Here's what you need to know...
- Big triceps won't help you if you can't break through the sticking point off the chest. So stop it with the board press and floor press and work on your incline and overhead press.
- Big traps and strong scapular retractors are more important than the lats for a solid bench press foundation and stable bar path.
- The bench press is no more dangerous than any other barbell exercise and can be shoulder-friendly when done with good technique and common sense.
- Great raw benchers press the bar in a J-curve, not a straight line, to maximize leverage.
The misinterpreted words of multi-ply powerlifters has trickled down to the masses. And now, raw (no bench shirt) lifters are experiencing undue suffering and frustration as a side effect.
Like a game of telephone, the truth has been lost as each piece of information is transferred from the mouths of giants to internet forums and gyms. Good advice from strong people gets twisted into something laughably false and useless.
If you've ever been wronged by bad bench press advice, I feel you. I've been there. After years of struggling to increase my bench press numbers despite following the dogmatic suggestions of the armies of keyboard warriors, I finally discovered the truth. The barbell is a great teaching tool, but it's easy to ignore its teachings if you get brainwashed by the propaganda.
In less than a year, I added 50 pounds to my competition bench press. What's my secret? I abandoned everything I'd learned about benching and listened to what the bar had been telling me for years. Here are four bench press myths I busted during my journey.
Myth: Big Triceps Build a Big Bench
Truth: Big Everything Builds a Big Bench
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the bench press, revered for ages for its ability to build massive pecs and delts, was actually driven by the triceps. It wasn't long before every skinny kid with a gym membership ditched the overhead press and incline bench in favor of board presses, floor presses, and triceps extensions.
The result? A lot of people improved their bench press lockout, but could never put it to use because they still couldn't get past their sticking point off the chest. Unless you're in a bench shirt that flings the bar off your chest like a polyester trampoline, raw lifters are almost always going to stall during the first half of the press.
Even more mystifying is the idea that triceps exercises like floor presses, pin presses, and 1 or 2-board presses train the "bottom" of the bench press. These lifts may approximate a lifter's sticking point, but much like a rack pull's carryover (or lack thereof) to the deadlift, you'll only get strong at that point, not through that point.
But the sticking point is just a piece of the puzzle. Building acceleration before the sticking point will prevent stalling and carry you through no-man's land. You'll need monstrous shoulders and lightning speed off the chest to improve the bottom half of the bench. Floor presses and board presses are nothing compared to paused reps or dynamic effort benching when it comes to shattering the dreaded bottom-half sticking point.
On a related note, if you're an average-sized guy and bench less than 225, or an average-size gal and bench less than your body weight, please stop doing board presses and pin presses in general. Build some muscle mass and learn to be explosive before you mess around with specific range-of-motion work. Sorry to bust your bubble if you're still riding the wood-glue induced high of building your own set of boards from Home Depot.
No matter how trendy the triceps have become, don't skip overhead pressing or dumbbell benching in lieu of isolated triceps work. Building bigger, stronger pecs and shoulders will shatter the initial bench press sticking point and allow the famed triceps to do their job. Prioritize properly.
Myth: The Lats are Your Foundation
Truth: The Upper Back is Your Foundation
Remember the first time you got in a "back width versus back thickness" argument? And then you grew up, moved out of your parents' basement and realized that it doesn't matter? Well, it's time to care again because for the bench press, it matters.
Lats get all the credit for creating a rock-solid foundation for the bench press. Again, this is true if you're a geared bencher with a King Hippo waistline (and if you remember who King Hippo was, you get a fist bump for being born in the 80's), but for the raw bencher, the traps and rhomboids cement the shoulders in place for a big press.
Jim Wendler explains it simply:
"With a shirt bench, the bar begins far out over the chest/stomach area. The lats need to be held very tight to keep the bar path strong and correct. With a raw bench, the bar is lowered much higher, thus the upper back is taking much of the weight. That's why raw benching is cooler – it gives you a good excuse to do a ton of upper back and trap work."
You'd be remiss not to follow Jim's advice. Hit your upper back with rows from varying angles, pull-ups with varying grips, deadlifts, face pulls, pull-aparts, and loaded carries. Don't toss out your pulldowns and pull-overs, but put thickness ahead of width on your priority list if you want a big raw bench.
