Approach The Bench (Part 2)

Boost your bench IQ with this web-exclusive bonus content, drawn from some of the most reputable strength men – and maidens – in the game today.
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Did you catch the first part of our bench press article? For tips from the trenches, we spoke with experts who not only use the lift themselves, but 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.

To get another perspective on this key lift for our online bonus content, we asked Carla Sanchez, CSCS, IFBB fitness pro and owner of Performance Ready in Lone Tree, Colorado, for her insight on this key lift and some special considerations for the fairer sex. Here’s what our esteemed panel had to say on the benefits and drawbacks and key form cues of the most measured training metric in the known universe.

M&P: What are the most notable benefits of the flat-bench barbell press for those seeking upper-body strength and size?

Hassan: It’s one of the key components of any strength or size program because of the engagement of the major muscle groups of the upper body — the chest, lats, shoulders and triceps. Anyone looking to gain strength and size in their upper body should be incorporating some type of flat bench work in their program.

Wolf: The barbell bench press is the heaviest upper-body driven movement that most people can do. The significant weights create a large stimulus for muscle growth, especially in the muscle groups that are prime movers in the lift: the pectorals, deltoids and triceps.

M&P: What are the most notable benefits of the flat-bench barbell press for those seeking upper-body strength and muscle development/definition?

Sanchez: There are many! Improved posture, for one. Also, as a compound exercise, it engages the pectorals, triceps, delts, lats, abs, thighs and glutes — it’s more than just a chest exercise, it really is more of a full-body movement. Because of that, it’s great for burning body fat, since so many muscles work together to perform the lift. It also helps build functional strength, so not only does it help you look good, but it helps you perform better. And to the ladies, one word: cleavage.

M&P: Does the bench press have any drawbacks to be wary of for female lifters? Should a woman approach the exercise differently than a man?

Sanchez: Some women who have breast implants are concerned about training chest because they're afraid developed pectoral muscles will force the implants to move apart, changing the aesthetics of the breasts. If you have breast implants, definitely talk to your surgeon about your concerns. Likely he or she will tell you it is perfectly safe to train chest and perform the bench press without the risk of moving the implant.

Beyond that concern, just like any other muscle group, the muscle will grow if trained properly and consistently. If you're a woman bench pressing and your pecs are becoming too muscular and you don't like the look, then simply decrease the load and volume of training until you reach an aesthetic you're comfortable with.

M&P: Carla, what do you feel are the most important form cues on the bench press?

Sanchez: Plant your feet on the floor — don't ever place your feet on the bench or hold them up in the air with your ankles crossed. Also, keep your head on the bench during the entire lift. Your grip can vary depending on your anatomy, shoulder and wrist mobility, and injury history. Keep your elbows at 45 degrees from your body, not 90 degrees, with your lats tight. Lower the bar to your sternum, breathing in before lowering, and exhale at the top of the lift.

M&P: For someone who wants to increase his or her bench strength, what is the number-one piece of advice you would give?

Sanchez: Use the concept of progressive overload. That means gradually increasing load (weight) you handle, as well as the volume within reason — the number of sets and reps you do.

M&P: What are the best ancillary exercises to add to your training if you want to improve your bench?

Sanchez: If you want to improve your bench, you should focus on bench pressing. Increase the volume and intensity of your bench training to two times per week.

M&P: A lot of bodybuilders will do incline presses before flat bench in their workout. Do you agree with that philosophy, or do you think the flat bench should come first?

Wolf: For strength building, you should do the more demanding movements earlier, the ones that involve more muscle mass over a longer range of motion and use more weight. And for powerlifters, the bench press is a competition movement, so it would normally get prioritized earlier in the workout. It comes down to priorities: if your goal is to really work the chest, then the exercise order isn't as important. If your goal is to make your upper body bigger and stronger by adding weight to your bench press, then you want to prioritize that movement before you've been fatigued by assistance or ancillary lifts.

Hassan: Being a bodybuilder, we have different goals than a powerlifter. We want to develop the chest muscle from all angles. In a number of cases, the upper chest is the most underdeveloped area of the chest, so I do believe in targeting the upper pecs before any other part because you are fresh and will be able to push harder, concentrating on getting those fibers of the chest activated. Doing the incline first in most cases will lead to better overall chest development as opposed to doing flat bench first. For powerlifters, on the other hand, it doesn't make sense for them to train that movement first, since they’ll never compete in an event where incline bench press is a lift.

M&P: Does the bench press have any drawbacks to be wary of?

Wolf: It can impact your shoulder health if done incorrectly. Benching with a wide grip and elbows flared way out so they're all the way up at shoulder level is a recipe for rotator cuff problems. A moderate grip of slightly wider than shoulder width, with elbows down about 20-30 degrees from the shoulders, works for most people. Those with rotator cuff issues can narrow their grip and tuck their elbows even more, which is basically a close-grip bench press.

Hassan: When done improperly, the bench can cause numerous shoulder impingements, as Michael explains, as well constant irritation of elbow joints if continually lifting at the higher percentage ranges of your one-rep max. Proper programming and execution of technique can prevent these injuries.

Bench Boosters

Want a bigger bench press? “Then you need to bench,” Wolf states simply. “Once you’re at the stage where assistance exercises are helpful rather than a distraction, I have seen best results from movements that are similar to the parent move you’re trying to improve.” He suggests doing the bench while incorporating pauses of various lengths within the range of motion, as well as the close-grip bench and pin presses. Hassan is also a fan of the close grip, while also recommending the bent-over barbell row, pull-up, dumbbell front raise and floor press to help strengthen the chest, front deltoids and triceps, which are all heavily involved in the bench press.