If you’ve been in the fitness game for pretty much any length of time, then you’ve heard of the exercise so popular that it even has its own weekly holiday (Monday), the bench press. Excuses such as having arms that are too long or acquiring shoulder pain while benching are not uncommon to hear. We have all heard the many excuses as to why some lifters might shy away from this exercise.
This exercise gets much praise due to it being an immaculate builder of upper body strength and size, particularly in the chest or “pecs”. The bench press evolved from the “pullover and press”, a movement developed in the late 1800s and popularized by the likes of Arthur Saxon and George Hackenschmidt, who were both capable of pressing over 136 kilograms (300 lbs) from the floor.
Like with anything involving the use of weights, there will always be inexperienced lifters or just ego-lifters who got themselves injured trying to handle weights that were too busy handling them who slander the name of the bench. Bench pressing has been around for quite a while, and we’ve got to see the likes of champions such as Ryan Kennelly bench insane world records so high that most squats or even deadlifts can’t compare. How? It all has to do with your technique.
Yes, the bench press is omnipotent for developing size to conquer Mr. Olympia or vanquish records across the globe. It hits the triceps, shoulders, and of course the chest. However, one critical component of the bench that shouldn’t be neglected is the concept of leg drive.
Have you ever heard of the “happy feet” bench press? You can probably guess what it looks like visually. The lifter lowers the barbell, but as soon as they begin to initiate the actual press, their feet (probably legs too) raise off the floor and spiral out of control. Not only does this completely eliminate every ounce of potential leg drive the lifter may have had, it can potentially throw the lifter off balance and easily result in a failed rep.
“Legs in a pressing movement? That makes no sense Actually, it makes logical sense if you just think for a second. Your feet are connected to the floor or ground below you when pressing, with exceptions such as floor pressing with extended legs. Therefore, force can be applied from your feet into your legs into the press, increasing force output.
The very act of your feet raising off the ground in the first place symbolizes that you’re attempting to utilize leg drive, but your technique is holding you back. To correctly implement leg drive into your press, you simply need to go at it one or both of the following two methods:
While already in position to bench, bring your legs as far back behind your body as you comfortably can. Plant your feet into the floor and push them forward as hard as you can as if you were attempting to perform a leg extension. If your legs are far back enough, your feet won’t leave the floor.
Just like method one, except you’re going to bring your legs even further back (forcing your heels to come up). You’ll be pressing more with the balls of your feet, but the furthered leg positioning potentially creates an even stronger leg drive for most lifters.
* Not all lifting federations approve method two, but all federations approve method one
The scapula (essentially your shoulder blades) play a massive role in any press. Even worse than losing leg drive, not keeping your back tight by retracting your scapula in the bench press has the potential to cause shoulder injuries when pressing near-maximum loads. Your entire back is resting on the bench press pad, and this is where most force is applied in the press.
Retracting the scapula is to pull your shoulder blades as far back as possible and then down with the same effort. Doing this while benching greatly reduces the risk of injuring the shoulder, as retracting moves the shoulders out of the way so that the lat and chest muscles can be activated to do the majority of the pressing work. It also creates an arch in the thoracic spine, which decreases the range of motion necessary to complete reps, which allows more weight to be used.
An added benefit of scapula retraction is the capability to keep your back on the narrow bench pad. Not staying tight through retraction will cause the shoulders to slip off the pad, decreasing power output and increasing stress on the shoulders. Scapula retraction also allows a lifter to become tighter in the bench press, increasing power output.
When you watched someone bench press 225 lbs with your own eyes for the first time (and thought they were a god), you probably thought that the bar went straight down and straight up. What if preached to you that the bar path for the bench press was actually in a curved motion?
How does that make sense? Think of it this way: The barbell (when unracked) naturally hovers right above the pressing muscles (traps, shoulders, upper chest) where it would be balanced. You can try it for yourself with any heavy object by laying on your back, extending your arms with the object, and swinging your arms back and forward. You’ll notice that a sufficiently heavy enough load will feel impossible to hold while in front of or behind your balance point.
During the eccentric (lowering) portion of the press, the barbell essentially curves downward towards just below the chest. During the concentric (pressing) portion of the press, the barbell reverses by curving upward towards your balance point. However, the degree of the curvature of your bar path depends on many factors such as arm length and grip width.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many more subtle improvements to your bench press that you can make. I however, find these ideals as the most sufficient blueprints for lifters of any caliber to take into consideration on the path to ultimately become a beast at the bench press.
Founder of Torino Fitness