Category Archives: Bench press
Date Released : 20 Nov 2012
- Discover why the bench press may not contribute significantly to improved athletic performance.
- Learn why the force generation and muscle activation patterns are different when performing the bench press vs. performing the common upright pressing actions of sport.
- Understand the difference between “Specific” (Functional) exercises vs. “General” exercises, and how both types of exercises can have positive functional performance benefits.
- Learn 3 functional alternatives to the bench press to improve upright (standing) pushing strength.
The bench press is widely considered one of the “BIG” lifts. It has reached a credibility status that provokes many lifters to include it in their exercise program as a staple exercise.
The bench press is a lift many enjoy and it is also a must-do for power lifters since it is 1/3 of their entire sport. Additionally, while competing in a combine – an event where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of coaches, managers, and scouts – the bench press is a required test, which calls on the athlete to train with the bench press in order to prepare.
This article will explain why the bench press is one of the most over-emphasized and misunderstood exercises in the world of sports performance training because the benefits are very limited when it comes to improving the standing pushing actions needed for optimal sports performance. This article will also detail 3 bench press alternative exercises, which can be applied in training routines to improve performance.
Let’s be clear…
This article is not recommending any exerciser to stop using the bench press, especially if you enjoy using it!
This article is simply sharing a particular training approach, which utilizes exercises other than the bench press to prepare for the standing pushing forces needed in sport. It is also about providing some new insights on the bench press so one can better understand how it could best fit into an individualized sports strength program.
How Can You Challenge the Bench Press?
How can you challenge the bench press when it has helped so many high school, college, and pro athletes? The bench press is an exercise that has not been challenged or analyzed below the surface by most. Perhaps this is because it has a great history in weight lifting, or because the bench press has been widely accepted for a significant amount of time, dating back to the 1930’s.
That being said, the bench press is an exercise that has aided in athletic performance from high school to pro sports. However, there are numerous other contributing factors that have a much larger impact on athletic success. Listed below are a couple of the contributing factors to athletic success:
The high school athlete on nature’s steroids
High school males, ages 12-17, will likely get bigger and stronger no matter what they do (or don’t do) in their strength training routine because they have the anabolic advantage. When teenaged boys go through puberty (especially the later stages), they experience what is called the “strength spurt” in which their body drastically increases testosterone production, bone thickness, muscle mass and motor unit recruitment while decreasing body fat. Within a few years, this happens rapidly.
A good strength program can certainly teach teenagers good lifting habits and help them to build a solid work ethic. A resistance-training program can in fact accelerate their strength gains. However, it’s likely that any good strength-training stimulus will have the similar effects for the teenager experiencing this “strength spurt” filled with nature’s steroids.
Best at the sport, not best in the gym
Field, court and combat athletes (from high school to pro) excel at their sport because they are the best at playing their sport, not because they are the best in the gym.
The NFL combine results are proof of this. Out of the “Top 5 bench press records in NFL Combine history,” which actually consist of 8 players, only 1 athlete, Brodrick Bunkley (Florida State, 2006), experienced success in his sport. The other players either went undrafted, remain bench players, or displayed a poorer performance compared to their teammates.
The 2008 article titled, “Few recent combine stars have become productive NFL players” stated that:
“Seventeen of the 128 very best combine performers since 2000 went undrafted. Twelve of them never played in an NFL game. Forty-three weren’t in the NFL last season. Ninety-five have started fewer than half of their potential regular-season games since they shined at the combine.”
In addition, out of the “10 Greatest Scouting Combine Performances in NFL History,” only half of the names on the list excelled in the NFL.
All of these athletes had some “raw” physical ability. The thing that separated the NFL heros from the other players was their ability to use their physical talent as a platform to express their skill to perform during the game.
In other words, physical ability, for example the amount that one can bench press, is irrelevant if you are not skilled at your sport.
What Strength & Conditioning Can and Can’t Do for an Athlete
It’s for the above undeniable realities that make it completely unrealistic to credit any particular workout program, much less a specific exercise like the bench press, for the success any athletes achieves.
Put simply, strength and conditioning helps to give you the physical platform (i.e. fitness) to do what you already know how to do (i.e. perform your sport). Even teams that do not excel are including strength and conditioning in their workout routines. However, a player who can run fast is not beneficial if they are running to the wrong spot on the field, and a player’s strength does not help if they are pushing the opponent in the wrong direction.
If there is any credit to be given to a strength and conditioning program, it is for aiding in injury prevention and simply helping an athlete to get more gas in the tank (the conditioning) to express their skill throughout the entire competition.
Does the Bench Press Improve Standing Pushing Strength?
In 2007, Coach Juan Carlos Santana and Dr. Stuart McGill conducted a study titled, “A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press.“
“This study compared the single arm standing cable press (SASCP) and the traditional bench press (BP) to better understand the biomechanical limitations of pushing from a standing position together with the activation amplitudes of trunk and shoulder muscles.”
Here are 2 findings from the study that are relevant to this article:
- “Pushing forces from a standing position under ideal mechanical conditions are limited to 40.8% of the subject’s body weight.”
- “Our EMG findings show that SCP (standing cable press) performance is limited by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of torso muscles, not maximal muscle activation of the chest and shoulder muscles.”
Both of these results reveal what we may have discovered already
First, unless a field, court or combat athlete is training for a combine, or any competition that includes the bench press, it is unneccesary to focus on maximal bench press strength. The principles of mathematics and physics make it impossible for anyone to come close to matching the bench press type of pushing force from a standing position, regardless of the stance the exercise is performed in.
Secondly, the limiting factor when pushing from a standing position is the stiffness of the torso muscles to maintain body position and to coordinate the hips and shoulders, while stabilizing the forces that the extremities (arms and legs) create. In other words, the standing pushing action is more of a total body exercise, whereas the bench press is more of an upper-body exercise.
Note: Although powerlifters use their hips and lower back to aid in their bench press, they are lying down and have their shoulders anchored on the bench.
Specific (Functional) vs. General Exercises
For the purposes of this article, the exercises can be classified as either “specific/functional” or “general”. These terms are not an official classification of the exercises, however it is important to focus on the concepts rather than the terms. A combination of both functional and general exercises can be utilized in a sports performance workout in order to ensure that the program is fully comprehensive. Both types of exercises can contribute to improved performance.
“General” exercises, such as the bench press, incline press, and dumbbell press can be performed to indirectly help performance by increasing muscle mass, motor unit recruitment, bone density and connective tissue health. Exercises in this classification tend to involve more use of machines, or fixed exercises, to perform the exercise and isolate muscle groups.
Specific (Functional) Exercises
“Specific” exercises, such as those shown in the pictures below, can enhance the specific force development patterns involved in standing pushing movements, and improve the neuromuscular coordination involved with performing those patterns. These exercises mimic the specific movement of the skill required in the sport and most often incorporate total body strength movement, rather than an isolated strength movement.
According to Dr. Everett Harman in the Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, the reference book for the NSCA,”The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity).”
“The simplest and most straight forward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercise similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occurs and the direction of the movements. In addition, joints ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”
3 Functional Pushing Exercises for Athletes
Below are 3 “functional” pushing exercises, which incorporate a total body training stimulus and can train an athlete more effectively for a standing pushing motion, as compared to the bench press.
One Arm Push-Up
The one arm push-up is often considered the king of upper-body pushing exercises for sport. Although it is not performed from a standing position, it has a heavy involvement of the core, hips and lower body.
The one armed push-up promotes unilateral strength, recruits left/right side muscle balance and significant core activation. Generally speaking, a larger athlete that completes 4-6+ full range one arm push-up reps is performing exceptionally well. For a smaller athlete, completing at least 7-10+ one arm push-ups is excellent.
Figure 1 – One arm push-up.
Once the client has become proficient at completing one arm push-ups from the floor, they can progress to using a weighted vest and/or the foot elevated version as demonstrated here:
Figure 2 – One Arm Push-up – Feet Elevated (progression).
Standing One Arm Cable Press
The standing one arm cable press is a training option for clients who are unable to perform a one arm push-up and is also a great complement to the one arm push-up.
If the client can perform the cable press exercise with correct form, it is beneficial to utilize a weight that provides enough of an overload to serve a strength routine.
Figure 3 – One Arm Cable Press
Angled Barbell Press
The Angled Barbell press (specifically the Landmine press in the photo below) is a complement to one arm push-ups or standing cable presses because the pushing angle can be performed in various angles.
Often times in sport, the athlete is required to push in various directions. Rather than pushing straight ahead, they may need to push slightly upward – for example, to control your opponent’s shoulders in MMA or to get underneath someone’s shoulder pads in Football. This is a great exercise to improve strength while performing those actions.
Figure 4 – Angled Barbell Press (Landmine Press)
The bench press can help athletes as a general strengthening exercise and when applied properly, has many benefits. However, it is not a significant contributing factor to improving sports performance and athletic success. The majority of athletes possessing the top NFL Combine bench press results have not demonstrated to perform as top athletes in their sport, therefore, one can assume there are other significant contributors to success. Studies conducted by JC Santana and Dr. Stuart McGill have highlighted the important role that the torso and other muscles have when performing standing pushing motions similar to the movements required in sport. This indicates that athletes may greatly benefit when including “specific/functional” exercises such as one arm push-ups, one arm cable presses and angled barbell press in their strength routine to complement the “general” exercises, such as the bench press.
