Fitness Friday: How to do the bench press

Right or wrong, the bench press has become one of the main measures of upper body strength. But the fact is, it is also a solid way to build upper body strength and pack on some muscle. Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer photo/via Wikipedia Commons

In the hierarchy of lifts, it’s difficult to say where the bench press sits.

On one hand, it’s one of several methods used to test college athletes invited to the NFL combine each spring. Football players are measured for performance, and one of the tests is to see of many times they can bench press 225 pounds.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what “real world” application the bench press has. A lot of strength coaches will look at lifts like the squat, deadlift, overhead press and clean as better “real world” indicators of strength and performance than the bench, mostly because there is no activity you do that resembles the bench press exercise.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was sort of a gym bro joke that people would be judged with this simple question: “How much ya bench?” And it would often be asked by dudes could rattle some plates on the bench press, but looked like they skipped leg day on the reg.

So why is it still a thing? I’d say the answer is two-fold. First, it’s easy to learn and do, and much less “work” than heavy deadlifts or squats. That’s just the nature of upper body exercises. Second, the bench press works a good number of muscles, including the chest, shoulders and triceps. You get a lot of bang for the buck from the bench.

So, it’s not a great measurement of overall strength. But it is a tool that you can use to strengthen your upper body. So, let’s look at how this thing works.

THE BENCH PRESS SETUP

Unlike other barbell exercises, the rack (in this case, the bench itself) plays a big role. It acts as your backside’s “floor,” but also gives you the support and range of motion needed to fully execute the move.

Lay down on the bench, lining up to where your eyes are just about level with the bar. This will allow you to execute the lift without the bar hitting the uprights and any safety prongs that are attached to the upright posts of the bench.

Grab the bar with a tight grip, with your hands more than shoulder-width apart. Your arms should line up in a way in which your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Where your hands are on the bar will depends greatly on how long your arms are, so adjust accordingly.

Your feet should be firmly on the floor. You want your quads to feel slightly tight in this position. My cue is this: I put my toes on the floor until I can feel that tightness in my quads. Then I force my heels down. This will make my lower back arch somewhat and will also arch my chest a little. But my butt remains firmly planted on the bench, and that’s where it should stay for the entirety of the lift.

Now that your feet are set and you’ve gripped the bar, pinch your shoulder blades inward slightly. Once you’ve done this, unrack the bar and have it lined up with the bottom half of your pecs. You’re ready to begin the lift.

EXECUTING THE LIFT

Lower the weight under control to where it touches your chest. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest; just lightly touch it. Once the bar has made contact with your chest, press the bar straight back up. You don’t want to lift in an arc toward your eyes, because if something goes wrong and you can’t get the bar racked safety, it could come crashing down on your head. No bueno.

Something to watch: Your arms should be positioned in a way that they are somewhat edging toward a 45-degree angle toward your waist, meaning that the point of your elbows should be about the same level as where the bar touches your chest. Don’t let your elbows flare out to where they are even with your shoulders. You lose a lot of power that way and put tremendous strain on your shoulder sockets.

When you are doing the last rep of your set, go straight up with the bar (just like every other rep), maintain a locked-out position, and then rerack the bar. Remember, you don’t want to do that last rep with the bar heading toward the rack. That’s how accidents happen.

A CAUTION

It goes without saying that every big compound lift comes with the risk of injury. Most bench press injuries happen in the shoulder sockets, and sometime occur with pec tears.

But in terms of real risk to your life, the bench press is unique. Of all the lifts, this is the one where people have suffered the most fatal injuries. This most often happens when a fatigued lifter, or someone who tries too much weight, cannot successfully complete the lift and has the bar come down on their neck or skull. If no one is there to help the stranded lifter, that person could have a couple hundred pounds or more crushing vital areas of their neck or head. So, if you’re going to challenge yourself with heavier weight or a bunch of reps, ask for a spotter. If you’re lifting alone and there’s no one there to help you, understand that you might need to dump the bar off to the side and wriggle out from underneath it, but just make sure it doesn’t come back toward your head and neck. Better yet, if you’re lifting alone, weigh the risks of what you’re trying to do and be conservative. No rep is worth your life.

DON’T CHEAT

I mentioned some of this earlier, but I want to reiterate those things again when it comes to proper form on the bench. More than any other compound lift, this is the easiest one in which to cheat. Keep in mind that the more you cheat, the less you get out of the exercise.

