The Mechanics of the Bench Press (updated July 2019)

What is a Bench Press?

A bench press is probably one of the mot famous exercises among meatheads. At any given point, you will see someone with an overdeveloped chest loading a barbell with heavy plates. If you continue watching, you will see this fabulous meathead perform the bench press for far too many sets at hypertrophy reps, just to prove a point. But he’s not wrong: the bench press may be one of the best exercises for developing your pectoralis major.

So how do you perform a bench press? Ultimately, it’s pretty straightforward. You un-rack the barbell, lower it, and then press it back up. However, most people perform this simple exercise wrong.

So let’s talk about how not to perform it wrong so that you can outshine those meatheads in the gym.

The Set-Up of a Bench Press

The Arch

If you’ve seen a photograph of a professional powerlifter benching such as their back is arched. And no, it will not hurt them. Arching your back is one of the key components of a bench press, and the lack of it is why most people perform it incorrectly. If you want to look like Bradley Martyn, read this full article below.

For starters, it does look painful.

image @ www.zelsh.com

Some individual’s arch is so pronounced that they appear to be bending in half. However, the thoracic spine can naturally bend that much in some people. Really, the degree of your arch is fully dependent on your individual back mobility. However, no matter how immobile your back is, it should still be arched.

Arching your back is a key component of the bench press for a few reasons:

  1. It emphasizes the chest. Anytime you set up for a chest exercise, your chest should pop out. This allows the arms to have a larger range of motion to really target the chest. Pressure applied to the upper body actually travels through the back first, so stopping without moving through the full range of motion will halt the pressure of the exercise. And no one wants to bench for rear delts.
  2. It locks the shoulders in place. Along with emphasizing the chest, arching your back allows your entire scapula (or the shoulder blade) to lay on the bench. Keeping your shoulders locked in place will prevent your upper body from moving around during the lift. This is paramount because you want the pressure to remain above your chest at all times to prevent injury (and working the anterior deltoids instead of the pectoralis major).
  3. It retracts the scapula. When benching, you don’t normally think of your scapula at all. In actuality, the pressure comes from the scapula. Retracting your scapula before each set also helps to lock everything in place so that the bar comes down to the sternum, which is what you want. Keeping the bar in line with the sternum allows for maximum chest activation.

So please, ignore those meatheads in the gym who say that you should not be arching, because you should be. Your bench will improve tenfold and your chance of injury will quickly diminish.

You can also practice retracting your scapula while standing. Hold a dowel in front of your body, hands a little wider than shoulder width. Roll your shoulders down and press your chest forward, retracting your scapula. You should feel immense pressure from your upper back. Then bring the dowel close to your sternum. Remember to pull through your back, though. It’s weird, but you’ll feel it in your chest. I promise!

Your Feet

image @ www.i.ytimg.com

Again, no one really pays attention to their feet when benching. However, feet placement can make or break a good bench. Keeping your feet flat on the floor wherever they may can actually set you up for disaster, and here’s why.

Much like you don’t want your shoulders to move when benching, you want your hips to be immobile, too. However, when your feet are haphazardly placed they will not support the hips. The heavier the load, the more the hips will want to move. This results in instability near the chest (even if the shoulders are braced against the bench). It may lead to injury. It’ll definitely lead to insufficient gains.

The trick with your feet is to bring them as close to the upper body as possible. When setting up, think of placing your feet as close to your head as possible. You will go up on your toes. You will feel ridiculous. However, by doing this you are locking your hips into place. Your entire body is rigid, save for your arms. Now, you can bench without fear of dropping the weight or moving around too much on the bench.

Your Hands

image @ www.musclemag.com

This is dependent on the person and what their goals are. If you are training more for inner chest and triceps, then keep your hands closer than shoulder width. This allows for a smaller range of motion and keeps your triceps locked in place. The pressure of the bench will target these muscle groups specifically. However, don’t be flashy: keep the weight much lower so that you can handle it without injury.

If your goals are to develop your outer chest, keep the hands a little wider than shoulder width. This ensures a fuller range of motion so that the entire muscle is firing. It will still target the triceps and inner chest but more indirectly. For this stance, you can up the weight to something heavier but still just as manageable.

However, both of these variations should still have the same set-up. Keep your shoulders down and locked and your feet up toward your midsection so that your entire body remains immobile. This ensures the best bench!

The Mechanics of the Bench Press

image @ www.worldsportsculture.com

Great, now you know how to set up for a bench press. In actuality, setting up is the hard part. It’s also the part where most people fail. Often times, individuals will keep their shoulders splayed on the bench and their feet placed wherever, which is a calling card for disaster. While they may be making some strength gains, they are not maximizing their efforts. They’re also more prone to injury. So don’t be that guy. Now you know better!

So let’s actually perform the exercise.

  1. Set up for as long as you need. (Personally, I wait for the drop in a song to get pumped up enough to tough out a couple reps.) Just make sure your hands are equidistant on the bar to avoid imbalances.
  2. When you’re ready, take a deep breath in.
    1. Toying with your breath is actually a great muscular indicator. It signals to the muscle that it’s time to work because it’ll tense up due to restricted air flow. Releasing your breath allows the muscle to relax; use it on the eccentric movement.
  3. Unrack the barbell (or have a spotter un-rack it for you if you’re going heavier) and slowly lower down. The bar should either touch or come within an inch of the sternum.
  4. Exhale and press the barbell back up until your arms are fully extended.
  5. Continue in this fashion until you feel your arms about to give out.
    1. Make sure that you don’t pause for too long in between reps. This will tire out the muscles without them doing any actual work.
  6. Re-rack the weight.

