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How to Bench Press
The most revered strength training exercise and one of the big “3″, the bench is rarely performed correctly. It seems in every gym across America, every Monday is national bench day. But unfortunately, we should label every Monday national “wreck your shoulders” day. Here is a pretty popular “How to Bench” video that I have on Youtube.
In this video you’ll learn the perfect elbow correction, why leg drive is important for a big bench, how to setup your arch and your upper back and a ton more. It really is a good and teaches you that the bench is a full body lift, not just an upper body exercise.
Types of Bench Press
Here is an extensive list of bench press variations that will form the foundation for your upper body pressing strength.
Conventional Bench Press
Close Grip Bench Press
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Crush Dumbbell Bench Press
Incline Barbell Bench
Dumbbell Incline Bench
Alternating Dumbbell Incline Bench
Crush Dumbbell Incline Bench
Chaos (Bamboo) Bench Press
Incline Chaos Dumbbell Bench Press
How to Load the Bench Press
A barbell can be loaded with:
- straight weight (barbell + olympic weights)
- elastic bands
- elastic bands + kettlebells
- weight releasers
Odd objects can also be used for bench / floor pressing:
- kettlebells (double, unilateral, alternating)
- heavy bag
- strongman log
- strongman axle
Bench Press Benefits
- build strength in a horizontal pressing movement pattern
- developing the musculature of the pectorals, shoulders and triceps
- stabilizes shoulder
- teaches full body tension
How to Bench Press
There are very important key points to remember when performing the bench press to ensure healthy shoulders and longevity. In fact, these key points apply to all the horizontal pressing movements in this manual.
1.Keep a tight grip on the bar at all times, a tighter grip equates to more tension in the lower arms, upper back and chest.
2.Keep your chest up (thoracic extension) throughout the movement.
3.Elbows should be tucked and end up at approximately 45 degrees from your side.
4.Unrack the weight and take a deep breath and hold it.
5.Row the weight down to your chest by pulling the bar apart, like a bent over row. Do not relax and let the weight drop.
6.Back, hips, glutes and legs are tight and isometrically contracted.
7.When you touch your chest, drive your feet downward and reverse the movement.
8. Lock out the elbows WITHOUT losing your arch and thoracic extension.
Bench Press Considerations:
- I’m Missing at Lockout – What should I do?
- Technique – drive feet down, squeeze bar as hard as you can
- Strength – heavy rack lockouts (also helps to strength connective tissues), pin press at and around sticking point (isometrically pressing against the power cage pins), various height board presses (2, 3, 4 board), heavy tricep work, pull-ups, band assisted bench press, plate pinch, rolling thunder deadlifts
- Elbows Flaring Out – What should I do?
- Technique – technique, technique, technique, ensure you are actively pulling the bar downward as your tuck your elbows toward your sides. Initially, with this technique, you will not be able to do as much weight. As you learn the technique and build up your tricep and back strength, you will be able to do MORE weight and keep your shoulders healthy and strong.
- Strength – pull-ups, heavy tricep work
- I’m Missing Off My Chest – What should I do?
- Technique- keep back tight and don’t relax! Keep your air that you took before the movement started and drive your feet downward. Also, by pulling the bar apart you maintain the tension in your lats which helps you stay tight.
- Strength – mini-band resisted bench press, pin press at and around sticking point (isometrically pressing against the power cage pins), floor press (dumbbells, barbell or football / swiss / log bar) more back work including seated rows, face pulls, pull-ups
- I’m Collapsing When the Weight Gets to My Chest – What should I do?
- Technique – create tension in your back, drive your feet down and as the bar lowers, concentrate on driving your chest upward to meet the bar. If you coordinate a big breath with driving your chest up and locking it in place, the downward bar path will be stable, controlled and have a greater potential to be reversed for a powerful concentric (upward) drive phase.
- Strength – board presses, high rep dumbbell bench (with proper form), wide grip seated rows, face pulls, foam rolling the upper back for more thoracic mobility.
