rack try to use a bench rack that has adjustable height balances, this will ensure that the bar is lifted whilst the arms are fully extended. Shoulder injury is common in bench pressing due to the initial lift being too low and stress being displaced onto the smaller supraspinatus muscles in the rotator cuff. Always use an experienced spotter to assist with the first lift, this is another preventative measure to avoid overloading the shoulder stabilizers.
3. Once the bar has been lifted off the rack use the assistance of a spotter to place the bar in the curve directly below the nipple line and above the sternum. Placing the bar in this position allows for straight curve of motion and less distance of travel in the press. Remember – do not open the elbows too wide as this increases tension in the stabilizers of the shoulder and places more pressure on the small deltoids and less pressure on the bigger pectorals.
4. Before the descent or the eccentric phase of the lift, ensure that your legs are bent to a little over 90 degrees and your lower back is slightly arched, however do not allow the buttocks to raise off the bench as this will cause excessive pressure on the intervertebral discs. Keeping your hip flexors tense and spinal erectors flexed aids stability in the core and increases the height of the chest allowing a shorter distance of travel during the bench press.
5. On the descent of the bench press ensure that shoulder blades remain protracted as you will want the pectorals to be fully stretched to encourage better nerve recruitment and explosive elasticity. Inhale during the eccentric phase and if you do not suffer from high blood pressure or any other cardiovascular impairment then you may want to facilitate the valsava manoeuvre during your low rep high weight lifts. The valsava manoeuvre is when a person increases internal pressure along the rib cage by holding their breath during the concentric phase of a movement, this can be dangerous and should only be practiced after many years of training.
6. Keep the height of the chest constant by flexing the spinal erectors and protracting the scapulae. Another way to further increase chest height is to flex the gluteus muscles during the lift and press the heels hard into the ground.
7. When bench pressing do not look at the bar as this encourages the body to lift through a curve directed toward the shoulders and not directly above the chest, people loss at least 10% of their power due to this small oversight.
8. Remember to first practice technique before loading the bar with weight. The rule is volume before intensity!
9. The heavier you may train the longer rest you will need. So many athletes lift according to reduced resting time, this may increase the cardiac output but not the strength development or anaerobic training. If you want to get stronger at the bench press, slow down your pace and work on strength. If you want a cardio workout go on the treadmill. Specificity of training is highly important and don’t diminish results by trying to rush muscular and strength gains as this will only slow you down.
10. Finally and most important learn to use a spotting partner properly (or find a great personal trainer!). So often in the gym, especially among young lifters, you will find one guy doing a bench press whilst his friend is simultaneously performing a deadlift. At Ultimate Performance we call this “over spotting” or just being plain stupid. Another scenario you may find is the ‘holistic healer’ of a trainer wandering off into the distance to have a chat with his mate whilst his poor client is kicking in the air trying to avoid the death trap of the crushed bench press! These trainers are called commercial gym personal trainers and are to be avoided at all costs. A good spotter knows how to dismount an initial lift, be conscious of upcoming failure and assist when needed. If you find one hold on to them as this is your best tool for intensity and growth.
Justin Maguire is a senior personal trainer with Ultimate Performance. When not writing articles berating the standard of commercial gym trainers Justin can be found repping out with strict 450lb plus bench presses and working his calves.