Welcome to the second installment of the Big 4 Lift series, which will comprise of four major lifts that when done properly, are extremely efficient at building strength, power, confidence, and an imposing physique. The big four are the deadlift, squat, overhead press, and the bench press. These exercises can be performed anytime a barbell is present and are the backbone of many great workout programs, such as Jim Wendlers’ extremely successful 5/3/1 Program. The second installment brings us to the holy grail of many lifters, the barbell bench press. While the bench press is not nearly as functional as the other exercises included in this series, it is a proven to be an awesome strength builder. When performed correctly, the bench press is be a great exercise as it requires leg drive while significantly challenging the lats, deltoids, pecs, and triceps. In addition, for those who train for a big bench, building a massive yoke (upper back for those who haven’t read Jim Wendler) for a better base of support is vital to success and long term shoulder health.
Every Monday the esteemed bench press takes center stage as flocks of meatheads head to the gym to perform endless sets of bench presses in a futile attempt to fill out their affliction T-shirts. Oddly enough, this same ritual is performed Wednesday, and Friday by this same group, in between sets of preacher curls. Unfortunately, this huge emphasis placed on bench press has led to an epidemic of shoulder dysfunction and injury. For this reason many professionals to have a negative view of the bench press both from a functional standpoint as well as an injury standpoint. The bench press is a vital cog in well rounded strength training program for athletes looking to get significantly stronger; however, care and intelligent programming must be used to avoid shoulder dysfunction.
First, from a functional view point, I agree that the bench press is not the most functional exercise. No matter how good an athlete the lifter is, it is impossible to come close to replicating what they bench press in a push from a standing position. Second, the scapula (shoulder blades) are locked in place against the bench and which does not allow a full, healthy range of motion about the shoulder. This removes the serratus anterior from receiving stimuli and further devalues the bench press in terms of functionality. This lack of range of motion in conjunction with a disproportionate volume of pushing versus pulling that most lifters perform has led to numerous dysfunctional shoulders. To preserve function, health, and symmetry of the upper body exercises focusing on the scapula retractors and external rotators should receive extra focus. Sample exercises include all row variations, Y-T-W raises, face pulls, band pull-aparts, and rear delt raises. Perform these before workouts and/or between sets on non-maximal pressing days.
Functional jargon aside, the bench press is a mainstay in fitness and has proven time and time again to be a cornerstone of countless successful lifting programs. Like any other exercise proper programming and technique are vital in remaining injury free.
Below are vital tips to performing the Bench press safely and successfully.
The Set Up:
- Tuck your feet underneath you and drive you heels into the ground.
- Tighten up your traps. The shoulders should be pulled down and squeezed together to form a base of support from which to press from.
- Squeeze the bar as hard as possible as this will increase muscle activation in the entire body. For a test squeeze your hands as hard as you possible (YES RIGHT NOW), you will feel your arms, lats, traps, pecs, and delts all fire at once.
- When un-racking the bar, pull it out rather than pressing it out to keep your tightness and maintain your lockout position for 1-2 seconds before the descent. This lockout tightens the back further, giving you a better base to push from.
- Look dead ahead at something stationary, not your weak arm or anything else.
- ASS ON THE BENCH
- Begin the lift negative portion of the lift by descending first with the elbows.
- Keep the chest high (back tight, thoracic extension) and pull the bar apart (row the bar to your chest).
- Touch the bar on the same spot of your chest each time! Elitefts CEO and Westside Barbell legend Dave Tate recommends chalking the middle of an empty bar and performing weight-less presses. If the chalk forms a straight, even line you are set to go and add weight.
- Push yourself into the bench, trying to get as far away from the bar as possible.
- isometrically squeeze the glutes, back, and legs while driving the heels into the ground
- Keep the elbows and wrists in line with the bar, you need to push up in a straight line to most efficiently move the weight and lock out the elbows without losing the arch or upper back tightness
- Imagine the bar will crush you if you do not press it up, explode on each rep.
- Each rep should feel the same regarding bar trajectory and bar speed, practice every rep as if it is a maximum attempt.
- Consider investing in a pair of wrist wraps. Once you put significant time under the bar and press significant weight your wrists will thank you.
The bench press will always have its naysayers and pundits, but fact is that it is a proven power lift and remains a mainstay in gyms worldwide, especially in the US. The key to successfully integrating the bench press into a workout routine revolve around performing the exercise with proper technique, appropriate loading, and an abundance of back work to remain injury free and proportionally built.
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Eric Bach, CSCS
Baechle, Thomas, and Roger Earle. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. 3rd. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2008. 358. Print.
Green, Nate, “Dave Tate’s Six-Week Bench Press Cure.” T-Nation.com. T-Nation LLC, 5/19/2009. Web. 27 Feb 2012. http://www.tnation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/dave_tates_sixweek_bench_press_cure