Below is a sample of how one can incorporate both general and specific exercises into a fully comprehensive, upper-body pushing strength workout to improve an athlete’s performance:
2. Angled Barbell press 4 x 6-8 reps (per arm)
3. Bench Press 4 x 6-10 reps
4. Cable Flys 3 x 10-15 reps
Note: These exercises could (and should) be integrated with exercises that incorporate additional muscles and alternate movement patterns. To include all of these scenarios along with warm up and cool down protocols is far beyond the scope of this article.
1. A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. Santana JC, Vera-Garcia FJ, McGill SM. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1271-7.
2. Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, By NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association, Human Kinetics, 2008
I grew up in powerlifting gyms and played football into my early twenties. As reluctant as I am to admit it, this upbringing trained me to be a meathead.
I’ll give you an example of my problem solving logic as a nineteen year-old. Every problem could be solved by getting stronger.
Can’t squat deep? You’re weak. Get stronger.
Low back hurt? Stop being soft. Get stronger.
Can’t pick up chicks? It’s because they think you’re a pussy. Stop wearing your t-shirts tucked in. And get stronger.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve changed my focus a bit.
I’m still a big strength advocate, and I think toughness is something most people could use more of. But after some time, education, and experience, I’ve found there’s a lot more to getting stronger than stacking plates and hitting more reps. Clean movement is just as important for continually gaining strength.
Fillers: An Introduction
A few years back I was reading an Alwyn Cosgrove article when something clicked. He explained that making a distinction between strength and mobility training is pointless. They’re inseparably paired, each contributing to the other.
Around the same time, I was reading Eric Cressey’s programming and noticed the mobilizations he used during rest periods. He, and several other established coaches, called them fillers.
These days, the term ‘filler’ is part of training vernacular. Back then, however, I was blown away. What a great idea! Fill time, keep sessions dense, and feel better.
At that point, though, I didn’t understand how to pair the right lifts with the right mobilizations. And I didn’t understand the dramatic effect mobility has on improving strength.
Observation, experimentation, learning more about biomechanics, and reading up on the nervous system gave me the insight to develop a pairing process.
A Match Made in Rehab
Matching mobilizations with activation exercises started in sports rehab and has been adapted to fit in the strength world.
I’ve made friends with chiropractors that specialize in rehab – not just cracking necks and cashing checks. When they describe their treatment process to me it usually goes as follows:
That, of course, is my summary, most likely grossly over generalized. But it offers a simple template that we can apply for our own purpose – building mobility into our strength training sessions to add training density and improve big lift performance.
The treatment template above works from broad correction to narrow correction. That’s how we can apply mobility exercises to serve as active rest between sets of strength exercises. Applying a specific mobilization will be narrow, but will improve our overall movement for a given strength movement.
Three principles will guide our mobility exercise selection for each strength lift:
- Improving sequencing
- Improving patterning
- Alleviating tension created by the strength exercise
Muscles work in ‘force couples’ around a joint – agonists and antagonists, extensors in contrast to flexors, and vice versa. This arrangement allows for full joint range of motion with stability, but it can be limiting when trying to generate as much force as possible.
A tight, or short, antagonist limits the function of the agonist for a given movement. Not only will the tension in the antagonist limit joint range of motion, it’ll also divert neural drive away from the agonist. Recruited before the agonist, synergists are bumped from the supporting cast to the main roles.
Relaxing the antagonist while improving its extensibility will improve sequencing and function of the agonist for a given movement.
Improving Joint Positioning and Patterning
I use the Joint-by-Joint approach to picture joint movement during lifts. If you’re unfamiliar, it is the system of understanding mobility and stability developed by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle.
Here’s a quick and dirty synopsis:
That’s simple enough. We give joints that require mobility more range of motion while improving the stability of joints that move less. By doing so, we can better position our bodies at the beginning of the lift and through its completion. You move better within a given lift and put more weight on the bar.
However, you won’t perform optimally if you can’t put your body in good positions. The key is matching the right mobilizations with the right lifts to improve specific function.
Joint and segmental stability require a lot of tension. During the lift this is good – it means that you’re tight enough in the right places. Unfortunately, this tension can hang around even after the given lift, or session, is over.
Include drills that alleviate the tension during heavy lifts and you won’t have to buy slip on shoes and look like Herman Munster when you turn in your chair.
A Grand Interplay
The grand interplay between strength and mobility is facilitated by several factors: joint range of motion, joint positioning, patterning, and sequencing. These qualities are inseparable – they affect each other at all times, improving or impairing performance for each lift.
For example, poor thoracic mobility while squatting mars hip positioning. Sequencing is skewed, the wrong muscles fire at the wrong time, and the squatting task is unevenly distributed. Performance on a given lift is both affected acutely and over time because of sub-par mobility. Tragically, the story ends with a lot of shoulda-coulda-wouldas.
To avoid this, address joint limiting factors between sets of your big movements. Below is a chart that I put together to help with predictable limiting factors for each movement.
|Squat||Ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, anterior core strength|
|Bench||Upper-back strength/scapular stability, anterior hip mobility/hip stability, shoulder stability|
|Conventional Deadlift||Thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, hamstring extensibility|
|Overhead Press||Thoracic spine mobility, shoulder stability, shoulder mobility, core stability|
These are typical limiting factors – you may have one or more, you may have none. This is where training partners and taping your lifts come in handy. If you don’t have access to a camera and lift alone, it’s easiest to address them all.
Make the Match
Based on the potential limitations of each lift, and in the spirit of hoisting superior iron, here are solid strategies for adding mobility fillers to the big four lifts. Remember, the goal is performance. Pre-habilitation is great, and necessary, but we’re here to kick ass.
Since the deadlift is all about starting strength, pre-lift positioning is big for promoting a successful lift. Check the chart above and you’ll find thoracic spine mobility listed first as a limiting factor.
Poor t-spine mobility devastates positioning, so train thoracic movement frequently before and between sets. Here’s how.
- Train t-spine mobility, extension and rotation
- Before starting deadlift sets, train t-spine extension using bench t-spine extension mobilizations.
- As a filler during your deadlift sets, train thoracic extension with rotation. The quadruped extension rotation series works well to meet this end.
Train extension before pulling to prepare for a neutral set-up. I like to avoid stretching the lats during deadlift sets – even if the stretch is active, I’d rather not take the chance and lose lat tightness. That’s why we use extension rotations as the filler during sets.
We also want the glutes to fire like a cannon. Screaming tight hip flexors limit glute recruitment, so we’ll use active hip flexor mobilizations to quiet them down.
Hit sets of five to eight between all of your deadlift sets. If you have a side that doesn’t extend and rotate as well, do more reps on that side.
The squat is a tricky vixen. Since the movement starts with full-body eccentric movement and reverses into a strong concentric movement, the mobility and stability needs change constantly. It’s not as simple as grabbing a bar and standing up with it.
Though the squat starts with top-down movement, I like to insert fillers starting from the ground and moving up.
Poor ankle dorsiflexion turns a squat into a grotesque good morning hybrid. It’s always the first limiting factor I address during squatting. Active mobilizations, such as ankle rocks and wall mobilizations, work well as fillers because weight bearing is required. But I also like to pull the ankle into dorsiflexion while it’s relaxed.
Pick a dorsiflexion move and hit five to eight reps between each squat set.
Avoiding the Knee Cave
Caving knees turn a powerful squat into something resembling the Carlton dance. Limited glute strength is a big player, but poor adductor extensibility also plays a role.
Pushing the knees out while ‘spreading the floor’ tracks the knees while creating tension and recruiting the posterior chain. As you sink into the squat, tight adductors will pull the knees in, causing them to cave. I use two strategies to avoid the knee cave.
- Simply foam roll your adductors between squat sets, as it’s often enough to calm those bad boys down enough for your knees to track well and get better drive.
Sometimes, however, rolling isn’t enough and mobilization is warranted. You need a great adductor mobilization drill. Here’s one I picked up from Steve Maxwell. It trains adductor length and internal rotation simultaneously.
Most great benchers have a great arch. It looks like the bench is the only thing stopping them from rolling completely into a circle. I’ve worked for years, training myself to arch this way, but it just won’t happen. Scoliosis is a mean bitch.
An impressive arch requires spinal extension out the wazoo. But it also requires something many lifters forget, namely glute drive. This is especially true for those of us without an impressively mobile spine.
Benching with rigid glutes facilitates your arch by giving you better leg drive. As a result, you’ll set up higher on your shoulders. Activated glutes also keep you stable on the bench.
For these reasons, I like to include glute activation in between sets of bench, especially when a lifter is learning to arch.
Typically, I use lateral activation drills or glute bridging variations. See the videos below.
Upper-back tightness necessary for heavy bench efforts locks up the t-spine. To perform well on squat and deadlift efforts, you have to keep your t-spine moving freely about.
