Bench Pressing: one man's guide to a modern test of gym prowess.

Posted by Rick Jones on


Rick Jones former CEO of Olympus Health supplements "What you benchin' mate?".

If you're a big lad (or lass, but I bet it doesn't happen as often in reality) and you look even vaguely like your size came from the gym, that's probably one of things that you hear almost as much as your own name. 

There are other things people say to you often:

"Steroids" – Usually with no further explanation, and often when they're well past you – but you hear it... all the fucking time.

"I know this guy (add name)... he's bigger than you, and he doesn't even go to the gym..." – I usually just nod and wonder why the person feels so insecure they need to live vicariously through someone who may or may not exist.

"How many chickens die to feed you?" – I prefer them alive mate... then I can steal their unborn children for a much greater yield of goods fats and amino acids – and, more interestingly, folliostatin... but that's a story for another post.

"What ya lifting mate?" – see first comment. They usually mean "what do you bench press?", and for good reason: the bench press is reasonably easy to perform – skills-wise, at least – and highlights the masculine, scientifically acknowledged as a sexually dimorphic (look it up) quality of increased upper-body strength more than any other lift.

Your girlfriend might out-squat you... but if she's out-benching you you might need to hand over your man card and shave your beard. Don't blame me... science said so!

Yes, I know you bodybuilders out there are often fond of pointing out that there are better exercises for building big, impressive pecs.

I know there are a million voices (usually squeaky ones, to be fair) piping up about safety and the dreaded rotator cuff injuries.

I've seen (and probably shared on our Facebook) the videos of idiots with no spotter doing a fair attempt at imitating a medieval guillotine, albeit with a blunt Olympic bar.

I've heard some pretty smart guys saying that there's no practical, functional carryover, and the movement doesn't recreate anything we did, often, in ancestral lives (unlike the deadlift, which has obvious carry-over).

None of this changes the fact that the bench press is a time-proven builder of overall upper body mass and strength.

It teaches you to brace and stabilise your body, and – if you're doing it correctly – to coordinate pushing through the floor with your legs to get that tight, explosive, power-from-the-ground action that boxers, shot-putters, karateka, racket-sport players or anyone else that transmits force from foot to hand competitively should be trying to develop.

If you're a bodybuilder, getting stronger on the bench press will improve your ability to handle heavier weights on the incline press or with dumbells – in the case of the latter the slightly reduced ROM of the barbell bench press can actually be a safer way to go heavier for more reps. It WILL build upper body mass – and it's also a good test of how complete your lat development is (I'll explain later in the post). 

If there's any real downside to the bench-press as an athletic assistance exercise, it's that if done too much in relation to posterior type exercises (rows, deadlifts, face-pulls and such) – and with no heed to maintaining flexibility – it can lead to postural issues and reduced mobility, especially in hands overhead type movements. Yes, that's true of any movement, but bench press requires a bit more attention to body-balance if performed often. Don't worry, we'll address that too!

So. What can we tell you about bench pressing?

During my time as CEO of Olympus Health, I managed to achieve a joint top-spot for my age (41yrs) and weight (under 140kgs) for the UK's best bench press (done under official conditions at a powerlifting championships), with a 220kgs bench press. 

I've since performed 220 x 3 in training, hit a 240kgs 'touch and go' press (badly videoed here) and a 230kgs 'self handout' press. I'm aiming for a 230kgs bench press on my second lift at the 2017 GPC-GB British Powerlifting Finals on November the 11th.

Rick Jones Olympus Health Bench Press joint British record

Well, in many ways, it can seem like the easiest of the 'big' lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift and military/overhead press), as essentially all you do is lay down, lower the weight onto yourself and push it back up again.

"It's like an upside-down press-up, surely?", I hear you say. Not quite. Whilst a press-up requires (and encourages) a tight, solid core, it's still primarily recruiting the 'push' muscles – chest, anterior deltoids and triceps.

A properly performed bench-press, however, is more-or-less a whole body movement, and moving the most weight possible (be that in a 1-rep max effort, or cumulatively over a set of repetitions requires that you utilise leg drive, strong scapular retraction (using many of the 'pull' muscles such as posterior deltoids and inner trapezius), hard flaring of the Latissimus dorsi (lats, or your 'wings'), a hard arch of the lower back (requiring strong isometric contraction of the erector spinae and even hamstrings) and, of course, those same push muscles (pectorals, anterior deltoids and triceps) that we mentioned in relation the push up. Hell, even your forearms get a workout in a properly done bench press.

It will also require a greater degree of coordination than you may imagine. Although it looks like you simply extend your arms whilst holding a weight, doing so will, a) leave a lot of possible weight off 'your bench', b) open you up for injuries and, c) rob you of the potential for muscular development and 'size'.

