The set up for the bench consists of lying flat on the bench, with the
head, shoulders, and hips on the bench, and the feet flat on the
floor. While some federations may allow variations of this, as a
general rule it is good to practice this set up. Certain lifters may
not be able to reach the floor, and may use plates or blocks to allow
the athlete to achieve a respectable amount of leg drive. One of the
most overlooked aspects of the bench is the amount of power that can
be transferred from the legs to the torso, but this is only possible
if the hips are driven strongly into the bench, and the abdominals and
lower back are used to keep the torso stable. This is made easier for
the athlete by arching, where the lower back is extended. This also
serves to allow the lats to be recruited more efficiently by the
athlete. The scapulae should be retracted to their fullest extent.
This can not only shorten the bench stroke as well, but decrease the
angle of rotation of the shoulder joint, limiting opening of the
The grip will influence numerous factors; bar path, muscle recruitment
and activation, bar placement, and risk of injury. As a general rule,
most powerlifters will use a wide grip, shortening the distance the
bar must travel and reducing the necessary work to lockout the
weight.10,36 A narrow grip enables lifters to generate more force
initially, but hinders force production at lockout. A wider grip has
been shown to limit initial force production.31 It is also worth
noting that a wider grip generally allows far less horizontal bar
displacement than a closer grip. Contrary to popular belief, a wider
grip does not stress the pectorals more than a closer grip, although
the triceps are recruited to a much greater degree with a narrower
grip due to the greater vertical displacement of the
bar.10 While there is no greater recruitment of the pectorals
secondary to a wider grip, the muscles will be subject to a greater
stretch, which can result in increased force generation.19 It goes
without saying that the thumbs should be wrapped firmly around the
bar, which will not only help ensure the safety of the lifter, but
will make it easier to keep the wrists straight. Keeping the wrists
straight allows the bar to be supported over the radius and ulna,
instead of being held in position by the much smaller and weaker
tendons of the wrist.
Un-racking the bar is a part of the set up, and can result in a poor
lift if it is not given the attention it deserves. Ideally, the bar
should be taken out of the rack by the lifter, allowing the athlete to
tighten the lats as the bar moves into position. However, since it is
not an ideal world, a spotter is often used. If the is the case, the
spotter should provide no more assistance than absolutely necessary,
and a poor lift off can be worse than no help at all, especially in
the case of smaller lifters, who can be pulled not only out of
position, but clear of the bench by an overly enthusiastic
'assistant'. When the bar is un-racked, it should be taken at full
extension, both because the athlete must demonstrate control of the
bar for a successful lift in competition, but to ensure that the
muscles are tight and the set up is correct. A single second of
adjustment can avoid what seems like an eternal struggle to press a
weight that is out of position.
Elbow position on both the descent and ascent will determine many
things, including risk of injury to the shoulders, activation of the
lats and triceps, as well as bar position. This is one of the most
ignored factors when benching. It will be discussed in more detail
during both the raising and lowering phases, but one thing will be
mentioned first: do not flare the elbows out to the side "to place
more emphasis on the chest," as bodybuilding lore often states. This
will result in a severe amount of strain at the shoulder joints, as it
opens the acromial process to an extreme degree.
The descending phase is critical, and will directly determine the
ability of the athlete to press the weight. When the bar is lowered,
it should be brought low on the torso, to the apex of the arch. This
serves to decrease the distance that the bar is pressed, reducing the
work done by the athlete during both the eccentric and concentric
phases. To enable the bar to be lowered properly, the elbows should
move toward the lifter as the bar comes down. This should be done with
a feeling of 'rowing the bar down' with the lats, but achieving the
feel of this can take time. Tension should be maintained throughout
the body as this is occurring, to preserve the potential energy of the
The pause is required in competition, and while this is one of the
many things that separates a competition bench from a gym lift, it is
often one of the most important. The ability to preserve a stretch
reflex is crucial to any athlete who needs to hit a big number in
competition. When the bar is paused, the most important thing to do is
not relax, tension must be maintained throughout the entire body. The
stretch reflex can be maintained for up to two seconds in a trained
athlete, although a novice will struggle to achieve 25% of this
The concentric portion of the lift is the most difficult, and can
present a variety of problems to the athlete. One fact that should be
noted is that, once the bar is paused, the lifter should not allow the
bar to sink further, using the ribcage or stomach to propel the bar
upward. This is heaving, and is cause for a lift to be turned down. As
the bar begins to ascend, it should be driven upward with as much
force as possible, both to take advantage of the myotactic response,
as well as to push through any possible sticking point.13,30 The
elbows should be maintained as close to the body as possible until the
sticking point is reached, at which point they should flare outward,
reducing the movement arm about the elbow and improving the leverage
of the triceps.