Including thoracic mobility drills between bench sets is the best strategy I’ve found to keep heavy bench training from affecting squat and deadlift training. The drills included during the deadlift section work well, but standing thoracic mobilizations are great in concert with glute activation drills because they alleviate tension in the lower back.
The rest between overhead pressing sets is free time. Rather than spend it updating your Facebook status about your latest PR attempt (you know who you are), this is a great time to address mobility and stability weaknesses that can pay dividends in the rest of your training.
If you press at the beginning of the week, use t-spine mobility drills and glute activation exercises as your fillers. T-spine drills keep your scapulae moving well, and glute activation sets anchor your hips and core so you can press with optimal force.
Mobility fillers help improve patterning, improve sequencing, and keep unnecessary tension from affecting future lifts. Pairing strength with mobility is a no brainer – even for this meathead.
Those who know me from my seminars or my writings know that I’m a huge proponent of the Olympic lifts.
Sure, I’ve written about the power lifts, and have coached several powerlifters, but I’ve never competed in the discipline – until this past April 1st, that is. This article is a summary of my experience, and what I learned from it.
Just to set the stage, back in August of last year, I re-injured my left elbow trying to improve my jerk technique. I had (for unknown reasons) developed some calcification in that elbow, which had gradually reduced both my full flexion and extension in that joint.
So I found myself at a crossroads – I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to clean and jerk again, and at the same time had grown disappointed by my limited progress in the “O lifts” in recent months.
I needed a change, a new challenge.
In September, my friend and client Gene Lawrence (a world champion powerlifter in the master’s division) told me about an upcoming raw powerlifting meet: the 100% Raw! Federation’s Southwest Regional Championships in Prescott Arizona, which would be held on April 1st, 2012.
I had about six months to prepare, and the competition was only a few hours away from my home, so after some deliberation I decided to enter.
Before I share some of the important lessons I learned from training for and competing in my first powerlifting meet, I’d first like to tell you why it took me so long to finally “pull the trigger” on this adventure.
I had (and still have) an enormous amount of passion for the sport of weightlifting. I worried that dividing my attentions would hamper my efforts in that sport. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I’ll share with you shortly.
I felt I wasn’t strong enough to avoid complete embarrassment in the powerlifting world. Although I’d deadlifted 500 pounds a few years earlier, my lifetime best squat was about 365 pounds. Furthermore, while I had done a sloppy “touch and go” 300-pound bench press in my mid-thirties, at age 52, I hadn’t done any form of bench press in years due to shoulder issues. In fact, on the day I sent in my entry form, I probably wasn’t capable of a legal (paused) 200-pound bench.
I wasn’t sure I was capable of performing “legal lifts” in powerlifting. First, after several serious knee surgeries, I have very limited flexion in my right knee. I knew I could squat “close” to parallel, but different federations have different depth requirements, and I wasn’t certain that I could train at or compete with proper depth in the squat.
Second, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to bench press intensely and consistently enough to prepare for competition due to the aforementioned shoulder problems. In the past, any time I got more than 5-6 workouts into a bench press program, my shoulder would flare up and eventually stop me in my tracks.
Initial Training Approach: Linear Progression
After a short layoff from my usual training in weightlifting, I started my preparation on Wednesday, September 28, 2011 – almost 6 months to the day from the competition. (I started documenting my training right here at T Nation on October 31st, for those of you who might like to reference my training journal).
My initial training approach involved bench pressing and squatting on Mondays and Fridays, and deadlifts every other Wednesday, using a simple “linear progression” approach popularized by Mark Rippetoe here for the bench and squat. I’d work up to a challenging set of 5 on day one, and then 3×5 (with slightly less weight) on the second weekly workout, starting off with very light loads.
On deadlifts, I worked up to a single work set of 5 reps per session (again starting very light). I planned a progression of 5 pounds/session for the bench and squat, and 10 pounds/session on pulls.
Here’s what my initial training week looked like:
Bench Press 3×5
Bench Press 1×5
For squat and bench, I paired a 1×5 lift with a 3×5 lift, rather than doing 3×5 for both lifts on the same day. This was for the purpose of evenly distributing workloads.
I haven’t listed loading parameters for the Olympic lifts, chins, and curls. That’s because I purposely made these decisions intuitively, based on what felt good at the moment. If I felt great on a particular day, I’d try for something big. If not, I didn’t stress about it.
I allowed for occasional variety when it came to the non-competition lifts. The Big 3 lifts, however, were set in stone. I think that training programs should have a “compulsory” as well as an “optional” category, meaning that you should be able to discern between tasks that are central to your goal versus drills that are less critical to your core mission. Therefore, you’ll see that I eventually dropped curls, skipped chins, and so on. Great programs are characterized by a “flexible structure.”
While it may seem excessive to squat twice a week while deadlifting during the same week, keep in mind that volume on Mondays and Wednesdays was fairly low (1×5 for each).
Some readers may notice the complete lack of a general/dynamic warm-up, foam rolling, stretching, and so forth. Personally, I’ve never experienced much benefit in any of these activities, and decided to finally listen to my inner voice on these issues. That said, if you feel you benefit from any of them, certainly use them.
My plan was to run this progression until I hit a wall (which I knew was inevitable), and then devise a new strategy when that happened.
For quick reference, my first 1×5 workouts featured the following loads:
Bench press: 170 x5
Squat: 225 x5
Deadlift: 340 x5
That should give a sense of how light I started off, although these opening workouts weren’t especially easy. I was both embarrassed and nervous on the bench press in particular, given my shoulder history.
That said, I had no pain on those initial workouts, nor did I experience any significant pain or injury during this six-month training period. The only injury I suffered was a moderately-tweaked low back on a 185-pound squat early in the cycle, and a period of 3-4 weeks where I was experiencing moderate left pec discomfort on bench presses. That’s it.
Never before have I experienced a pain/injury-free six months of training, and I sure wasn’t expecting it to occur at age 52.
Reaching A Plateau On Linear Progression
Right around mid-February, I could sense that my linear progression honeymoon period was coming to an end. It was taking all I had to continue making my 5-10 pound jumps, and an additional concern was that April 1st was coming up fast, and 5’s seemed a bit non-specific for hitting big singles in competition.
I had benched 225 x 4 (missed the planned 5th rep) squatted 300 x 5, and pulled 363 x 5, but by this time my discipline had already eroded. I was already “experimenting” (or “pussing out” to be more forthright) by either taking heavy singles, or sometimes going more than 5 reps. Basically I was just sick of 5’s. I needed a new approach before I started losing my discipline altogether.
Enter Chad Waterbury
I’ve known and respected Chad Waterbury for years and asked him if he’d help my with “last minute” peaking strategies. Chad looked at my training journal and told me that in his discussions with people like Franco Columbo and Pavel Tsatsouline, he’d developed a strong affection for a “Medium – Heavy – Medium – Maximum” type of progression.
Medium days were 3 x 3, heavy days were 3 x 2, and maximum days were mock competitions essentially, a chance to evaluate your progress. In terms of progression, each type of workout, when repeated, should be done with slightly more weight.
I immediately implemented Chad’s suggestions, and after about 10 days could feel a renewal, physically and psychologically. My numbers started moving dramatically – before I knew it I was hitting 380 on the squat, 465 on the deadlift, and 255 on the bench, and I felt less drained at the same time. I was peaking. Things were coming together.
In my last month of training, I managed to chalk up a 403 squat, a 255 bench, and a 475 deadlift (see the videos below). I simply wanted to hit these numbers (or slightly more if possible) during official competition, when the pressure was on, without getting hurt. I felt ready go, but I had a lot of unknowns ahead of me…
So How’d I Do?
In terms of expectations, I only had a few:
I really wanted a 400 squat and a 500 deadlift, and I didn’t want to get hurt in the process. I had no idea what to expect on the bench. But I felt I had to be ready for anything, given that this was my first experience in the sport, and also considering that the warm-up room was scantily equipped and crowded.
I had to be prepared for a rushed and/or incomplete warm-up. I had to be ready for the possibility that my squats might not be deep enough, or that I might not be prepared for the various technical rules I’d face on the bench, including the pause, keeping the feet motionless, and so on. I’d trained for all of this, but you never know exactly what you’re up against until it actually happens.
Here’s an event-by event breakdown of my meet:
My last warm-up was with 315, which I had to take from a very low position due to the much shorter guys who were sharing the rack with me. Nonetheless, it felt fine and I was confident overall.
I opened with 340, which felt about as heavy as I expected, and much to my relief I got three white lights – my depth was legal.
My second attempt was with 369, and now that I knew my depth would pass muster, I felt energized and confident. I probably could’ve hit it for a triple if I’d needed to. Three whites.
I went to the administrators’ table and asked for 402, one pound less than my PR in training, but I didn’t want to get greedy. I would’ve been super happy to hit 400, but had I tried, say, 415 and missed, I’d be in a bad mood for the rest of the meet.
402 was heavy and slow. I struggled out of the hole, and waited for what felt like an eternity for the head judge to signal me back to the rack. I think my spotters and I got the bar back on the stands about a second before I nearly passed out from pressurizing against that load. Three whites! I was off to a great start – 3 for 3, no red lights.
