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: A basic workout plan to kickstart your fitness goals

It’s the new year, so let’s stop screwing around with our fitness and have some fun, shall we?

Something I wanted to do at the start of the new year was a series of posts about fitness. January 1 seems to bring about a desire for change in that area of life for a lot of people, so I figured it would be worth spending some time on.

This week, I want to talk weight training. Strength is always useful, and maintaining strength is a major component to living a longer, healthier life. If you follow me on Twitter or have read some of this site’s older posts, you know what a big proponent I am of strength training. That’s what I want to go into here.

Too many people go into the gym with no real plan. Or maybe they’re rehashing something their high school coach did. Or mimicking something they read in a fitness mag. My idea: Forget all that, keep it simple, and put together some workouts that will help you do something useful, like building strength and conditioning.

I’m a big fan of what are often called “splits,” or workouts that focus on a particular area. Now I’m not talking about “arm day” or “shoulder day” or any of that. Instead, I like my splits to follow three basic movement patterns: The squat, the press, and the pull.

So, what the heck are these? Quick explainer…

SQUAT: This you know. From a standing position, break at your hips and knees, descend to at least to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, and stand back up. So, this could be a squat with a bar on your back, or a front squat, a goblet squat, or even bodyweight squats.

PRESS: This is an upper body movement where you are pushing against the resistance of a weight. Think bench press, military press, seated dumbbell presses, and standing barbell or dumbbell presses.

PULL: This is broader. But it’s basically what happens when your body’s musculature is contracting to pull a weight. The pull family can be divided into two parts: the hip hinge and the upper body pull. The hip hinge includes all deadlift variations and things like hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The upper body pull includes pull-ups/chin-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cable rows (standing or seated), face pulls and lat pulls.

You might be asking, “Where are things like curls, flies, and tricep presses?” They’re going to be tacked on as accessories. But the truth is, if you major in the three main movements, you’ll get strong arms, shoulders, and so forth. We’ll get to accessory lifts in a bit. The reason I like movement splits better than body part splits is that if you focus on movement patterns, you’ll be doing compound movement exercises. That means instead of focusing on a couple isolated muscles, you’re working a whole bunch of muscles all at once. More bang for the buck, more calorie burn, and better response in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.

So, when you’re planning a workout, I’d advise programming two squat, two press and two pull workouts a week. So yeah, you’re going to be working out six days a week. Make your lifting sessions last about an hour or less. At the end, take care of your conditioning, like running, bike work, stair climbing, swimming and so forth. If you can keep your conditioning to 20-30 minutes (and make sure those are INTENSE minutes, not just playing around on an exercise machine), you can be done with the whole workout in 90 minutes or less.

About those accessory lifts: Too many people major in the minors and spend way too much time in isolating exercises. You know the types, the dudes who will spend 30 minutes doing curls or whatever. Piece of advice: Fewer curls, more pull-ups. Trust me. But accessory lifts can be a good way to round out a weight training session.

A basic weekly workout might look like this, with some of the exercises listed here added to the foundational lifts (italicized):

MONDAY: Squat (Squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf presses).

TUESDAY: Press (Bench press, overhead press, tricep extensions, dumbbell lateral delt raises, push-ups, dips)

WEDNESDAY: Pull (Deadlift, pull-ups, barbell rows, loaded carries, bicep curls)

THURSDAY: Squat

FRIDAY: Press

SATURDAY: Pull

SUNDAY: Rest.

Play around with this but be sure each day is anchored by a squat, a press, and a deadlift of some form. I’d also say that some form of a pull-up needs to be included, and if you can’t do a pull-up, there are variations and substitutionary exercises that can help you get there (future post topic!). These compound exercises build strength and are bricks in the foundation of any fit person. Tack on the other lifts, plus some quality conditioning, and you’ll be well on your way toward reaching your fitness goals.

In terms of weight used and reps performed, that’s all dependent on where you’re at physically, and what your goals are. Lower reps with heavier weights build strength. Lighter weights with higher reps tend to build size. But those are generalities; sometimes strength athletes will use both methods to reach their performance goals. We’ll get to that in due time.

