There are a ton of different cues lifters use for the bench press and one of the most popular you hear is “bend the bar,” or perhaps more usefully, “separate the bar”, but what exactly do they mean?
For a true beginner, or barbell rookie for that matter, the cues “bend the bar” and “separate the bar” can be a little confusing, and are actually performed incorrectly at times. After all, you can’t physically, actually bend the bar. So is it a cue that stems from achieving a particular body position, is it a movement pattern, or is it something else?
In this article, we’re going to dive into why coaches and lifters like to say “bend the bar” and “separate the bar”, their benefits, and when they can actually be problematic.
What Does “Bend the Bar” Mean?
“Bend the bar” could best be described as a cue to facilitate a consistent body positioning with the lats and the scapula. When you’re set for the bench press you need to maintain a tightly packed back to ensure a stable position and platform to press upon, and “bend the bar” is an excellent way for lifters to visualize contracting the lats, retracting and depressing the scapula, and getting set.
If you’re having trouble visualizing this or understanding, then try this,
- Stand up straight and hold a broom stick or any stick in front of you with extended arms.
- Take a belly breath similar to how you would in the bench press.
- Try to pull apart the stick using as much force as possible while keeping the arms extended.
- Keep the wrists straight throughout the whole bending/separating process.
It’s important to note that while you’ll usually hear “bend the bar,” it might be better to think of it as pulling the bar apart — you’re not bending the wrists in any way.
A personal cue I like to use is “spread the knurling”. I’ll tell lifters to pretend they’re pulling the knurling wider only using the back musculature without moving the wrists at all. The arms are “pulling” the bar apart sideways, as opposed to the wrists bending the bar downward.
What’s going to happen naturally is that you’re more than likely going to engage the lats and back musculature to produce force to bend the bar. It’s important to keep the wrists in a fixed position throughout this process and to avoid using them to physically bend the bar; the bending action should be a product of the back musculature contracting. This concept that you just practiced while standing up can then be carried over to your bench press.
Think about how you set for the bench press: your upper back will be tight, the lats engaged, and scapula will be packed. The cue “bend the bar” or “separate the bar,” when done directly, forces you into this position without having to spend a ton of thought on each of those performance characteristics.
The Benefits of Bending the Bar
We’ve briefly touched on all of the benefits that come along with these cues above, but it’s worth pointing them out directly and how they pertain to performance. If you don’t use these cues now in your pressing and want to try them, then having a solid understanding of their benefits and the why can be useful before doing so.
- Positional Help: When actively trying to bend the bar, you force the lats and upper back to contract, which can improve your positioning throughout the press.
- Force Production: The lats and posterior deltoids (among smaller muscles on the back) serve as antagonistic muscles for the bench press, so contracting them when “bending the bar” allows better transfer of force between the eccentric and concentric portions of the press.
- Hands-On: Not every athlete naturally picks up on visual and audio cues, so having the ability to physically feel a cue can be an incredibly useful teaching tool.
When These Cues Can Be Problematic
While these cues can be helpful for positioning in the bench press, they can also be problematic, especially for newer lifters who lack body awareness.
Strength coach Brendan Tietz brings up a solid counter-argument against these cues in his video below. His argument stems from the thought that most lifters don’t actually sequence their positioning right when using these cues, and end up bending the wrists instead of contracting the lats correctly. Check it out below.
If you find that you consistently bend your wrists when considering the cues “bend the bar” or “separate the bar”, then I’d highly recommend checking out the video above for nuggets of knowledge that may resonate better for you.
Like every lifting cue, you should experiment with them strategically and employ new tactics in a controlled fashion. Every lifting cue can be used for benefit, but it’s also helpful to remain objective about them at times. What works for others, may not work for you!