Special Thanks to Jake Hassinger for editing and Chris Aviado for providing video examples.
I don’t think there is a greater unifying ailment amongst powerlifters than the curse of the so called poverty bench. Not a day goes by where you can search the #USAPL tag on instagram and see a struggling 74 kilo lifter floundering to push up 125kg for their third meet in a row. It’s very frustrating to see soo many people disheartened over a lift that I love and have coached dozens of others to love as well. Over the course of this article I will break down the more qualitative aspects of bench press that I feel too many people overlook.
We will not be talking about more frequently detailed bench aspects such as bar path and grip width as these are extremely individual and have been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere. Instead we will be looking at the more qualitative processes during the bench. These are the portions of technique that we gauge by feel and observable positioning. We will be talking about 3 individual aspects of developing and maintaining tension: during the setup, through leg drive, and as the bar pauses..
How to get tight and stay tight
Easily my biggest observation between amazing and average or below bench presser’s is full body tightness. It’s very irritating to see lifters go purple in the face while white knuckle gripping the bar on squats, taking huge, deep breaths, and then see that same lifter flop down on the bench, tap dance their feet around for 30 seconds and complain about how their bench won’t grow.
I think there are a couple reasons for this lack of tightness that so many lifters exhibit on the bench press. Firstly, you have four points of contact while benching: head, shoulders, buttocks, feet and, if you’re a real go get'er, your legs/hamstrings.
I have two theories behind why I bring this up. Either the multiple contact points create a high degree of external awareness which creates a false sense of tightness in certain individuals. What I mean by this is that some lifters will go half way in their set up; kind of getting up on their shoulders, sort of pulling their feet back to get quad tension and think that this is good enough as far as tightness goes. Or the multiple contact points create too many points for an athlete to think about in relation to positioning and tightness. Regardless, way too many athletes are way too wobbly at almost all points during the bench press.
A. I don’t know what to do with my hands
So am I just going to sit here and complain about how everyone sucks except for the IG celebs that we can’t criticize? I’d love to but allegedly that isn’t as endearing to the public as I would like. Instead we will be discussing how to actually get set up tighter on the bench. We’ll start with something easy, SQUEEZE THE BAR. If you can un-rack the bar and still wiggle your fingers you aren’t squeezing hard enough. To do this we choose between two cues.
The first is the simplest, Squeeze the pinky side of each hand. As you read this mimic the motion of the bench press, do one rep while squeezing your index finger and the other while squeezing the pinky. Which one has more triceps flex?
The second option is to bend the bar, twist your hands with thumbs going towards the face, pinkys towards your feet. Since your hands are on the bar and wont actually twist, you are forced to flex and engage. Which ever cue works better for you, engage this right after you have un-racked the bar and let it settle. Keep this cue engaged 100% throughout the entire descent and ascent.
B. Shoulder Positioning
So we have our squeeze cranked in tight but that means nothing if we are going to lose tension on the chest because our shoulders are unstable. For this we need to make sure that our shoulders are packed and our scapula is depressed and retracted as much as possible. Scapula depression is something I think a lot of lifters are horribly bad at if not completely lacking in. How do I depress my scapula? Well stand up and do a shrug, hold it for 3 seconds then do the exact opposite motion and push your shoulder straight down. While holding this position put your hands out in front of you in your bench grip. Now while watching your hands, pinch your shoulder blades together and pull your shoulders back behind you as far as possible. Watch how much range of motion you just cut by doing that, also feel how your ribs naturally extend forward, this will be important later. Now while holding this position mimic doing an actual bench press. Do five or six reps and then let your shoulders relax and do 5 more reps. Which one feels tighter?
How do you do this on the bench? Use the uprights. Push on the uprights to pull the shoulders in and then push them down toward your feet. VERY IMPORTANT - do not let your shoulders go as you reach up for the bar and un-rack. This is something that will take a lot of practice. You may need to pull yourself a little closer to the rack in order to decrease how far you have to reach, but your touch position will be slightly lower to compensate for this. You may also find that getting a hand off adds a lot of pounds to your bench by allowing you to better maintain shoulder positioning. Forced social interaction when asking for handoffs is a reasonable trade off for a big bench.
After you have un-racked the bar and are squeezing the bar above your face, think about pulling your shoulders into the bench towards the floor. At this same time pull the ribs to the bar HARD. You should feel the weight loading straight into your upper back, pinning your shoulders down - this is good.
As you descend continue to pull your ribs up hard to meet the bar. This is very important as this allows you to maintain all the tension and stability that you’ve just created with your shoulders. I need to emphasize that this is not a passive movement, you NEED to actively push your ribs towards the bar during the ENTIRE MOVEMENT.
World record bench press holder Chris Aviado provides an excellent visual representation of both pulling the scapula down and pulling the ribs to the bar:
This will be fairly straight forward but take a big deep breath into your belly the same way you do when squatting. Far too many people don't take their breathing on the bench seriously and don't get the necessary air pressure that they would on squats. Try to not let all your air out between each rep, simply try to top each breath up at lock out. When you do take a full breath, reset. Make sure to keep your shoulders in place and keep your legs engaged, so as not to fall out of position.
