As a high school athlete, I did not get exposed to the weight room unfortunately. In college, my workout was playing sports and running.
When I went into the military, everything was centered around running, push-ups, and sit-ups. I started running competitively in 2006 and had a running coach. He was an Ironman who was very knowledgeable about running, but he told me I shouldn’t lift weights because it would make me bulky and slow me down.
Fast forward to 2010, I was introduced to CrossFit at 35 years old – and boom, my love for strength training and eventually coaching was born!
I got good at heavy squats and deadlifts as well as cycling lighter weights, but bench press was not a movement that you see very often in a CrossFit strength program or conditioning piece. The bench press is such a technical lift. If you don’t do it with some frequency, you will not be as efficient in it as you could be.
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I will never forget the biggest ‘AHA’ moment I have had with the bench press. My first CrossFit competition in 2011 had a workout called Death by Barbells. One part of it was 3 minutes max effort bench press with 50% of your body weight. I believe my weight was 75 pounds. One of the spectators, Scotty Cox, was a friend of the gym I went to – and he was also a really good powerlifter. He kept saying cues to me while I was doing the workout, but I couldn’t make any changes as I only had that 3 minutes to get as many reps as I could. When the workout was over, this was my ‘AHA’ moment. He said, contrary to popular belief, the bench press is not just an upper body exercise and that I was not taking full advantage of the movement if I didn’t use the whole body. If you ask Travis, he will tell you I still have some room for improvement when it comes to using my lower body to my advantage.
In 2014, due to an injury, I switched over to competing in powerlifting. My bench press was definitely lagging behind both my squat and deadlift at the time. I still feel it is, and I am working on it. At that point in my very early powerlifting career, my bench set up included lying on a bench and unracking the bar. Thankfully, I got the chance in 2015 to work with Paul Key, who is known to be a bench press specialist. He showed me efficient ways to set up on the bench, how to include my lower body in the movement, and even how to wrap my wrist wraps efficiently. I saw a quick increase in my numbers just by making those changes.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, if I had just started as a great bencher and didn’t have to work at it to get better, I might not be able to coach it as well as I do. But my struggle has allowed me to write an article like this.
The bench press is the most technical of the three power lifts and it requires the most focus. There are those that have the ideal body type for benching: short arms and barrel chest. For most, that isn’t the case and we have to work at perfecting our technique and using our levers to our best advantage to overcome our long arms.
At the beginning of each session with any of the main lifts, it is important to get in a proper warm up. This would include a general warm up to get your heart rate up followed by a specific warm up to prime your body for the movement you are about to do. Give yourself about 10-15 minutes to warm up.
A general warm-up consists of getting the heart rate up and getting the muscles warm. That is not done by static stretching but by dynamic movement.
Some go-tos are:
- Bike or row for 1-2 minutes
- Leg swings
- Greatest stretch
- Jumping jacks
- Soldier march
- Side shuffle
- Arm swings
- Hip circle monster walks, side walks, leg raises, etc. (These are my favorite.)
Specific movement prep is doing complementary movements specific to the main movement on any given day.
What many don’t realize is the bench press is a full body movement. A specific warm up should include both upper and lower body.
Some go-tos are:
- Hip circle monster walks, side walks, leg raises
- Lunges with a twist
- Drive the bus with a peanut
- Slides with a peanut (on wall or floor)
- Band pull aparts
- Walk outs
- Band pull aparts
- Bar work – always start with an empty bar
- Use a small foam roller under the curvature of the back with the empty barbell to work on the arch and thoracic mobility
The thoracic spine needs to be moving in order to get a proper arch. You want the lats and triceps to be firing for obvious reasons and the glutes and hamstrings to be firing for leg drive. Using all or an a la carte of the above movements will have you ready to bench press.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t just lay down on a bench for a proper set up. The set up is crucial!
- Lay down on the bench with the eyes under or slightly behind the bar.
- Take your hands and place them at the top of the bench stand just under the bar and actively push your lats under you and down. Pack it all in.
- Plant the feet either in front and to the side or behind the knee so you are able to push back with the feet rather than up.