So, when you’re lifting, don’t bounce the bar off your chest. That extra rebound will allow you to “lift” more, but it will also rob you of potential performance gains. A light touch of the bar on your chest will do. And if you choose to compete, you’ll be required to let the bar come to a complete stop on your chest before you push it back up. Otherwise, three red lights and a no-go.

Also, keep that butt on the bench. If it come off the bench, you’re cheating.

With that in mind, please be aware that if we see you bouncing 350 pounds off your chest with your butt in the air, we’re not impressed. We’re inwardly laughing at you. It ain’t a PR if your chest is used as a trampoline for the bar.

There are other form quirks that aren’t necessarily “cheating,” but I’d steer clear from. One is the thumbless grip. Wrap that thumb around the bar. This is a safety thing. They don’t call the thumbless thing a “suicide grip” for nothing. And, you may have seen people lay on the bench with their feet on the bench pad by their butt, or even in the air with their shins crossed. I get that this is a way to keep your butt firmly planted, but this move will limit how tight you can get when executing the lift, and thus limit how much you can press. Keep those feet planted.

Here’s another great video on how to bench press properly. Watch and learn!

Next week: Let’s talk about the quirky world of Swiss balls, Bosu balls and wobble boards. Does unstable surface training actually work?

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Basic strength, work capacity, and a blueprint for continued strength gains in the squat, deadlift and bench press

Getting stronger in the big lifts has huge benefits. And it can improve over time if you do it the right way.

I’ve done some research over the years to find things that work in terms of strength training. Two methods come to mind: the 5-by-5 rep scheme, and the importance of volume training. The former is something promoted by the well-regarded author of the book “Starting Strength,” Mark Rippetoe, and the latter is something I picked up from listening to Westside Barbell founder Louie Simmons.

Let’s look at that 5-by-5 first. What it has you do: Using the “big lifts” – bench press, squat and deadlift — you’re going to start by selecting a weight you can comfortably do for five reps. Do the set, then add some weight for the next set, and do five more. You keep doing this until you’ve completed five sets of five, and that last set should be a struggle – one where you’re probably not going to get all five reps. Once you get to the point where you can complete all 25 reps, it’s time to move up the weight in all the work sets. Repeat this cycle for 12 weeks, and you’ll pack on some strength on those lifts.

Now for a curveball: When you’re working with rep ranges like five or less, your body will tend to grind down. You’ll keep progressing, but it will slow and eventually stall. That’s my experience, anyway.

Enter Louie Simmons.

If you don’t know who Simmons is, here’s the short of it: He founded the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, and using what he learned from American and Eastern Bloc strength coaches, he came up with a system that helped his gym produce more world-record powerlifters than just about anybody. Simmons knows his stuff.

One of the things he said he discovered is that when his athletes would get to the end of a training cycle, they’d grind down and, to paraphrase his words, walk into a meet with a lack of conditioning.

What he meant by that is they’d be stronger at the end of the cycle, but not as strong as they should or could be. As their lifts got heavier, their total reps per workout got fewer. Sometimes, they’d miss their lifts at the meet – a fate no competitor wants. So, he split his lifters’ workouts: One day would be heavier weight/lower reps, and the following workout with the same lift would include lower weight, but a lot more reps.

And that’s how the legend of Westside Barbell was born.

So how would that look for you? Let’s set up some squat workouts combining these two methods. Say your leg day workouts are Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure you’ll have other leg exercises besides squats, but I’ll let you figure out what those are (I provided some examples in last week’s post). You’ll be doing them after you squat anyway. All weights I’ve listed below are used only as an example. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you/challenges you and go from there, but remember, that last set of five should be at a level where you won’t get all five, and when you do, it’s time to move up in weight on all of your work sets.

Monday squats (5-by-5)

Warm up:  Empty bar, 10 reps; 135, eight reps.

Work sets (5 reps each) 185, 205, 225, 245, 265

Then do the rest of your accessory leg work.

Your Thursday routine will look at lot different. Lighter weights, more reps. It’s volume all the way, baby. How I’ve been doing this for leg day is a deal I call “death by squats.” In this routine, you’re going to pick a weight that is light for you. You’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps, and you’re going to rest precisely one minute between each set. Use a timer to keep yourself honest. Again, the work set weight is just an example. You’ll need to figure out what’s “light” but doable for you.