You can see my 402 attempt below:
My last warm-up backstage was with 205, and it felt uneventful. My first attempt was 225 pounds – a weight I’d hit for 4 reps in training. I smoked it easily for three whites.
Second attempt: 245. This went up okay, but not as well as I’d expected. Somehow my placement on the bench was off – I reasoned that
I needed to be closer to the uprights for my final attempt. Due to the difficulty of this attempt, and also because I was 5 for 5 at this point, I asked for 253 for my final attempt – 2 pounds less than my training PR.
As I positioned myself on the bench, I remembered the positioning error I wanted to correct, and moved a bit closer to the uprights. Two fifty three went up with ease – the adjustment paid off better than I’d anticipated. On the bench, I again went 3 for 3, and no red lights. My only small regret is that I was probably good for 260, which would’ve been a new PR. That’s what the next meet is for I guess.
You can see my 253 attempt below:
By this point in the day I was pretty wiped out, and my low back and hamstrings were toasted from the heavy squats. One of the unknowns I knew I’d be facing today was that I’d never maxed out my squat and deadlift on the same day.
There was a war going on in my head: a struggle between wanting to play it safe and hit 500, and the desire to get a new PR, say 510 or so. At this point I’d gone 6 for 6 with no red lights, so I decided to commit to a “perfect meet” – going 9 for 9, no red lights, and at least meeting (if not exceeding) training PR’s.
My last warm-up in back was with 405. It was clear that I could’ve hit at least 5 reps with that, so I felt ready for my 440 opener. After I set that down, I was warned by the head judge to lower the bar with more control, which took me by surprise, but nonetheless, I earned three whites for my effort, and asked for 469 for my second attempt, which I handled successfully. The trick of course, is to optimally bridge the gap between my second attempt and my goal for my final lift, which was 501.
Walking out to that 501-pound barbell, I had confidence that I’d already hit that weight before in the past, but also felt pressure that until this point I’d been running a perfect meet. To say that I was determined to make this lift would be a gross understatement.
Internally, I’d worked myself into such a frenzy of effort that I honestly don’t remember feeling the bar in my hands. As I began pulling, I felt relief that I at least got the weight moving upward, but it felt significantly heavier than I expected. I kept pulling, however, knowing that my deadlifts usually move faster than what it feels like.
As the bar passed my knees, I thought, “Okay, I’m home free now,” but my improved leverage was offset by the mounting fatigue. The pull was a grind from start to finish. Finally, I locked it out, and remembering my earlier admonition from the head judge, did my best to lower the bar under maximum control. Hands on knees, I looked back at the scoreboard – three whites! A perfect meet!
In summary, the only change I would’ve made would’ve been to take a heavier final bench attempt, but as the old saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. I felt I’d performed a perfect meet, but what I learned from the experience was far more valuable than winning my first powerlfting meet (oh, did I forget to mention that detail?).
Injury Avoidance: I had virtually no pain during this 6-month training cycle, despite performing nearly every “challenging” lift in the book (squats, deadlifts, bench presses, two Olympic lifts, rows, and chins) hard and often. There are three plausible explanations for my injury-free experience.
First, I started well below my abilities. Second, I progressed very gradually – only 5-10 pounds per session. Third, I didn’t do any “junk” work, which limited my overall wear and tear.
I didn’t do accessory single-joint lifts, nor did I perform “advanced” techniques like eccentrics, plyometrics, chains/bands, partials, or forced reps. I simply did super-basic exercises using tried-and true programming principles, and I did it consistently and progressively.
I never took a single ibuprofen, never iced anything, and I never missed a single workout or failed to hit my numbers because of pain or injury. In short, my training was remarkably low-tech and the only thing exciting about it was that I got bigger, stronger, faster, and leaner; and I did it without injuring myself in the process.
A note about bench pressing: I noted that my traditional experiences with all forms of bench pressing were characterized by shoulder pain and injury. I can attribute my sudden good fortune to only one thing: since September 28th, all of my benches have been done with a pause, as is required in competition.
I believe this pause helps mitigate the high tensions that occur when the shoulder is at its weakest position (when the bar touches the chest). If you’re having issues with your shoulders when you press, put your ego aside and implement the pause – it took me until age 52 to figure that out, so consider this a head start!
Body Composition: Body comp has never been my strong suit. When my focus was primarily on the Olympic lifts, things like squats, presses, and pulls received only cursory attention – by the time I got to squats, I often had nothing left in the tank.
But by putting my primary focus on “big” multi-joint movements done for higher volumes and longer time-under-tensions than what I was used to, lo and behold, I actually started developing a physique. And while I’ve never particularly cared much about aesthetics, I have to admit it’s fun to at least look like I spend time in the gym.
Improved Olympic Lifts: Perhaps the most pleasant outcome occurred as I gradually started reintroducing power snatches and clean and jerks into my prep. Not only did I discover that I could still perform a workable clean and jerk despite my elbow issues, but in late April – after just five sessions and not having performed a single C&J for more than 6 months – I reached 95% of my best C&J ever, despite weighing significantly less and having not practiced that lift in months. I also reached 98% of my best snatch, after only a handful of sessions on that lift as well.
An even more remarkable surprise was that, for years, both snatches and jerks have been problematic on my shoulders, particularly my left shoulder. Remarkably, I found that suddenly, I’m performing very heavy snatches and jerks completely pain free.
This was one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in my entire training career. I attribute this to the 6-month break away from these lifts that allowed my old shoulder injuries to heal, but I also believe that bench pressing contributed to my overall shoulder integrity. Furthermore, I became much stronger as a whole, which certainly contributed to my shoulder health and integrity.
Prologue: What I’m Up To Now…
My current goal is to be ready to do either a powerlifting meet or a weightlifting meet at short notice, any time of the year, while continuing to improve my body comp and staying injury-free at the same time. In other words, I want to be a bit more well-rounded as I get older, and I’m having a lot of fun getting stronger in my 50’s without nursing injuries in the process.
The take-home lesson is, there’s lots for all of us to learn, even if we’re well-known experts who’ve been training for decades. I humbly hope that this story has inspired you to reach out and seek new challenges for yourself – no matter how good you are, no matter how much you may know, no matter how old you are, there are new heights for all of us to reach.
Like it or not, the bench press is the gold standard of upper body strength lifts. Critics frequently try to knock it down, calling it “over rated,” “injurious,” or the dreaded “not functional,” but the bench press isn’t going anywhere.
And for good reason. There’s no better upper body lift than the bench press. What other upper body lift requires a good amount of leg drive, sufficiently activates the lats, delts, pecs, and tri’s, is stable enough to allow for the hoisting of huge loads, and is specific to many sports due to the horizontal pressing nature of the lift?
The answer is, none!
- Powerlifters perform the bench press as one of the “Big 3” lifts in their sport and have developed numerous variations to boost their strength.
- Bodybuilders bench to build the pecs and triceps.
- Bench pressing is so revered by everyday gym rats that the first day of the week has been renamed “International Bench Press Monday.”
- The bench press is used to measure upper body strength endurance in the NFL Combine Test, and it’s correlated with many different sports performance markers.
Interestingly enough, despite all this, the bench press wasn’t readily accepted by the weightlifting community.
History of the Bench Press
At the time when pressing from a lying-down position started cropping up around the lifting communities, standing exercises were the only lifts deemed “manly.” Weightlifters scoffed at the pretty-boys who would lie on a bench to “expand their pecs.” However, once women started swooning over the broad-chested bodybuilders, the weightlifters soon jumped on the bench-pressing bandwagon.
Interestingly, the bench press has evolved over the years, from floor, bridge, and belly toss variations to the methods used by bodybuilders and powerlifters today.
At first the strict floor press was the most popular method. In 1899, using a barbell with 19-inch discs (plates), George Hackenshmidt, inventor of the barbell hack squat, rolled a barbell over his face (which was turned to the side) and performed a strict floor press with 361 pounds. This stood as a record for 18 years until Joe Nordquest broke it by 2 pounds in 1916.
Around this time, new methods started gaining ground. Lifters started figuring out that strong glutes could help them get the bar from the ground to overhead. They’d lie on the floor and position the bar over their abdomens, then perform an explosive glute bridging movement, thus catapulting the bar overhead and catching it at lockout.
The heaviest weight lifted by way of this method belonged to heavyweight wrestler-strongman Georg Lurich, who “belly-tossed” 443 pounds in 1902. Critics argued that the “belly toss” method was more of a hip-power exercise rather than an upper-body strength exercise, as the triceps were simply being used to support the weight in a locked position.
In a lighter weight class, Arthur Saxon pressed 386 pounds using the same belly toss method, a record that was later bested by Joe Nordquest, who broke it by 2 pounds in 1917. This technique remained popular through much of the 1920s and 1930s.
Here’s George Lurich, circa 1885:
Soon it became the norm to set up in a bridge position and perform a “press from back” variation, essentially turning the lift into a modified decline press. The other option was to set up normally and use the hips for a boost through a “bridge press” method. This variation differed from the belly toss and press from back methods in that the bridging motion (hip thrusting) was performed under control and held into position while the pecs and tri’s contracted concentrically to finish the lift.