Myth: Benching Wrecks Your Shoulders
Truth: Benching Like a Jackass Wrecks Your Shoulders
The bench press has been unfairly vilified for being a shoulder-destroyer. It is guilty of a few things that aren't exactly shoulder-friendly. It drives a kyphotic posture and internally-rotated shoulders. It locks the scaps down and doesn't allow them to move naturally. And it eats up precious time that you could spend doing external rotations with your cute little pink dumbbells.
Honestly, with good technique, sensible programming, and a hint of self-control, the bench press is no more dangerous than any other barbell lift.
Many trainers recommend a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing to prevent imbalances caused by heavy benching. Practically, you're going to need a lot more upper back volume than that to stay healthy simply because as long as your bench doesn't suck, you'll never row as much weight as you bench. The mechanics and muscle groups are too different, and who has the time or recovery abilities to row heavy that often?
It makes more sense to use lighter exercises for ultra-high volume like Joe DeFranco recommends. DeFranco, who's become legendary for prepping NFL hopefuls for the Combine, takes a bodybuilding approach to upper back work, attacking it for high volume from multiple angles.
He's been quoted as saying WWE legend Triple H did over 30,000 band pull-aparts over a two-year span. A few hundred pull-aparts a day will have tremendous postural benefits and won't beat you up like heavy barbell rows. It ain't sexy, but it works.
Want to bench a ton and keep your shoulders healthy? Master good form before you max out. Don't flare your elbows like a chicken. Don't bench press four times a week. Don't skip your upper back work. Sit up straight at your desk. And for the love of iron, do some mobility work for your shoulders once in a while.
An oversimplification? Yes, but it's an even worse oversimplification to slap the bench press with the unfair label of being bad for your shoulders. The bench press isn't bad for your shoulders. Bad bench pressing is bad for your shoulders.
Myth: Great Benchers Press in a Straight Line
Truth: Greater Benchers Press in a J-Curve
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That's the logic behind the thinking that to bench press as much weight as possible, you should press the bar in a straight line. Work equals force times distance, so a straight bar path means less work than a curved path to press the same weight. Why wouldn't you take the path of least resistance?
That makes perfect sense until you realize that moving maximum weight requires proper leverage and torque and all that fancy stuff. When you bench press for strength, you lower the bar just below the nipple line. This brings the weight farther away from your shoulders, which is the axis of rotation. The farther the weight is from the axis of rotation, the longer the length of the moment arm (i.e., the distance between the axis of rotation and the application of force).
The easiest way to understand moment arms is to think of a biceps curl. The elbow is the axis of rotation. The farther the bar gets from the axis of rotation, the longer the moment arm and the harder the lift becomes. That's why the bottom of a curl is easy and the top of a curl is easy, but the midway point is where you get stuck. That's why people lean back and "cheat" during curls – it shortens the moment arm.
If you bench press the bar straight up, the hands are closer to your feet at the lockout point than they would be if you pressed the bar up and back toward your face at lockout. Pressing straight up may decrease the distance the bar has to travel, but the moment arm is still longer than it would be if you pressed up and back.
Likewise, the bar also never becomes centered over the larger working muscles (chest and shoulders) during a straight-bar press. That leaves the smaller muscles (triceps, forearms) doing more of the work. But as the bar travels backwards in a J-curve, the bar finishes directly over all the involved joints and muscles (hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, triceps, chest, shoulder) like the floors and foundation of a tall building. This uses all the structures of the upper body to harmoniously lift the weight.
Are biomechanics important? You bet. But you don't need a PhD to know that if your joints don't get "stacked" as fast as possible during the press, you're going to have a tough time finishing the lift. Just look at the classic illustration of three bar paths below. The one on the left is a novice lifting 245 pounds; the one in the middle is an advanced lifter pushing 463 pounds; and the one on the right is the almighty Bill Kazmaier pressing 605 pounds.
It's clear that Kaz (far right) pressed the bar with much more horizontal movement than the rookie. Did he do more work? Technically, yes. But he optimized his leverage by getting the bar over the right muscles at the right time. And it's tough to argue with a 600-plus pound press.
No More Lies
Rather than chaining yourself to an arbitrary set of unwritten bench press rules, watch the world's best bench pressers and note the consistent traits: huge pecs and shoulders, a strong upper back, efficient technique, and supersonic bar speed. Before you even think about your next set of kickbacks, think about what you need to do to emulate these lifters.