How Much Ya Bench? Increase It NOW!

As the title of this week's column indicates, the bench press has achieved almost cult status, reaching even into popular culture. Don't you want to have the biggest bench out of all your friends? Full guide with pics!
As the title of this week's column indicates, the bench press has achieved almost cult status, reaching even into popular culture. It wasn't always this way— prior to the 1960's the most popular upper body lift was the military press— at that time, one of the three lifts contested in the sport of weightlifting (the press was removed from competition in the early 1970's due to fears that lifters were using dangerous lifting postures in the attempt to press larger and larger weights).

Despite the fact that men tend to turn this lift into a demonstration event, and that women tend to shy away from the lift altogether, bench pressing (and it's variations) remain the premier upper body development tool for physique and strength enthusiasts. Like any tool, used properly, you'll get a great result; done improperly, then bench press can tear up shoulders like nobody's business. here are my suggestions for safe and effective bench pressing:

Bench presses may be performed with a bar or with dumbbells. The bench may be flat (overall pectoral stress), inclined (more stress to the clavicular pectorals), or declined (more stress to the lower pectorals). Lay on the bench, placing both feet flat on the floor (if this causes the curvature of your low back to increase, find a lower bench or place your feet on solid blocks to elevate them). Grasp the bar such that both hands are equidistant to the center, and make sure your thumbs are wrapped around the bar, rather than on the same side as your other fingers. You only have to drop a big weight on your chest one time to become convinced that a thumbless grip is a big mistake (assuming you survive it).


Left: Correct grip, with the thumb around the bar. Right: WRONG grip without the thumb around the bar. This is very dangerous. One slip and it could be the end of your LIFE. Never use a thumbless grip.

Although it is difficult to articulate this concept in writing, the shoulder blades should be tucked together prior to unracking the bar. Do this while your hands are on the bar— lean to your right side and pull the left scapula inward, and then put your weight down on it. Then, leaning on your left scapula, tuck your right side in and then center your bodyweight. When the scapulae are tucked (retracted), the shoulder joints will be afforded additional range of motion as the bar descends, thus adding a measure of safety to the lift.

Immediately prior to unracking, the bar should be directly over your nose—if it isn't, slide yourself up or down on the bench until it is. Inhale and unrack the bar from the supports. Pause in the top position for a brief moment, rather than making a "B-line" from the supports to your chest. At this time, take in as much air into your lungs as possible and hold until the bar has ascended through the sticking point. Why? Ever notice that great bench pressers have "barrel" chests? This gives the pecs better leverage. You can give yourself a temporary, artificial barrel chest by inhaling as deeply as possible and holding throughout the lift.

As you lower the bar to your chest, keep your elbows directly under the bar (as shown below), rather than in front of, or ahead of the bar. At the bottom of the movement, the bar lightly touches your chest at nipple level. Return the bar to the starting position (it should actually travel up, as well as slightly back) by contracting your pectorals.


Left: Elbow placement to the side. This position emphasizes pectoralis involvement and somewhat minimizes deltoid and tricep involvement. Right: Elbow placement is forward, emphasizing delt/tricep recruitment

(Note: there are in fact many different variations regarding grip width, elbow position, and contact area on the chest. The variation I'm describing here is intended for muscular development more so than maximum bench press strength. Competitive powerlifters use an array of techniques designed to maximize leverage, but I assume readers who are also competitive powerlifters will already be familiar with these techniques).

Grip Width

Viewed from the head of the bench, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor at the bottom position.

Torso

Keep your torso flat on the bench at all times— the bench press is not intended to be a hamstring exercise, despite my sarcastic article called "Bench Pressing: The Forgotten Hamstring Exercise" which brings me torrents of hate e-mail every month.


Wrong! Lifting the butt creates better leverage by placing the body in the decline position, however, it also places the low back into hyperextension.

Speed

Although a variety of speeds can be employed, the eccentric phase should always be "tight and controlled." If in doubt, allow two seconds to lower the bar. If you wish to eliminate the stretch shortening aspect of the lift, you can pause for two seconds at the chest, but don't relax while doing so.

Depth

Although the most common variant is to bring the bar down until it touches the chest, for some athletes with poor shoulder flexibility, this position may be too deep. As a rule of thumb, the bottom position you choose should not use up all the shoulder flexibility you have—you should be able to go deeper with no discomfort if you had to. For novice athletes with adequate shoulder flexibility, you can use depth as a method of progression, by using a constant weight over several workouts, slightly increasing the depth every session.

Transition Position

Most bench press injuries occur during the transition between the eccentric and concentric phase, according to Dr. Sal Arria, Executive Director of the International Sports Sciences Association. A common technique flaw involves the fatigued lifter allowing the bar to "bounce" or "chop" down onto the chest, which subjects the pectoral attachments to sudden loads, which is often the stimulus for injury. A 200 pound bar lowered very slowly exerts about 200 pounds of pressure. But this same bar lowered quickly, may put many hundreds of pounds of tension on the target muscles and their attachments.

Bench Press Standards

According to Strength and Speed (Dale Harder, © 2000 Education Plus, available through CrainsMuscleWorld.com), a man who weighs 181 pounds is World class if he can bench 435, National class at 420, College star at 330, College letter at 275, and HS star at 215. Anthony Clark, weighing 372, bench pressed 780 in 1996, and I recall hearing that he did 800x2 in the gym recently. Chuck Ahrens, weighing 280, benched 400 for 28 reps. Chris Confessore was the heaviest man to bench press triple bodyweight— 741 pounds. Tamara Rainwater was the first woman to bench 400 pounds. The heaviest woman's bench press may have been an unofficial 440 by Fibingerova, a Chech shot putter.

Safety

ALWAYS employ (or become!) a competent spotter when performing any bench press variation.

Bench Press Video





Charles Staley is a sports conditioning specialist and director of Integrated Sport Solutions in Las Vegas, Nevada. A former martial arts competitor and trainer, Staley is also an Olympic weightlifting coach, as well as a master's level track and field competitor (discus event). He has coached elite athletes from many sports, including martial arts, luge, boxing, track & field, bobsled, football, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding. Staley has written hundreds of published articles, and has lectured extensively on the topics of human performance and sport training.