A lot of people ask our personal trainers how to improve their benchpress. So here’s a short short version of what we teach in our classes –
1. Bench. Bench. Bench.
The only way you are going to get better at doing something is by keeping at it. Don’t be afraid of variations. Incline bench, decline bench, paused bench, bench with bands, chains etc. The more you bench, the better you get at it.
2. Train your shoulders
At the PIT, we use the standing front press as the main shoulder exercise in our programs. DON’T use your legs! This is not a dangerous exercise. You can’t lock anything out that you can’t get off your chest. That’s just a fact. Plain and simple. If you like, you can also use dumbells, kettlebells etc.
3. Be patient
Of the three big lifts ( deadlifts, squats and benchpress), your bench press numbers will go up the slowest. Initially, you will see your numbers fly, as much as 15kg in 6 weeks. But after that, the numbers go up as little as 3-5kg. Why? Compared to the other lifts, the bench press uses a much smaller muscle group. Patience will serve you well. There are no shortcuts.
4. Train the upper back
I always say this to my strength class, the “core” of upper body strength is in your upper back. Without strength in the upper back, it is literally impossible to stabilize weights with your upper body. Think of it this way, your arms are connected to your shoulders, which are connected to your shoulder blades. If your shoulder blades give out you get no lift. Whether you are benching, doing a front press, doing a jerk or trying to master your handstand.
We generally like to do Pendlay rows at the PIT. Full range of movement and no half reps. For static strength, we like handstands against a wall with shoulder blades retracted for that all important lockout strength.
And of course, chin-ups. If you can’t do chin-ups. It’s probably due to one of these three reasons:
i) You are overweight
ii) You are injured
iii) You are not strong enough
Having 1 or all of these issues suck anyway. So the best thing you can do for yourself is to take action and do something about it.
5. Train your triceps
Many people avoid doing their triceps because all the experts say that isolating a small muscle group is bad for you. True to an extent. If all you do is isolation exercises, then you are going to contribute to a muscle imbalance. Make sure you work all muscle groups in your program. Yes, you can do bicep curls for your biceps. In fact that will help balance out the muscles around your elbow joint which are crucial to that all important lockout. We like to use rope pull-downs and weighted dips at the PIT. But feel free to add any other exercises to your arsenal.
6. Arch that back and fire up that ass
In Powerlifting meets, you see a very pronounced arch in the lower back when competitors do a bench press. It’s not just to shorten the distance travelled by the bar. Arching the lower back helps keep your body stable during the movement. Arching the lower back also ensures the upper back is fired up during the movement. This is important especially when the bar hits your chest. At the bottom of the bench press, if your shoulder blades aren’t retracted, your chest and shoulders are not going to fire up properly. Try retracting your shoulder blades as far as you can now, you will see that your lower back will follow suit. Remember, without the arch, you wont be able to keep your upper back retracted during the benchpress.
Make sure your glutes are fired up as well. Firing up the glutes doesn’t drive up the weight like what many people think. What it does is that it ensures that the back keeps that arch during the movement. You can do this by spreading your feet out wide, then pulling them back as far as possible (knees past toes) while keeping your feet flat on the ground.
Once you get your arch, keep the back of your shoulders pressed against the bench. DON’T let your shoulders “pop” off the bench. This will make you lose your arch and your subsequent reps will no longer be efficient.
7. Don’t complicate the movement.
In all the lifts, squats, deadlifts and bench presses, the bar moves in a straight line. You do not need to press from sternum to eye level. Just straight up and lock those elbows out. A slight deviation from a straight line is normal. As long as the bar isn’t going towards your face or feet, you’re doing it right.
Keep your feet on the ground. Don’t cross your legs up on the bench or do windscreen wipers with each rep. If you want to do your abs, do it separately. NOT while you bench.
8. Eat right.
But that doesn’t mean eat excessively! Your food is your fuel. Put some V-power petrol in your tank and you’ll be pressing like a freagin’ Ferrari. Put some 95 and you’ll only be a Kia Type ‘R’ Soul. Remember, being “bigger” doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger bench. Being stronger will give you a bigger bench.
9. Know your cues
In every lift, there is a process. No matter what weight you lift, the process never changes. Only the effort used changes. This means that you can be lifting 60kg or 100kg. the process SHOULD not change. Here’s the cues we use during our strength class at the pit.
1. Retract shoulder blades
2. Arch back
3. Fire up butt and pull feet back so that knees pass toes
(Of course you do this while lying on the bench)
1. Unrack bar ( Grip should be just outside shoulder width) and bring above chest
2. Lower bar till it touches below nipple line (elbows should be directly under fists throughout movement)
3. Press bar off chest and lock those elbows out
Eat right. Train hard and keep your movement nice and tight. You’ll be pressing triple digits in no time. Best of luck!