- Without losing any tension in the upper body (while still holding on to the rack), push the hips up toward the shoulders. This locks everything in and creates that natural arch.
- Be sure to keep the shoulders tucked under you and down.
- Keep elbows under the bar, bring the bar to where wrists, elbows, and shoulders are stacked.
- Take a deep breath and push into the belly, reaching your chest as tall as possible.
- Squeeze the bar by thinking about breaking it with your pinkies. This will keep the lats engaged.
- Glide the bar down to the highest point of the sternum, roughly where the xiphoid process is.
- Keep the elbows and wrists stacked.
- Pause on the chest.
- Initiate the drive with the legs by pushing back with the feet.
- Explode the bar off the chest by pushing up and back, keeping the elbows under the bar.
If you are a powerlifter who competes or is looking to compete, there are a few more important details to take note of. I recommend practicing like you compete when you get close to competition so you can get used to the rules of competing.
- The spotter will hand the bar off to you.
- The judge at your head will tell you when to start your descent.
- You must pause the bar on the chest until the judge tells you to press.
- At lockout, you have to wait for the judge to tell you to rack it.
During times of adrenaline, I have seen lifters miss easy weights because they jumped the gun and didn’t wait for commands. I am guilty of it myself. On the bench press, you have to be more relaxed and focused in order to hear the commands.
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In order to get better at bench, frequency is key! The more you do it correctly, the better you will be at it. AND, the stronger you will get.
While frequency is key to improving your bench for technical and movement-specific purposes, there is also auxiliary work that can be done to strengthen the muscle groups used in the bench. Variations of the bench are also ways to be able to bench more often and target different areas.
My go to movements are:
- Floor press
- DB pull-overs
- Tricep work
- DB presses (vertical, horizontal, incline, decline, floor)
- Band work
- Muscle snatch (to open the shoulders back up)
- Fat grip curls (these help with pain at the elbows!)
Here is a sample week of bench frequency from a block of a program I did last year leading up to my best meet to date. After this particular cycle, when we added frequency in, my bench max jumped 13 kilos! Keep in mind, I did other main lifts and auxiliary work with this program. I am just pulling out the bench work.
Wider than normal grip Bench Press (no misses on + sets) – 1RM (paused 5 sec), then -15% for 3+ w slight paused
Bench Press – 85% 1×3, 75% 1×5, 88% 1×2, 78% 1×4, 90% 1×1, 80% 1×3+
DB Pullovers + Pull-Ups Wide Pronated – 3×10 + submaximal
Hang Muscle Snatch + Bentover, T-Bar, or Seated Rows – 3×10+10
DB Triceps Extension superset Band Pushdowns – 5×10+10
Closegrip Bench Press – 3RM (1st rep paused 5 sec)
No Bench this Day
Set 1 – (90% x 1) rest 2 minutes and then (80% x 4)
Set 2 – (add 5-10 Kilos to the 1 rep set if possible) (90% x 1) rest 2 minutes and then (80% x 4)
Set 3 – (add 5-10 Kilos to the 1 rep set if possible) (90% x 1) rest 2 minutes and then (80% x 4+)
DB Flat Press – 3×10
Band or Cable Row+Cheerleader (elbows back to retract scapula+external rotation+press (same in eccentric) – 3×10
1a. Nosebreakers+Pullovers+Closegrips Triceps – 3×10+10+10
1b. Axle Bar Curls – 3×10
I wouldn’t suggest your bench frequency to be this high all the time nor do I suggest 4x/week for everyone. I personally do well with high volume and high frequency. Others might be crushed with this much bench frequency. My suggestion to you is if you are benching once a week now and have stalled, add in another bench day. If you are at two right now, add a third. Don’t just go from one day a week to four. Slowly add frequency, allow the body to adapt, and make sure it responds in a positive way.
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About Crystal: Crystal is Travis’ right hand person! She is a USA Weightlifting National Coach and holds her NSCA – Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification. She is an RN with a Masters degree in Nurse Education. She also holds multiple other certifications to include CFL2, USATF, Precision Nutrition, and Flex Diet. She is also an international elite ranked powerlifter.