Most men use the bench press as a measure of strength, power, and sometimes even athletic ability. The bench press is the king of strength exercises— regardless of the popularity of functional training, kettlebells, cross training, or yoga. It matters little that leg strength is more important than upper-body strength in most sports. The bench press is the hallmark of a man’s strength.
Next time you go to the gym, see what people do when they see a guy bench-pressing 300 or 400 pounds. Usually, conversations stop and everyone watches in envy as the strong man benches the mammoth weight. The other guys in the gym seem almost embarrassed as they struggle with 165 pounds. The sad part is they could bench press big iron too, if they used good bench-pressing technique and followed a scientifically-designed training program.
You can add at least 100 pounds to your bench press in only 12 months if you work hard and consistently, develop proper technique, use a training program that develops your muscles and nervous system, and follow a scientifically sound nutrition program that builds muscles and provides energy for intense training. Follow the advice in this article and you will be the guy people watch in envy.
The Bench Press is a Whole-Body Exercise
Lesson number one is that bench-pressing heavy weight is a skill— just like hitting a tennis ball, throwing a baseball, or shooting a basketball. The nervous system develops motor patterns based on practice and “rewinds” these nervous patterns when you perform the skill. You must learn and practice skills precisely to maximize performance. Your goal is to increase your bench press. Therefore, you must learn a precise motor pattern that will allow you to bench press a lot of weight for just one rep.
Lesson number two is that the bench press is a whole-body lift. Most guys approach the bench press very casually and pay little consideration to factors that determine success in the lift. They lay down on the bench, hoist the bar over their chest, and do the exercise without thinking about grip, proper placement of the feet, butt, shoulders, elbows, or hands, the path the bar follows during the lift, or the cadence of the exercise. They use the wrong bar or bench or choose incompetent spotters. Learn proper technique and use the right equipment and you can increase your bench press by 25 to 50 percent in a few weeks. Your new bench-pressing persona will serve as the foundation for truly remarkable gains in the future.
Weight training books describe the bench press as an upper-body exercise that builds mainly the pectoralis major (chest), triceps brachius (back of the arms), and deltoid muscles (round shoulder muscles). While these muscles are certainly important, building a big bench press also requires strong legs, abdominal, and back muscles that act as stabilizers during the lift. Also, you need to build strength and flexibility to maximize the height of the chest and minimize the distance you push the bar during the lift.
Use the Right Equipment
The next section of the article may seem boring, but it’s vital to peak performance in the lift, so pay attention!
Olympic Bar: Use an Olympic bar designed for powerlifting, and avoid bars bent from overuse. While Olympic weightlifting bars made by companies such as Eleiko are wonderful for doing cleans and snatches, they are too elastic and unstable for bench pressing and require too much energy to maintain control. Some bars are thicker than others, so find one that feels comfortable (circumference of 9 to 9.5 centimeters; 3.5 to 3.7 inches).
Use a bar with comfortable knurling (roughened part of the bar). Too little knurling will cause your hands to slip during the lift, while too much feels uncomfortable and can tear up your hands. Many lifters use chalk to keep their hands from slipping. Take careful note of the circular markings on the bar because they help you get a balanced grip. Most lifters grasp the bar with the pinky fingers just inside the ring, but the location of the ring varies from one bar to the next. Try to use the same bar every time you bench press because even small changes in grip width will affect performance.
The Bench: The dimensions of the bench are critical for peak performance in the bench press. Firm leg support is an important part of peak performance in this exercise. You are dead in the water before you start if your legs flail around during the lift because the bench is too high. Most competitive benches are 17.5 inches high, which allows average-sized people to place their feet flat on the floor with knees bent at an acute angle of slightly less than 90°. The bench should be wide enough to support your scapulae (shoulder blades) but not so wide that it restricts arm movements. Most benches used in competition are 12.5 inches wide. Use a bench with firm foam that rebounds when compressed.
Choose a bench with variable weight support heights so that you can grasp the bar with your arms almost fully extended. Lifting with low weight supports can cause serious shoulder rotator cuff injuries— even using light weights. The rack should support the bar at the ends of the gripping areas to prevent hand injuries.
Finding a bench you like can make a huge difference in how much weight you can lift. Try benches in different clubs before choosing a gym. Some newer benches include hydraulic lifts to move the bar up and down and special hardware to attach elastic bands for variable resistance training (see below).