- My Shoulders Feel Like Sh*t When I Bench – What should I do?
- Technique – You’re probably flaring your elbows in the bottom of the lift (see above). This puts a ton of stress on the shoulder and rotator cuff (dynamic stabilizers with the scapula) complex. Work on keeping the “tucked elbows”, about 45 degrees out from your torso, position throughout the full range of motion of the movement – do NOT let your elbows flare outward, i.e., your elbows end up in line with your ears.
- Strength – work on the strength of your triceps with board presses, move back to push-ups and perform them for high volumes. Also, don’t forget a good warm-up and recovery component in your workout which should include rotator cuff rehab exercises, rows, external rotations and retraction exercises.
QUESTION: CAN’T GET ANY LEG DRIVE
I think I might have a issue with leg drive when I bench. I recently did some floor pressing with my legs strait and flat on the ground and found that I was stronger than on a conventional bench press!
Whats strange is I decided to do the floor presses because I’m weak at the very point where the bar lowers to on a floor press (about 3-4 inchs off my chest). I can floor press 295×3 or bench 295×1.
What can I do to improve my leg drive?
It might be just a technique issue. You’ve identified the problem and can actively work on driving your legs down when the drive phase starts.
It could be a hip mobility issue. You might have tight hip flexors which prevent you from keeping lower body tension when you’re on the bench. Work on your hip mobility even on upper body training days.
It could be an activation issue. Your potentially tight hip flexors could be inhibiting glute strength, and tension throughout the lower kinetic chain. In addition to more hip mobility, do some low prowler crawls, x-band walks and hip thrusts.
It could be a weakness off your chest. The floor press is showing you that you have strong triceps but your weak if you are forced into a full range. Work on some pin presses at the end range. Also, slow negative and isometrics will pay off big time for reversal strength. Dynamic bench will also help improve your speed and activate more motor units.
Scientific Studies About the Bench Press
A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. Santana JC, Vera-Garcia FJ, McGill SM.
Source: Institute of Human Performance, Boca Raton, Florida 33432, USA.
This study compared the standing cable press (SCP) and the traditional bench press (BP) to better understand the biomechanical limitations of pushing from a standing position together with the activation amplitudes of trunk and shoulder muscles. A static biomechanical model (4D Watbak) was used to assess the forces that can be pushed with 2 arms in a standing position. Then, 14 recreationally trained men performed 1 repetition maximum (1RM) BP and 1RM single-arm SP exercises while superficial electromyography (EMG) of various shoulder and torso muscles was measured. The 1RM BP performance resulted in an average load (74.2 +/- 17.6 kg) significantly higher than 1RM single-arm SP (26.0 +/- 4.4 kg). In addition, the model predicted that pushing forces from a standing position under ideal mechanical conditions are limited to 40.8% of the subject’s body weight. For the 1RM BP, anterior deltoid and pectoralis major were more activated than most of the trunk muscles. In contrast, for the 1RM single-arm SP, the left internal oblique and left latissimus dorsi activities were similar to those of the anterior deltoid and pectoralis major. The EMG amplitudes of pectoralis major and the erector muscles were larger for 1RM BP. Conversely, the activation levels of left abdominal muscles and left latissimus dorsi were higher for 1RM right-arm SP. The BP emphasizes the activation of the shoulder and chest muscles and challenges the capability to develop great shoulder torques. The SCP performance also relies on the strength of shoulder and chest musculature; however, it is whole-body stability and equilibrium together with joint stability that present the major limitation in force generation. Our EMG findings show that SCP performance is limited by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of torso muscles, not maximal muscle activation of the chest and shoulder muscles. This has implications for the utility of these exercise approaches to achieve different training goals.
Quick Tips for the Bench Press
1. Look Out for Pain
If there is pain with this movement, regress back to neutral grip dumbbell bench pressing. This means that you take a set of dumbbells and do bench press with your hands facing each other. Sometimes this is referred to as a “hammer” grip or a neutral grip. If there still is pain my suggestion to you is to regress further to more of a basic, fundamental movement, such as a push-up.
