Oh man, where do we begin.
It’s chest day, also known as bench day, also known as that time of the week when you get to walk around the gym with your chest feeling swole. The pecs are poppin’ and your shirt is feeling tight, what a time to be alive. Did that honey just look at your pump? You can’t tell because it’s hard to see over all of this chest hypertrophy.
All jokes and bench satire aside, this article is intended to be a friendly reminder of little tips to remember on your next chest/bench day. We’ve written about the commandments for successful leg and deadlift days, but never for the chest. And while not every strength athlete has a bench focused day, it’s always to nice to keep these thoughts in mind.
1. Thou Shalt Not Max Out Every Week
This is going to be a no brainer point for many athletes, but a tough point to swallow for beginners. I feel like it’s almost universal when starting out in the gym to continually push maxes on a routine basis, especially for the bench. When we begin lifting hitting 1-RMs aren’t weighted the same as being at an elite level, so it’s not the worst thing you can do for your lifting, but it’s definitely not the most productive.
Out of the big three, the bench is often the toughest to progress in. This being said, it’s increasingly important to nail down a solid foundation of strength before pushing true 1-RMs. Save yourself the time of spinning your wheels and feeling like your numbers never progress and pick a solid program with a well-constructed form of periodization. Beginners can easily use linear, while advanced and elite lifters could benefit with some forms of undulation.
2. Thou Shalt Take Weight Jumps Wisely
This is another somewhat self-explanatory point, but worth mentioning. Most likely, your bench max is lower than your squat and deadlift max, along with your working sets. Factor this into the concepts that there’s a lower personal ceiling for the bench, along with it being very technical, and you’re left with a smaller range of error. All that being said, your bench warm-up should be done using smaller jumps compared to lower body or back movements.
There’s no point to get anxious and tax your nervous system before even starting your working sets by taking too big of jumps. The body needs time to adjust and prepare itself for the stress [aka bench working sets] you’re about to put it under. Ben Pollack wrote a great article for us providing 4-steps for the perfect powerlifting warm-up, check it out here. Moral of the story: take smart jumps, stay consistent, and find what works for you.
3. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Accessories
Accessories on the bench are like milk in cereal. Sure, you could eat the cereal alone, but milk makes it taste so much better. Yes, you can improve on the bench with benching alone, but to truly progress past a certain point and to eliminate weak or sticking points there should be some accessories included.
In addition, accessories are great variations when you’re benching more frequently, which is one of the best ways to improve on the bench, but more on that below. Below are a few popular accessories for certain sticking/weak points on the bench.
- Stuck At the Bottom: Wide-Grip Bench, Pause Bench, Dead Stop Bench, Incline Bench, Resistance Banded Bench
- Mid-Range: Close Grip Bench, Dumbbell Bench, 1 ¼ Bench Press
- Stuck At the Top: Floor Press, Incline Bench, Decline Bench
4. Thou Shalt Never Stop Perfecting Form
Whether you’re a powerlifter, other form of strength athlete, or fitness enthusiast, you should never stop breaking down your form. I’m not advising to be over-analytical every workout, but to keep a mindful eye on your form’s progress. The bench press is a very technical lift, and even simple things like not getting a hand off can make tiny changes in how you’re pressing.
[Need help dialing in your form? Check out our ultimate bench press guide!]
My advice, if you train alone ask a coach or knowledgeable athlete to work with you every so often on watching your form. Self video is awesome, but sometimes it can be hard to be objectively analytical of your own shortcomings. Also, if you’re a powerlifter, then you have to take it a step further and even pay closer attention to your form. After all, one small mishap can be the difference between a “good lift” and a “no lift”.
Additionally, a powerlifter should acknowledge different federation’s judging criteria for the bench. For example, some federations require the foot to be fully flat on the floor, while others only require it to be touching the ground throughout the full lift.
5. Thou Shalt Create Full Body Tension
Heavy weight over the head and neck with a loose upper or lower body is always worth a cringe. Beginners typically are the majority that don’t realize how important full body tension is in the bench press. Full body tension means that the upper body is packed and tight, the hips are slightly extended with the glutes flexed, and the feet are firmly planted under you. There’s no area on the body where a body part can move freely.
