"I'm weak off my chest in the bench press. What can I do?"
This is a question I'm asked more than any other, so I've decided to devote a whole article to dealing with this popular problem. This seems to be a very common sticking point for beginners and non-powerlifters. Many people are quick to point this out as being due to a weakness of the chest muscles, but I disagree with that for several reasons.
First, most powerlifters do very little chest work while bodybuilders do a ton of chest work. If bench press poundage equated to chest strength, then the powerlifters would be weak off the chest and bodybuilders would be weak at the top.
How about when you throw bench shirts into the equation? While the bench shirt does help, it really only changes the sticking point a couple of inches. So if powerlifters are weak right off the chest, the shirt will only get them the first couple of inches. In reality, they're still weak off the chest.
Now, let's dig in and solve this problem once and for all. There are five main reasons why you may get stuck at the bottom of a bench press:
1 – You're too slow
If you really think about this, you'll see why it's the number one cause of bottomed out bench presses. I like to use the example of pressing through a thin board. If I were to take a board, like the ones used in the martial arts, and hold it three inches off your chest while you pressed into it in a slow manner, then it would become a matter of who was stronger, the person holding the board or the lifter pressing the bar.
If the holder is stronger, then the bar will go into the board and stop. Now if the same board was used and the lifter exploded into the bar with maximum force or speed, then the bar would crash through the board. Now think of this board as being your sticking point. Taking this one step further, what if we used a bigger board, one that would be impossible to crash through? Once again, if you pushed slowly the bar would get stuck. If you pushed fast, the board wouldn't break but would be moved up higher. This would put your sticking point at or above the halfway point of the lift.
Lesson: Push with force if you want to press the full course!
2 – You're not keeping a tight position
This is another very common problem. If you're not holding your body tight, then you're not pressing with a firm, stable base. How can you build on a weak foundation? To get tight, you want to pull your shoulder blades together and shrug into your traps, fill your body with air, and drive your heels into the floor. You want to visualize pushing your body away from the bar as you press up.
If you don't have your body expanded with as much air as possible, then your chest and belly will be lower than what's needed for a big bench. The bigger you are, the shorter the path the bar has to travel and the higher the elbows remain.
Lesson: You have to stay tight to bench right!
3 – Your lats are weak
You need to have strong lats if you want a big bench; there's no way around this. To illustrate the point, try this: In a standing position, hold your arms in the bottom bench position; now flare your lats. What happened? Your arms moved forward. This is part of the same movement that happens when you bench press.
The trick to getting and keeping your lats in the movement starts long before the bar hits the chest. It begins with the set up at the beginning of the lift, before the bar leaves the rack. Once again you need to have the proper tight position. Now you want to tuck your elbows some and pull the bar out of the rack. You do not press out of the rack!
When you press out, your shoulders come apart and your lats aren't tight. Almost 100% of the time this will happen because of the type of bench you're using. Many benches today have J-hooks or uprights that are too damn deep. You have no choice but to press it out. In this case you have two options. First, find another bench. Many times the power rack will work out to be the best option. The j-hooks aren't as deep and all you have to do is drag a bench over.
The second option is to take a liftoff from a training partner. I personally don't like the liftoff option because it's still hard to keep the lats tight, but if there's no other choice, then by all means use it. This is actually one of the reasons why a liftoff helps you lift more weight.
If you're pressing the bar in a straight line from the lower chest then there should be no way you'll ever hit the uprights. So don't be afraid to get under the bar more from the start. Many coaches will tell you to line the bar up with your eyes. I feel it should be lined up with your nose or chin. This way you don't need so much shoulder rotation to get the bar out.
Now on to the lat work. Your program should have the right kind of lat work. You want to use those movements that work on the same plane as the bench press. This means any type of row. There are several to choose from, so pick based on the ones you're the worst at. You should be training your lats two to four times a weak, but you don't need a full-blown lat workout as the bodybuilders do. One movement for four to five sets should do the trick, but you do need to do them many times a week to try to maintain some type of balance.
4 – The bar is too heavy
If I see a lifter take a bar out of the rack, lower it to his chest and barely move it, I wouldn't call this a sticking point. It would be more aptly be called "getting stapled to the bench." If the weight is too heavy, you'll get crushed! Be honest with yourself on this one.
5 – You just don't know how to press!
We all like to think we know how to bench press but the fact is we don't. We may all know what to do, but getting it done is a whole other story. This concept is covered in detail in the Bench Press 600 Pounds article. For a quick review, you need to stay tight, keep the elbows tucked, drive your heels into the floor and shove your body away from the bar as you press. Too many times, one or more aspects are off for a number of different reasons.
Just remember that proper technique will make a huge difference in your ability to press record weights.
What To Do About It
Now that we know why you get stuck, let's get on to describing some of the movements that can help correct this.
