Mastering The Bench Press

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Every Monday is a type of celebration in gyms around the world. For good or bad, Monday has been declared the International Bench Press day by trainees. This unspoken consensus is not official of course, but stands as a testimony of generations of iron addicts’ workout hard to develop bigger pectoral muscles and increase their bench numbers. The ironic part of this is that the barbell bench press is not the best chest-building exercise out there. It does however, have many other uses. Furthermore, mastering the bench press is much harder than simply pressing the bar up off your chest with gusto and enthusiasm.

This is not to refrain people from bench pressing, but to put it in context with training performance. Most world-class bench press holders have done a lot of different pressing exercises in order to reach their goals. Doug Hepburn, the first powerlifter to bench 500 lbs. and Arnold Schwarzenegger, another 500 lbs. bench press alum, were fans of the incline bench press and dumbbell work, for example. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and you’ll see later on that getting to the bench press Hall of Fame is paved with challenges.

But just like with anything else in life, there is a darker side to the bench press. It has been the source of many overuse injuries and shoulder issues throughout history. This is less an issue with the bench itself than with the focused mindset that comes with it. In their quest for bigger pecs and increased weight, many lifters have sacrificed structural balance and proper training mentality. Old time lifters though, knew that increasing the bench press meant paying attention to other muscles, making sure they were strong in a well-rounded way. Coach Poliquin was the first one to codify the structural balance necessary to reach a pain-free performance with increased weight on the bar.

Why the Bench Press?

Back in the days, before bodybuilding was a thing in itself, men took part in strongman and Olympic weightlifting events. Those competitions often featured the overhead press, which was considered a superior lift back then. In order to reach bigger numbers, trainees would literally bend over backward in an effort to shorten the range motion and have a better angle. After the injuries started piling up with the increased popularity of the sport, the overhead press was dropped. People turned to the bench press instead, as it was considered a safer alternative. The bench provided support and injuries diminished.

This popularity only increased when bodybuilding started making a name for itself when it separated from the strongman and weightlifting events. The Oak himself is in no small part responsible for this, having been blessed with large pecs which he studiously worked to enhance. At the start of his career, Arnold considered his upper chest to be a weak body part, and he would perform the bench press only after the incline press and dumbbell press. He allegedly did 60 reps with 225 lbs. No need to say that this only fueled the bench press rage that was sweeping the iron world.

The bench press often gets a bad reputation in the athletic and functional fields. Yet, a bench press with proper form can be a great benefit for performance. It is involved in many movements, such as throwing and punching. The incline variation is considered one of the best tests for both athletic potential and development. Whether it is a quarterback throwing a football or a pitcher getting in a fastball, both actions depend on a strong bench. But there is more to it than just the strength of your pectorals!

It’s More than Just the Pecs

The bench press is mainly considered a pectoral exercise. The common gym-bro thinking is that if you want bigger pectorals, you start with bench press and then move on to other chest exercises. While this is true, it omits the front deltoids and the triceps, both crucial muscles in the execution of the bench press. Most knowledgeable coaches and biomechanics aficionados will also mention needing to work the lower portion of the trapezius, serratus anterior, coraco-brachialis, long head of the biceps brachii, teres minor, infraspinatus, and subscapularis. These muscles are involved in scapular and humeral stabilization, giving your arms a stable platform to push the bar. Yes, the old cannon and canoe analogy. It is however a fact that those muscles, if their ratio of strength is adequate, allow your prime movers to express their best.

How does that work exactly? The human body is pretty well designed. It has a lot of protective mechanisms to prevent it from going overboard. One of them is a feedback loop. If the mechanoreceptors in the joints and the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) and muscle spindles in the muscles assisting the prime movers sense that the load is too much for them to handle, they will send a signal to the brain. In return, the brain will limit the neural output to the prime movers to limit the risk of injury. Of course, the brain itself is not conscious that the bar is going to crush you if you can’t lift it up. But you get the gist of it. So, strengthening the muscles in charge of stabilization, up to a point, will increase performance. They will not only allow the prime movers to express more strength, they will also help make the bar path more regular and provide a stronger base for future gains in strength. This emphasizes the importance of a good evaluation, such as the one you learn in our Structural Assessment course, if you want to make the most of your potential.