2. Start Doing Push-ups
Push-ups are an incredible tool that most lifters don’t do because they want to build a big bench and a big chest. So they spend hours in the gym on the bench press, with poor form wrecking their shoulders. Many forget push-ups have have benefits that carry over not only to your bench, but to your overall health and wellness.
Push-ups not only stabilize the core and lower back, but also improves your upper back posture by allowing the supportive musculature of the scapulae to get stronger while they allowed to move freely.
Push-ups can also be done with an extended range of motion (ROM). By increasing the ROM you engage more musculature and therefore, build more strength.
Beyond the Range Push-ups
3. Warm Up Thoroughly
Make sure you before you lay down on the bench, you warm-up not only your anterior (chest, shoulders and abdominals), but play special attention to your upper posterior musculature responsible for not only engaging movement, but also stabilizing it, ie. rotator cuff, triceps, serratus anterior, rhomboids, traps, lats.
Check out AMPED Warm-up, the best selling and most comprehensive warm-up system ever created!
Benefits of a Thorough Warm-up:
- CNS excitement
- muscle activation
- prepares joints, muscles and connective soft-tissues for activity
- negating poor posture and excessive short range of motion (ROM) movements of the day
- mental preparation
- improved performance
- reduce injury potential
Here are some exercises to help with your warm-up for an upper body training session. Face pulls, pull-ups, tricep press downs, t-bar retractions and hand walking on foam are a great way to warm-up the upper back.
Face pulls activate and target the shoulder retractors (rhomboids and trapezius) because each face pull should be preceded by a scapular retraction. The two two pictures depict a typical face pull. The bottom two pictures demonstrate the second type of face pull. It engages an external rotation at the end of the movement, targeting the teres minor, infraspinatus and posterior delts.
Hand Walking on Foam
Band Setup Tutorial for Posture Correction
Fix Your Posture
Upper Back Mobility
4. Casting Your Wrists (article by Jim Wendler, Elitefts.com)
This is a pretty simple and easy article. When I started using a bench shirt, I miraculously gained 150 lbs on my bench. No practice, no technique work, nothing. That is the magic of these cheater shirts—you automatically “get it.” Anyway, with this increase in bar weight, my wrists were taking a beating and I needed some help. This is where I was bestowed with this knowledge, which I am now giving to you. This may be something you’ve already read before, but this little tip helped me maintain proper position in the bench press, take stress away from my wrists, and stay healthy.
For the demonstration, I will be using the Metal All-Black Wraps, which have a thumb loop. Like J.D. Salinger, these have been in hiding for a long time. The typical way to wrap your wrist. Notice that only the wrist is covered. This is typically how I would wrap my wrist when squatting, not bench pressing.
Casting your Wrist
In the second picture, notice the big difference is that the heel of my palm is covered by the wrap. By doing this, I am essentially bracing my wrist with my hand. This gives enormous support and keeps my wrists healthy. You will have to play around with how much of your heel you are going to cover.
5. Neutral Hand / Wrist Position
Ensure that when you are benching, you have a tight grip on the bar. Remember, the tighter you grip the bar, the more tension you will create and the greater control you will have on the bar. One coaching cue would be to tell the lifter to have “white knuckles”.
How to Hold the Bar:
- Make sure to ALWAYS keep your thumb on the bar. Taking your thumb off the bar is called a suicide grip and you should NEVER DO IT.
- You must keep your wrists straight. If your wrist extends back, you will be more likely to flex or fold your arms toward your head as you lower the weight.
- The proper way to hold your wrists is to KEEP THEM STRAIGHT. This can be aided by “casting your wrists” with wrist wraps – SEE ABOVE.
6. Pull the Bar Apart
The lifter will place an elastic band around their wrists that is tight when they move their hands into their bench position.