The bar should be driven upward in as straight a line as possible.
Quite simply, this requires the least amount of work on the part of
the athlete. Some lifters are taught to push the bar back ('back to
the rack') and this is quite incorrect, even though several good
benchers do so. Benching in this manner increases the amount of work
that the lifter must perform, and decreases the involvement of the
lats. Some coaches and athletes are under the impression that this
will more fully utilize the musculature of the upper back, but this is
not the case. It would be if the athlete were vertical instead of
horizontal, however, as the bar is simply drifting over the face, the
athlete is in no way utilizing muscular force to pull it there.
Common errors that occur when benching are discussed briefly. They all
have several things in common. First, they all indicate that the
lifter is not strong enough to move the weight properly, and should
decrease the poundage until their ability grows to match his desires.
Second, they all indicate that the lifter needs further education in
the realm of strength training. Third, they all have the potential to
Excessive arching is common among gym lifters, who should know to keep
their hips on the bench. However, when the ego takes over, the body
often loses control. The lifter will push the hips up off of the
bench, in order to improve his leverage. While this can help someone
lock out a lift they would otherwise have missed, it can caused a
great deal of strain on the vertebrae of the lower back and the neck.
The lumbar vertebrae will be compressed unevenly, increasing the
shearing force the spine is subject to, and putting the lifter at risk
for serious injury. An even more extreme form of arching can have the
lifter actually compressing the vertebrae of the neck.
Bouncing the bar off of the chest is another common technique
exhibited by those who seek to impress their friends with the fact
that they have survived as long as they have. This is, quite simply,
an easy way to damage the ribs, sternum, or even completely fracture
the xiphoid process. In addition to the potential for injury, people
who utilize this 'technique' will begin to develop a weakness in the
bottom of the bench press, necessitating further bouncing of the bar,
which is quite a viscous circle.
One last error will be discussed, and that is the improper use of
spotters. While a spotter is a good idea when benching, using one (or
more) to perform the lift instead of pressing the weight to full
extension is not a habit that the serious strength athlete should
develop. While there may be a place for heavy negatives in the
recreational athletes program, there is a disadvantage to performing
them as well, in that they cause the greatest degree of micro trauma to
muscle fibers than any other standard type of training. While a muscle
may be able to handle approximately 120% of its maximal concentric
load during the eccentric phase, this does not in any way serve to
optimize the CNS, and it is, in fact, more fatiguing to the athlete
than standard training, increasing the recovery time and lessening the
amount of training time.29,41,60,61
There is at least one school of thought which would have athletes
believe that there is little benefit to performing a regular bench
press, and that machine type bench exercises are just as good, if not
superior to the bench press. Unfortunately, research does not support
this. Studies have shown that not only is there greater muscle
activity during the bench press (20, 31, 33) but that there is also
greater recruitment of the stabilizing muscles to support the
musculature used in the bench press.16,17,45 This is particularly
true of the deltoid, and while all muscles of the deltoid are active
to one degree or another during any movement of the upper arm, with
one head being the agonist and the others synergists,40 this
difference is highly significant with respect to the bench press.33
Lifters, whether powerlifters, bodybuilders, or recreational lifters
often argue about which muscles are most involved in the bench.
Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer. The following information
is compiled from electromyographical analysis (EMG) performed within
several studies, and in every case the EMG signal was quantified by
calculating the integral of the EMG pattern (IMEG) as the area under
the linear envelope.60 The data were analyzed through a repeated
measures ANOVA (analysis of normal variance) using type III sums of
squares where possible.1 This method of review was also used when
assessing % maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC). All
anatomical references were reviewed with respect to electrode
placement with respect to both anatomical accuracy as well as
sensitivity as diagnostic tools.9,12,19,24,25,37,39,42,43,61
What the above paragraph indicates is that, when all factors are
considered and standardized, including individual variations such as
biomechanics, fiber type, rate of force development, etc. the
following can be surmised (all data based on averages of 60% and 80%
1rm): % MVIC of agonists:
- Triceps: 110%
- Anterior deltoid: 95%
- Pectoralis Major: 75%
The most active portion of the triceps was the long head, which is
even more active with a narrow grip. This is true even when overhead
pressing, assuming the elbows are fully adducted. This is secondary to
the greater degree of elbow flexion, in which the triceps brachii
functions as the agonist.
The anterior deltoid will be more active the more the trunk is
inclined, as well as being more active with a wider grip. This is due
to the fact that the anterior deltoid is not merely an flexor of the
humerus, but also an adductor of it. Wide hand spacing during a
vertical press will cause mainly glenohumeral abduction, whereas with
a narrow grip the primary movement is flexion.
The sternocostal head of the pectoralis major is little affected by
hand spacing, but is directly affected by trunk inclination. The
greater the inclination, the less the activation. There is also a
slightly greater activation of this muscle with a wider hand spacing,
due, in general, to the fact that with a wider grip, the elbows tend
to move away from the midline of the body, which increases the degree
of horizontal flexion of the humerus.
The clavicular head of the pectoralis major is affected by both hand
spacing as well as trunk inclination. The narrower the grip, the
greater the activation, as well as the greater the inclination, the
greater the activation. There are several factors for this, including
the fact that vertical bar displacement is greatest during an incline
press. This is also due to the fact that the clavicular head is
involved in horizontal flexion and adduction in addition to pure
flexion. The clavicular head will maintain its function as a flexor of
the glenohumeral joint until humerus moves above the horizontal
position. This is why it is rather inactive when the torso is
vertical, as little flexion is occurring.
The latissimus dorsai is highly active at the initiation of the
concentric phase, with greater activity the closer the elbows are
maintained to the torso, due to the degree of adduction required. The
latissimus dorsai is an extensor at the glenohumeral joint as well as
being a humeral adductor, which explains its activity during every
type of pressing.
Numerous training programs have been devised, and will not be
discussed here in great detail. A modest discussion of the various
methods of training will be mentioned.
Maximal Effort Method: The maximal effort method consists of lifting a
maximal (1RM) load, with the goal being improvement of both
intramuscular and intermuscular coordination. The CNS system is
maximally stimulated, with CNS inhibition being reduced, and the
greatest number of motor units are recruited using this method.61
The primary disadvantages of this method are that it induces minimal
hypertrophy, as only one or two reps are performed, as well as the
fact that the CNS will attenuate rather quickly, and so exercises must
be rotated regularly. If more than one set
(repetition) is to be performed, then a lengthy rest period may be
Effort Method: This method utilizes submaximal effort with
higher reps to stimulate maximal hypertrophy.61 The basis for this
method is that the larger the muscles peak cross sectional area (PCSA),
the greater the strength of the individual muscle. The disadvantages
to this method are that the CNS is not highly stimulated with this
method, as well as the fact that as the muscles become fatigued, form
begins to suffer, decreasing proper motor unit recruitment patterns.
As multiple sets are normally performed using this method, rest
periods should be long enough to allow the athlete sufficient recovery
time, but, over time, the athlete should strive to reduce the rest
time in-between sets.3,4,21,46,53
Dynamic Effort Method: This method uses sub-maximal (light) weights to
increase rate of force development.61 This method will also
potentate the myotactile response, as the weight is moved quickly.