One cue that always helps me when achieving full body tightness is thinking about my body like a rubber band, which could be used for every lift in all honesty. You want to maintain full tension to equally displace the load before a forceful contraction. If your lower body is loose and moving while pressing, then you’re short changing your bench press potential. Think about it this way, you want more points of contact on the bench/ground to generate the most amount of force.
6. Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Bar Path
The biggest benches all have a few things in common, but possibly one of the biggest is bar path. A great bar path decreases the total amount of shoulder flexion and distributes weight in a means that creates a shorter movement arm. Will your bar path be a duplicate of someone else’s? Most likely not, and that’s okay. For example, your bar path may not hit directly on the lower chest like someone else’s and so forth.
Below are a few universal points to keep in mind when watching your bar path. First, watch where the weight is sitting in the un-racked position. Ideally, the weight will be directly over the shoulder joint [aka stacking the joints], as this will limit stress and energy expended when in the isometric hold. Second, keep an eye on your grip width. A majority of athletes will benefit with their forearm (radius & ulna) directly under the bar.
Lastly, be mindful of your bench style and arm length. This is where having a coach on hand, or someone to help analyze your bar path can be handy. At the end of the day, your goal should to press more weight and to distribute weight evenly through each phase of the concentric portion of the bench press, which includes shoulder flexion, shoulder horizontal flexion, and elbow extension, along with limiting excessive flexion that could cause failure at weak or sticking points.
Greg Nuckols makes a great point in his bar path article when he writes, “Remember, you don’t miss a lift because you are too weak through the full range of motion. You miss a lift because you were too weak through the very weakest part of the lift.” Additionally, check out the video below from Alan Thrall discussing bar path for a visual explanation.
7. Thou Shalt Program Frequency Smartly
Believe it or not, the bench press can actually be trained more frequently than the squat and deadlift. I always find the frequency aspect ironic because it’s the toughest lift to progress in, but frequency tends to win with this movement. It’s less taxing on the body, so the recovery’s a bit quicker, which allows us to train it more often. And the trick isn’t to just bench more frequently to get stronger, it’s to find your ideal frequency.
A lot goes into programming a movement when frequency is being increased. There has to be adherence to volume, intensity, variation, and other factors because the last thing you want to experience is being fried and then stall in progress, or worse, undergo an injury. Ben Pollack’s article he wrote for us discussing bench frequency and choosing what’s best for you does a great job at explaining this.
8. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Back and Rear Delt Work
It’s no secret that the bench doesn’t only strengthen the anterior portion of our body, but the posterior as well. A stronger back and rear delts will help absorb force in the eccentric and create a large surface area to press from. Strengthening these two areas can be beneficial for the bench press for three reasons.
One, as stated above, it helps displace weight and force in the eccentric portion of the bench. The stronger these areas of the body are, the better you’ll be able to load yourself before concentrically contracting. Two, it creates a bigger base to press from, which can benefit many strength athletes. Three, it can be preventative and keep the shoulders and chest healthy by preventing excessive internal rotation (aka the hunched over posture).
9. Thou Shalt Check Thy Ego At the Door
This point is in every commandment list I’ve written thus far, and it’s here to stay. It’s the perfect way to sum up points two and four above. Some days it can be tough to leave your ego at the door when you’re in a competitive mood, or even being critiqued by someone, but try your best to separate emotion from rational thought. Big jumps and lack of care for form are asking for a ticket to Injury Town, which no one can afford.
10. Thou Shalt Use The Brethren When Maxing
Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but use a spotter when working at 1-RM or high intensities. In the last few months alone, there have been two reported deaths from bench press related injuries, which resulted in the lifter getting trapped under the bar.
Most likely, if you’re a weathered strength athlete, you know what to do if stuck in that scenario, yet why not be better safe than sorry. After all, sh*t happens, and if we account for Murphy’s Law, then no one is safe in lifting-related situations.
Feature image from @kriis_d Instagram page.