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.
1: Shoulders high, forward -no tightness
2: Resulting bar path from #1, very fared, shoulders forward.
3. Scaps down and back, lats firing.
4. Resulting bar path from #3, tight tuck, sexy stacked neck
Goal: Gain tightness throughout the body
This section is really the meat of benching, the rest is potatoes and side dishes. Now you may look at the following pictures and look directly at my arch, thinking “why would I want that” or “I can’t do that”. I am not here to tell you to arch on the bench, just to clear that up. For me, it allows me to get really tight and shorten my range of motion (because I have some long arms). Jumping into it:
Set your hands on the bar. Figure out your desired spacing and squeeze the bar. Keep them there and do not move them once set. A lot of times, I will spot someone and they will spin the bar for an eternity. Take your time but be as efficient as possible.
Set your shoulders. I like to do this quite aggressively, with my hips off the bench to help me dig them in. You do not want them moving while you are pressing. While doing this, I am retracting and depressing my scaps, as mentioned above. (Note: these steps can be done at the same time if desired).
5: Hands and shoulders set
Now that your upper back and hands are set, it is time to place your feet onto the ground. I am using plates to more closely mimic the actual pad height I bench on. If you look closely, you can see that my heels are not touching. I place my feet far back enough so that my heels do not rest upon the ground, rather I have to drive through my heels to plant my feet, establishing tightness in my lower body and effectively driving my hips towards my shoulders which further tightens my upper back. That being said, leg drive can be its own beast. Long story short, try to keep your ass on the bench during the drive and your feet on the floor. You can mitigate that movement by widening your feet or focusing your efforts in a less wild manner.
6. Loaded and ready to drive
The last part before pressing I wanted to highlight was the unrack and starting position. Have someone unrack the bar for you if you lose tightness unracking yourself. Upon unracking, take a moment to bring the bar out over your chest, establishing a common point at which you start your descent, let's call it the pocket. Here is the best tip of all: while in the pocket, use the weight of the bar to further drive your shoulders back (and down!). Often times this can really tune up your bench. Notice from the first to second picture the position of my rear delt- do you see how it is deforming the letters of the bench (ROGUE) considerably more in the second? This is exactly what I am talking about. Utilize the weight to your advantage. Note: pay attention to your shoulders upon self unracking maneuvers as many beginner/intermediate lifters lose tightness and cannot regain it to the same degree.
7. My "pocket" and before final retraction
8. Tight AF
Goal: Not die
To start the descent, pull, rather than letting the weight fall to your chest. (@Complainers this a reason why push-pull supersets are effective). While maintaining tightness, pull the bar to your chest, springing off of the tightness you have created, pushing explosively out of the hole. Bring the bar back up to the pocket point after each rep. Simple as that, right?
To conclude, the bench press is a full-body movement. It may not be comfortable being that tight, but you will grow to rely on it. It is repeatable; practice perfect form; live in the pocket. Be disciplined, be effective, be powerful.
Notice in this last photo, in comparison to the rest, how I am just laying there? My feet are wherever they happened to land, my shoulders are rolled forward, and I am not tight at all. It might look eerily familiar.
I did not bench 405 pounds overnight. Honestly, I should probably bench more for how much mental effort and energy I give it. Elevating yourself in lifting means higher and higher goals. I am always chasing something greater. Lower the weight, delay the gratification and reap the benefits in the future. I benched 315 lbs for the first time when I was 18 at 171 lbs, 365 at 210, and 405 at 228. To go from 315 to 405 took me four years. I most certainly have grown a lot during that time period. I was stuck trying to get stronger while I wasn't getting tight. I was incredibly frustrated. Just be better than you were yesterday and hopefully take a small snippet from this post. I am not claiming to have the secret recipe nor the only way to bench big, I am simply sharing some tips that have elevated my game.
If you are still having issues, try to evaluate your weak points on the bench. Find them and attack them until your strong points are now your weak points. Many people lack brute tricep strength or shoulder strength. You can never have enough tricep, so start there 😉
"Ownership separates the overwhelmed from the overcoming". Take ownership of your life, your choices, and arguably most important, your bench.
About me: I am a senior Mechanical Engineering Student at the University of St. Thomas graduating in Spring 2020. Additionally, I am in the process of applying for graduate school to study aerospace engineering in Fall 2020. In high school, I played football and wrestled. In college, I have dabbled in competitive powerlifting, competing at USAPL raw nationals in October 2019. I am also the President and Co-Founder of Tommie Strength, an undergraduate club aimed at providing a sense of community and fitness education to students and faculty. I enjoy the outdoors and spending way too much time talking between sets.