However, when Bill Lilly started setting records by bridging his surprisingly flexible spine and hips all the way to where the bar was locked out, with no separation of the barbell from the abdomen until the lift was completed, people started realizing the absurdity of this method as a demonstration of upper body strength.
Fortunately, Lily’s flexible spine and hips sparked changes in acceptable form, although Lilly’s 484-pound lift remained unchallenged throughout the 1930s.
The AAU outlawed the bridging maneuver by standardizing the pullover and press in 1939. This technique involved keeping the legs straight, the feet together, and the buttocks on the ground. Nevertheless, many wrestlers would still bridge, arching up onto their heads and performing “wrestler’s bridges” while pressing, which required unbelievable neck strength.
Eventually floor pressers realized that small boxes and crates could be used to increase the exercise’s range of motion and pectoralis activity, and before long specialized pieces of equipment were being manufactured. Throughout the 1940s, several types of horizontal presses were popular: the strict floor press, the belly toss, the press from back, the bridge press, and the bench press.
By the 1950s bodybuilding was on the rise, and full range of motion was deemed the best method for hypertrophy. At this time the bench press was crowned the king of upper body lifts. As benches grew sturdier, spotters gained competency, form improved, and supportive equipment evolved, bench press numbers have continued to rise.
In the 1950s, Doug Hepburn became the first man to bench 400 and 500 pounds with a pause on the chest. The first 600-pound lift belonged to Pat Casey in the 1960s while the first 700-pound bench is credited to Ted Arcidi in the 1980s. Tim Isaac became the first 800-pound bencher in the late 1990s while Gene Rychlak became the first 900-pound and 1,000-pound bencher in the early 2000s.
The current record belongs to Ryan Kennelly, who benched 1,075 pounds in 2008 with supportive equipment, while Scot Medelson holds the raw record at 715 pounds, which he performed in 2005.
Indeed, the bench press has received its fair share of controversy every step of the way. From day-one, lifters claimed it produced unequal chest to back development and created poor posture. This debate rages on today, with coaches questioning its functional transfer, safety, and optimal technique.
Just as the arched back technique was questioned long ago before actual benches were used, the current arched back technique popular in powerlifting is still frowned upon by many, as is the use of bench shirts.
One thing is certain; lifters will always seek ways to increase their strength on the bench. Before we delve into the various methods used to increase bench press strength, let’s examine what the literature has to say about this exercise.
A Review of the Bench Press Literature
Substantial research has been conducted regarding the bench press and its variants. Probably the most important yet overlooked component to bench press performance is the importance of technique. Less experienced lifters differ from more experienced lifters in setup strategies, execution strategies, and overall technique (Madsen & McLaughlin 1984). We recommend that beginners devote considerable time and attention to proper technique and reinforce good technique with every repetition performed.
Researchers have debated the mechanisms behind the “sticky point,” but we recommend that the sticky point not be thought of as a “point,” but a “region.” This region is characterized by a period of lower external force in relation to gravity resulting in a slowing of bar speed and a decrement in momentum.
A typical 1RM-attempt repetition may last around 1.8 seconds. The sticky region starts at around 2-4 tenths of a second into the concentric portion of the repetition and ends at around 8-9 tenths of a second, comprising around 25% of the duration of the shortening motion (Van den Tillaar & Ettema 2010; Elliot et al. 1989).
Two predominant theories exist which explain the reasons for the sticky region. Elliot et al. (1989) found that muscle activity remained unchanged in the prime movers and suggested that the occurrence happens as a result of the termination of the period of increased elastic strain energy from the reversal portion of the movement.
But the elastic assistance ends very quickly, thereby creating a burden for the active contractile components of the muscle fibers. This makes a lot of sense, but Van den Tillaar & Ettema (2010) found otherwise.
They showed that muscle activity in the prime movers was diminished during the sticky region, and proposed that a neural delay is created between the point where the muscle’s leverages diminish and where the brain ramps up muscle activation to complete the movement. We recommend using a variety of strategies to increase your ability to overcome the sticky point, which we’ll discuss later in the article.
Any serious lifter understands the importance of mental preparation before a heavy lift. Tod et al. (2005) conducted a very interesting study where they found that “psyching up” led to an 8% increase in force production compared to controls.
They also took a look at force production in a bench press when distracted and found that distracted lifters were unable to produce maximum force. A 12% difference existed between psyched up lifters and distracted lifters. This could amount to a 36-pound difference for a 300-pound bench presser!
We recommend that you save your huge psyche-ups for true max attempts and use them sparingly for optimum performance. Furthermore, we recommend that you concentrate diligently during your lifts and ditch any workout partner who likes to tell jokes or talk during your sets.
Power output during the bench press was shown to increase from 10% to 50% of 1-RM and then decrease from 50% to 90% 1-RM (Stock et al. 2010). This jibes with the findings of Siegal et al. (2002) who found optimal power loads at 40-60% of 1RM. Similarly, Jandacka & Uchytil (2011) found optimal loads at 30-50% of 1RM, while Pearson et al. (2009), found that maximum mean and peak power in the bench press occurred with loads of 53% and 50%, respectively.
Regarding tempo, Pryor et al. (2011) found that fast eccentrics with no rest in the bottom position resulted in the greatest power output gains when compared to slow eccentrics and pauses in the bottom position (something Thibs has been saying for years, which has finally been validated). We recommend using loads of around 50% of 1RM if trying to demonstrate maximum power (remember power equals force x velocity), but when trying to develop maximum power, use a variety of loads ranging from 30-100% of 1RM. For maximum power production, we also recommend incorporating bench throws, which have an optimal power load of 55% of 1RM bench press (Baker et al. 2001) and display higher levels of peak force compared to the bench press (Clark et al. 2008).
Multiple sets have been shown to be superior to single sets for strength gains in the bench press (Rhea et al. 2002).
As far as exercise order is concerned, the bench press is most often performed before exercises such as flies and dumbbell presses due to the increased total body musculature used in the barbell bench press, though all three offer similar levels of pectoral activation (Welsh et al. 2005). Rocha et al. (2007) found similar levels of pec activation between the bench press and pec deck, which lends credence to the findings of Welsh et al.
Placing the bench press first in the workout is a more ideal strategy than placing it at the end of the workout if increased bench press strength is the goal (Simao et al. 2005; Spineti et al. 2010).
As long as volume is matched, it appears that training two times per week versus three times per week or using total body routines versus split routines doesn’t make much of a difference in bench press strength gains (Candow & Burke 2007;Arazi & Asadi 2011).
Following a high-intensity workout, women recover their max bench press strength in only four hours whereas men take 48 hours to recover (Judge & Burke 2010).
For maximum bench press strength, we recommend performing a bench press variation twice per week with an emphasis on lower rep ranges and maximal and dynamic effort methods. Women seeking increased bench press strength train the lift more frequently as they don’t fatigue to the same degree as men on this exercise.
It’s common knowledge amongst lifters that for pec activation, the clavicular head (upper pecs) is recruited more during an incline press, whereas the sternocostal head is recruited better in a flat bench press. Trebs et al. (2010) found the “sweet” spot to be right at 44 degrees for upper pec activity.
Barnett et al. (1995) found that the horizontal bench press activated the most sternocostal pec muscle and triceps fibers, close grip incline press activated the most clavicular pec fibers, and military press activated the most anterior delt fibers.
Lehman (2005) showed that a supinated (reverse) grip led to higher activation in the clavicular (upper) fibers compared to a regular grip and that narrower (close) grips led to higher triceps but lower pec activation than regular grip.
Glass and Armstrong (1997) examined the level of pectoral muscle activation between the decline press and incline press. They found that the decline press activated more lower pec fibers compared to the incline press, while the level of upper pec activation was similar between both lifts.
Clemens and Aaron (1997) found the wide grip bench press worked more prime mover musculature than narrow grip in all the major muscles. For maximum hypertrophy, we recommend performing a variety of grip widths and torso angles to stimulate as many fibers as possible.
Upon analyzing injuries during flat bench press, Green and Comfort (2007) explained how shoulder abduction at 45 degrees with a medium grip offered the safest method of bench press performance for the shoulder joint. For maximum pectoral development, we recommend performing a variety of chest exercises in a variety of rep ranges.
Massey et al. (2004) examined partial range of motion (ROM) training, full ROM training, and a combination of both. They found that none of the three categories resulted in superior strength gains of full ROM bench pressing, yet interestingly the combination group saw the least results.
Regarding machine versus free weight bench pressing, Schick et al. (2010) demonstrated that Smith machine bench pressing activated less shoulder stabilizer and prime mover muscle than free weight bench pressing. Researchers have also identified that a max free-weight bench press is significantly higher than a max Smith-machine bench press (Cotterman et al. 2005).
Research by Ignjatovic (2009) indicates that measures of static strength in the bench press don’t correlate well with measures of dynamic bench pressing strength, so isometric outputs shouldn’t be used to predict a 1RM.
