The bench is a great exercise for upper-body strength and size. But you can make it even better. Here are three ways ramp up the effectiveness of the bench press, add some variety and challenge to your workouts, and keep your shoulders, wrists, and elbows healthy.
Slide back towards the end of the bench so that the base of your neck is at the edge of the bench, leaving your head completely unsupported. You can do this on any bench press variation, including barbell presses.
This may look unusual, but it improves your bench press mechanics, shoulder health, and chest growth. For one thing, the head-off chest press promotes heightened spinal rigidity and optimal levels of t-spine extension because the head isn't fighting against the bench as is typically the case. The result is optimal spinal alignment.
It's also much easier to retract, depress, and medially rotate the scapula when the head and neck are unrestricted. The key is to maintain a neutral cervical position while producing extension through the t-spine.
Oddly enough, once they become accustomed to them, many athletes end up preferring head-off presses because traditional variations (with the head on the bench) feel very constricting and unnatural compared to the head-off variations.
I've seen this do wonders for shoulder injuries and upper body movement mechanics due to improved shoulder centration and packing of the glenohumeral joint. These improved mechanics typically lead to increases in upper body pressing power, strength, stability, and force production.
As an added bonus, it's one of the best neck strengthening exercises there is, which is an underrated and oftentimes overlooked component of fitness.
Using a foam roller can teach good lifting mechanics on a variety of movements, particularly chest presses, pullovers, and chest flye variations. The benefits:
- The foam roller allows the scapula to move freely without being encumbered or fixed to the bench. This optimizes natural scapulohumeral rhythm and glenohumeral joint mechanics similar to how a push-up or landmine press allows optimal scapular movement.
- It forces you to create heightened spinal rigidity and natural curvature because anything other than proper posture will literally feel miserable on the back. However, with proper positioning, it actually feels quite therapeutic on the spine.
- The foam roller has a tendency to roll and move unless you remain tight and lock in the core. This creates rotational forces that you must resist to keep from falling off the roller. Any wiggling, cheating, asymmetrical pressing, or shifting will cause you to lose balance.
- It requires you to aggressively activate the feet and ankles to help grip onto the floor. In fact, screwing your feet into the floor is almost a prerequisite when doing this exercise because anything less will result in loss of balance and instability.
- Lack of good alignment and activation of the foot and ankle complex during chest presses results in decreased neural drive up the kinetic chain, including reduced signaling to the upper-body pressing muscles. But activating the feet and ankles increases neural drive, full body tension, and motor control via irradiation and concurrent activation potentiation. In other words, you'll increase force production and your 1RM. If you have trouble driving with your hips and legs during the bench press, more than likely it's related to poor foot and ankle activation. The foam roller press helps to resolve this subtle yet significant recruitment issue.
- Performing single-arm variations creates incredible anti-rotation forces (literally) that you must resist to keep from falling off the foam roller. Below is NFL athlete Jarius Wynn doing it to prepare his upper torso and core for the demands of the season.
- The foam roller can also be placed inside a squat cage similar to a floor press setup. This allows you to do barbell presses on the foam roller, resulting in great improvements to your bench press mechanics.
This technique really improves your bench press mechanics and pressing power. Instead of lying lengthwise on the bench, the T-bench position involves lying widthwise. This allows the hips, head, and neck to be off the bench and unsupported. As a result, you're forced to support more of your body and contract your posterior chain from head to toe to a much greater degree.
Basically, you're holding an isometric glute bridge throughout. This works particularly well for lifters who lack the ability to drive forcefully with their legs and hips on the bench press because the lifter is forced to fully contract the glutes and drive with the legs.
In addition, the elbows and triceps end up touching the bench just at the right stopping point, similar to a floor press. This keeps you from collapsing and over-stretching in the bottom position.
The T-bench chest press also provides benefits similar to the head-off chest press in terms of cervical elongation. However, the effects tend to be even more profound as the combination of hip drive and head-off coincide perfectly with each other.
The more the hips drive up, the more the head and neck push back into cervical elongation. This promotes further improvements in t-spine extension and shoulder retraction. You immediately feel the benefits of increased leg drive as you're rewarded with improved pressing technique that ultimately transfers to greater force production and the ability to handle heavier loads.
Similar to the other variations, the T-bench chest press can be applied to any chest press variation, including barbell presses, provided you can reposition the bench widthwise in a squat cage.