Repetitions are low, to ensure proper technique, and sets are high, to
allow for greater motor unit recruitment. Rest periods should be kept
low, as the various systems, such as the CNS, musculoskeletal, etc.
are not heavily taxed during a single set.4,21,41,53
A brief discussion of assistance work and its effects, as well as
specific bench techniques, is quite appropriate. Assistance work is of
critical importance, a point which has often been illustrated. When an
athlete cannot progress in a certain lift, it is not the lift itself
which is weak, but there is a weak link (muscle group) in the
kinematic chain. The key to successful assistance work is determining
which muscle group is the weakest and determining the appropriate
technique to strengthen it.
General guidelines are hard to present, but, nevertheless, an attempt
will be made.
Weak at the initiation of the concentric phase (out of the bottom):
Strengthen lats, pecs, as well as learn how to recruit lats properly.
Weak at the Midpoint: Strengthen the shoulders, and work on specific
exercises to train the sticking point.
Weak at Lockout: Triceps, triceps, and triceps. The triceps are active
throughout the entire lift, but most active the closer the bar moves
toward lockout. Specific exercises to strengthen the lockout can be
used as well.
Bench assistance work will be divided into several basic categories,
with a general discussion about the effects of each category of
exercises, with extra discussion for specific functions of individual
exercises if necessary. The categories include flat benching
exercises, partial pressing exercises, bench-like exercises,
assistance work for the triceps, assistance work for the deltoids,
assistance work for the traps, assistance work for the lats,
assistance work for the biceps and forearms. The use of chains and
bands will not be discussed, but will be the focus of another
Flat Bench: This lift needs to be examined in and of itself as it can
be used with a variety of methods, techniques, and set and rep
schemes, all of which can have an effect on bench performance. When
trained dynamically, the athlete should use a weight that allows the
production of maximal force, which will generally occur somewhere
between 50 � 60% of the 1RM. This allows for greater force
development, allows the lift to be trained again more frequently as it
is performed in a very rapid manner, lessening the eccentric stress
and resultant fatigue, as well as maximizing the utilization of the
The paused version of the bench press can be used to develop starting
strength. Many athletes will train with an extended pause (two or
seconds) to help them further develop the necessary explosion off the
chest, as well as the ability to maintain tension in the paused
Heavy Negatives: Not advised for the strength athlete. By the time an
athlete is advanced enough to perform them, the amount of recovery
time necessary will reduce practical training time. This exercise may
be useful for novice athletes to become accustomed to the feel of
heavier weights through synaptic facilitation.
Illegal wide grip bench. Very useful for strengthening the bottom
portion of the bench which will occur secondary to hypertrophy, as
these are generally performed in the six rep range. The only caution
is that this exercise can severely open the acromial process, and
should be used sparingly, and only by athletes with healthy shoulders.
Pressing from the pins at chest level can work the start of the bench
as well, but it is difficult to recruitment maximal power from the
torso, as there is no stretch reflex, and no resulting tension. This
can place the athlete at greater risk for injury as well.
Benching with a cambered bar or a buffalo bar can also work the start
of the bench, but once again care must be taken to avoid injury to the
shoulders as the acromial process is quite open using these types of
Close grip bench presses have been a not only a standard method for
powerlifters to strengthen the triceps and thus the lockout of the
bench, but have even been used by weightlifters as an assistance
exercise to increase their ability to execute the press decades before
powerlifting was a recognized sport, including the great Tommy Kono.
(for the trivia-minded, Kono cleaned and pressed 350 pounds at a
bodyweight of 182.5 pounds)
Reverse grip bench pressing can provide quite a bit of stimulation for
the triceps. This method is little used, but could be far more
prevalent if athletes did not overlook this very useful exercise. It
is, in fact, even more surprising when one considers that the heaviest
bench ever executed was performed with a reverse grip. This was a
standard assistance exercise for legendary bencher Rick Weil, who
eventually utilized it as his competition style, pushing 551 lbs. at a
bodyweight of 181 lbs.
