Breaking Down the Competition Bench Press (With Example Program)

In the following article we’ll be going over technique in the competition-style bench press (not to be confused with the average commercial gym bench press), programming strategies for improving your bench over the long and short term time frames, as well as learning how to bust through strength plateaus.

There are a bunch of misconceptions that come with the powerlifting styled bench. Typical misconceptions involve the “cheater arch”, potential injury risks, and the actual technical side of the bench press (bar bath, elbow position, etc). Before I proceed with the article, I must first note that the Bench Press (as performed in the sport of powerlifting), is relatively safe if executed correctly. Most injuries that occur are the result of technical breakdown caused by fatigue, or simply not knowing how to bench properly.

And contrary to popular opinion among many on social media, arching in the bench press will not cause your spine to “explode”, nor will it put you at a greater risk of injury as opposed to “flat back benching”. If you have any doubts in regards to the safety of arching in the bench press, then check out the video below from Juggernaut Training Systems. 

The “Perfect” Repetition – Technical Breakdown in the Bench Press

I’m a firm believer that no strength athlete is perfect (although Jen Thompson and Yury Belkin could make that argument), and that every athlete should strive for improvements in technical proficiency, become more consistent, and improve every aspect of their own game every chance they get. That being said, there are ways to work towards the “perfect rep” where you utilize your leverages, experience, and individual differences to your advantage.

[The bench press offers a ton of benefits for strength athletes; here are 11.]

The quest for that “perfect rep” begins with technical analysis and breakdown. Analyzing every aspect of an athlete’s bench press is crucial for finding inconsistencies, technical errors, weaknesses, and how to improve them. When looking at an athlete’s bench press there are three things you must first consider: Set up, bar bath, and positioning throughout the entire set/repetition.

Powerlifting Bench Press Set up

To begin, ensure the athlete has a consistent set up from head to toe. It’s important to develop a repeatable set up that you are able to duplicate set after set, and session after session. Creating consistencies in the gym is key for success on the platform. The biggest things to look for right off the bat is scapular retraction, foot position, and the unrack/receiving the hand-off.

Retracting the scapula down and back is huge for maintaining the arch, as well as keeping the chest high throughout the set. Many lifters run into issues with scapular retraction, but there are many ways to rectify that issue that can include: Cueing (reminding the athlete to retract their shoulder blades back and down every session), accessory movements such as seated cable rows that teach scapula retraction under load, and “filler exercises” such as banded pull-aparts, as well as Scapular Wall Slides.

The set up itself should be extremely tight and the body should be tense. The athlete should be very uncomfortable once in a set position and ready to receive the barbell. Total body tightness begins with digging the feet (or the toes) into the ground, then anchoring the glutes, as well as the shoulders on the Bench. While once again, retracting the scapula back and down, and maintaining it throughout the entire set. This will create a solid foundation from which to press.

[Need stronger healthier scaps? Try these 10 useful exercises for scap health.] 

Once you receive the barbell from the spotter, you must pull the bar out with your lats (do not press the bar out of the rack or out of your spotter’s hands), then pull your chest towards the bar, ensuring that you keep it high throughout the entire set while also maintaining retraction. Stay extremely tight, bracing hard and maintaining that strong position until you receive the start command, or start the repetition on your own accord.

Bar Path

The bar path for the Bench Press can be a make or break a great lift. In fact, bar path is the most common technical error I see in lifters. In my opinion, there are two common issues. One there’s confusion within the strength community about the effectiveness of a “straight bar path” vs. an “up and back” bar path. Two, many lifters are unaware how to correct their bar path and often have issues missing lifts in front of them (pressing forward), or missing immediately off the chest.

Assessing your own bar path or your athlete’s is step one. For starters, you need to figure out what your current bar path looks like, then work to improve it every training session. Video analysis, in-person feedback, and lift breakdowns are extremely effective. Once you have identified your deficiencies, then you will be able to make a plan to fix them.

An efficient and effective bar path will be one that allows you to press “up and back” as opposed to in a straight line, or worse, towards your toes. Benching with this type of bar path allows you to correctly tuck the elbows at the bottom, and flare them at the appropriate time on the concentric portion, while also setting up for the most efficient path to press. In many cases the most efficient path to travel is in a straight line, but for the raw bench press it is a “J” path.

Elbow and Bar Positioning

Positioning in the bench press particularly with the elbows and the bar are extremely important. During the bottom portion of the bench press the elbows should be in front of the bar or directly underneath. This allows for a more effective bar path, and it also allows you to be your strongest in the most compromising position (aka the bottom of the lift).

The bar position (touch point) is also a crucial aspect of the Bench Press. Where you touch on your body is going to determine how effectively you’ll be able to press once you get the start command. Many lifters recommend a method called “high pointing”. Simply put, this is when the athlete will touch the bar to the highest point of their body when in the bottom position. Another recommendation is touching the bar right below your nipples, or on the lower portion of the sternum.

