A Powerful Technique that Will Add 100 Pounds to Your Bench
Use the major muscles of your body to bench press— not just your chest, arms, and shoulders. Proper set-up determines short-term and long-term success— just as it does in golf, bowling, tennis, and discus throwing. Start with a firm position with your feet planted firmly and you will make improvements in leaps and bounds.
Lie on the bench with the bar at eye level. Place your feet flat on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Try to move your feet backward toward your head, while keeping them flat on the floor. This position provides stability and will help keep your back arched and chest up during the lift. It will also allow you to drive with your legs during the exercise without lifting your butt from the bench. Never lift your butt from the bench: it puts excessive stress on the spine, reduces your base of support, and increases the risk of injury to almost any of the active muscle groups and joints used during the exercise.
Arching the back and pushing out with the chest are difficult at first, but will improve as you increase flexibility. The arched back technique will allow you to make large, rapid improvements in the bench press because you don’t have to push the bar as far and the position gives you an exceptionally strong base.
Pull your scapulae (shoulder blades) together and try to keep them retracted during each repetition of the exercise, and stabilize your spine by pulling down with your lats. This position provides spinal support and helps to maintain a high chest and arched back during the lift.
Grasp the bar firmly with your thumbs aligned in the opposite directions from your fingers. Rest the bar near the heel of your palm so that your wrists stay straight and help transfer force to the bar from your chest, shoulders, and arms. Do not use a thumb-less grip. An average of five people a year are killed in America doing the bench press because people drop the weight on their throat or head— most from not using spotters and using the thumb-less grip.
Start with hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. For most people, that means gripping the bar just inside the circular spacing marks. For competitive powerlifting (squat, bench press, deadlift), the maximum hand spacing cannot exceed 81 cm.— measured between the forefingers. Grip spacing is highly individual, so experiment with wider and narrower grips. Also, training with varying grip widths is a good idea because each hand placement works the muscles differently: a narrower grip puts more load on the triceps, while a wider grip puts greater stress on the chest.
Use a spotter to help move the weight over your chest. Try to use the same spotter every time you lift or at least someone with experience who is not intimidated by heavy weights. Establish a signal, such as “one, two, three,” and lift the weight above the lower chest. Brace (tighten) your ab muscles (tighten them but don’t suck them in) to increase stability. Learn to brace and breathe independently. However, strain and hold your breath during the first part of the lift to maximize stability (called Valsalva’s maneuver). While this practice increases blood pressure, it will help you lift more weight. Also, few people can lift more than 85 percent of maximum effort without using the Valsalva’s maneuver.
Lower the bar under control to a point below the nipple line. Pause briefly, squeeze your glutes together, and then push the bar explosively in a straight line above the chest, keeping the elbows in, shoulders back, while keeping an arch in your lower back. Pushing the weight explosively from the bottom activates more motor units (muscle fibers and their nerve) and decreases the chance of the bar stalling during the lift.
Most guys push the bar in a curve until it goes over their eyes. Pushing in a straight line reduces the distance the bar travels, so you expend less energy and can lift more weight. Have the spotter help you rack the bar after completing your last rep.
Technique is an important part of bench-pressing big weights. Always use good form, whether you’re warming up with 135 pounds or doing heavy singles. Lift explosively when doing reps or singles: train your nervous system to react quickly when pushing the bar from your chest. Finally, keep focused and work consistently for small gains. On heavy training days, try to lift at least one more pound than you did during the last workout. As four-time Olympic discus thrower and coach John Powell says, “Yard-by-yard is hard; inch-by-inch is a cinch.”