The tension on the band has two benefits:
1. Causes the lifter to squeeze the bar harder creating more tension.
MORE TENSION = MORE STRENGTH
2. Forces the lifter to “pull the bar apart”. This not only engages the lats, but increases the tension more.
THE BENCH PRESS IS A FULL BODY LIFT
Engaging the lats improves form and protects the shoulders.
7. Build Up Your Triceps and Target Weaknesses
Board presses are a great way to target pressing strength and tricep weaknesses along the entire bench press bar path. By benching to various height wooden blocks, lifters disengage the stretch reflex and force more starting strength, of all of the muscle responsible for pressing power, from a dead stop. Board presses are also great when lifters need to target specific areas in their bench press where they stall out, and keep some lifters in a pain free range of motion. Some guys are weak off the chest so they’ll use slow negative and one board presses to target this range of motion. Some lifters stall halfway up, so a two to three board press might be more appropriate. If you want to build the top range of the lockout, four board presses are used.
One key note to understand when utilizing boards is that there will be a tendency to collapse the chest (thoracic extension) when the bar meets the board. Ensure you keep appropriate tension and the chest high (don’t compress) during the reversal pressing movement.
One Board Press
Two Board Press
Three Board Press
Four Board Press
Foam Roller Press
Bench pressing onto a foam roller is an amazing and pretty innovative setup. Different density foam rollers can be used to offer varying levels of absorption and rebound at the bottom of the lift. This setup is crucial for anyone experiencing shoulder issues because it prevents them from going into a pain range of motion AND provides them with a little assistance in the hole. Half (1/2) foam rollers can also be used (similar to a one board press) to increase the range of motion of the press.
8. Accommodating Resistance
Accommodating resistance, or resistance that matches the lifter’s natural strength curve, is an advanced method of training that powerlifters use to build insane strength and power. This technique, which typically incorporates elastic bands or chains, adds more weight to the lift at lockout (when leverage is better and the lifter is at a better advantage) and less weight near the chest (when leverage is bad and the lifter is weakest). This is an advanced training method that should not be used by beginners. Beginners should focus on the basics and incorporate more volume. Elastic bands vary in length, width and strength and chains are typically 5/8″ linkage x 4′ (approx. 20lbs each).
Accommodating Resistance – Band Setup
Accommodating Resistance – Chain Setup
9. Awesome Bigger Bench Tips
Build Tricep Strength – Louie Simmons
Build a Big Bench – Jesse Burdick
10. Don’t Press Out of Your Arch
In this article, we are going to focus on one of the most common errors I see people make on the bench press.
A good setup on the bench requires a great amount of tension throughout the entire body. This is coupled with thoracic (upper back) extension and power breathing. The upper back extension sets the lifter up onto their traps and locks their hips into the floor, providing their have the appropriate hip mobility.
The problem arises when the weight nears a lifter’s rep max and the effort required to lock the weight, pushes them out of a good arch – specifically, they lose the retraction and depression of their shoulder blades and they protract the shoulders to lockout the weight. This is a big issue especially for the next repetition in the set. The good stable platform they created with the tensioning in the lats and upper back, along with the retraction of the shoulders, has been lost. And all subsequent repetitions will be placing a great amount of strain on the anterior aspect of the shoulders.
Pressing Out of the Arch
Proper Pressing Technique
If you have the appropriate upper back strength and mobility to get a good setup on the bench, you should be able to keep it throughout the duration of the entire set. But as we know, fatigue changes everything. Stay away from the “grinder” reps and stick with a weight you can control and still maintain good form.
And remember, putting everything you have into a rep, doesn’t mean you have to lose form. Keep practicing and keep that arch!
11. More Speed and More Tension
2 Tips to Increase Your Bench Press
In the article today I am going to talk about two different techniques for increasing your bench press.
First Technique – More Speed
The first technique involves modifying the tempo. When you modify the tempo (as I showed in this previous arm workout) you call upon your muscles to contract differently. If you increase the speed of the movement, you are creating a different recruitment pattern for your motor units and, in turn, your muscle fibers. You are recruiting them at a much more rapid pace and this improves your neurological efficiency.