Setting the Brakes

Another little talked about muscle involved in the bench press outside of select powerlifting circles is the latissimus dorsi. Yes, the same latissimus dorsi you work so hard on with chin-ups and pull-ups can also benefit your bench press. You have to remember that from a kinesiology standpoint, the lats are also powerful internal rotators of the humeri (the plural of humerus), thus lending a bit of help. But the main argument of proponents of engaging the lats during bench press is that they provide an anchoring to counterbalance the pectorals, allowing a smoother lift off and making sure the shoulder joint mechanics are operating smoothly. Plus, many well-developed lifters report that meaty lats help to “pillow” the bottom position for a more comfortable movement.

The Muscle is the Limit

Getting through a sticking point makes or breaks a lift. Those sticking points are due to certain muscles not being able to provide enough strength at a certain point of the range of motion. Coaches like Louie Simmons, Pierre Roy, and of course coach Poliquin were proponents of strengthening the muscles responsible for this sticking point in order to overcome it.  Below, you will a find a chart for the three main grip widths, along with which muscles needs to be reinforced depending on the location of the sticking point.

GripRangeExercise
Close GripStart- Serratus Anterior
- Anterior Deltoid
- Pectoralis Major, Clavicular portion
- Subscapularis
- External Rotators
- Lower Trapezius
Close GripMid Range- Serratus Anterior
Close GripLockout- Triceps
Mid & Wide GripStart- Serratus Anterior
- Anterior Deltoid
- Pectoralis Major, sternal Portion
- External Rotators,
- Lower Trapezius
Mid & Wide GripMid Range- Serratus Anterior
- Biceps Brachii, Long Head
- Coracobrachialis
Mid & Wide GripLockout- Triceps

If you are familiar with the Westside-type of workout, you know they use assistance exercises. Those come from this assessment of sticking points and are aimed at making a muscle stronger, so it can then perform better at a given point of the range of motion where it is especially recruited.

Of course, not all exercises are equal. Some are more important than others. Here is a table that will help you choose the best variations to build your strength and overcome your sticking points.

Target Muscle(s)Assistance Exercise Selection
Serratus Anterior- Incline Front Raises, all grips
- Front Cable Raises, Neutral and Pronated Grips
Anterior Deltoid- Seated Press Behind the Neck
- Seated Dumbbell Press, Semi-Supinated Grip
- Seated Military Press
Pectoralis Major, Clavicular portion- Wide-Grip Bench Press to Collarbone
- Prone & Incline DB Flyes
- Prone & Incline Cable Crossover
- Partial Bench Press (Bottom Half)
- Barbell Bench Press 1 ¼ (Bottom ¼)
- Functional Isometrics (Bottom Half)
- Incline Press
- Prone DB Press, Pronating Grip
Pectoralis Major, Sternal portion- Close Grip Dips
- Decline Press
- Decline Flyes (Cables or Dumbbells)
- Functional Isometrics
- Prone Dumbbell Press, Neutral Grip
Subscapularis- Internal Rotation Exercises (DB or Pulley)
- Subscapularis Chin/Pull-Ups
Long Head Biceps Brachii- Barbell Curls
- Seated Incline Curls
- Standing Cable Curls
* Any type of curls where the upper arms are in line with or behind the torso
Triceps- Triceps Extensions to the Neck (Ez Bar Jaw Breaker)
- Triceps Extensions to the Nose (Ez Bar Nose Crunchers)
- Close Grip Dips
- Lockouts in the Power Rack
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Reverse Grip Bench Press
- 3-5 Board Press
- Floor Press
- Pin Press (Upper 1/3 of ROM)
- French Press
- Chains/Bands work
Latissimus Dorsi- Pull-Ups
- Wide Grip Pulldown
Lower Trapezius- Trap 3 Raise Unilateral
- Trap 3 Raise Bilateral
- Prone Incline Trap 3 Raise
Middle Trapezius- Powell Raise
Rotator Cufff
(Mostly infraspinatus & Teres Minor)
- External Rotation Exercises, all types
- Cuban Press
- Cobra Raise

A Grip that Kills

A strong grip can be a boon to many exercises that involve the hands. Surprisingly, it can also help with the bench press, although common sense would dictate that since the bar rests in the hands, it should not be so important.