Duffey and Challis (2011) found that there are considerable lateral forces at play when bench pressing. They used a special bar that allowed for the measurement of vertical and lateral forces and found that the “pulling apart” force exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the upward force. It appears that the muscles involved in pressing the bar upward produce considerable outward forces as well.
This helps explain why individuals can’t dumbbell press as much as they can bench press; not only is more stabilization required, but lateral forces aren’t allowable in dumbbell pressing as they’d cause the dumbbells to move away from each other, which would result in a failed lift. The fact that triceps EMG is lower during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing lends support to this theory (Saeterbakken et al. 2011). Elitefts has been preaching about spreading the bar apart during the bench for years.
“Forced reps” are quite popular, especially in commercial gyms. Drinkwater et al. (2007) found no significant difference in both strength and power gains between lifters using forced repetitions and those not using forced repetitions. As for taking the training just to failure, Drinkwater et al. (2005) showed that 4 sets of 6 repetitions was superior to 8 sets of 3 repetitions for strength and power gains.
As a set progresses from first to last rep, bar speed slows down and the bar path shifts more to lifting over the shoulders rather than over the lower/middle chest area (Duffey & Challis 2007).
The bench press has an ascending strength curve, meaning that it becomes easier as the concentric range of motion rises. Elliot et al. (1989) found that bench pressing with an 81% 1RM load resulted in 48% of the lift being performed in an acceleration phase and 52% being performed in a deceleration phase. These periods of deceleration are necessary to prevent the bar from jolting the lifter upward at the termination of the lift. For this reason, amongst others, the use of variable resistance such as bands and chains are commonly used.
Bellar et al. (2011) showed that distributing the load with 15% band tension and 85% free weight tension allows for superior strength gains compared to free weights only. Burnham et al. (2010) demonstrated equal 1RM increases between chains of 5% total load and free weights only, similar to the results of McCurdy et al. (2009), who used greater proportions of chain to bar loads.
Using 15% chain load and 60% free weights for a total of 75% of 1RM, Baker and Newton (2009) found the method to be superior in enhancing concentric lifting velocity compared to using a regular 75% 1RM of free weight only. Studies suggest using 40-50% of 1RM with either chains or bands has the greatest effect on power variables (Ghigiarelli 2009). We support the use of chains and bands as the research is clear, but we feel a decent base of strength should be built before traveling down this path.
Ojasto & Hakinen (2009) found that accentuated eccentric loading as in weight-releasers was more productive for power production when using lighter loads. Specifically, they found that concentric force reduced when supramaximal eccentric loads were used before a maximal concentric rep, yet they also found that when heavier eccentric loads were used for submaximal loading, concentric power was maximized. Doan et al. (2002) showed that accentuated eccentric loads through weight-releasers with 105% loads led to subsequent increases in concentric loads of 5-15 lbs. We recommend using weight-releasers as a strategy to increase upper body pressing power while using around 70% of 1RM loads for the eccentric portion and 50% of 1RM for the concentric portion.
Concerning stable versus unstable surfaces, it’s been shown that bench pressing on unstable surfaces allows for an increase in activation of total body stabilizer muscles during the movement, and the mode of instability has the greatest effect on which areas of the body recruit more stabilizers (Norwood et al. 2007; Saeterbakken 2011).
For example, the triceps are used less but the biceps are used more during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011). The pectoralis major (chest) and shoulders showed similar recruitment patterns in both dumbbell versus barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011).
Koshida et al. (2008) demonstrated decreased peak power (10%), velocity (10%), and peak force (6%) when benching on a Swiss ball. Conversely, Goodman et al. (2008) reported no differences in 1RM strength and muscle activation during the traditional flat bench barbell press compared to the barbell Swiss ball bench press. Obviously more research is needed in this area as we doubt that elite bench pressers would be able to bench the same amount on a Swiss ball compared to a flat bench.
Santana et al. (2007) looked at the differences between a standing one-arm cable press and a traditional supine bench press and found that the barbell bench press was better for the pecs, shoulders, and erectors, whereas one-arm cable pressing was better for the lats and internal oblique. They confirmed that whole body stability and coordination were greater and thus more of a limiting factor in the standing version compared to the supine.
All types of stretching protocols for the pecs, shoulders, and triceps have been shown to have no effect on maximum bench press strength (Molacek et al. 2010). As for stretching between sets of bench press, Garcia Lopez et al. (2010) found that absolute velocity decreased when performing static stretching between sets whereas it was unaffected by ballistic stretching.
Researchers compared heavy resistance training only and combined heavy resistance training with ballistic training. The results showed greater significant increases in 1RM strength with the combined protocol compared to just heavy resistance training (Mangine et al. 2008). Wilcox et al. (2006) demonstrated that using two plyometric pushups or two light medicine ball chest passes around 30 seconds before bench press performance enhanced maximum strength acutely.
Methods for Improving Bench Press Strength
This section will discuss bench press technique and showcase methods used for strengthening various ranges of motion and variations.
Your technique will be determined by your anatomy and goals. In comparison to powerlifters, most bodybuilders don’t arch their backs as much, they flare their elbows out more, and they lower the bar higher onto their chest.
Pilot research has shown that a guillotine press with 225 pounds of resistance activates more pec musculature than a 275 pound powerlifting-style bench press. This indicates that bodybuilders know what they’re talking about when it comes to muscle activation, but it’s also very important to consider joint health. While there’s no doubt that the guillotine press is superior for pectoral activation, it’s also more dangerous for the shoulder joint.
Physiological responses to different technique options can vary. For example, some lifters can guillotine press their entire careers and never suffer any consequences. However, other lifters impinge their shoulders by simply glancing at someone performing a guillotine press.
At any rate, for higher pec activation you may choose to flare the elbows outward and lower the bar higher up on the chest, but for maximum shoulder joint safety, using a 45 degree shoulder angle is the safest bet.
Another strategy for increasing pectoral involvement and decreasing triceps’ involvement is to not “pull the bar down to your chest” by “spreading the bar apart.” Doing this will allow the pecs to contribute more to the bar deceleration than if you used your triceps on the way down.
If you simply want to decrease the force contribution from the lower body and force the upper body muscle to do the work, then eliminate the leg drive during the ascent by placing your feet flat on the ground under your knees. Be sure not to drive into the ground during the press and concentrate on using only upper body force.
Varying the grip will also shift muscular contributions during the bench press. A closer grip would use the arms and shoulders more while the wider variation receives a greater contribution of force from the pectorals. If you’d like a bit more contribution from the triceps, simply keep your elbows tucked in throughout the movement.
In the end, these strategies are not absolutes. Some lifters may not get as much of a pronounced change as others by altering their bench press technique. The reason being is that lifters present varying levels of mobility, stability, weak points, and anthropometries. Some might experience a much different pressing feeling by using a different technique while others only feeling a slight change.
If interested in maximum strength, we recommend the following:
- Don’t ignore leg drive, experiment to find the best foot position for you, create a stable base, get the quads tight, and force the knees out to activate the glutes.
- Set up onto the upper back and get a big lower back arch while “screwing” your scapulae down into the bench. Don’t lose this position during the lift off and settle the bar overhead before lowering to your chest.
- Experiment to find the best grip width for you, grip the bar as hard as possible while wrapping the bar tight with your thumb, and maintaining a neutral wrist position, and spread the bar apart throughout the lift.
- Hold a huge breath and pull the bar down with the lats, initiate the press with the lats and focus on pushing your body away from the bench. Experiment with different bar paths to find the best path for you, release your breath only after you’re passed the sticky region.
- Don’t bounce the bar off your chest or raise your butt off the bench during the lift.
Unique Methods for Improving Strength
Raw powerlifters should spend a significantly larger proportion of time focusing on bottom range bench press strength and using full range repetitions, whereas equipped powerlifters should dedicate more time building top-end strength since their bench shirts will provide tremendous elastic assistance at the bottom of the lift.
Most Important – the Standard Bench Press
If all you ever did was a standard bench press, you’d be okay. But the variations below will get you from point A to point B quicker if you train correctly.
Bottom Range Strength
In this video we showcase three different methods to increase your bottom range bench press strength:
- Pin press from bottom range
- Bottom range yielding iso-hold
- Bottom range overcoming iso-hold
Mid Range Strength
In this video we showcase four different methods to increase your mid range bench press strength:
- Mid range yielding iso-hold
- Mid range overcoming iso-hold
- Dead-stop floor press
- Pin press from mid range
Top Range Strength
In this video we showcase eight different methods to increase your top range bench press strength:
- Floor press
- Board press (1-4)
- Pin press from top range
- Top range yielding isohold
- Top range overcoming isohold
- Reverse band
- Bench plus chains (Overloaded at top)
- Bench plus bands (Overloaded at top)
In this video we show you two different ways to overload the eccentric/negative/lowering phase:
- Negative accentuated
- Weight releasers
In this video we provide five methods for improving stability in a bench press:
- Chain stability press
- Kettlebell stability press
- Dumbbell press
- Alternating dumbbell press
- One-arm dumbbell press
Weak Links and Variety
This video details several different variations that can and should be employed during various phases throughout the year:
- Speed bench
- Speed bench with chains
- Speed bench with bands
- Close grip bench press
- Wide grip bench press
- High incline press
- Mid incline press
- Low incline press
- Decline press
- Narrow neutral grip bar
- Wide neutral grip bar
- Thick bar
Many bodybuilders train the bench press once per week during their chest day with large amounts of volume. Many powerlifters train the bench press movement twice per week — once with maximal loads, and once with maximum power outputs.