Typically dynamic efforts, where speed (50-75% of 1RM) is the focus, fall further to the right of the F(v) curve then heavier, maximal efforts (90%+ of 1RM).
If you spend too much time on the left side of the F(v) curve, you’ll lose the ability for high threshold motor unit recruitment and you will plateau. You need a different stimulus and dynamic efforts are the ticket.
And remember, the key is speed of the bar. If the bar slows or the reps are not explosive, you’ll need to lower the weight. For advanced lifters who are using straight weight (Olympic bar + weight on the bar) and bands or chains, this means something has to be taken off the bar.
People ask me all of the time if the 50-75% of 1RM includes the straight weight and bands (or chains) and I tell them – yes it does. But don’t get too caught up in band tension and weight percentages. You need to move the bar fast and with great intent.
First Technique – More Speed
The second technique involves creating more tension. The more tension we can create for a specific movement, the more stability we will have throughout the range of motion. Will will also have a more coordinated effort between the global musculature, i.e., more co-contraction and intermuscular coordination. Co-contraction basically means the sum is greater than the individual parts. In our example, it refers to more forcibly engaging the back, traps, shoulders, triceps and chest to better impart speed, strength and power into the system, where the system equals the total mass of the barbell and weight on the bar.
I often throw the cue out of “white knuckles” and “row the bar to your chest.” Both of these cues are just to get the athlete actively involved in owning the weight and creating great tension. Do not take a weak grip on the bar, but rather squeeze it like you’re going to melt the metal. Do not “relax” to get the weight down to your chest, row it with great tension to your chest and then reverse the path.
12. Advanced: Pre-Exhaustion and High Tension
Advanced Bench Press Training
Pre-Exhaustion and High-Tension Training
In a recent workout I started experimenting with combining different protocols. I was tired of the same old workout and I was in a rut. After a few sets, I came up with something that felt like I was ripping the muscle off the bone.
I used two unique protocols together in the same set; pre-exhaustion and high-tension training.
Pre-exhaustion training is a protocol where you fatigue the primary muscle groups by performing an isolation or compound exercise prior to the main lift. For example, if you are performing a set of dumbbell military press, you could perform a set of banded tricep extensions prior to the set.
For pre-exhaustion training you should hit a moderate to high rep range, somewhere in the 12-15 rep area. The pace should also be moderate with a controlled eccentric/concentric flow.
I combined this protocol with a high-tension training protocol. High-tension training is just a method where you focus on the contraction and time under tension (TUT) of the movement. The pace slows down and you focus on contracting hard throughout the range of motion for each rep. If you’ve ever tried to slow the tempo down for ANY movement, you’ll know that the lowering (eccentric) isn’t the bad part, it is the raising (concentric) phase. When you start slowing down the drive, that is when you want to get some warm milk and have Mommy tuck you in.
For this phase of the set, I used a rarely known exercise – the crush dumbbell bench. It is perfect for what we’re doing. You perform the exercise by taking the same dumbbells and pressing the ends against each other. This causing a serious irradiation effect across the pecs, shoulders, triceps and your upper back. Combine that with the slower tempo and you have the recipe for muscle building and serious mental toughness. The slower tempo is also amazing for building stability into the shoulders and improving your reversal strength potential (see POWER!).
If you listen to the video closely, I think you can hear me whimper and cry a little bit. I actually had to take a rest between the 3rd and 4th reps so that I could wipe the blood from my eyes.
Here is how it looked:
Attempt this protocol at your own risk. It is not for everyone, just those looking to get results, take their training to the next level and be a man.
Supplemental Exercises to Build a Big Bench
1. Floor Press
A floor press is essentially a bench press on the floor, with a limited range of motion. The lifter will lower the bar until their elbows touch the ground and they drive the weight back up to lockout. This is the upper range of motion of a bench and targets tricep and lockout strength.
