Getting Strong With The Bench Press

When CrossFitters think of a strong athlete, they probably imagine someone like Neal Maddox cleaning 365 lbs or Dave Lipson deadlifting over 600 lbs. When it comes to the bench press, however, most CrossFitters don’t necessarily think of it as a test of functional strength, so they don’t use it often in their training program. The truth is that if your goal is to become a stronger athlete, there is no denying the value of the bench press. Learn more about this important lift and how to do it better.

Bench Press = Good for Beginners

According to Mark Rippetoe, the bench press may be the best lift for introducing pressing strength to a novice athlete. In his CrossFit Journal article, he explains:

Benching provides hard active work for the chest, shoulders, and arms and isometric work for the forearms. It trains novice lifters the fundamental skill of pushing on a very heavy load, perhaps its most useful function. When people first start training, they have no experience with maximal effort. The bench press is a very good place to learn how to bear down and push hard, and this invaluable lesson translates to all the other slow lifts quite well.

CrossFit West Sacramento also endorses the bench press as “a suitable exercise for any beginning strength trainee who is deficient in upper extremity strength….The low skill nature of this exercise lends itself very nicely to the novice lifter.” Steve Mologousis of functionalathlete.com adds: “There are not very many exercises that will allow you to load up the kind of weight the bench press allows you to do.”

For many athletes, the shoulder press “is quick to stall, but pushing the bench press up is a good way to gauge whether your overall pressing strength is increasing or staying stagnant.”

Women in particular often struggle with lacking the gymnastic strength required for movements like pull-ups and full push-ups. The bench press is a movement that can aid in developing both upper body strength and tricep strength at a much lower percentage of one’s bodyweight. The bench press is a foundational lift that can build much-needed absolute upper body strength.

Better Bench Press = Better Shoulder Press

CrossFitDoneRight advocates for the value of the bench press as an assistance exercise for the shoulder press. For many athletes, the shoulder press “is quick to stall, but pushing the bench press up is a good way to gauge whether your overall pressing strength is increasing or staying stagnant.” Both of these lifts demand that athletes improve their upper back (lats) strength in order to provide a base for the pressing action.

One of the keys to a solid bench press is maintaining full body tension, from your feet pushing off the floor all the way to your tight grip on the bar.

Furthermore, CrossFit Asheville describes the use of the close grip bench press as an indicator of upper body strength. According to them, the ideal ratio of one’s 1RM close-grip bench press to one’s 1RM back squat shouldn’t be any lower or any higher than 66%. That is, if “legs too strong (Close Grip Bench Press < 66%)…you’ll have trouble catching the bar correctly and are likely to create injury to the neck and shoulders long term. Arms too strong (Close Grip Bench Press > 66%) and you’ll likely pull early with your arms and damage your elbows and wrists.”

Proper Bench Technique

Shane and Laura-Phelps Sweatt from Westside Barbell present a good video on proper bench technique. They emphasize several key points:

  • Shoulders back on the setup/rear delts are sitting on the bench
  • Bring the weight over the chest (not above the eyes)
  • Shoulders tight on the setup leading to a tight arch in the back
  • Break the bar on the way down: puts elbows in the right position
  • Spread the bar with the hands on the way up: activates the triceps
  • Wide feet/pushing feet into the ground/ spreading the floor with the feet

If you are interested in improving your bench numbers as a measure of absolute strength, consider some of these tips from T-Nation on how to get there:

  • Learn to use full body tension.

Shoulder, core, and hip stability are all required to establish a stable platform from which to bench. Core stability exercises will also reduce injuries since you’re less likely to get into a bad position if your core is strong. This also prevents any “power leakages” and allows for a strong, smooth, press.

Pull the bar out of the rack.

That is, with your elbows locked out (and maintaining that full body tension above), pull the bar out of the rack and let it settle above your chest. Make sure you are actively squeezing your shoulder blades together on the bench before you begin the bench.

  • Train your triceps for lockout.

Not only do you need your triceps to help you press out at the top, but stronger triceps will also aid in push-ups, dips, and other gymnastic movements. Women who are concerned about one day having “chicken wings” under their arms can prevent this by improving tricep strength.

  • Train your back.

The bigger the lats and upper back, the more stable your base of support when you bench. Think about if you had to bench from a narrow and skinny platform. Do you think you’d be able to handle a lot of weight? No, because you’re extremely unstable with that narrow base of support.

If the lats and upper back are thick you’re going to have a huge base of support and a great foundation to press from. All the bent row variations from my Perfect Pulling Exercises article are great for both size and strength.

  • Train your legs.

What? Isn’t the bench an upper body movement? Yes, it is, but remember the tip on whole body tension? This includes all the way down to your feet pressing off the ground. “Leg drive is crucial – it helps drive the bar off of the chest and sets up a strong lock out by assisting in the start of the lift.”

Common Benching Errors

Dave Tate quickly walks through five common errors he sees in the bench press. These include:

  1. Not grabbing the bar tightly (for stability and as part of whole-body tension). Squeeze the bar throughout the movement.
  2. Not maintaining full body tension (this one should be starting to sound very familiar by now).
  3. Not positioning the barbell over the chest correctly. The barbell should be in line with your wrists, not behind or in front of them, and thus in line with the elbows. This is incredibly important in creating a straight bar path while maintaining a strong body position; you do not want your elbows to flare out and your shoulder blades to lose contact with the bench.
  4. Dropping into the lift too quickly out of the rack. Once the weight is out of the rack and over your chest, get stable in your shoulders, lats, etc. to form a strong base before attempting the press.
  5. From a training perspective, skipping dynamic work. That is, bar speed matters (F=ma), so learning how to accelerate can help you lift heavier; this means including dynamic work in your training.

If you don’t have four minutes to spare, this list is also something to keep in your pocket as you prepare to bench.

The following Bench Press errors are either inefficient or potentially dangerous. Avoid them at all costs.

  • Unracking with Bent Arms. Don’t risk the bar falling on your face. Your arms are strongest when your elbows are locked. Unrack & bring the bar above your chest with locked elbows.
  • Pressing to Your Face. The shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. Press in a straight line. Fix a point at the ceiling where you want the bar to go. Don’t look at the bar.
  • Bending Your Wrists. This will get you wrist pain. Put the bar in the palm of your hand. Close to your wrists, not close to your fingers. Squeeze the bar so it doesn’t move.
  • Elbows. Too high is bad for your shoulders. Too low is inefficient. Put your elbows between perpendicular to & parallel with your torso.
  • Shoulders Forward. Don’t let your shoulders roll forward. It’s bad posture, bad technique & a guaranteed way to get shoulder injuries. Keep your chest up, shoulder-blades back & down and upper-back tight.
  • Glutes off the Bench. This makes the distance the bar travels shorter & thus the Bench Press easier. However it puts pressure on your back, especially when the weight gets heavy. You’re more stable when your glutes are on the bench. Keep them there.
  • Pushing Your Head into The Bench. You’ll injure your neck. Tighten your neck muscles, without pushing your head into the bench.

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Strength:
Bench press: 5×65% 5×75% 5+85%
WOD:
“Incredible Hulk”
20 min AMRAP
5 Deadlift 115/75
5 hang power clean
5 front squats
5 push press
5 back squats
note: must use same weight for all lifts