This is a good place to start, but all bodybuilders and powerlifters should experiment with form, variations, frequency, volume, and intensity to figure out what works best for them.
Generally, most lifters can handle two bench sessions per week. For hypertrophy purposes, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the close-grip incline press is ideal. For maximum strength, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the board press is ideal.
For hypertrophy purposes, we recommend a variety of rep ranges ranging from 3 x 10 to 10 x 3, ascending pyramids to descending pyramids, cluster sets to drop sets.
For max strength, we recommend staying under 5 reps and getting comfortable performing maximum singles. It’s critical that you use good form to stay healthy over the long run, rotate variations to prevent pattern-overload and habituation, and consistently add load to the bar every year.
As far as the myriad of methods and variations shown in this article, don’t be a jackass and try to do everything at once. The guy who ignores all the crazy methods and variations and focuses on straight sets of the standard bench press is usually much stronger than the douchebag who tries to perform every variation and method in existence. Every few weeks pick a new focus, and then rotate to a different focus.
Attention should be dedicated toward strengthening the shoulder external rotators and scapula retractors for structural balance. Exercises such as L-flies, band no-moneys, cable external rotation, face pulls, rear delt raises with scapular retraction, one arm rows, seated rows, one arm cable rows, chest supported rows, and inverted rows are very important to prevent negative postural adaptations and prevent future shoulder injuries.
Furthermore, push ups and overhead pressing and pulling help keep the scapulae working properly, which is vital long-term benching prowess, so don’t ignore them, either.
If you’re trying to maximize the functional transfer of your bench press and improve your athleticism, we recommend supplementing your existing program with JC Band presses, which will strengthen the hips and core to allow for more carryover, along with explosive work such as med-ball chest passes and plyo pushups, which will increase explosive power and reactive strength.
Of course having strong legs and hips through squatting, deadlifting, hip thrusting, and sled work will also go a long way in increasing your horizontal pushing power and will ensure that your upper body pressing transfer isn’t limited by weaknesses and energy leaks down the kinetic chain.
We hope you enjoyed the history lesson, the literature review, and the videos. Now get to it!
To say I’m a workaholic is like saying Tiger Woods has commitment issues. Through all the lifting, training, reading, and researching that I do, I’m constantly being exposed to and coming up with new ideas.
This column will introduce T Nation readers to just some of what I happen to stumble upon every day, in no particular order of importance. The typical lifter, athlete, personal trainer, strength coach, or physical therapist is bound to find something useful in this article.
1. Low Load Glute Activation is Legit
One thing I love about T Nation is that often the best coaches in the world are years ahead of the research. You might remember Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey writing about glute activation as early as 2004. I can remember thinking, “Why in the hell would I do some silly Jane Fonda exercises?”
When other top coaches including Mark Verstegen, Mike Boyle, and Martin Rooney started recommending glute activation, I could no longer ignore their advice. I got down on the floor and got my bridge, clam, and bird dog on and immediately recognized the potential in these simple movement patterns.
And thus began a love affair unparalleled by any other. Some guys have pictures of their girlfriend on their nightstand. Me? A picture of some glutes with a bouquet of roses stuck in-between the cheeks.
Kidding. But I do keep my eyes and ears open for new glute research. Case in point:
Australian researchers recently put 22 professional Australian Football League (AFL) players through three different warm-up protocols:
- Standing on a whole body vibration platform for 45 seconds at 30 Hz.
- A 5-7 minute, 7-glute exercise routine consisting of glute bridges, side lying clams, quadruped hip extensions, side lying hip abductions, prone single leg hip extensions, fire hydrants, and stability ball wall squats.
- A control group.
The researchers found that during a countermovement jump, the whole body vibration group fared 2.4%worse than the control group, while the glute activation group outperformed the control group in peak power by 4.2%, along with outperforming the whole body vibration group by 6.6% (Buttifant et al. 2011.).
My conclusion is that you’d be wise to include some low load glute activation work in your warm-ups. Remember, the purpose of glute activation isn’t to “rep-out” or “max-out,” but to groove proper motor patterns and focus on getting the glutes working efficiently. Ten high-quality repetitions of each exercise is all you need.
2. Cue the Glutes!
Speaking of glute activation, Cara Lewis and Shirley Sahrmann tested the gluteal activation of a prone hip extension exercise (Lewis and Sahrmann 2009). They showed that compared to no cueing, simply uttering the phrase, “Use your glutes to lift your leg while keeping your hamstrings relaxed,” resulted in over double the gluteus maximus activation and caused the gluteus maximus to fire quicker in hip extension.
Based on my experience as a trainer, most beginners suck at using their glutes. It’s important to remind individuals over and over to use their glutes until it becomes automatic.
3. Lifters vs. Weaklings – Lumbopelvic Rhythm
After a couple of months of training with me, my clients always tell me that their backs feel stronger and better than ever. Is it due to increased hip mobility, or is it core stability? Maybe it’s just increased glute strength? Perhaps it’s due to improved fundamental movement patterns? Or is it a case of all of the above?
In his book Low Back Disorders, Stu McGill discusses the mythical lumbopelvic rhythm pattern explained in textbooks – supposedly the first 60° of bending is accomplished by flexing the lumbar spine while the remaining flexion takes place at the hips (McGill page 74). While most individuals bend with a blend of spinal, pelvic, and hip motion, weightlifters possess unique movement patterns at the hip. Stu states that:
Of course, Olympic weightlifters are better at hip hinging than normal individuals, but the importance of this information is that the movement patterns developed in the weight room transfer over to everyday life.Master the hip hinge first and everything else seems to fall into place.
Here’s my man Tony Gentilcore demonstrating proper hip hinge patterning with a dowel.
4. Powerlifters vs. Olympic Weightlifters – Hip and Knee Moments During Squatting Tasks
Swedish researchers measured the hip and knee moments of six powerlifters and eight Olympic weightlifters during parallel and deep squats (Wretenberg et al. 1996). The results were intriguing: during deep squats powerlifters exhibited 41% higher hip extension moments and 37% less knee extension moments compared to weighlifters, and during parallel squats the powerlifters exhibited 43% higher hip extension moments and 42% less knee extension moments than weightlifters.
This study shows that during squatting tasks, powerlifters use a low-bar position, sit back more, and use their powerful hips to a greater degree than weightlifters, whereas weightlifters use a high-bar position, stay more upright, and use their powerful knee joints to a greater degree than powerlifters.
Maximum sports performance requires strong hips and knees so it’s wise to rotate between different types of squats throughout the year, including low bar parallel, box, front, and high bar full squat variations.
5. Bench Press and Lateral Forces on the Bar
Wonder why the bench press elicits more triceps activity than a dumbbell bench press? A new study out of Penn State showed that the lateral forces exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the vertical forces (Duffey and Challis 2011).
Ten men and eight women were tested in the bench press and the total vertical forces totaled on average 187 pounds of force whereas the lateral forces applied to the bar totaled on average 53 pounds of force. With these proportions, a 600-pound bench presser would be exerting around 150 pounds of outward pressure on the bar throughout the movement.
If you’ve listened to Dave Tate over the years and learned to use your triceps while benching, chances are your lateral forces are even higher than 25% of the vertical forces.
This extra work is simply a byproduct of the prime mover’s maximal contractions against the barbell – which isn’t possible with the dumbbell bench press as the dumbbells would split apart and result in a failed lift.
6. Elite Fitness Glute Ham Raise
I’ve traveled the world and performed glute ham raises with over twenty different glute ham developers. In a nutshell, 99% of glute ham developers suck. Instead of feeling smooth, the lift usually feels awkward and unproductive.
That is, unless you have an Elitefts glute ham raise. If you’ve never performed a glute ham raise off of an Elifefts model, then you can’t possibly imagine the exercise’s effectiveness, as chances are the one you’re using pales in comparison.
Sometimes I wonder if equipment manufacturers even work out or understand biomechanics. Big props to Elitefts for spending the necessary time getting the design right.
7. Crunch Like This
Research out of Stanford University from 1979 showed that a sit-up exhibited 38 degrees of lumbar flexion, but a crunch where only the scapulae are lifted off the ground exhibited only 3 degrees of lumbar flexion (Halpern and Bleck 1979).
Given that the lumbar spine has between 40-73 degrees of ROM in males and 40-68 degrees of ROM in females (Troke et al. 2005), I think it’s safe to say that this type of crunch remains in the neutral zone for the lumbar spine.
If you limit the lumbar ROM and use a controlled tempo, it makes the exercise much more challenging and you’ll no longer be able to bust out hundreds of repetitions.
