Updated: Nov 25, 2019
To many, 405 pounds on any single lift is quite an accomplishment, a goal, or even a dream. A dream manifests itself into a goal, a goal into reality -- with the necessary discipline and mental strength required for such a feat. When I first got into lifting, I was struggling to put any mass on. I was 165 pounds of skinny fat at 6’ (now 5' 11.5" b.c. squats) who had recently had a bad tonsillectomy post wrestling season, causing me to lose quite a lot of weight. I didn’t back squat, barely deadlifted, and was obsessed with upper body training, specifically arms. That is what matters, right? Austin may disagree with me, stating that “no one cares about your biceps”, at times using choice language. Skinny arms aren’t going to hold up a multitude of weight. Benching big requires wrist and forearm strength/stability. Most important of all, powerful and thick triceps.
I will get back to my journey under the bar, but we first need to discuss the obvious as well as the not so obvious elements of bench pressing. If you asked the classic guillotine pressing, happy footed gym bro wearing his intramural basketball cutoff, he would probably tell you (if he is lucky): chest, shoulders, and triceps. He isn’t wrong, but not entirely correct either. The majority of bench pressers in the gym today lack scapular retraction and depression; they lack tightness in a major way. I am sure some of you are wondering what the term ‘happy feet’ means or what I have against intramural basketball cutoffs. More on that later. The key takeaway here is that the bench press is a full-body lift. Let me restate that no different from the first time: the bench press is a full-body lift. That means lying on the bench because it is comfortable and tapping your toes to the music in your headphones isn’t going to provide the stable base required to push big weight. Learning how to engage and utilize the entirety of these elements will turn your bench into a well-oiled machine rather than the next gym meme.
(On my way to fix your bench, because you need some help)
There are multiple ways to approach this, but I am going to break it down in 3 main sections and 9 subsections: Pre-Bench, Setup, and Pressing. The following subsections, broken into groups of 3: Scaps, Lats, Tris, Hands, Shoulders, Feet, Drive, Pull, and Push.
Goal: activate scaps, lats, and triceps to prepare for benching
Spend 5-10 minutes doing light tricep and lat work. Practice scapular depression (shoulder blades down) and scapular retraction (blades back). This can be seen below. The top two photos are mimicking a bar path without any tightness. Some people may bench press with the bar higher up on their chest than others, but the mistakes that raise red flags are the general lack of scap action and lat activation. This causes the elbows to flare excessively throughout the majority of the movement (guillotine) and allow for upper back movement (instability of the shoulders). The bottom two photos are me practicing my lat activation by trying to bend the bar; retracting my shoulders back and down. Notice that my elbows are tucked and my shoulders are no longer even with the base of my neck (especially at the start). Try this with a PVC pipe if your gym has them. Another option is to try with the bar itself, however, you most likely will not be able to produce any deformation like you would with the PVC pipe.