I’ve been asked by members of the VPX forum, athletes whom I train, friends of mine, and even the Senior Editor of the VPX website “When the hell are you going to write an article about bench pressing!” You’ve been writing for us for over 6 months now. It's not every day we have someone providing us with information who not only trains athletes to lift big weights, but at a bodyweight of 165#s has benched 400 lbs. without wearing a bench shirt!"
Well guys, the main reason I have been reluctant to get my fingers to type anything concerning the “king of all lifts,” aside from my Floor Press Articleis because I feel that the Bench Press is the most technical lift in the sport of Powerlifting. Providing our readers with a comprehensive article on how to achieve a double bodyweight bench could potentially end up being the length of an entire book.
With that being said, as a member of the 2x bodyweight bench press club (hopefully soon to be 2.5 bodyweight), currently ranked #3 in the USA as of last week, and being that it’s the 4th of July (that's the date I wrote this piece, not the date it'll likely be published), I’m feeling very patriotic and feel like what better way of giving back to my fellow countrymen then providing them with a few technical tips for a bigger bench.
Don’t breathe. This applies when training in the 3 and under rep range. Upon receiving a lift-off from your spotter, a large breath of air should be taken and held until the final repetition of the set is near completion. However, you may breathe out on the way up during the last rep. Rationale behind holding your breath is to ensure complete tightness in the body. Your ability to keep your entire body tight will have a big influence on the amount of weight you are able to bench. Holding your breath (referred to as the Valsalva Maneuver) not only increases intra-abdominal pressure (which helps stabilize your spine), but has also shown to be effective at increasing power output potential. Utilizing this breath-holding technique, contrary to popular belief, is in fact safe. (1)
(Note: all of my tips are given under the assumption that you are an individual whose health is in good standing).
Another advantage in applying this technique is to decrease range of motion. When taking and holding a huge breath of air your chest rises which can actually cut down the distance that the bar needs to travel. Mastering this skill may take time. If you find yourself running out of air and feel the need to breathe, be sure that when doing so you exhale on the way up, hold the weight at lockout for a fraction of a second, and take a new huge breath before bringing the bar back down to your chest. Under no circumstance should you attempt to inhale on the way down while bench pressing. The same could be said for most other movements as well. Doing so will cause you to lose all tightness and increase risk of injury.
Squeeze the Bar. Aside from the tip of your tongue, bottom of your feet and your sex organs, your hands have more nerve endings than anywhere else on your body. With that being said, it would only make sense that your ability and willingness to grip the bar tightly would exploit the “mind body connection” which your Central Nervous System is involved. Gripping the bar as hard as you can also helps keep your entire body tight which is something I’ve stressed since my initial point in this article. While squeezing the bar you should also be trying to “bend the bar away from you” with your hands. Doing so, will make sure the wrists are tracking in line with the elbows, which should also be tucking in around 45 degrees when lowering the bar to your chest. If you’re doing this right you should feel the most pressure on the three outermost fingers of your hand and the bar should touch right around your nipple line. Yes, I realize I just used the words tongue, feet, sex organs and nipples in the same paragraph. Please forgive me.
Use your Legs. Although I personally Bench Press on the balls of my feet (and this is a perfectly legal way to bench press in MOST organizations), I feel this is an advanced technique and most beginners/intermediate lifters will initially have more success with keeping their feet flat on the ground. When benching with your feet flat on the ground you should aim to get your shins on as much of an angle as possible rather than being perpendicular to the floor. Doing so will allow you to better push your heels into the ground enabling you to use your legs to keep your body stable and generate force on a 45 degree angle with your lower back acting like a bridge and your traps acting like land at the end of the bridge ultimately allowing you to have an added advantage essentially turning the bench press into a total body movement when pressing heavy weight.
Arch your Back. Shoulder blade retraction simply means pulling your shoulder blades together. When benching you should be retracting your shoulder blades and making sure they stay in a retracted state. This will also help keep your body in a rigid position, acting like a platform for a rocket to launch from. Retraction of the shoulder blades will also shorten the distance the bar has to travel. Shoulder blade retraction is difficult to maintain when unracking the bar by yourself, which is another reason why it’s important to ask for a lift-off/have a spotter. Another important piece of information which goes along with my next point (regarding leg drive which I will get into below) is making sure to set up on top of your traps rather than with your traps flat on the bench; reason for this is to help keep you from sliding backwards down the bench when using leg drive. This is a very difficult concept to put into practice, so take a look at the pictures that I provided below for examples.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Apr;20(2):195-201.
Intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressures during lifting and jumping.
Harman EA, Frykman PN, Clagett ER, Kraemer WJ.
Source: U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, MA 01760.