In honor of Monday (aka International Chest Day) and my upcoming competition this weekend, this post will examine why the bench-press is so misunderstood, why you should do it and some surprising tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me improve my bench-press.
As I sit here alternating between sips of black coffee and apple cider vinegar/cinnamon/lemon juice/cayenne pepper detox drink, I contemplate my upcoming Powerlifting meet this weekend in Germany. I will only compete in the stand alone Bench-Press as my jacked -up left biceps/shoulder area preclude me from the traditional 3 lift powerlifting competition. I haven’t been able to low-bar squat for a few months now and have only been able to seriously train the deadlift recently. For this competition there is a pretty deep field of competitors for the Bench event in my weight/age category, much more so than in the 3 lift event. I think this might be testament to the popularity of the bench-press and also that a number of my “older gent” competitors might have injuries like me.
Bench-pressing is, in some ways, a victim of its own popularity. Most people think that since it’s so popular amongst “gym bro” meatheads that it’s to be avoided like dodgy sushi in an all you can eat buffet. Never fear; the first thing to know about the bench-press is that performing the exercise will not lower your IQ or give you a man-bun. If you had told me, my friends or my family 10 years ago that I’d one day I’d compete in a bench-press competition you’d have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism if not outright hilarity. I would have thought, above all, that I was absolutely incapable of seriously competing (albeit in a very amateur federation) and, besides, I wasn’t macho and hairy-chested enough. Wrong on both counts, it seems. Even if you never compete, here’s why I think you should do this exercise – and some tips to do it better.
- The bench-press is the single best compound movement for the upper body. If you do it correctly you’ll give your chest, shoulders, arms and, to some extent, your back an excellent work-out. Pair it with overhead presses and you have a very comprehensive upper body training regimen.
- The bench-press is not macho: Really, trust me on this. It’s an exercise like any other and should be treated as such. For dudes – don’t treat it as a test of your manhood…that’s just plain silly. Besides, I’ve found that the vast majority of guys that brag about how much they can bench are, how shall I put it, “mistaken”. A real 1 rep max of a bench-press involves controlled descent of the bar until it lightly touches the chest, a slight pause (i.e. no bounce off the chest), pressing the bar back up and then re-racking. This is harder than sloppy YOLO bounce off the chest, spotter helping you on the ascent style of bench press so you need to completely check your ego. Therefore, train intelligently using weights that you can do with good form. Always respect the weight – if possible do all of your bench-press training in a squat rack or bench that has “safeties” to catch failed lifts. DO NOT intentionally train to failure with the bench-press.
A blog post is too short a format to discuss all the finer points of bench-press and, besides, here is one of the most comprehensive how-to videos I’ve seen on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FWDde2IEPg
Excellent though that video is, I feel I can add some additional hard-won tips/cues:
- For the first half of the bench-press, treat it like a pull-up: Above all, retract your scapulae. This will recruit your lats, give you a strong base and put your arms/shoulders in correct position to push-off, utilizing your triceps, shoulders, lats and, yes, your pecs. Retracting your scapulae is fundamental to all of powerlifting, squats and deadlifts included.
- Tuck your elbows in as much as possible: This cue is also known as “bend the bar”. I like to imagine that I am trapped on the ground with a heavy object on top of me. Flaring my elbows just won’t do the trick.
- A spotter is not a training tool: The very best lifters don’t fail a lot of lifts in training because they train methodically. They train to peak exactly at the time of their competition. They may be doing a lot of heavy triples and doubles but rarely wildly attempt new PRs. For one, failing too many heavy lifts, especially in the bench-press, trains your brain to equate really heavy weight with a “panic” response. So I don’t wildly attempt unrealistic PRs even when I’m benching in squat rack with the safety bars correctly set up. Secondly, an excellent spotter is a very rare thing, capable of judging when to grab the bar, neither too early nor too late. Finally, I’ve seen far too many bad spots, including some that almost resulted in accidents, to think that one should rely on spotters. The only spotters I somewhat trust are the two spotters you get in competitions – and that’s only because there are two of them and, in case they screw up, the competition bench has safeties.
- Assistance exercises that have worked best for me: I use a fairly wide grip for my competition bench. During training, however, I like to vary the widths I use to recruit muscles differently as well as avoid over-use injuries. Floor presses, I feel, help to improve that crucial sticking point i.e. pressing off of your chest from a dead stop. For me the bench-press relies heavily on the triceps so I do a lot of additional triceps training. Finally, pulling exercises such as pull-ups and Pendlay rows help develop the back musculature which is crucial to balance out the shoulders, pecs and triceps development.
Anyway, wish me luck. Hopefully this time next week I’ll be posting with some good news such as I made the podium. Either that, or the silence will be deafening. Just kidding, if things don’t go as planned, I’ll try to honestly analyze why they didn’t. My opening lift will be my previous competition PR. This weight is now my “any day, any time” weight so provided I make that lift and a subsequent heavier lift I should at least have a new competition PR at the very least.