Empirical evidence as well as science data seem to say otherwise however. There are two main reasons for this:

1) The irradiation effect, which allows you to express more strength in the prime movers

2) The biomechanics of the shoulder

The first point, the irradiation effect, is a well-known neural phenomenon in martial arts circles. The stronger you can contract a muscle, the more muscles innervated by the same nerve will contract. This is why old-time martial artists were adamant about clenching your fists as hard as possible before punching. Yes, it also protects the hands, but the resulting punch would also have more power to it because the prime movers would contract that much more. Here is a simple experience.

Hold your hand in a relaxed position while contracting your biceps as much as possible. Touch it to assess the recruitment of your muscle. Or better yet, if you are at the gym, try this with wrist cuff while doing low pulley biceps curl. Now repeat the experience while closing your fist as hard as possible, as if you were trying to crush something. Chances are your contraction will be greater. If you try this at the gym, you will be able to knock off a couple of more reps, too.

The second point has more to do with how comfortable you are with the bar in your hands. This is where fat bars are used.

The Fat Bar Solution

Aside from direct grip work, one solution to work the grip while bench pressing is to use fat bars. Those are special bars of varying diameter that are larger than a regular bar. If your gym does not have this type of bar, simply treat yourself to a pair of FatGripz, handles you can use for both bars and dumbbells. They come in a variety of sizes that will allow you to strengthen your grip progressively.

Be aware though that you will have to lower the load you use, but after a few weeks of hard work it should go back up to the same level as before.

This seems to be beneficial for those with shoulder issues. It lessens the stress on the shoulder joint. The theory behind this is that the larger grip size opens up the shoulder fascia, thus allowing a smoother movement. The jury is still out on the scientific reason behind this, but plenty of lifters can vouch that thick grip bench pressing has allowed them to save their shoulders and increase their lifted weight.

Here are a few tips to help you target your pecs and put more weight on the bar:

1) Start with dumbbells

This one seems counter-intuitive. However, the effort necessary to control the dumbbell will fire up your nervous system and allow you to recruit more muscle fibers in the pectoralis major.

2) Do incline bench press before flat bench press

There is a debate raging in the field of strength training about how effective incline bench press is to recruit the clavicular portion of your pectorals, aka the “upper chest.” Recent data shows that although 45º angle is indeed a bit better than the prone version, the 30º incline is just as good and puts lower stress on your shoulder girdle.

3) Make sure you train your back just as much

Your brakes need to be just as strong as your accelerators. So, save your shoulders and make sure your prime movers are well-balanced, train the back muscles with just as much volume as the pectorals and triceps with plenty of different types of rows, chin-ups, and pull-ups

4) Make sure you choose the right exercises

Whether we are talking about fat bar training or choosing the right assistance exercises, addressing your weakest link first will always result in an improvement of your bench press performance. It will also extend your time in the gym by preventing injuries before they get the chance to happen.

5) Whenever possible, increase the range of motion (ROM)

Use of dumbbells or specialty bars such as the cambered bar allows you to go deeper in the stretched position. This will allow you to recruit more muscle fibers.

6) Use chains and band to accommodate resistance

Chains and bands allow you to match the resistance curve of the exercise in pressing movements. Most people fail in the lower or mid third of the movement, as the triceps become more involved in the upper third. By using chains or bands, you will make the exercise more arduous in the latter third and thus overload the easiest part of the movement. Be aware though that using bands can be especially taxing on the nervous system, so they should be used infrequently.

7) Use the incline bench press to boost athletic performance

This form of bench press is better correlated with performance in the field when it comes to pitching, throwing, and punching. Make sure to vary the incline you are using every few workouts and you’ll develop what coaches call “well-rounded strength.”

Final Word

The bench press can be a great exercise if done correctly, in accordance to your goals. Don’t follow the flock blindly by doing endless sets of flat barbell bench press. Follow these principles and get the proper variety and methodology, and you’ll get both big and strong!

In Strength,

The Strength Sensei Legacy Team