Approach The Bench

Why powerlifters, bodybuilders and performance athletes should (still) be doing the flat-bench barbell press.
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When it comes to gym metrics, it’s all about the bench. And while a fixation on your bench totals is unnecessary — even counterproductive — unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, the bench press is an extremely valuable tool if you want to develop synergistic, force-generating capability throughout your upper body, along with heaps of new muscle.

For tips from the trenches, we spoke with experts who not only use the lift themselves but also teach it to others: Michael Wolf, member of the Platform Staff at Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Seminars, head strength coach at CrossFit Solace in New York City, and a former collegiate strength-and-conditioning coach; and IFBB Physique competitor Justin Hassan, a New York City–based NCSF-certified personal trainer and competition/nutrition coach. Here’s what they had to say about this revered, yet sometimes misunderstood, lift.

M&P:To do it right, what are the most important form cues on the bench press?

Justin Hassan: Keep your shoulder blades pressed back and hips down on the bench. Many lifters during a higher-intensity bench will arch their back and their hips will rise off the bench, which can cause unwanted stress on the lumber spine. Keep your feet planted on the floor, grip the bar a little wider than shoulder width, and as you lower the bar, do not let your elbows flare outside your shoulders. At the bottom of the range of motion, touch the bar to your chest under control and then drive explosively to the starting point without your hips leaving the bench. Squeeze your pecs hard at the top of the movement.

Michael Wolf: Wrap your thumbs around the bar; don’t take a “suicide grip” with your thumbs on the same side as your fingers. Also, keep your scapulae (shoulder blades) retracted, even at the top when you lock out. Finally, drive your feet into the floor. Even though the bench press is primarily an upper-body exercise, using your legs properly increases the work your upper body can do by facilitating a more stable platform against which to push.

M&P: For someone who wants to increase his or her bench strength, what is the No. 1 piece of advice you would give?

MW: Bench! Doing a movement more frequently, within reason, is the best way to improve it. Beginners can make great progress benching three times every two weeks or twice per week. More advanced lifters may need to increase the frequency and bench more often. The main point is that you can’t expect to become a great bench presser by doing the movement only every few weeks. Also, make sure to do overhead pressing and chin-ups or pull-ups in your overall training split.

JH: I have so many clients and friends approach me with this question. Being stuck at a plateau is a sign that your body has adapted to what you’re throwing at it, both exercise wise and nutritionally. These same people, when asked what they eat every day, often reply with answers that lead me to suggest an increase in overall caloric intake. If you’re not providing your muscles the necessary fuel to help damaged muscle fibers recover, most likely you won’t grow. Keeping your muscles in an anabolic (muscle-building) environment is key to increasing any lift, not just the bench press.

Click here to read Part 2!