Want to put in a proper (bench) pressing performance? Here's my rough guide:

It all starts with set up: the least relaxing lie down you'll ever have.

Yes, this movement involves laying back on a padded bench, but don't for a minute think it's time to get comfortable! One of the world's most renowned bench pressers, Jeremy Hoornstra describes setting up for the bench press this way:

“If you're comfortable when you lay down on the bench, you're doing it wrong. Shoulders should be pulled back with traps and rear delts, erectors tight, quads tight, abs flexed and pushed out, and your forearms should be engaging by squeezing the bar as tight as possible. I try to leave finger grooves in the bar I squeeze it so hard. That way the forearms are used, which not only controls the bar path itself, but makes it feel lighter. If it's light in your head, it's light in your hands.”

There you have it. Ok, let's go!

Step 1. getting prepped to press:

Firstly, before each lift, make sure the bar is central on the 'hooks' – the distance between each hook and the bearings/sleeves on the bar should be even on each side. If it isn't, move it over until it is.

Once you have the bar centralised, it's time to lay down and get set up to lift!

My own way of getting into position – as seen on this 230kg 'touch-and-go' press (ignore the powerbelly and the self-handout) – is to get my hands in position first on the bar.

In fact, watch World Record Holder Kirill Sarychev from about 0.50secs for an absolute masterclass in set up and everything else:

N.B. I like to get my little fingers on the first smooth ring in the knurling on an Olympic bar. For my build and arm-length. This means that when I touch the bar to my sternum at the bottom of the movement, the backs of my arms will be more-or-less perpendicular with the floor.

You should aim for the same arm position at the bottom, as it's safer for shoulders and much easier on the elbow tendons than being wider (bad for shoulders) or narrower (hard on the elbows once the weight gets bigger). You can establish this with an empty bar and either a mirror or a spotter. Get used to where your hands go on the bar, and make sure you get them placed evenly each time. 

N.B.B. You need the bar to be central in your palms, so that the weight transfers directly down the forearms. I see way too many people benching with the bar 'back' in the top of the hand, so that the weight is bending the wrist back. This is dangerous on many levels – and it's a weak position, too.

Just for a second, imagine punching your most annoying coworker (or boss). Would you want a limp wrist, or a tight, balled fist with maximum force behind it? Same goes for bench pressing! Grip that bar hard, and your wrist position will take care of itself! 

When my hands are where they're supposed to be, I shoot back under the bar until my shoulders and upper back are off the bench entirely – whilst keeping my hands on the bar. 

Then, still with my hands on the bar, I drive my feet toes first into the floor and make sure my soles are gripping (I like to lift in converse chucks, as explained here)

Keeping my feet where they are, wedged hard into the floor, and my hands tight on the bar, I bring my body back through onto the bench until my head is supported. 

Doing this forces me into an arched position – my head, neck and upper back, along with my butt, are on the bench – but nothing in between. It's tight, and it's uncomfortable as hell.

This should feel like pushing through your legs/feet will slide your butt towards your head, causing and even bigger, more uncomfortable arch.

The next step in my set up is to retract my scapula as tightly as possible – pinching my shoulder blades together, then flaring my lats whilst keeping those shoulder blades pulled in as hard as I can. 

Once in this position, I am ready to lift. You will be too, if you bear with it, but at first it will probably feel like you're going to cramp in the lower back. Bear with it and practice with around 50% of what your current one rep max is, and it'll soon start to feel a bit more natural.

Step 2. Get a helping hand (from your spotter):

Once you're ready, get your spotter to grab the bar inside of your grip, and let him know t help you 'hand out' the bar on the count of three. 

N.B. Good spotters are worth their weight in protein shakes, and a really good spotter will smoothly move the bar with you rather than yank it up and whizz it out over your face. If you have a good spotter, buy him a (protein) drink!

Step 3. Start the lift as you mean to finish. Strong:

– Take a big breath into – and inflate – your stomach as the bar comes over your upper chest.

– Hold the bar for a split second to make sure it's stable and not wobbling around from the hand out. You want any kinetic energy in the bar to dissipate before you start moving. Stabilising in this way builds good strength and upper body muscularity, too. Win win.

– Keep your elbows 'tucked' and tracking into and onto those flared out lats... you should be building tension as the weight drives the triceps into your winged out back muscles (this obviously gets easier the more muscle you build, but doing it will help build it all, so keep doing it skinny folks!).

– Bring the bar down to your lower chest/sternum. The bottom of the pecs or just under them should be the highest point on your body when you're tucked hard into your arch. This should feel tight and like you're more than ready to shove the bar back up again.

Step 4. Power it back up.

