The bench press is one of the most common exercises in the gym. It was once the most popular lift that could be done. Recently it has become a victim to trends; what is old and mainstream tends to get cast aside and vilified. Now many coaches will be of the opinion that having big bench numbers will not make you a better athlete. I say that anything that increases overall strength in any movement is useful to any athlete. While not critical it is certainly something worth having. The bench press is still one of the best upper body compound movements there is.
While the bench press may seem relatively simple, it is often performed pretty poorly. Before you start working on building up your bench press have a look at any of Dave Tate’s bench press videos. His technique description is about as good as it gets. It is simple and gets you in the ballpark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QnwAoesJvQ
From my point of view there are two key parts.
1) Build a solid base: Jam your feet into the floor and your shoulders into the bench. Make sure you keep your head down too. If you are rock solid on the bench then when the weight becomes a struggle every bit of energy will move the bar rather than squirming you’re body around. Feet flailing in the air will never help you get force through the bar. Being solid allows for all your effort to be transferred to the bar. It is also a lot safer than being unstable.
2) Keep the elbows tucked. This means elbows closer to the body which will result in the bar a bit lower on the chest at the bottom position. While this helps keep forces moving through the shoulder in a much safer way, it also helps with the first point. Wide elbows when on the bench tend to result in the chest compressing towards the bench. The shoulders then protract slightly as the athlete begins to struggle. They then begin to wiggle and one arm inevitably shoots up in an awkward path and the bar goes in every direction but up. Not the most scientific explanation but very common when novice lifters begin to fail. Failing to keep the elbows tucked can be a result of scapular instability as well. Maintaining some scapular and upper back strength exercises are a great supplement to pressing movements.
In terms of reps and sets, it depends on the goal. Generally speaking some initial volume work is great to build up musculature and help ingrain the movement pattern. For increasing strength, back off sets work wonders for bench press. After you follow a basic starting strength program this can really take things to the next level. 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler would be my suggestion for anyone starting strength. It is simple, effective and works even with the most experienced lifters. https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/531-how-to-build-pure-strengthTo work back off sets effectively, I suggest working up gradually to max set of 2 repetitions. These should be comfortable reps with no slow grinding lockouts. It will be approximately 90% of max or slightly below. Then simply complete a couple of sets of slightly higher reps at a lighter weight.
A session might look like this: (Example 1RM of 100kg)
Work up to a heavy double
60kg X5 reps
75kg X3 reps
80kg X3 reps
85kg X2 reps
88kg X2 reps
89kg X2 reps
Then calculate your working percentage (This example taking 75%)
Complete two sets of 6 at 75%
There is quite a large amount of activation of motor units when working up to a heavy double. When you back off the weight feels light. You can really explode off the chest with each rep. This does wonders for training the neural aspect of strength without overloading the joints too much. Reps are quicker and smoother which is exactly how you want to train. I have used this method several times with many different athletes and without a doubt it is the most effective method for rapidly increasing bench press numbers.
There are many tools to do many jobs. The bench press is a great tool in building upper body strength and power. Use it safely and effectively to increase the potential of you or your athletes performance.
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