It only makes sense to wrap up the “Variations You Should Know” series with the bench press. Full disclaimer, though: while I consider myself an expert on the squat and deadlift, I can’t say the same about the bench press.
I do think it’s the lift where leverages make the most difference, but that doesn’t account for the fact that my bench has progressed very slowly over the past several years.
On the other hand, I often find that it’s those who struggle with something the worst who know the most about how to improve. I’m honestly not a great guy to ask for deadlift advice, because that lift comes very naturally to me. I haven’t had to analyze it much, and yet I’ve made some huge gains – and so I will never be able to have the same perspective as someone who is not a natural deadlifter.
On the other hand, I’ve spent years breaking down my squat and building it up from square one. I’ve had to develop a very unique technique to overcome my natural disadvantages in terms of leverage, and I’ve done so successfully. As a result, I have the experience necessary to understand and help those who also struggle with poor squat mechanics.
The long and short of it is this: whenever you receive advice – about anything – you need to think critically about it, where it comes from, and how it applies to you. That process alone will make you a better lifter.
Oh, one last point: if you missed the squat or deadlift variation articles, make sure to check them out too.
Okay! Now that all that is out of the way, let’s get into it.
1. Guillotine Press
This is actually a very old-school bodybuilding exercise, and a favorite of legendary bodybuilding coach Vince Gironda. Performing the guillotine press is simple: it’s just a bench press, except instead of lowering the bar to the chest, you lower it to the clavicle (collarbone).
That small changes shifts the emphasis of the exercise, meaning your front delts work a little (maybe a lot) less, and your pecs work a little (maybe a lot) more.
Now, the guillotine press is often criticized as dangerous, for two reasons. The first is obvious: you’re lowering the bar to your neck, so if it slips, well… that’s not a good look. It should be equally obvious that this exercise needs to be performed in a safety rack or with the help of a competent spotter, to minimize that risk.
The second knock against the guillotine press involves the position of the elbows. In order to lower the bar to the clavicle, you must let your elbows move away from your body to stay under the bar – or else bend your wrists in an awfully awkward position. When your elbows move away from your body, your shoulders go into internal rotation, which can place a lot of stress on the rotator cuff – a group of small muscles that can be easily strained.
However, that internal rotation is very beneficial for many lifters. In fact, it’s very common to see or read about “proper” bench technique that involves keeping the elbows tucked very tightly against the body, in order to keep the shoulders externally rotated and prevent unnecessary strain to the rotator cuff. This is actually sub-optimal technique in most cases, because some degree of internal rotation is necessary to engage the pecs – primary movers in the bench press. Trying to bench without using your pecs to your best advantage is like trying to deadlift without using your lats: it’s certainly possible, but you’re never going to lift to your full potential. The guillotine press can help strengthen the pecs and help a lifter to become more comfortable using internal rotation in the regular bench.
[Want more bench content? Read: the 10 Commandments of the Bench Press!]
Now, that said, it is very important to keep the rotator cuff healthy. When you’re performing the guillotine press, you should use a fairly moderate weight for high reps, and you should make sure to keep the scapula retracted throughout the movement to help protect the shoulder girdle. And, when you perform a regular bench, you shouldn’t strive to have the same degree of internal rotation as you use in the guillotine press. You want to find a happy medium between tucking your elbows in tightly and flaring your elbows out all the way away from your body. The guillotine press can just make it a little easier to find that happy medium.
2. Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Another rare variation, the reverse grip bench press is as simple as it sounds: you just perform a regular bench press with a supinated grip. This one can be a little tough on the wrists, so make sure you use a good pair of wrist wraps for support (and spotter for added safety).
Whereas the guillotine press can teach elbow flare, the reverse-grip bench press can teach elbow tuck. For most people, a supinated grip (palms facing up) puts the shoulder in a slightly more favorable biomechanical position. It also makes it easier to activate the lats and upper back. You’ll find, though, that when you take a reverse grip, your elbows naturally stay in very close to your sides when you perform the press, putting much more emphasis on the triceps and less on the pecs.
That makes the reverse-grip bench an excellent exercise for those who struggle to keep their elbows tucked enough when they bench. It will both help to build comfort with a tucked elbow position and build tricep strength – both of which will make it easier to find that happy medium we’re looking for, if you’re a pec-dominant lifter or have simply fallen into the habit of using too much internal rotation when you press.
3. Yoke Bar JM Press
No, this isn’t actually a bench press variation – but I wanted to keep things consistent, and, just like the good morning and the single-leg press, the JM press has fantastic carryover to the competition lift.
I’ve written about the JM press before, and I definitely suggest you check out that article for a little more thorough explanation on how to perform this one. In short, a JM press is similar to a regular bench, but the bar is lowered straight down towards the face. Unlike the guillotine press, you don’t flare your elbows on this one – you push them forward, almost like a skull crusher. The JM press is a great tricep exercise, but it’s often difficult to keep good form when you load up heavy weights. That’s why I suggest using a safety bar: the handles act as “guides” to keep the bar moving in a straight line. It’s a little difficult to explain verbally, but it should only take a couple of reps before you get the hang of it.
Unlike the guillotine press, I think it’s smart to train the yoke bar JM press pretty heavily. 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps once a week is a great starting point.
At the very least, I hope you learned some new techniques from the “Variations” series, and even if they’re not the right exercises for you, maybe you can use them to help out someone else who is struggling with the powerlifts. Please do share these articles if you found them helpful, and I’ll do my best to keep them coming!
Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page.