The floor press can be overloaded just with bar weight, chains or elastic bands.
Dips target the chest, shoulders and triceps. Dips can be overloaded with a medicine ball between your feet, an elastic band over your shoulders and held in your hands, a weight vest or chains put on in an “X” fashion.
3. Banded Tricep Work
4. Diesel Rows
5. Band Resisted Ring Push-ups
Well, I’m here to give you a different perspective.
The bench press is a great exercise if you know the proper form, you have good posture and are working with minimal dysfunction. But, if you have a slouched upper body (kyphotic) posture, shoulder issues or poor technique, you could be adding to the problem and your potential for injury.
Better choices could be push-ups, neutral grip dumbbell military press, dumbbell floor press or various dynamic stabilization movements challenging the humerus in different positions (example: bamboo bar).
Push-ups can be modified in an infinite number of ways and you are only really limited by your imagination. Truth be told, if trainers would implement more push-ups instead of the bench press, their athletes improve their pressing technique and function.
One variation that we like to do, was highlighted in our last EXTREME DVD - band resisted ring push-ups with the feet elevated.
Progression is the key to development and nothing says progression for push-ups like this exercise. It has everything. The feet elevation and the usage of rings means the core stabilization factor is increased and the band resistance adds the final overload to the movement. Focus on keeping neutral with the torso (which will be a big challenge once fatigue sets in), keep the upper back tight and drive fully through to lockout.
6. Dumbbell Floor Press on Bench
Floor presses are a great way to limit the range of motion of a bench pressing movement when there are shoulder issues or you are trying to target and build the triceps. In my experience however, many athletes have trouble reversing the movement without banging their elbows on the ground. Also, when low back pain is present, creating stability on the floor can sometimes stress the back more during the drive phase.
Foam pressing is one alternative to floor pressing and it provides many of the same benefits. Another variation that we like to use is the floor press while on the bench press. I know this sound kind of strange and hard to picture, but stick with me. By setting up two flat benches next to the main bench, you can create a floor press situation. This not only allows you to focus on the triceps and limits the range of motion, it also allows the lifter to setup better in a more optimal position, i.e., as if they are performing a standard bench press. This is much easier to perform and has less potential for elbows issues during the reverse of the press.
As a side note, if you are using this setup because your athlete has back issues, you can further lessen back strain by raising their feet up onto 45 lb plates.
Learn to Bench Correctly
Follow the video below to learn how to bench correctly, but don’t forget to always include basic movements such as a push-up.
Sample Upper Body Training Workouts
Awesome FULL Shoulder Workout
Sample Workout 2
Foam Hand Walking
Rotator Y, T, W, L
Lat Pull Downs
Seated DB Cleans
1) ME Bench, 6×3
2a) DB Clean & Press, 4×8
2b) Pull-ups, 4×10
3a) Push-ups on blocks (+chains), 4xAMAP*
3b) Face Pulls, 4×15
*AMAP – As Many As Possible
Sample Workout 3
Upper – [DoggCrapp]
Barbell Curl to Press
Barbell Good Mornings
Barbell Bent Over Row
Done as big superset x 2
Light Worksets of Actual Exercises
Elite Fat EZ Curl Bar Bench Press
DC1) Incline DB Bench 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
DC2) Elite Fat EZ Curl Bar Curls 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
DC3) Seated Rows 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
DC4) Barbell Shrugs 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
DC5) Jumpstretch Tricep Extensions 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
DC6) Bodyweight Dips 3sets x 30sec rest x AMAP
Sample Workout 3
Hurdler Stretch for Hip Flexors
Chest Wall Stretches
Band External Rotations
Light Worksets of Actual Exercises
Barbell Bench Press
2a) Elite Swiss Bar Incline Bench
2b) T-Bar Rows
3a) Seated Arnold DB Presses
3b) Posterior DB Flyes
4a) DB Curls
4d) X-band Walks
15 Seconds Sprints
45 seconds off