1 – Dumbbell Work
Dumbbells are great for teaching you how to press and also great for building stability in the shoulder and lat muscles. There are several ways you can use dumbbells to strengthen your bench press:
High-Rep Dumbbell Press
This movement is done with the use of a bench or stability ball. You want to do a standard dumbbell press but keep your palms facing each other; this will keep your elbows in the correct benching position. I've found the repetition range of 12 to 20 to work best with this movement.
You want to do three sets, trying to fail at around 20 reps for the first set. You'll then rest about four to five minutes and try to hit 20 again for your second set. More than likely this won't happen, but it gives you something to aim for. Rest another four to five minutes and knock off the last set. This method of dumbbell usage works best in place of the max effort movement.
Dumbbell Floor Presses
The floor press is another great way to teach you how to stay tight in the upper body when pressing. When your legs are out straight, more of the load is transferred to the pressing muscles.
To do this movement, you lie on the floor and have your training partners hand you the dumbbells. Once again you'll want to keep your palms in. Lower the bells until your triceps hit the floor, pause for a split second, and press back up. This movement fits in nicely as the first movement you'd do after doing dynamic bench or max effort bench work. Play around with the sets and reps to see which work best for you but always try to break your record each time you do them.
Timed Dumbbell Presses
This is the latest news out of Westside Barbell Club. Louie Simmons has found that taking a pair of dumbbells and pressing for time to be a great strength and restoration builder for the bench press. He's been using a three-day split where the first day heavy dumbbells would be used continuously from two to four minutes. I've used up to 80-pound bells for three minutes.
These reps aren't done in a non-stop action. (Had you scared there for a second, didn't I?) You do a couple of reps, then hold them on your chest or at the top for five to ten seconds, then do a couple more reps. You keep the set going until you can't do any more. Perform only one set at the end of the regular workout.
On the second day you want to use 60% of the weight used on day one, but take the time up to three to five minutes. I use 45 pound dumbbells for this day. On day three, drop another 60% and bump the time up to five to eight minutes. On this day, I use 25 to 30 pound dumbbells.
I've found this to help my shoulders recover at a faster rate than when not doing them. While Louie likes to keep the rotation going without a break, I like to only use the rotation one time per week.
2 – Max Effort Work
The next three movements would be used as max effort movements concentrating on building power off your chest. I'd still cycle in the other max effort movements like the board press and lockouts every other week for the top part of the bench. This will keep building on the top strength you already have.
As a quick review of the max effort movement described in the Periodization Bible, Part Two article, the max effort method is used to build max strength in the bench press by teaching the body to strain with maximal training loads. This is done one time per week with one movement. You warm up using multiple sets of three to five reps in an ascending pattern until you get to a one or three rep max on the movement you're using.
Barbell Floor Presses
This is one of the classic max effort movements that's stood the test of time. The floor press is performed by setting the hooks or supports up in a power rack so you can bench press while lying on the floor. Get under the bar with your shoulder blades together and shrugged into your traps. Tuck the elbows and unrack the weight. Lower the weight until your triceps hit the floor. Pause for a split second, then press the weight back up in a straight line.
This movement can be done several ways. The first is with straight weight. Just warm up using three to five reps in an ascending pattern until you reach your one rep max. The second way would be to work up to 60% of your best bench press. When you reach this weight, you'll begin adding one 20-pound chain on each side of the bar with each additional set until you max out.
For developing strength off your chest, using straight weight would be the best bet because it'll teach you to press out of the bottom with maximal weights.
Cambered Bench Bars
This is a bar with a four inch camber in the middle of it to allow for greater range of motion. There are right and wrong ways to use this bar and the style you use is dependent on your own flexibility and ability to use the bar.
The first way is to take the bar down to your chest, which I believe works dynamic flexibility but is only beneficial with very lightweight. I don't believe the heavy work should be taken all the way down to the chest because of the excess shoulder rotation.
The best way to use this bar is to bring it down to a point where it's only about a half inch lower than where a regular bar would be. This way you won't be getting any type of reflex off the chest. The last way to do this is with the use of boards to control how low the bar will go. Use two to three inches of boards so you can control how deep the bar will travel.
Ultra Wide Bench Presses
This is simply a wide-grip bench press outside your widest grip. For most people this would be with your forefinger on the rings. This isn't a good movement to use for a one-rep max because of the stress it puts on the shoulders. It's best done working up to two heavy sets of five or six reps.
3 – Dynamic work for the bench press
This is key to the development of barbell speed. I've explained this method in great deal in many of my other articles so I won't go into great depth here.
In a nutshell, spend one day per week training your bench for speed. This is best done using weights in the 45 to 55% range (based on bench shirt max) or 55 to 65% range (with non-bench shirt max). Once you reach your percent, eight to ten sets of three reps is all that's needed. Make sure to push the bar as fast as you can. It should take you no longer than 3.5 seconds to complete the set.
The key to training greatness is finding your weak points and attacking them. Building and getting strong at what you're already good at will only take you so far. Time must be spent on the things you really suck at doing; so find the movements and the weak points and start bringing them up. If all goes well you'll be back on track to that big bench you've always wanted.