Start from a slightly hyperextended position by using a rolled up towel, ab mat, or stability ball. Raise the torso to only around 30° of trunk flexion, moving mostly in the thoracic spine. Control the tempo and accentuate the negative portion of the exercise. I discuss this further in the video below:
To prevent hyperkyphotic postural adaptations in the thoracic spine, make sure you perform thoracic mobility drills and include plenty of exercises to strengthen the erectors.
For example, some mobility drills include thoracic extensions off a foam roller and quadruped thoracic extension and rotation, while some strength training exercises include squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, and farmer’s walks.
8. Four to Six Weeks to Harden Up
When I was 18 years old, I was in the gym quarter-squatting 275 pounds with a pad around the bar. A giant behemoth of a man walked up behind me and told me to back down to 135 and squat down deep to the floor like a real man and quit using the pussy pad. Thankfully I took his advice and never looked back.
I can remember using the bar pad because squatting freakin’ hurt my back. The pressure was overwhelming. After ditching the bar pad, it took around four weeks to stop hurting.
When I started front squatting, the same scenario occurred – it hurt. But I stuck with it and a month later I could no longer feel any pain. Zercher squats took a bit longer to quit hurting – around six weeks – as did hook grip deadlifts. Just recently I started hip thrusting without a bar pad and it hurt like hell. I’ve been doing this for a month and it no longer hurts.
The take home message is, the more frequently you perform the lifts, the quicker your nervous system will become densensitized to the stimuli. So man up and fight through the discomfort. Just remember, what seems like torture today in a month will feel like a hot oil massage from a pair of busty Asian masseuses. I kid you not.
9. Resistance Training vs. Stretching for Flexibility Gains
Many long-term lifters have noticed that they don’t have to stretch much to maintain their flexibility. Fact is, many of us have noted superior flexibility gains from weight training compared to stretching.
In the past few years, several studies have emerged showing that resistance training increases flexibility (Monteiro et al. 2008; Santos et al. 2010). This isn’t surprising, but some have shown resistance training protocols to be just as effective or even more effective in terms of flexibility gains when compared to stretching protocols (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011; Nelson and Bandy 2004).
I’m a fan of doing all sorts of things for improved mobility and soft tissue functioning such as foam rolling and static stretching. But know that full range of motion resistance training is one of the best things you can do to increase and maintain mobility.
Just make sure your programs are well-designed, as structural balance is critical for postural and functional adaptations. To add icing on the cake, make sure you foam roll, stretch, and perform mobility and activation drills.
10. Broz Mentality – The “Shoot Your Family” Scenario
I’m a big John Broz fan. When I met him at his Las Vegas facility he said something that really hit home. He told me to envision someone capturing my family and informing me that they were going to shoot all of them unless I put a hundred pounds on my squat in one month. Then he asked me how often I would squat if this actually happened, and followed up with this gem: “Something tells me you’d squat more than twice per week.”
I like to think of this scenario for a variety of purposes in strength and conditioning. What if you had to put an inch on your arms in one month without gaining any weight? Something tells me you’d perform some curls and triceps extensions. What if you needed your abs to be the strongest they ever were? Something tells me you’d perform dynamic spinal movements and not just core stability exercises.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and perhaps picked up something useful you can use in your own training.
- Activate the glutes
- Learn to sit back and hinge properly at the hips
- Learn to use the triceps properly for maximum bench press performance
- Buy an Elitefts glute ham developer if you want a real GHD
- Limit your lumbar ROM when you crunch
- Know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for dealing with pain from barbell pressure on new movements as they only take a month or so to get accustomed to
- Perform full ROM resistance training for maximum flexibility
- Pick a new goal each month and attack it with purpose.
See you next month!
5 Great Lessons
I’m a big Dan John fan.
I’ve been one for many years. I read Dan’s first book, From the Ground Up, and his second, Never Let Go, long before we finally met. I’ve also read many of his published articles at T NATION along the way.
Recently, I started listening to the audio recording of his Intervention seminar and my appreciation for what Dan John brings to the strength and conditioning table has grown even more. He inspires while he educates, and it’s that inspiration that prompted me to write this article.
Dan John gets it. He’s walked the walk as an athlete and as a coach for nearly 30 years. And it shows.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom that I’ve taken from Dan’s books and seminars. The key to being a great coach is to never think that you’re too good to learn and change. As you’ll see, there’s no one better to learn from than Dan John.
1. If It’s Important, do It Every Day. Reading Dan John is a funny thing. Sometimes it takes a while to get the meaning behind what he’s talking about. When I first read this concept I thought, “Man, Dan is losing it! You can’t squat every day!”
As I continued to read, I realized that we’re talking patterns, not lifts. The message was “if a pattern is important, practice it every time you train.” I took this to heart and now ensure that my clients’ programming includes some type of single-leg knee dominant exercise and single-leg hip dominant movement every day.
In Dan’s words, we do a squat and a hinge every day. For us, it might mean that on an upper body training day we split squat or lunge and do reaching one-leg straight leg deadlifts as a warm-up. The take home point is, we make sure we’re doing legs and core work every day.
2. Loaded Carries. I had Dan as a guest speaker for our annual Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning Winter Seminar this year. The big thing I took from Dan that day was the importance of loaded carries. Stuart McGill had already convinced me that carries were just moving planks, but even though I liked the idea, we hadn’t really incorporated them. When Dan was done, I’d officially drank the loaded carry Kool Aid.
This year we added suitcase carries and farmers walks in as a “rest” between our sets of sled pushes. Was it the perfect place to put them? I’m not sure, but we had our athletes out on a long length of turf and it made sense. This was a case of simply looking at another great coach’s program, comparing it to ours, and correcting an obvious weakness.
3. Goblet Squats. I doubt that Dan invented the goblet squat or even the term “goblet squat.” I only know that he was the first person who exposed me to – and sold me on – the idea.
One weakness in Dan’s early writings was a lack of video or pictures. Back then Dan would go on and on about goblet squats and I’d look at the page thinking, “I have no flippin’ idea what he’s talking about.” Keep in mind, youngsters, that this was before message boards, YouTube, even TNation.
I remember finally getting around to trying goblet squats in my business in the summer of 2010 after years of hearing Dan go on ad nauseum about their supposed greatness. I went into our facility and instructed our coaches to switch the worst squatters from whatever type of squat we had them attempting to goblet squats. Some were trying to learn to front squat, others were simply bodyweight squatting.
The addition of the dumbbell in the goblet position was nothing short of a miracle. Every single athlete, all chosen for his or her lack of squatting technique, improved dramatically. I was sold – so sold that we decided the first loading position for any athlete in any squatting movement would be the goblet position.
4. Standards. I’m a numbers kind of guy, so I love the idea of standards. This was another gem that I’d taken from Dan’s talk at our winter seminar that was reignited in my mind as I listened to the Interventiontape during my drive in to work.
Dan has a way with words. In Intervention, he uses the line “My Standard Standard.” I thought it was funny. I also thought it was brilliant. Dan’s “standard standard” is simple:
Many readers will take issue with this, but if you train athletes this couldn’t be truer. The reality is that if you can bench press 300 pounds, you can also front squat it and clean it. If you can’t, the reason is simple. You aren’t trying hard enough.
Dan goes on to provide a standard for high school football:
Bench press: 205 pounds
Squat: 255 pounds
Clean + Jerk: 165 pounds
While not overly impressive numbers, they do add up to a good athlete who’s spent some time in the weight room doing the right things.
Dan went on to describe one more standard in the loaded carry category. If you can farmer’s walk your bodyweight (split between two dumbbells) for 50 yards, you’re pretty strong.
Standards. You can argue them till you’re blue in the face, but the fact is, they make sense. I also have a standard with my Boston University hockey players, although slightly different.
If my guys can do that, I know they’re working hard in all areas. If they’re exceeding the bench in the hang clean and RFESS, all the better. I always tell my guys, “If you are going to suck at one lift, suck at the bench. It’s the least important.”
Our last standard?
The chin-up is the combination of bodyweight plus the weight on the dip belt. If you can do this, you’re unlikely to get a shoulder injury and are also quite strong. Our average player will do 1 chin-up in a test situation with 90-120 pounds attached.
5. Reps. The last bit of Dan John wisdom relates to the idea of reps. Dan has what he calls The Rule of 10.
In Dan’s world, the Rule of 10 applies primarily to the deadlift, clean, and snatch. According to Dan, a good workout in these total body lifts calls for 10 reps. It could be 5-3-2 or 2×5, but the total is 10 reps.
Dan goes on to say that in what he calls “half body lifts” (bench press for example) you can do up to 25 reps, but to me the rule of ten can apply to every lift. In an 80-20 world, 80 percent of the workouts should have sets adding up to 10 reps. 20 percent of the time could be higher or lower.
Dan notes that most classic workouts tend to total about 25 reps. However, my feeling is that after warm-ups most good workouts still come down to about 10 good quality reps.
The Big Takeaway
There are lot of books and reading you can be reading, whether it’s business, self help, or even boring old strength and conditioning. My advice is to read some Dan John. There’s plenty there far beyond the iron and dumbbells to make you a better lifter, coach, and person overall. After all, thirty years of experience is one heck of a deep well to draw from.