HOW MUCH CAN YOU BENCH?
The question is asked of anyone even slightly buffer than Justin Bieber. Of course, it doesn’t ultimately matter in bodybuilding, which is all about muscle and not at all about metal. Still, even Flex Lewis spends a lot more time in gyms than on stages. And because the bench press has been ordained the best arbiter of upper-body strength, most of us want to truthfully answer that clichéd query with a big number. Help has arrived. Here’s how to boost your bench.
1. GET HELP
Whenever you plan to push a set of bench presses to near failure, have a capable spotter hovering just behind you for safety, but also for the peace of mind that will allow you to go for that crucial extra rep that you never locked out before. A spotter can also help you unrack and rerack the bar.
2. TAKE A STANCE
Lie down on a flat bench. Place your feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart and either directly under your knees or slightly behind your knees. You want to form a strong base, and to do this you need your feet in the best position to stabilize your body. If your feet are in front of your knees, your base will be weaker. If they’re too far back, your heels will come off the floor, again weakening your base. And— this must be shouted—if your feet are on the bench or up in the air with legs folded, your legs will be useless. We all see people do this. Perhaps you’re guilty of it. Some bodybuilders want to “take their legs out of the lift,” feeling this will help them better focus on their chests. Forget it. All this does is weaken your bench press. It’s like squatting on a wobble board. Doing so will increase your balance but decrease your strength. To grow stronger (and bigger), you want to maximize your bench press, so keep your feet flat on the floor.
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3. GET A GRIP
The width of your grip will depend on the width of your shoulders. Take a grip with which your forearms are vertical to the floor. A wider grip will put too much pressure on your shoulders, and a narrower grip will work your triceps more than your chest. Ronnie Coleman used a thumbless grip on 500-pound bench presses, but who was going to tell Mr.O he was doing it wrong? For safety, put your thumbs beneath the bar and your other fingers over the bar. You also need to grip the barbell low in your palms. This may feel like a less secure grip, but if you take a mid-palm or high-palm grip, your wrists will bend back, limiting your strength and eventually straining wrist tendons. Squeeze the bar and keep your wrists straight. You can use wrist wraps, but they should only be an adjunct to proper technique.
4. ARCH NATURALLY
Your spine has a natural curve. You want to maintain this or slightly exaggerate it during each set. This puts you in the strongest position and also raises your chest, slightly reducing the range of motion. An extremely exaggerated arch can dramatically reduce the range of motion, but it can also compress your spine. Arch naturally and keep your butt tensed and touching the bench but not pressing against it. Lower-body support will come from your legs, not your glutes.
5. TENSE UP
Before you unrack the weight, squeeze your shoulder blades to tense your upper inner back. Staying tensed throughout the set boosts stability and strength. You’re not just lying on the bench. You’re pressing against it with your upper back. Keep your shoulders down. Many people reflexively raise their shoulders as if to meet the bar, but this lengthens the range of motion. If you keep your shoulders down and upper back flexed, your chest will be maximally elevated, shortening the range of motion.
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Position yourself so you need to move the bar forward no more than a couple of inches, just enough so your reps clear the supports. (Having to reach back to unrack the bar by yourself and then pull it forward drains energy and strength before you’ve even begun your set.) Take the barbell off the supports, ideally with the assistance of a spotter, by slightly straightening your previously slightly bent arms. Throughout the liftoff, keep your shoulders back (don’t bring them up to unrack the weight), chest up, back tensed, spine naturally arched, butt brushing the bench, glutes and legs tensed, and feet firmly on the floor.
7. HOLD YOUR BREATH
Inhale deeply before each rep. Hold that breath as you lower and raise the bar, and exhale just as you’re locking out each rep.
8. LOWER THE BAR
This is the most important part of the lift because it’ll set up how you press the bar. If your form isn’t right when the bar’s coming down, it’s going to be wrong as the bar goes up (or doesn’t go up). The first thing to know is the bar shouldn’t travel straight down because it shouldn’t travel straight up. Take it down at a slight diagonal angle from your shoulders to your lower chest. (This will be more pronounced after your first rep.)
The second thing we need to focus on is elbow flair versus elbow tuck. Traditionally, bodybuilders bench-pressed with their arms at 90-degree angles to their torsos. Necessarily, they also lowered the bar to their mid- to upper chests. Watch videos or look at photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Franco Columbu benching and you’ll see their arms flaired out perpendicular to their sides. Together that duo possessed four of the best pecs of all time.
Conversely, powerlifters usually tuck their elbows in, aiming for 45-degree angles, though some keep their elbows even closer to their sides—especially if they’re wearing a bench shirt that severely limits mobility. The Arnold and Franco way targets the pectorals by stretching them more, but it also puts shoulder joints in jeopardy. The powerlifting way places you in a safer and probably stronger position but works the chest less. Compromise and go with another widely prescribed number: 75. Keep your arms at approximately 75-degree angles to your torso as you lower the bar.
Keep tight from your hands to your upper back to your glutes to your legs. If anything, you want to get even tighter as the bar descends. Lower the bar under control, but not slowly. Imagine you’re doing an upside-down barbell row. You don’t want to waste any strength on the decent, but you also don’t want the bar to fall out of its groove or descend so fast that it bounces against your chest.
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9. BOTTOM OUT
Touch the barbell to your lower pecs. Don’t pause. Powerlifters have to do so by rule. But there’s no good reason for you to make your bench presses harder. Touch and go, but never bounce.
Keep your butt on the bench, and drive your feet down, as if to push them through the floor. Simultaneously, press the bar away from you by driving your upper back into the bench. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Instead of focusing on the weight’s movement, imagine that you’re pushing yourself away from the barbell, as if doing an upside-down pushup. This will help you stay tight and form the strongest base of strength to propel the bar up. Your upper arms are going to stay at the 75-degree angle. Your forearms should be nearly vertical but angled backward very slightly, and your wrists need to stay straight without your hands bending back.
The reason the bar traveled down at a slight diagonal angle is that it’s going to go up at the reverse diagonal angle from your lower chest to your shoulders. Of course, the shortest path is always a straight line, so it’s rational to assume straight up and down would be the most efficient bench-press route. However, another law of physics alters that first law. This one, involving something called the moment arm, says you want to keep the resistance close to the axis of rotation, which in this case is your shoulder joints. You also want to get the bar over all the involved joints and muscles at the difficult lockout portion of the lift. So even though the movement is a little longer, bringing the bar slightly backward as you lift puts you in the strongest biomechanical position to complete a rep.
The barbell should end its up-and-down journey above your shoulders. Lock out your elbows briefly at the top while maintaining the tension in your body and arch in your spine. (If you have trouble with lockouts, do sets focused on just the final half of reps in a power rack or on a Smith machine.) Don’t pause. As with the touch-and-go at the bottom, lock briefly and go on to your next rep. Or if it’s your final rep, rack the weight and rest up for the next set.