Here's where the fun starts. All that tension you built up whilst getting into position can now be exploded out of you via the bar, and you'll hopefully get to put up a PB very soon once this all 'clicks'.

– Start by driving the feet hard into the floor via the quadriceps. Imagine doing a leg extension and tighten the thighs. This, in turn, should push your butt towards your head which will naturally start the bar in an upwards motion, to a very small degree.

– Push your triceps off the lats whilst keeping your elbows tucked (not flared at all, yet) and engage your pectorals and anterior deltoids to add explosive impetus to the movement.

– Don't exhale until the bar is at the point where you feel your triceps taking over. 

– When your triceps engage to 'lock the bar out', then you can let the elbows 'roll out' so they aren't as tucked in... just doing this 'muscularly' adds upwards impetus, which you can capitalise on by pushing hard and fast. 

Step 5. Hold it, rack it.

You should stop at the top of the movement whether you're doing multiple reps or singles. Avoid launching straight for the hooks – especially if powerlifting is the goal. Try to stabilise the bar over your upper chest/neck area before you (and your spotter, to be safe) re-rack the bar. Again, this builds strength, muscle and confidence, as well as protecting the infamously prone-to-injury rotator cuff muscles.

Technique takeaways:

As you can see, it does require some coordination to really master all this, and it's far from a simple lift when done properly. However, using your whole body like this really does build neural 'firing' ability – something that's worth training for if your any kind of strength athlete, field athlete, boxer, martial artist or just someone wanting to be as big and strong as possible.

Our other tips for building a bigger bench:

- Learn to harness the tension built in the 'lowering' part of the lift: Here's one of the greatest strength athletes of all time Bill Kazamier explaining how he performed the first ever competition standard 300kg bench press in human history (click for video). Note how Kaz discusses anterior deltoid work to assist with the lift.

- Build bigger triceps: There's nothing better for building specific bench press tricep power and size than the JM Press. Watch this video to learn how to do it properly.

- Bang out more back exercises: We all know that bench press is a 'push' exercise, right? But it involves a whole heap of latissimus, rhomboid, inner trapezius and posterior deltoid – both to maintain balance/stability with heavy weights, and even to start the bar moving once the lowering phase is completed. Here's the legendary Chris Duffin explaining how he uses the lats to help explode the bar up (click for video). If nothing else, doing twice the amount of back/rowing/pulling type exercises as you do pushing will protect the shoulders and prevent the 'internal rotation' and stooped posture that we see more and more of these days.

A 'volume' routine for improving your bench press:

 Much like in my 'Deadlift Monster' blog post, we're going to start by finding your 'one rep max' weight – just like it sounds, it's the biggest weight you can only lift for one rep, with reasonable form (see above video for 'just about acceptable' form as 220kgs was the max weight I could manage at the time with a competition pause).

If you don't already know what you can manage, and when you’ve nailed the techniques outlined above, choose a day where you’re feeling confident, well-rested and ready to test yourself.

Then gradually pyramid up 1 rep 'sets', until you find your one-rep maximum weight (1RM from here on). You’ll feel when it’s close, and you’ll know it when you find it. Write it down.

Next, you need to calculate 75, 80 and 85% of it and write those numbers down too. There are loads of percentage calculators online and in app form, but this is a good example and also has a video embedded that will teach you how to neatly work it out from your reps with lower weights, too:

  • Then you begin the following programme (on bench press/chest/push day).

  • In week one, you’ll do 5 sets of 8 reps with 75% of your 1RM.
  • In week two, you’ll do one set of 5 reps with 80% of 1RM then four sets of 8 with 75%.
  • In week three, you’ll do two sets of 5 reps with 80% 1RM and three sets of 8 with 75%.
  • In week 4, you’ll do three sets of 5 reps with 80% and  two sets of 8 with 75%
  • In week 5, you’ll do four sets of 5 reps with 80% and one set of 8 with 75%.
  • WEEK SIX, and it’s time to re-test your 1RM. Don’t do anything else, just keep making attempts until you hit a poundage that you can’t lift. The one before it was your 1RM. It should have gone up.

  • Week 7, you’re going to put in five sets of five reps with 75% of your new 1RM
  • Week 8, do one set of three reps at 85% and 4 four sets of five reps at 80%
  • Week 9, do two sets of three reps at 85% and three sets of five at 80%
  • Week 10, three sets of three at 85% and two sets of five at 80%
  • Week 11, four sets of three at 85% and one set of five at 80%.
  • WEEK 12, re-test your 1rm. If you’ve eaten (and supplemented) right, rested enough and kept at it, you should be looking at a bigger bench press, and a much bigger and stronger upper body!

    Good luck, and go get those gains!


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