The bench press is one of the most commonly used exercises for developing upper body strength. Guys never really ask how much you can squat or deadlift, but rather, how much you can bench. No pecs, no sex, right?
Since the bench press is a compound exercise, it should be done near the beginning of your workout to ensure that a fatigued muscle group will not affect your performance.
Although there are several variations of performing this exercise, I want to focus on the technique that will enable you to lift more and develop functional muscle. This technique is referred to as the powerlifting bench press. Be aware that this form is different than the conventional bodybuilding press which utilizes a slightly different technique.
This article is a collection of powerlifting tactics and effective techniques which have enabled me to increase my bench press from barely 135 lbs to 225 lbs in about 6 months. These tactics are meant to be integrated into your current routine.
- A quick warm up which includes 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching or cardio is essential. Your muscles must be warm before lifting weights, especially heavier ones. Warming up with lighter weights is acceptable but certainly doesn’t replace 5-10 minutes of good dynamic stretching. In fact, I usually have a light sweat going before I start my routine.
- When lifting heavier weights, always use a spotter. To ensure safety, ask your spotter to keep his hands right underneath the bar without actually touching it. If your muscles give out and your spotter can’t get to the bar in time, he won’t be able to support the bar before it smashes your chest or even your face.
Powerlifting Bench Press
- Lie down and bring your feet a little further back than normal. However, always keep your heels flat on the floor and never get onto your toes. This will provide a stable base to generate power.
- Slightly arch your back. Note that this is NOT cheating. But if you lift your butt off the bench during the lift, only then are you definitely cheating.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades so that they almost touch. Doing this will minimize the distance the bar needs to travel, decrease the use of your deltoids and partly use your upper back to support the weight.
- The bar grip width is somewhat dependent on you but is usually slightly wider than shoulder width. Gripping it too wide will put more strain on your chest while gripping it too close will put more emphasis on your triceps. So try to aim for a width that is somewhere in between and comfortable for you.
- Throughout the lift, keep your wrists straight. Placing the bar at the root of your palms rather than at the base of your fingers will straighten your wrist naturally. Bending your wrists will put a huge amount of strain on your joints and could lead to injury.
You must lower the bar in a controlled manner and avoid bouncing it off your chest. This is another form of cheating which helps you gain additional momentum.
- Slowly lower the bar to the bottom end of your chest by tucking in your elbows and keeping them close to your body. The bar will travel in a diagonal direction (\) rather than a straight line (|).
This is different than the conventional bench press where the elbows are stretched away from the body and perpendicular to the ground. Although it may feel awkward at first, this technique will generate a lot more power once you do it correctly.
- On the way down, drive your heels into the ground and arch your back (without raising your butt). This will help to shorten the distance the bar needs to travel and also allow you to produce more strength.
Note that the bar should touch your chest before you push up. Half-reps don’t count. The bar should make contact around the sternum area.
Once the bar makes contact with your chest, push the bar back up by reversing the diagonal path that was initially used to lower it. During the ascent, your elbows will naturally rotate outwards again. Push through your heels to generate that extra power.
When training for strength with heavier weights, ensure that you get adequate rest time in between sets. I sometimes even take 3-5 minutes in between to allow my muscle strength to recover before I begin my next set.
If you notice yourself hitting a plateau, strengthen your legs with squats and your back with deadlifts. Remember, the bench press is a compound exercise and requires a variation of muscle recruitment, even from your legs!
And don’t waste your strength unracking the bar yourself, especially with heavier weights. Ask your spotter to help unrack the weight for you and gently maneuver it into your hands.
Congratulations, you’re now equipped with the art of the powerlifting bench press. Now go try it and let me know what you think.