Partial bench exercises can take a wide variety of forms, and will be
further subdivided into several categories: initial, or the start of
the concentric, lockout, which will be used to refer to any portion of
the bench higher than 1�2 of the distance to lockout, or specific. One
difficulty arises in that exercises with specific variations with
respect to the height at which they are performed, such as board
presses, and presses from the rack, will fall into a different
category based on the bench stroke of the individual. An athlete with
a short bench stroke may find that the three board press strengthens
the lockout, whereas an individual with a very long bench stroke will
find that it strengthens the start or the mid-range of the bench. The
same is true for partial presses from the rack. One of the keys to
making partial exercises effective is that they must be performed in
the correct range, with the joints at the proper angle.
Partial training is based on the attenuation principle, where the
intent is to train in the range of motion where there is demand for
maximal force production. This method is used to overload the
musculoskeletal system as well as the CNS with supramaximal loads in
the area of the ROM where maximal force is produced.(40) This also
produces a decline in neural
inhibition.55 Numerous studies have shown that there is an area of
the ROM where maximal force production occurs, and this area is often
referred to as the 'sticking point'.13,31,57 Studies have shown
that partial ROM training increases strength primarily at the trained
ROM, although there is a certain amount of variance.18,27,28,48
It is worth noting that partial ROM exercise produces greater torque
compared to full ROM exercise.47,58 One other benefit of
performing partials is the lessened eccentric phase, which will result
in less micro trauma, allowing quicker recovery.29
Board Press: Allows the lifter to maintain tension throughout the
torso but still work a partial ROM. Much of the weight is transferred
to the athlete at the bottom of the rep, when the bar is paused.
Rack Press: Similar to board press, but harder for the athlete to
maintain tension in the torso. This exercise is easier to vary, as
changing pin heights is relatively simple, but there is greater risk
of injury if the athlete does not achieve the appropriate levels of
muscular tension prior to the concentric phase. This exercise can also
be used to push very heavy weights, allowing the CNS to be better
conditioned for handling heavier weights.
Floor Press: Good for working the initial portion of the bench. For
lifters with weak triceps, this may not be the best assistance
Isometric Press: This exercise involves utilizing a power rack with
the pins set just above and below the sticking point. The athlete will
then press the weight off the pins, forcibly contacting the next set
of pins. This will be repeated for a total of three times, and when
the bar contacts the pins the third time, the athlete should push
against the pins for at least six seconds, with the goal of exhausting
every possible muscle fiber.
Work for the triceps is basically the same. Variations of extensions,
as the function of the triceps is to extend the elbow joint. There are
a great many types of extension, so many, in fact, that they would be
the subject for an entire document of their own. The purpose of all of
them is to increase the strength of the triceps through hypertrophy,
and a wide number of set and rep schemes can be used. Only a couple
exercises will be mentioned specifically.
Dips: Good for the novice, who is not used to pushing heavy weight. As
the athlete becomes more advanced, there is the matter of diminishing
returns. Perhaps it is because of the strain on the shoulder joint,
the fact that so many muscles are involved that it is hard to target a
specific weakness with this exercise, or for some unknown reason, but
advanced athletes seem to benefit very little from this exercise.
French Press: Yet another overlooked exercise. Whether seated or
standing, this exercise provides a benefit many other do not: it fully
stretches the long head of the triceps, which crosses the shoulder
joint. This can be quite beneficial for a lifter who has been doing
short range isolation movements.
Pushdowns: These exercises do very little to truly develop functional
strength, and should be used only for active recovery or as GPP.
Exercise for the shoulder girdle are of the utmost importance. Not
only the anterior deltoid, which functions as an agonist in the bench
press, but the medial and posterior deltoids, the trapezius, as well
as the rotator cuff and rhomboids.
Pressing exercises, whether with barbells or dumbbells, are one of the
best all around shoulder exercises. The anterior and medial deltoid
will be directly stimulated, and the posterior will function as
synergists. The traps will be used to support the musculature of the
shoulders during overhead pressing as well. Pressing can also be
performed from various pin heights within the rack, adding extra
variations to the lifter's arsenal.
Pressing behind the neck is often viewed as dangerous, and this is
true: if the athlete does not maintain adequate flexibility in the
shoulders, strength in the external rotators, and a certain amount of
flexibility in the chest. As at least one of these factors is
generally sadly lacking, this variation of pressing exercise can be
quite hard on the athlete.
