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How to Increase the Bench Press! How Much Ya Bench?
I am probably more qualified to teach the bench press than any other barbell exercise. Why? Well I was naturally good at Squat and Deadlift the moment I tried them. However, I started out mediocre at the Bench Press. My long arms that made the Deadlift easy were always going to make the Bench Press a struggle for me. However, I went on to break the all-time world record in the Bench Press in 2004.
That World Record was the most exciting for me because it meant that I had overcome my weakness. I realized early on in my powerlifting career that there could be no weakness if I wanted to be great. I wanted to be great, so I had no choice. I had to learn to bench press!
A lot of people hate on the bench press! The Bench Press is like any other exercise. If you do it too much without doing exercises that encourage muscular balance, then you might get injured. That goes for all exercises! If I do too many presses without doing upright rows, then a muscular imbalance might take place. If I do too many pull-ups without doing dips, then an imbalance might take place.
Basically, here is a good rule of thumb:
• For every push you must pull
• For every internal rotation there must be an external rotation
I wanted to get this out of the way first, so people can chill out, bench press heavy weight, and get jacked in peace. Basically if you want to Bench Press, make sure that you are doing rows. You will also want to throw in some external rotation with exercises like DB Power Cleans or simple Muscle Snatches.
I have been training Powerlifting with Weightlifting for the past couple of months, and I have been able to bring all five of my lifts up in a very steady pace. If you ask Dan John, the Bench Press is very important for Football Players, Throwers, and all athletes if performed correctly. Now that I have defended my beloved Bench Press, let’s learn to get jacked with it.
Let’s talk technique first! Here are the important aspects of the Bench Press Technique:
• Learn to use your legs! Yes that’s right the bench press is a full body lift if performed correctly. There are two ways to do this:
a. Feet pulled back to where they are somewhere between the hips and shoulders
b. Feet out in front and to the side
Either position will allow for leg drive without the butt leaving the bench. I have used both with success. I have been able to produce the most force with my feet out in front. However, I am able to arch better with my feet behind. The higher arch lessens the range of motion, and in doing so keeps my shoulders healthy. I recommend trying both and see which works the best for you.
• Pause all the reps and learn to use the initial drive to your advantage. I don’t know why so many people touch and go, and then they expect to pause in a meet. Practice the way you play! You will also learn to use the ribs to drive the bar up.
We all know that when you lower the bar onto the chest that inevitably the bar sinks into the chest. A great bencher will drive with the legs and violently lift the chest causing the bar to be propelled explosively off the chest. Here’s a video that contains my recent 395lb bench press after training the bench press for only 7 weeks:
Here is one of Dan Green:
You will notice how we both leverage to heave off the chest. Both of us have long arms as well, so being able to use every advantage is extremely important for us. Pausing every rep is the only way to master the technique.
• Tuck the shoulders together and down while bringing the butt as close to the shoulders as possible. Once again this will limit the range of motion protecting the shoulder and a shorter bar path is a stronger bar path.
• Not so much elbow tuck! The key is keeping a good angle between the humerus (upper arm) and the torso. A 45 Degree angle is optimal for shoulder health. The best way to achieve this angle is to slide the forearms towards the hips as you lower the weight. Somewhere around the sternum is the landing spot. At that point the bar should sit in the palm directly over the wrist and in alignment with the elbow.
• Your hands should be squeezing the bar while you are trying to pull it apart and bend it. This will activate the triceps while simultaneously tightening all the muscles involved. This tightness will cause more pressure, and that in turn will cause a spring effect off the chest. Both will cause a more explosive and steady push on the bar off the chest.
• The bar path off the chest should be back and up. This strength curve will take advantage of gravity. The key is flaring the elbows immediately to keep the forearms under the bar.
It’s crazy as I write this, and I realize that I have written more about technique with the bench press than the snatch. There are just a lot of tricks that can immediately affect this lift. There are probably more technique “tricks” for this lift than any other.
There are four different phases of training that I have used to increase my bench over the years. I am going to lay them all out for you one at a time. Here goes:
• Stage 1 Charles Poliquin taught me years ago that a 6-12 week block of extreme triceps volume can really move the bench press upwards. Here is what it looks like:
Dumbbell Triceps Extensions/6 superset with Cable or Band Pushdowns/10 x 6-8 sets
Weighted Dips or Closegrip Floor Presses for 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
I definitely agree that to get better at bench you need to bench, but these assistant exercises increased my bench by over 35 pounds in a 12-week block. That makes it worth looking into.
• Max Effort Movements like board presses, reverse bands, Sling Shot Bench and pin lockouts prepared my body for heavy weight. I would work up to a 1 to 5-rep max, and then finish with reps to the chest. We all know that if a weight feels lighter in our hands, then we are more likely to crush it.
• Bands helped get my raw bench well into the 500s. I used them during my dynamic effort days, but even my dynamic effort days turned into max out. The key is to get the most out of the least. I took this a little too far, and it quickly led to injury.
• Post activation potentiation (PAP)- this is a fancy group of words that simply means to prime the CNS by handling a heavier weight then you are about to use. Example of this would be benching 365lb of bar weight with 50lb of band tension at the top. When the weight is on your chest, it might be a total of 380lb. However it is 415lb at the top. Then you would take the bands off and max out with 400lb straight weight to the chest.
This is the method that I used the most to increase all of my lifts. You can do the same thing with boards by hitting 425lb with a Sling Shot, and then maxing out to the chest with 400lb. Personally I think the Sling Shot is the coolest new invention because it allows for safe full range of motion benching with heavy weight.
• Bench Most Days- Still if you want to get good at bench, then you need to bench. My guys normally bench press 5 days per week now with 3 heavy days and two light restorative days. The results have been remarkable. Malcolm Moses-Hampton has increased his bench press by over 50lb since he has been working with me. All 3 of the heavy days are a little different with one being a max with down sets, one is a triple EMOM, and one is a max effort day.
• Isometric work- Isometric work can be done in two ways. You can either pause the weight somewhere during the descent or ascent for a 3-5 second pause. You can also press against pins, which I really like. I suggest picking your weakest point of the lift, and then pressing against pins at that point. The advantage of pressing against pins is that you can use maximum effort recruiting the most fibers.
You can also use multiple angles. I suggest 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps for a 2-5 second contraction. Nothing builds strength more than isometric contractions especially the angle of the joint during the contraction. These are not sexy, and they are time consuming. However, you will reap major rewards with isometric contractions.
• The conjugate method is something that I will always suggest. There are a million ways to change things up to keep the body adapting. This is where creativity really comes into play. Let’s look at all the ways to apply this method: pauses, pauses at different angles, bands, chains, boards, sling shot, grip width, sets, reps, tempo, and type of bar. I recommend sticking as close to the main lift as possible for movement efficiency and specificity, but I want you all to have fun with this method.
If you only get a couple of things from this article, here is what you need to know:
1. Bench often
2. Use the PAP method
3. Practice your technique with pauses
4. Choose assistant exercises that make sense
If you do these four things, then your bench will increase. The bench press is a great upper body strength builder. It’s an exercise that is great for all sports if the proper routine with counter exercises is present. At 42-years-old I am able to strengthen my bench press and my snatch at the same time because my plan is well thought out.
I hope that you have enjoyed this article, and now go crush that Bench Press!
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