Striving for the Big Bench

I recently had the privilege of being an assistant coach for the USA's World Bench Press Team. While I was there I refused to sleep more than a few hours a night; I wasn't about to miss out on learning some kick-ass tips and tricks to bench more weight!

One thing really stood out with these athletes: their impeccable approach to setting up. Whether they used a big arch or not was irrelevant; the fact of the matter was that they were so rock-solid by the time they took the bar, it looked as though a good lift was inevitable.

I'm sure some readers will say that these athletes are just genetic freaks, that they could just look at a loaded barbell and bench more weight. To some extent, they'd probably be right. There are always going to be athletes in every sport who can get by on talent alone. However, the truly elite are the ones who possess amazing natural talent, couple it with picture perfect technique, and then add in years of hard work to build a bar-bending bench. While we can't change your natural talent level, we can improve your set-up and technique. At that point, it's up to you to put in the necessary hours in the gym.

Finally, when we're talking about strength training, everyone wants to know how much you bench. Are you proud of your answer? If you're the trainee who just plops down and starts to bang out a few reps, this article will teach you how improving your set-up can lead to an immediate (and possibly significant) increase in the weight you're currently moving.

The Perfect Set-Up

If you want to bench 185 for the rest of your life, feel free to just plop down on the bench and rep out with 135. This article is for those who want to move more weight, either to stimulate more muscle growth or simply to wow people at your gym. However, I know it's not normal to walk into a commercial gym and see someone with a freaky arch moving massive amounts of weights, so here are just a few reasons that improving your set-up can help you move more weight:

1) A decrease in mechanical work

In a physics sense, mechanical work is defined as: Work = Force x Distance. So the distance part is pretty simple, but force needs to be further defined: Force = Mass x Acceleration.

Now, I don't want to bore you to death with equations, so let's keep things really simple and just say that force is going to stay the same at a respective weight (even though I can hear my dad, the physics professor, groaning as I type this!). We'll use 185 in our example: Is it easier to move 185 pounds 1.5 feet or 3 feet? No, this isn't a trick question!

If you can decrease your range of motion, all things being equal, you should move more weight. Just because you don't have short arms that resemble those of a hobbit doesn't mean you can't work with what you have. In fact, Lamar Gant had one of the most deadlifting-specific body styles you'll ever see, yet he was an excellent bench presser due in no small part to his excellent arch.

2) Increased stability

Beyond decreasing your range of motion, the techniques I'm going to describe will help ensure that you're super-tight and ready to move heavy weights. One trick that every powerlifter understands is that the heavier the weight is, the tighter you have to get your body to move it. When it comes to moving massive amounts of weight, it's no longer just a chest and triceps exercise. Big benchers use every muscle possible to add pounds to their lifts.

3) Decreased chance of injury

The tighter you are, the less likely you're to get injured. In fact, it's typically on the reps where you're loose and sloppy with your technique that you end up getting injured. A rock-solid set-up will put you in a perfect position to not only bench more weight, but to do so with a decreased likelihood of injury.

Hopefully, I've convinced you that a proper set-up is the way to go. It really doesn't make sense not to use these techniques. You move more weight, decrease your likelihood of injury, and end up looking like a stud every time you lay down on the bench. What else can you ask for?

Read on and I'll tell you exactly what you need to do to set-up for a flawless bench.

The Perfect Set-up: A Three-Step Program

While watching hundreds of athletes set-up for the bench, I've come to the conclusion that there are three significant parts that must be addressed:

1. A spring-loaded upper back

Newton's third law states that for every action, there's a reaction of equal magnitude in the opposing direction. So, if you just plop down on the bench and lie flat, you'll get no reaction from your back.

Now, envision yourself not even lying on your back, but actually setting-up and digging your upper traps into the bench. Once you have achieved this position, you'll want to retract and depress your scapula. This scapular position is the most biomechanically efficient, as well as helping protect your shoulders from injury.

2. Leg drive that resembles a car-jack

The position of the feet in this set-up is definitely different if you haven't experimented with it before. The position we're striving for here is to get your feet underneath your hips and out wide. Let's take it from where we left off with the upper back super tight and resting on the upper traps.

To begin, place your feet on the floor where you'd usually put them (straight down from your knees). Now, try to "wiggle" your feet farther and farther back until they're as far back as you can go without your heels coming off the ground. (Note: Some powerlifting feds don't require your feet to be on the floor. Start off with your heels on the floor if you don't compete in powerlifting and then you can always change from this position in the future.)

If you get your heels back, you should feel a tightness in your quads that wasn't there before. This is a good thing! Now, from here, think about trying to wiggle your feet out a little to the sides until you start getting tension in your hips. Go a little wider than you think you should and then "screw" your heels into the ground. You should feel super tight now in the thighs and glutes.

In an ideal set-up, your feet should be underneath your hips and out wide. This will increase your stability and allow you to move more weight. From here, all you have to do is squeeze everything in your lower body: butt, hamstrings, quads, all of it.

3. Developing the "arch"

The arch has been used in architectural designs for many centuries. In our pursuit of moving more weight, powerlifters have adopted an arch back position when bench pressing to shorten the stroke and improve stability. "Arch" style bridges have always been known for their strength, as long as they're constructed properly.

The arch is often the most elusive part of the bench set-up, but if you have a couple pieces of PVC pipe and a gym ball, you have all the tools necessary. Please note that I'm not describing an excessive arch in your lower back, but actually a continual arch between your upper and lower back. This will not only shorten the stroke of your bench, but the thoracic arch will help you set-up on your upper traps as we discussed earlier.