And there you have it, the mechanics of a bench press. The actual movement is basic and straightforward, which is why it attracts so many meatheads. It doesn’t have as many difficulties as a squat, and much less than a deadlift. It also recruits a significant amount of muscle fibers from the upper body — the pectoralis major and minor, the triceps, the biceps, and the upper back — which shuttles it into the “compound movements” category.

But now you know better. You know that a bench press also requires a significant amount of time setting up — sometimes longer than the press itself. But when done correctly, the bench press is one of the best movements for overall chest development. So if strength gains are in your future, definitely add the bench press. You will not be disappointed.

How to Improve Your Big Lifts (updated July 2019)

What Are the “Big Lifts”?

The Big Four

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The “big four lifts” refer to compound movements. These exercises are generally accepted to be the deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press (OHP) because they recruit the most muscle groups. While other lifts are also considered compound movements, they do not recruit as many muscle groups as the big four. Other forms of compound movements include exercises such as: lateral pulldowns, barbell rows, push-ups, etc.

Typically, weight lifters will utilize these four main lifts the most. They can improve multiple muscle groups at one time while also improving the lift overall. In addition, working one main four exercise can help to improve some others. For example, training your deadlift helps to improve your squat. This occurs because the hamstrings are recruited in both scenarios. Likewise, perfecting your bench improves your overhead press because both develop the anterior deltoid.

How do I Pick Which to Do?

Really, anyone can train the big four lifts. In fact, performing a compound movement is actually more beneficial for fat burn than isolation movements. This is because the metabolism speeds up with greater muscle density; muscle burns more calories per day than fat does. Compound movements activate more muscle groups, which, in turn, increases muscle density. You’ll become a fat burning machine!

However, a word of caution before embarking on the big four lifts. These lifts are compound and powerful for a reason. It is imperative to nail the form for each one before increasing weight. Having improper form for any exercise can result in serious injury. This warning increases tenfold with compound lifts, however, because of how much more demanding they are. Ask a friend or colleague to demonstrate the proper form for you before beginning! After that, you’re home free.

How to Increase the Big Four Lifts

image @ www.images.shape.mdpcdn.com

So you wanna train hard and lift heavy, huh? Good for you! Big lifting is not only more beneficial to the metabolism and the body’s muscle density, but they’re also lots of fun. Who doesn’t like throwing around some heavy weights in the gym every now and again?

There are a few key ways to improving your big four lifts, whether you’re primarily training the lower or upper body exercises. They include:

1. Proper Programming

It goes without saying, but having a solid program in place is the most beneficial way to increase your big four lifts. Proper programming refers to something either you or a paid coach has written (or a fitness friend, who knows?). This program generally lasts over the span of about six to eight weeks. This time frame gives the trainee (i.e, you) ample amount of time to work upon and improve his lifts.

Your programming should also reflect future strength gains. If your program only has you increasing your big lifts by five pounds every few weeks, then it’s not a solid program. With proper guidance, you should be increasing by either one repetition or five pounds every time you perform the exercise.

Now, there can be outside factors that affect these numbers. But generally speaking, you should be increasing by either five pounds or one rep each week. You should also not perform the exercise for strength — or high weight with a rep scheme of 4-6 repetitions — more than once a week. The same holds true for power training, or repetition sets of 1-3 reps.

2. Proper Recovery

Whether in-between sets or in-between days, you need to give your body the recovery it deserves. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • foam rolling / myofascial release
  • trigger therapy
  • massages (regular or deep tissue)
  • sleep
  • stretching
  • yoga
  • ice baths, hot tubs, and/or saunas
image @ www.rocktape.com

Any one of these recovery practices emphasize releasing the tension from the muscle. This reduces the stress placed on it and allows it to fully heal. And since muscle growth is the healing of muscle tissue, recovery becomes just as important as exercising.

In addition, program your training days well enough so that there are no conflicts with muscle groups. For example, do not train lower body two days in a row, or even over the course of three days. While performing heavy lifts, the muscles are under greater stress than isolation movements. Therefore, they need greater time for recovery in between training days. Aim for three or more days in between big lifts. This time frame gives your muscles ample time to recover before being fired again.

3. Accessory / Isolation Work

What good is an underdeveloped muscle group? If the muscle is underdeveloped, it cannot function properly. Likewise, if one muscle group is lagging another will compensate for it. This puts unnecessary pressure on the developed muscle, while the underdeveloped muscle does no work. In the end, both are injured and your lifts suffer.

The answer to this dilemma is accessory work. Accessory and/or isolation work is directly targeting the muscle. This forces that one particular muscle under constant stress, instead of being integrated with other muscles in a compound lift. For lagging muscles, this tunes them up without overdeveloping surrounding muscles. You can also directly target supporting muscles to the big four lifts, which will help increase them in the long run.

4. Hypertrophy Days

Hypertrophy refers to increasing the size of the muscle tissue. Hypertrophy lifts follow a repetition scheme of 8-10 reps per set. This repetition range adds just enough stress to tear the muscle while also making sure the weight can be heavier than lighter load days.

Hypertrophy days should be very similar to strength days in terms of exercise choice. However, the weight and repetitions change to support muscle growth instead of strength growth. This will not only help you to practice your form, but will also help develop all the working muscles of that exercise.

Hypertrophy days should be about three days or more apart from strength days. Or, they should change week by week: one week train for strength, one for hypertrophy. This latter tactic will take longer for strength development, but can still help to improve the lift.

image @ www.52bpijddwt-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com

So if the big four compound lifts are in your future, remember these key points. Nothing will increase your strength better than proper programming, isolation work, hypertrophy work, and proper rest and recovery!