This article is intended for beginner/novice lifters, but many intermediate and advanced lifters can also benefit from it. I will take you, step by step, from setup to lockout and everything in between. On the surface, the bench press looks like a simple exercise but, in reality, at the competitive level, there are a ton of different little techniques that can maximize your press. Always remember, you are not a bodybuilder trying to isolate your chest muscles. This is a total body movement, and almost every muscle in your body is used to perform a power lifter-style bench press.
When you get ready to bench, you will want to position your body in the best way to maximize strength and minimize the chance of injury. You will have to focus on several things during your setup:
1. You want to pull your shoulder blades down and back as hard as you can. Think of trying to touch your shoulder blades together.
2. Your chest should be as high as possible. You will want to arch your upper and lower back while making sure your butt stays in contact with the bench. There should be space between your lower back and the bench – at least enough for someone to slide their hand under you.
3. Foot Position. There are two (2) basic styles of foot position: feet in front and feet tucked back. Each style has advantages and disadvantages. I have seen great benchers use both foot positions. You have to try out both styles and see which one works best for your body style and bench press technique.
FEET IN FRONT: This is the most common foot placement. This foot placement has two advantages. First, it puts you in position to generate the maximum amount of leg drive. The second advantage is your wide base will help with staying balanced throughout the entire lift. Your knees will be bent so that your upper and lower leg will be pretty close to an 80-110 degree angle. You will be driving your foot forward so your toes want to go through the front of your shoe without your foot moving on the ground. Try to picture yourself using the same force to perform a leg extension with the only difference being that your leg will remain stationary. The force you generate from leg drive is going to enable you to maintain the upper and lower back arch and help transfer your total body strength into the lift.
FEET TUCKED BACK: This is a less commonly used foot placement technique. If you are not flexible, it will be hard to get into this foot position. This foot placement doesn’t allow you to generate as much leg drive force. It is also tougher to maintain your balance through the entire lift. It does, however, have one major advantage over the feet in front position. The feet tucked back position will enable you to have a more aggressive arch. By having a bigger arch, you will shorten your range of motion.
When you get into position for your feet tucked back, you will most likely be on the balls of your feet. I have seen a couple lifters able to have their legs back with their feet flat on the floor, but that is very rare. Your upper and lower legs will form around a 60-40 degree angle. You will want to drive your heels down while doing the same leg extension pressure.
4. Finding your best hand position on the bar. Every lifter has their own preference grip width. Most lifters prefer to have their pinkies, ring, or middle finger on the smooth ring on the bar. A closer grip gives you better strength out the bottom, but it increases the range of motion. A wider grip is tougher off your chest, but it shortens your range of motion. Experiment with different hand positions to find out which one works best with your style of benching. Now that you’re set, grab the bar with your thumb wrapped around the bar. Squeeze it as hard as possible. This will activate your muscles and let your body know you’re about to lift. Once you grab the bar, if you feel like your coil loosened up or your shoulder blades aren’t as tight as possible, you should try to reset and get tighter while you maintain your grip on the bar.
5. It’s time for your hand off. A good liftoff man is worth his weight in gold. You want him to lift and bring the bar out to you until you’re in an optimum start position. I prefer for my start position to be lined up with the bottom of my chest. Make sure your liftoff man doesn’t lift the bar too high – that will open up your shoulder blades and take you out of the proper position.
6. Now that you have the bar in your hands, you are ready for the descent/negative. The speed of the descent is different with every lifter. Whatever speed you feel strongest with will be your best speed. A bodybuilder might have a 90-degree angle between his upper arms and body. You should try to have a maximum of a 70-degree angle, closer to a 60-40 once you get used to it. Always make sure your elbow and wrist are aligned. If you try to touch the bottom of your chest and your elbows aren’t tucked enough, then your wrists will be ahead of your elbows; that is a dangerous position to be in. Slowly try to touch lower and lower until you find your strongest spot. It should be around the bottom of your chest, or a little bit lower than that if you’re tucked enough and have a decent arch.
If you are benching right, you will feel it in your back and lats. Try to bend the bar as it goes down. You will be bending from your pinkies rotating your hand so your right hand is rotating clockwise, and your left hand is rotating counter-clockwise. As the bar descends, you want to activate your lats and try to think of it as though the bar lowering your body is a rubber band. You are building up kinetic energy and, when it hits your chest, you explode with all that built-up energy. If you are benching right, you will feel it in your back and lats.
7. As you press the bar, it is natural for most people’s elbows to flare out. Try to keep your elbows tucked until at least halfway through the press. You will experiment and discover what works best for you; whatever way enables you to bench the most will be your best option. Every work set rep should be pressed with maximum effort. You should always explode out the bottom, and use that momentum to your advantage. Speed and momentum are your friends; using speed and max force off your chest will become second nature. When it is time for max effort lifts, you will instinctively press right through any natural sticking points.
8. Now, enough reading. Get under the bar and smash a PR.