Next week: We’ll examine some more detailed ways to make the most of the exercises that are at the heart of the squat, press and pull movement patterns.

Bob Doucette

Another look at training, performance and being ready to climb mountains

The high country can be fun if you’re physically ready for it.

I’m in a group on Facebook that deals with strength and fitness, and the administrator of that group asked me to post something there about what I do for conditioning in terms of being in what I call “mountain shape.”

This is an evolving thing for me, but over the years I’ve found some things that have worked well, and others not as much. Anyway, I figured I’d share that here, just in case some of you were looking at ideas for getting ready for hikes and climbs in the mountains, particularly when the altitude is high. Keep in mind, this is a post for a group that is focused on people focused on strength training, so it’s going to have a bias toward that and away from endurance athletics. That said, I think these ideas are fairly universal for people wanting to perform better at altitude. Have a read, and feel free to chime in with a few of your own ideas.

***

I’m a big fan of Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. He’s a beast on the hill. His primary ways of getting in shape: He runs 8 miles a pop, and he guides on Mount Rainier. That’s what got me into running.

BUT… as we all know, a lot of steady-state cardio can have negatives. Especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Steady state has its place. Lifting coach Tony Gentilcore wrote an entire post about its benefits in developing capillary density, aerobic capacity, etc. (he’s a legit lifter, too; can pull 600+ on the deadlift). But the body adapts to endless steady state cardio over time, and its benefits diminish. Meanwhile, lots of weekly mileage running can start to eat away muscle and sap strength. Metabolic changes can also occur, making it harder to maintain leanness over time. So what’s the middle ground? Some ideas:

You can get your run on without having to run tons of miles. Intervals, negative splits and sprints will get you in shape.

Intervals: You can do this in a number of ways. I like doing 8 repetitions of 400-meter runs. I push these hard, take a 90-second break, then do the next one a little faster. You can vary distances, too. 200-meter intervals at faster speeds can get a lot of work done. If you’re a real sadist, 800-meter intervals. If you can get to the point where you’re doing 8×800 or 10×800, you’re gonna be one tough mutha when it comes to stamina.

Sprints: 40- to 50-meter sprints are awesome. A hard sprint workout will not only get that conditioning benefit, but it will also enhance overall power and athleticism. That said, if you’re not used to doing sprints, ease into these at first. Someone who isn’t used to doing sprints, then shows up at the track and goes all out is asking for an injury. Do your homework, start conservatively, then work up to it. Sprinting is a skill. Check out this link for more.

Negative splits: A “split” is a term used to describe the time you run a specific length of a run. So on a 3-mile run, you could have three “splits” of a mile apiece. A negative split describes when a runner runs each split faster than the one before. This is a TOUGH workout. How I do it: I jog the first mile, easy pace. Second mile, I run at a goal “race pace.” Conversation at this pace would be difficult, as in short, infrequent sentences. On the last mile, I speed up again at a “suicide” pace. It’s not a sprint, but it’s fast enough that finishing that last mile at that speed is not guaranteed. You might want to ralph when it’s over. Great builder of VO max/mental toughness.

Take your fitness outside the gym to get in mountain shape. Go hike. Go climb. (Brady Lee photo)

As for conditioning specific to the mountains, I’d suggest three things. First, you gotta hike. Hike hills. Carry a loaded pack. Spend a few hours out there. Second, you gotta climb. If you’re going to tackle a mountain that’s not a walk-up, you need to put your body through the movements you’ll use on the peak. Find a local crag, go to a climbing gym, etc. It’s practice. Lastly, become friends with the stairmaster. Yeah, it’s an inside-the-gym machine, but it works all the muscles used in going uphill. Try increasing your speed as you go to mimic the increased aerobic demand of elevation gain.

Don’t forget to lift!

And as always, keep lifting. Your lifts should be based on the four basic movements: Squat, hip-hinge, press and pull. All of these are useful on the peaks, in building strength, and in everyday life.