In my Heal that Hunchback article, I described using a PVC pipe to help restore and improve extensibility of the thoracic spine. If you don't currently have any PVC pipe laying around, go to your local Lowe's and have them cut you an 18" piece of both 3" and 4" thick PVC pipe. (If you're super tight or super flexible you might need bigger or smaller sizes, but the 3" and 4" works well for most athletes.) Total, this should only cost you two or three bucks and will be worth it when you're moving 20 or 30 more pounds than you are now!

There are two ways of using the PVC pipe. The first is on the floor as described in the article mentioned above.

The second is the way several of the Japanese lifters warmed-up their arch prior to pressing. While lying on the bench, you're going to start out with the smaller pipe and place it in the small of your back. For most, this should be simple. Slowly try to work it up into your upper back because this is usually the tighter and more restricted area. I tend to hold for 30-60 seconds before moving up to the bigger pipe.

The second is usually much tougher and you probably won't get your butt and upper traps on the bench at the same time. Again, hold for 30-60 seconds and you'll be ready to start your warm-up. (It helps to have the bar already racked as you can use it to "pull" yourself off the PVC pipe.)

For some people, the PVC pipe is going to be uncomfortable and/or simply contraindicated if you have a history of back issues. This is where the gym ball or Swiss ball can come in handy. We can get a similar training effect in a much more comfortable fashion.

The ball extension is very similar to the PVC pipe. Lay down with the middle of your back on the ball and your hands either behind your head or with your arms extended above the body. From this position, think about "wrapping" your upper back over the ball and then rolling back and forth. No matter what position you're in, your upper back needs to stay in contact with the ball. Since the Swiss ball is much wider and more comfortable, a lot of trainees actually prefer this method, especially in the beginning.

Putting It All Together

So now that we have all the pieces of the set-up puzzle laid out, we need to put them together. Remember, I'm just describing one way to go about this; the key is to use as many of these pieces as you can and then put it into a set-up that works for you.

When I lie down on the bench, I grab the supports and place my feet up on the bench. I now "walk" my body up the bench so that my torso is at an angle almost perpendicular to the ground and I try to "dig" my upper traps into the bench. As much as possible, I want to keep the weight on my uppers traps.

While still holding on to the supports, I let my legs come down and start to wiggle them back as far as possible.

I really want to get that tension in my quads first and foremost. Wiggle them back as far as you can but still keep your heels on the ground.

At this point, start to move the feet out/away from the bench so you can get that tension in the glutes. You should get a little tension immediately, but keep going just a little bit farther! At this point your legs should be very tight and you just need to set your arch before blowing up the weight.

By this point, you should already have a decent arch in your lower back. Be patient, as this part is the most labor intensive. You have to keep working on the exercises described above to improve the flexibility in the upper back. So you have your "mini" arch, and now we're going to turn it into a super arch.

From this position, you need to think about forcing your upper traps and butt closer together. I don't like messing with my legs once they're set, so I put my hands back on the supports and think about pushing my upper back towards my legs. This not only improves my arch to shorten the stroke, but it also gets me as high on my upper traps as possible.

Your arch is now set; you just need to do a few more things. Retract and depress the scapula. Don't let this position go! This is where you'll start to value the benefits of a great hand-off. Now, squeeze everything as tight as possible: lower body, glutes, upper back, bar. Just get so tight you're about to pop and you're ready to move some serious weight!

The Little Things

Little things can often be the difference between a PR bench and getting crushed like a grape. Listed below are just a few of these things.

1) Getting a good hand off

As the weights you handle get heavier and heavier, you really start to understand the value of a good hand-off. In my most recent meet, I understood this even more as the hand-off guy got the bar over my face and then proceeded to let go! I envisioned swallowing my own teeth and blood the rest of the day, so I got my own hand-off guy for the last two lifts.

When you set-up like I've described above, you want to do as little as possible to get the weight out. You already have your upper back tight and your scapula retracted and depressed; lose this position with a limit weight and you're asking for trouble. A great hand-off guy will not only take most of the weight, but will also get it to a position over your chest so all you have to do is move the bar down and up.

2) Bench shirts and little belts

More and more people are using bench shirts, but quite often a bench shirt can change your set-up and body position. For example, if you use a belt to keep the shirt down, quite often you can't get as much of an arch as you're used to. In this case, try a small belt like you'd wear around your jeans. A 4" powerlifting belt is quite often too thick and rigid, inhibiting your ability to set a good arch.

Also, in a bench shirt you won't be able to get your hands out wide enough to grab the supports. In this case, you'll probably have to take either an over or under-hand grip on the bar to help set yourself up. Setting up with a bench shirt on is quite a bit different than setting up raw, so you'd be wise to try it out quite a bit before going for a max.

3) Wear shoes with a heel

Shoes with heels are good for two reasons. First, they're usually stiffer in the sole, making for better action-reaction force with the ground. Second, they allow you to get your feet farther back while still keeping your heels in contact with the ground.

Whether you choose to leave your heels on the ground or not, a shoe with a heel can help improve stability while getting more leg drive at the same time. A lot of top-tier bench pressers are using Olympic weightlifting shoes, as they have a 1 to 1.25" heel on them.

The Wrap

I'd like to thank the members of the USA Bench Press Team for their insight into the set-up, as well as the guys over at Metal Militia. Whether you choose to employ one or all of these tips, I'm sure they'll allow you to move heavier weights and break some PR's in the process. Now all you have to do is get your ass in the gym and have a killer bench workout!