Thursday squats (Death by Squats)

Warm up: 10 reps, empty bar.

Work sets: 10×10, 135 pounds, 1-minute rest between sets.

Now catch your breath, get a drink of water, go find your spleen, and continue with your leg day accessory lifts.

Why does this combo work? For starters, you’re getting good volume on both days. You’re getting 25 reps of work set weight on Mondays, and a whopping 100 reps on your high-volume day. That’s a lot of squats! But importantly, you’re getting a good combination of reps with heavier weights AND a bunch of volume with the lighter weights. The variation will boost strength AND work capacity (a term Crossfitters know, and a trait all of us should emulate, even if you have an aversion to Crossfit).

You can do similar plans on your bench day (I call it a “press” day) and on your deadlift day (my “pull” day). I’m not sure I’d do “death by bench” or “death by deadlifts,” but you can find a way to use lighter weights with high rep ranges to give you a similar effect. On my volume bench day, I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets, and then do four sets of 15, adding 10 pounds to the bar with each set. On my deadlift day, my volume workout has been doing 3-4 sets of Romanian deadlifts at 12 reps a pop. And if Death by Squats sounds a little too extreme, feel free to use a different combination of sets with lighter weights and higher reps. In the squat, I’d advise something like four sets of 15-20 reps with lighter weights on your high volume day. In any  case, I’m using much lighter weights than what I use in my work sets during my 5-by-5 days.

Bottom line: Get some good volume with heavier, challenging weights. And then in your next workout, dial back the weight and jack up your volume.  And let the gains begin.

Next week: We’ll get into the weeds of running, and a form of speed training that will blast you into shape.

Bob Doucette

Strength training royalty: A foundational list

I’ve been rather enjoying my running offseason. The runs are for fun and there’s less punishment going on. It’s also been interesting to see my muscles “fill up” again after months of training and races. All this, and still maintaining my weight in the mid-170s.

It got me to thinking about weight training, what’s important and those must-do things for people to have success. I’ve long said there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method to fitness. Training should  be goal- and sport-specific. But when it comes to the weight room, I believe that there are foundational exercises that need to be part of what you do. I call them the four kings of strength training. Here’s how I see it:

chest

Chest press: Whether this is a barbell bench press, an incline dumbbell press or another variant of these two (notice: I didn’t mention decline bench), this needs to be a part of what you do. It hits big and multiple muscle groups: the pecs, shoulders and triceps. You can build off all other “press” moves with this as your capstone.

050418-M-1758Y-033

Pull-up: Any bodybuilder worth their salt will tell you this is a must. So might your best climbers. You develop a broad, strong back doing bodyweight (and for the advanced, weighted) pull-ups. Like the chest press, this hammers big muscle groups: The lats, delts, biceps and even the traps. Variants include palms out, neutral grip and chin-ups (palms in), and they’re all great. Can’t do an unassisted pull-up? Try using bands for assisted reps, or do flexed-arm hangs, ending with a slow negative down. And you might also try reverse rows to help build you up to where you can do pull-ups on your own. And whatever you do, NO KIPPING.

squats

Squat: On this list of strength training royalty, the squat is the king among kings. It is, quite simply, the best strength training exercise there is. Your entire body gets a benefit, but the prime targets include the quads, glutes and hamstrings. These muscles are the engines of athleticism: Ignore them at your peril. Bodyweight squats, dumbbell squats and barbell squats (there are many variations, all good) are something that need to be in your training toolbox when it comes to lower body workouts.

deadlift

Deadlift: Probably the most basic of lifts, you’re just picking up a weight off the floor. And yet it is so crucial and beneficial. The standard barbell deadlift (grips on this vary widely) will work your quads, hams and glutes, but also are a major driver in back development. Variations of the deadlift, like the Romanian deadlift, tend to target the hams and glutes more. And they do it so well.

Cycling off of distance training has allowed me to appreciate lifting more, and I’ll take full advantage of it during the weeks to come. I believe that weight training is a key component to becoming a better athlete — even a better endurance athlete. And more to the point, I believe strongly that these four kings of the gym are the bedrock on which successful strength training is built.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088