As mentioned in my last “How to Move” volume, the importance of learning the basic cues of the fundamental movements is very high indeed. Ensuring you have a foundation set in stone before loading up on the bar is more important than probably anything else you do in the world of fitness and strength training.
Last week, we looked at the deadlift, squat, and overhead press. Fittingly, this week we’ll look at another commonly used and botched movement – the bench press.
There are many ways I’ve noticed people performing this exercise. Feet up, feet down but relaxed, severely tucked, lowering the bar to the collarbone, nipple line, abdominals, you name it. Depending on what your goals are (for instance, hitting the chest as hard as possible, versus lifting the most weight possible) your setup may involve slightly different cues. I’m going to choose a happy medium and give my cues for the safest, strongest barbell bench press technique which also stimulates the target muscles the most.
First: A quick note – I consider the bench press movement as a whole a very “overrated” exercise. I include it in this series because there’s no escaping the fact that it’s highly glamorized and endlessly practiced, so it makes sense to learn to do it right. In truth, the bench press has the least application to many situations and therefore its main purpose is for specific strength gain and cosmetic development. Furthermore, there are certain populations that this exercise isn’t particularly friendly to, when load baring joints come into play. If you choose to drop one of the movements out of your routine, I’d personally choose this one.
The bench press is a horizontal push, with our shoulders being the most major joint involved. We’ve all heard of the rotator cuff. The stability of this group of muscles is what a strong bench press depends on. That’s where it becomes important to remember just like many other exercises that:
TIGHTNESS IS KEY!
You can’t perform a solid bench press without achieving proper tightness in your setup. Everything on the rear side of your body needs to get tight – especially your upper back. Coming back to the rotator cuff, all four of those muscles attach to the scapula (shoulder blade). Loose shoulder blades = weak bench press. It’s that simple.
Lock up the shoulders!
This cue is one I use to make my clients “pin” their shoulder blades to the bench. It limits the mobility of the scapulae and increases their stability. That goes well with moving a lot of weight away from your chest while lying down. Usually, a good setup will involve the lifter literally picking himself up off of the bench to pull the shoulders back and get the chest as high as possible before starting. Check it out in my setup below:
The Back Arch Myth
Too many novices and ill-informed trainers believe that a back arch is unwanted where the bench press is concerned, and the back should be kept flat on the bench. Looking at this after taking a step back to think about it shows that this thought is a silly one. We have a natural arch in the low back, and removing it would be unnatural. Further, there is absolutely no way to pull the shoulders back all the way without making the spine arch in response, standing up OR lying down. Try it and prove me wrong.
Third, the bench press is a horizontal push. The health concerns regarding compression on the lower spine go out the window since the force angle simply isn’t placed over the spine to begin with! As mentioned in the last volume, excessive back arch in the standing press has direct disadvantages since the press happens over the spine, against gravity. Not the same with the flat bench.
Remember, this isn’t a powerlifting tutorial. The main goal of powerlifters is to move as much weight as possible in one effort. The excessive arch powerlifters will assume when setting up for the bench press is strictly for the purpose of having the abolsulte shortest start-to-finish distance for the bar to travel, and nothing more. I do not recommend a severely arched setup for the average fitness and health enthusiast Take a look at this video to see what I mean:
Good lift and great technique for a powerlifter. Not quite necessary for the average Joe.
Once again, the take home point is this – to get tight, you’ll need to make an arch in the back. Usually I should be able to get my forearm to fit in the space under my low back in a good setup when I bench or make my clients do so. But we’re not powerlifters, and we don’t need to go over the top, because our goals aren’t quite the same.
Drive Into the Floor!
In the case of the standing press, deadlift, and squat, it’s pretty obvious that you’re pushing or pulling the bar against something directly opposite – namely, the ground. In the case of the bench press, because you’re lying on your back, sometimes that concept doesn’t occur to us as readily. The bench press bar moves away from the bench as you press. It also moves away from the floor. We need to drive against the floor by pressing into it with the balls of the feet. This will allow our forces to transfer their way through the body and into the bar for a solid and complete effort. Take another look at both of those videos above. Regardless of the severity of the back arch, you’ll notice consistency in that the feet aren’t placed outside a 90 degree angle at the knee, and there’s plenty of tension in the legs. Use the floor to your advantage, and without raising the hips off the bench, drive into the floor for with all you’ve got!
Elbows Under the Bar!
In any barbell movement, the elbows need to be located in perfect line with the bar to complete force transfers. In the case of the bench press, regardless of how narrow or wide your grip is, and regardless of where the bar lands on the chest, the elbows MUST be located directly under the bar. Not too far towards the knees, and not too high up towards the shoulders. From a straight physics perspective, it’s the only way you’ll be able to move the bar, once the weight gets heavier. From a health perspective, there will be much less unnecessary forces on the shoulder joint by doing this, since there will be no place where the bar’s weight is over open space. Everything will be accounted for. I personally recommend using a slightly narrower grip and correspondingly tighter elbow position when lifting heavier loads, as this will act as a shoulder saver in itself.
It’s one of those movements that need a LOT of cues to get right – but the finished product can feel rewarding. Don’t get out of line and be like the 15 year old boys who just do bench press and a few biceps curls at every single workout. The bench press is too popular for its own good and needs to be used less frequently than the other big movements in order to properly promote balance, health, and true strength. Those are a few of my top cues for the bench, and volume 3 will focus on more important moves!