This is the most common way to teach bar positioning. Individual differences and set up do come into play when determining an effective touch point. An athlete with a much more aggressive arch will touch higher on their body to limit the range-of-motion (ROM), while an athlete with a less aggressive arch will touch lower.

Programming Strategies and General Considerations

For the sake of brevity in this article, I’ll keep this section as brief as possible and get straight to the point. Programming is a vastly misunderstood and sometimes ridiculed aspect of powerlifting, and in my opinion, there are two stigmas that come with programming: “Programming is stupid, just go in and lift!”, then there’s, “You need to track every metric, every workout, every day in order to make any progress AT ALL.” Personally, I fall in the middle of those two because I firmly believe that intelligent, well thought out programming can be a game changer for athletes, but at the same time, I don’t believe in paralysis by analysis. Sometimes keeping it simple is your best bet.

Programming will vastly differ depending on age, gender, proximity to career peak, time of year (20 weeks out from competition vs. 3 weeks), and other individual differences. The key is to understand where you are or where your athletes are, assess the individual, and design a program based on their needs.

I follow and utilize a block periodization style of training with a weekly undulation approach. In other words, it’s non-traditional block periodization and the progression is not linear. Training blocks tend to vary from 3-5 weeks long, depending on lifting phase and other individual differences.

Most notably: gender and experience. For example, lower weight class female lifters will have longer training blocks, as opposed to a 308 Male Lifter with a 2,000+ pound total. Since this article is geared towards the bench press, I’ll lay out a typical 4-week General Strength Block where the athlete will be looking to set a new 5-Rep-Maximum (5-RM) with a previous competition bench press of 225 pounds.

Week 1, Day 1 (Preparation)

Movement

Medium Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

5×6

Loading/RPE

160

Movement

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Sets/Reps

3×8

Loading/RPE

140

 

Week 1, Day 2 (Preparation)

Movement

Competition Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

4×6

Loading/RPE

200

 

Week 2, Day 1 (Accumulation)

Movement

Medium Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

6×6

Loading/RPE

165

Movement

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Sets/Reps

3×8

Loading/RPE

145

 

Week 2, Day 2 (Accumulation)

Movement

Competition Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

[email protected], followed by (-10%)x4x6

Loading/RPE

185-210

 

Week 3, Day 1 (Accumulation, Pre-Planned Functional Overreaching Week)

Movement

Medium Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

7×6

Loading/RPE

170

Movement

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Sets/Reps

4×8

Loading/RPE

150

 

Week 3, Day 2 (Accumulation, Pre-Planned Functional Overreaching Week)

Movement

Competition Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

4×5

Loading/RPE

205-210

(Target RPE @7)

 

Week 4, Day 1 (Planned Functional Overreaching Week)

Movement

Medium Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

8×6

Loading/RPE

175

Movement

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Sets/Reps

4×8

Loading/RPE

155

 

Week 4, Day 2 (Planned Functional Overreaching Week)

Movement

Competition Grip Bench Press

Sets/Reps

[email protected], followed by (-10%)x5x5

Loading/RPE

225 for new 5RM, followed by a -10% drop for volume.

 

As you can see, the program had a weekly undulating effect to accommodate the fatigue generated and accumulated from the harder weeks of training, but it also had a linear effect with the Medium Grip Bench Press (by simply adding five pounds and one set per week on the opposite bench day). This allows the athlete to have one “hard” or “medium” day per week, while also having a second day dedicated to volume, honing technical proficiency, and accumulating volume in anticipation for the Planned Functional Overreaching Week on Week four, which is followed by the deload on week five.

I didn’t include accessories or any assistance movements, but all programs will have accessories after the main lifts to help accommodate the bench press. For example, there could be flat dumbbell bench press, multiple rowing/pulling variations, direct arm work, etc. Accessories are directly correlated with the individual, and as an athlete/coach it’s important to understand why you’re utilizing a particular accessory movement in the program.

A final aspect of programming is the use of “fillers”. Essentially the athlete would be asked to perform particular exercises between sets of a main movement, somewhat similar to a superset. Two of my favorite filler exercises are banded pull-aparts and scapular wall slides. Both of these exercises teach scapular retraction which is key in the bench press, and they’re both extremely low stress and can be performed every workout. I often include banded pull-aparts between all sets of squat, bench, and deadlift, as well as during a general warm-up before lifting.

Conclusion

There are countless misconceptions in the powerlifting bench press, and there are many technical errors that go unnoticed due to lack of understanding. These can range from technical errors to programming errors. It’s important to analyze your own bench press, as well as your athletes, and assess the lift with multiple questions. Ask questions like: Does it make sense? Is it sound? Am I getting better?

At the end of the day, there are infinite ways to get stronger and build the bench press, but the most important thing to remember is that you find what’s proven and effective for yourself, as well as your athletes.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @nova_strength Instagram page. 

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