How it looks for me: I lift Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For conditioning, I do the stairmaster on Monday; short tempo run (steady state, race pace) Tuesday; longer run OR hill run OR negative split run on Wednesdays (this will be a high-demand conditioning day); stairmaster or HIIT on Thursday; medium-length tempo run Fridays. Saturday is an outdoors day. So I’ll go hike, climb, or do a long bike ride. I keep Saturdays open and fun, but fun with a purpose. Sundays I chill.

So there you have it. Again, if you’ve got your own ideas, let’s hear about it in the comments. And for more on this topic, check out this post.

Bob Doucette

My strength experiment: What I learned during a season in the weight room

There is a gym I go to with some charts blown up into poster form, and at the bottom of these charts is a short sentence written in small type with a very big message: “Being stronger makes you harder to kill.”

It goes on to qualify this, saying that the stronger you are, the harder it is for things like disease, accidents, the elements and even other people, to kill you. Makes sense to me.

Fitness is a major part of my life. I’m not strictly a runner, and not strictly a weight lifter. I incorporate both (plus things like cycling) in hopes of preventing mushball status.

This past fall, I wanted to try something different. Back in the days before running became a thing for me, I used to lift a bunch of weights and find cardio in other forms of exercise. When I became a runner, I worked to find a balance between the two. But after the end of the fall race season, I chose to focus on strength for a few months. I was OK in terms of strength, but I knew I could be better if I put in a little extra work. I wouldn’t stop running entirely, but the weekly mileage would drop significantly while I emphasized more time in the gym.

In this case, it was about getting back to basics. No fancy programs, no weird new exercises, nothing exotic at all. Just a workout program based on four basic strength movements: The press, the pull, the squat and the hip hinge.

If you know what these entail, you’re way ahead of the game. If not, let me define them more precisely…

Press: This is picking up a weight and lifting it over your head. This could be a barbell or dumbbells. Variations could also include flat bench or incline bench presses, but the most important press here is the overhead press. Presses work your shoulders, triceps, upper back and, in some variations, the chest.

Pull: Pulls include pull-ups, chin-ups, cable pull variations (lat pulls, seated cable rows, etc), barbell and dumbbell rows, and so forth. With these, you’re training the muscles in your entire back, your biceps, and to a lesser extent, your shoulders.

Squat: Most people know what this is. Starting from a standing position, you squat down, bending at the knees and the hips, while keeping your back straight. Barbell back squats, front squats, goblet squats, and so on. The squat is a full-body exercise, but the primary muscles used are the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. Truly strong people squat well.

Hip-hinge:  The hip-hinge, simply put, is the action of bending at the hips, and with a straight back, powering yourself to an upright position with your hips. If that sounds weird, just watch someone deadlift. A deadlift is a hip-hinge. So are Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings and hip thrusters. Hip-hinge exercises are full-body in nature, but they primarily work the posterior chain. Posterior chain muscles include the entire back (from the base of the neck all the way to the tailbone), glutes and hamstrings. Like the squat, a truly strong person will be strong in hip-hinge movements. Deadlifts also work your quads, and through the act of holding something heavy, strengthen all the muscles used in your grip.

There are a bunch of exercises that support these movements, and I’ll get to that in time. But these are where my focus was. If you can master them, you’ll build a strong, athletic body that can be good at just about anything, and that includes activities that most people don’t associate with weight training, like running, hiking, backpacking or even climbing.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a few reasons. This was a bit of an experiment, to see what I could accomplish in four months. I wanted to see what went right and what went wrong, and why. And if I learned anything worth sharing, to pass it along. Some things went very “right.” And that was exciting. Some things went wrong, and for the most part, that’s on me.

Another reason: Strength is often something that is undervalued in the endurance community, and similarly, neglected by a lot of people who are focused on the outdoors. Personally, I think anyone can benefit from being stronger. It doesn’t mean you must be a body builder or a power lifter (those guys usually don’t do well in our chosen activities, mostly because size can be prohibitive of endurance), but I’d go back to that poster I mentioned earlier: Being stronger makes you harder to kill.

So over the coming days, I’m going to post about this and pass along what I’ve learned. And in turn, I’m more than pleased to hear from any of you who have undertaken similar efforts. Stay tuned …

Bob Doucette