Snatch Grip Press Behind the Neck: This exercise is rarely performed
in the United States, as Olympic weightlifting is not as popular as it
once was. This exercise is one of the reasons when Overhead lifting
was the rule, rather than the exception, that rotator cuff injuries
were few and far between.
The strength and recruitment of the latissimus dorsai is essential to
a big bench, and so correspondingly the lats should be trained in the
manner which not only most closely simulates the motion of the bench,
but allows the athlete to achieve greater recruitment of the lats. As
the lats are basically worked in two directions (there are minute
exceptions which are not very applicable) exercises will be grouped
into two categories.
Chins/Pullups/Pulldowns: All excellent movements for strengthening the
lats, and chins and pull ups are superior to pulldowns due to the
greater number of motor units recruited. If an athlete is going to
perform chins or pull ups, care must be taken not to bounce out of the
bottom portion of the exercise, as this can cause bicep tendonitis or
other elbow problems.
Rows: While certain types of rows have been shown to display a higher EMG activation rating, such a s dumbbell rows, the athlete working to
improve the bench should make the row as specific as possible.
Ideally, this will be with the chest supported, the bar held in the
same grip, and it is rowed in the same plane as the bench is executed.
Rotating different variations of this exercise can be useful.
The trapezius is a muscle that helps stabilize the entire shoulder
girdle, as well as the neck and head, and is often neglected in many
The basic exercise for strengthening the trapezius is the shrug. This
exercise can be performed with barbells or dumbbells, and can be
performed in an explosive manner allowing more weight to be used as
well as increasing the effective ROM.
The other method for strengthening the traps as well as the upper back
would be the Olympic lifts. While learning the classic (full) versions
of the snatch and clean and jerk could be counter productive, partial
versions of the quick lifts can be readily learned and provide a
degree of stimulation to the upper back that is unparalleled by other
forms of lifting.
The power snatch is one of the best exercises for strengthening the
upper back that has ever been practiced. In addition to strengthening
the traps, posterior deltoids, rhomboids and teres major, the external
rotators are strengthened quite thoroughly. This exercise, or a
variation of it, is often used for this very purpose.
The power clean will work the traps quite well, and more weight can be
used than in the power snatch. This exercise will work the posterior
deltoids, rhomboids, and teres major, but it does not strengthen the
external rotators to the same degree as the power snatch. If
strengthening the external rotators is the primary goal, dumbbells can
be more effective.
Pulls: Whether executed with a snatch or clean grip, performed from
the deck, the hang, or pins, Olympic pulls can work the traps through
an incredible range of motion, and there will be some stimulation of
the other muscles of the upper back.
Biceps: The only function the biceps brachialis serves is as a
stabilizer in the bench press. For this reason, there is little reason
for the athlete interested in strengthening the bench to spend much
time curling. The brachialis serves as a stabilizer as well, and often
more so than the biceps, so reverse curls and hammer curls can be of
Forearms: The muscular of the forearm is far more important to the
bench than the biceps. The brachioradialis serves to stabilize the
elbow joint, and the extensors and flexors stabilize the wrist joint.
Reverse Curls: This exercise primarily strengthens the brachioradialis, but also serves to strengthen the brachialis.
Hammer Curls: Similar to reverse curls, with less effect on the brachioradialis, but more stimulation of the brachialis.
Wrist Curls: Can be used to strengthen both the flexors and the
Grip Work: Grip work in general can be divided into a few categories
as well, but the primary interest of the athlete seeking to improve
the bench is static contraction.
A Final Note: Aside from the obvious cautions about using spotters or
a power rack, there is one other difficulty that is often overlooked.
The bench press will heavily work the internal rotators (supraspinatus
infraspinatus) but not stress the externals to any great degree. The
external rotators (subscapularis and teres minor) are equally
important, and should receive attention. While mention has been made
of the fact that some of the Olympic lifts work the external rotators,
this needs to be stressed. If these moves are not utilized, a certain
amount of specific work for these small muscles should be included.
The key aspect to any training program is that the health of the
athlete is paramount.
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