You aren’t leg driving hard enough
Leg drive is a very weird thing to teach people as it is a pretty qualitative phenomenon. However as difficult as it is to figure out, leg drive is absolutely critical to generating full body tension throughout the entirety of the motion. The biggest issue I see with athletes is not having adequate drive on the descent and trying to engage from nothing as the get the press command. It’s much easier to generate force from tension than it is to generate tension and then force in one movement.
So how do we keep this tension on the descent? You know what it feels like to scoot around in a wheeled desk chair where you propel yourself backwards? That’s exactly what a good leg drive feels like. If you have a desk chair handy, scoot yourself backwards down the nearest hallway by pushing off both your feet at once and think about what you’re doing with your quads and feet. After you’ve done this a dozen or so times push your chair against a wall with the back support pushing into it, then make the same motion to you were just doing to push the chair against the wall. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and feel your quads pushing against the wall. This is the exact same thing that you will replicate during the bench press. Below is a video tutorial of the desk chair explanation:
Now we have to put this into practice. So let’s lay down on the bench and get our upper body in position as we discussed in section A & B. After that raise your butt up off the bench and walk your feet back as far as possible while allowing your heels to get flat* and your butt to touch the bench. As you get your heels down, immediately begin engaging your new leg drive. You have another decision to make, plant your heels before or after you get your hand off. Experiment with both and see which you can understand better.
Either way after you get your hand off, Squeeze the bar, engage legs, pull ribs up and pull shoulders together and to the floor. Do these all as hard as you can right off the get go. Now begin your descent.
Now someone inevitably is going to ask “Matt why aren’t we going to talk about a more dynamic leg drive where we try and slam our leg drive right off the pause??” that’s actually a really good question. The answer is that most people already do this to some degree. All those lifters who’s butts fly off the bench when they push off the pause? Yeah, that’s what happens when you engage leg drive from a position of little tension. The limiting factor is lifters having poor engagement on the descent which causes poor recruitment during the ascent.
* don’t worry about your heels if you are not in an IPF affiliate.
You aren’t keeping tension on the pause
The Final issue we will tackle is maintaining tension on the pause. This is probably where everyone has the most issues when it comes to improving the bench. It's very irritating to see lifters take the time to set up a big arch, get a huge amount of thoracic extension to then dump the bar on their chest and struggle to regain their position and tension after the press command. This is fairly straightforward to correct, which is nice. We have two options for this: Soft touch and sink touch.
Soft touch is pretty easy as you focus on floating the bar on your chest or touching your shirt but not your chest. For soft touch lifters, emphasize on engaging the legs harder as you get to the pause and keeping the ribs pushed into the bar hard as you pause.
Common indicators of tension loss (Soft touch):
For soft touch benchers there are a number of fairly obvious symptoms of a loss of tension on the pause:
Wrists falling in front of the elbows. This is generally indicative of a lack of squeeze and shoulder pinning. Focus on meeting the ribs with the bar as you squeeze progressively harder towards to the touch point.
Knees dipping forward. If you’re soft touching you probably shouldn't be touching the chest with enough force to shift your knees forward. This is typically indicative of forgetting to keep the legs tight as you touch. Do some long pauses as you focus on kicking the quads out the whole time. A slight pop upwards as you press off the chest is acceptable leg movement as your force production will be forced to shift slightly as you push up.
For those who find sinking more effective, we have a few more things to keep in mind. There is a lot more motion that takes place during a sinking pause so it is VERY easy to lose your scapula positioning and leg engagement. To maintain leg engagement allow your knees to travel forward slightly as you touch, this will allow you to feel and focus on your quad tension as you build up for that push. As you do this, it is very important for your knee position to be under your hip position to prevent your butt from coming off the bench as much as possible. To maintain shoulder position it is extremely critical to push the ribs into the bar on the pause.
Common indicators of tension loss (Sinking pause):
For a heavier sinking touch things are a little less obvious, this is due to there being a lot more body english during the pause portion of the bench press. Anyways here are some heavy touch indicators:
Wrists falling forward, same deal as above with the addition of also not pulling the ribs up hard enough. Letting your thoracic extension collapse is going to rapidly increase the likelihood of unpinning your shoulders.
Butt coming off the bench. This is simply the result of trying to push from an unstable position. A caveat of this is that you will always have a higher risk of this happening with the sink and explode technique as the lifter does rely on that force production off the bottom being as strong as possible. Getting the lifters quads engaged fully on the descent and squeezing the glutes hard through the lift will help remedy this. Playing with toe angle will also help as well.
So team, this is it. I wanted to write this article to try and explain a couple cues and ideas that I think confuse a lot of lifters. Hopefully there are some little tidbits in here that someone can take away from this.