1 – Forget Your Chest
The emphasis of the bench press is not on your chest. EMG studies show that the muscles that do the most work are the triceps and deltoids. If you want to develop a big chest, keep the flyes and cable crossovers. But if you want to bench a lot of weight, overhead press and develop your triceps with board presses and floor presses.
2 – Stay Tight
If you’re comfortable while benching, you’re doing it wrong. You should feel like you might soil your underwear at any second. This tension and pressure comes from staying tight. Here’s how:
- Press your heels into (or toward) the floor hard and squeeze your glutes hard throughout the movement.
- Grip the bar until your knuckles turn white. “Melt the bar” with your hands.
- Arch your lower back slightly and pull your lats tight by squeezing your scapulae down.
- Push your chest up to the bar on the descent and drive your shoulders into the bench as you press.
- Spread the bar throughout the movement. This will tighten your upper-back and make good use of your triceps.
- Fill your belly with air and keep it there. Only breathe while resetting to complete the next rep. Never breathe during a rep.
Does that sound like a lot? It is. Benching is hard.
3 – Align Your Wrists and Elbows
Practice throwing a punch. Provided you punch like you don’t have a purse on your shoulder, you kept your wrist and elbow in a straight line directed toward the intended target. You have to bench in the same way. If your elbows are in front of the bar (too much shoulder external rotation) or behind the bar (too much shoulder internal rotation), you won’t be as powerful.
Spreading the bar should help, but practice with an unloaded bar. A good bar path that keeps your elbows under the bar should start and end with the bar directly above your throat, with the bar touching just below your nipples in the bottom position.
4 – Use Partial-Range Max Effort Training
Max effort training is important for a great bench number. Sub-maximal training zones are used to hone technique and build mass, but max effort training prepares the nervous system to do some damage on the iron.
Most bench training should be done with sub-maximal weights and through a full range of motion, but twice per year you should include a partial range of motion max-effort training cycle. At the end of each cycle your nervous system will be primed to return to full-range benching.
Here’s a great partial-range bench cycle:
- Week 1: Floor press: 5-rep max
- Week 2: Floor press: 3-rep max
- Week 3: 2-board bench: 1 rep max, then 2-3 singles at 90%
- Week 4: Mid-point pin press: 3 heavy singles
- Week 5: 3-board bench: 3-rep max
- Week 6: 3-board bench: 1-rep max
- Week 7: 2-board bench: 1-rep max, then 2-3 singles at 90%
- Week 8: Complete de-load. No benching.
2-Board Bench Press
5 – Be Strong
I’m not a fan of bench pressing for reps. You can make hypertrophy gains and improve upper-body muscular endurance by other means that aren’t as hard on your shoulders. Do your benching heavy and fast. Use the bench to push the limit strength of your upper-body; hypertrophy your upper-body with push-ups, dumbbell press variations, and pulling movements.
That limit strength should be 1.75 times your body weight if you want to be considered a strong bencher.