Why Pulling Is An Underrated Cue for the Bench Press

Here's how to use pulling in the bench press to push bigger weight.

If you’re a strength training regular and love the bench press, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard the cue “pull the bar apart” at least one time or another. This cue is thrown around a lot in strength training circles, and it’s not often accommodated with crystal clear clarity, especially for the beginner. Most view the bench press as mainly a pushing exercise, however, there’s a fair amount of pulling that goes on too.

This article is going to focus on the concept of pulling during the bench press, and how it can improve your strength and movement patterns. Similar to our article discussing the importance of the pushing cue during the deadlift, we will breakdown when and how to use the concept of pulling in your bench press. If you find yourself struggling to progress on the bench press, then try using some of the pulling cues below.

Bench Press Cue
Photo By Igor Simanovskiy / Shutterstock

Pulling During the Bench Press

The concept of pulling during the bench press can seem odd at first. After all, on paper the bench press is classified as an upper pushing exercise — and that is 100% always the case. The idea of pulling during the bench press is not used as a means to classify the movement, but a way to cue the body for better positioning, mechanics, and transfer of force.

A pull cue during a bench press can materialize in a few different ways. For example, there are multiple cues that get used to exemplify how to “properly” pull the barbell and oneself into position throughout the bench press. Below we’ve highlighted a few of the most common pulling cues and when they’re used.

During the Unrack and Set

  • Pull the bar apart
  • Bend/spread the bar
  • Break/snap the barbell

During the Descent

  • Pull the bar down to you

What facilitates a strong press? A strong base to press from, and that strong base is often created with a pull.

When getting set for the bench press, the upper back needs to remain tight (contracted lats) and the scapula should be depressed. This creates a solid base that allows you to absorb force properly from before shifting that force into the bar to complete the press. The time frame between the bench press’s unrack and descent is when pulling will be present the most. 

What facilitates a strong press? A strong base to press from, and that strong base is often created with a pull.

In the bench press, the pulling cue’s main function is to create a bridge between how you’re positioning the body and how force is being absorbed before the press. As you unrack the barbell, think about pulling the lats together on the bench press, and as you bring the barbell down to the chest, think about pulling the chest upwards towards the bar. Note, these cues in practice will be very subtle, and more than likely, the only one who will notice them is the lifter pressing the weight.

If you have trouble getting into a stable position and maintaining that set position in the eccentric-to-concentric shift, then try using some of the clues above during both the unracking and descending portion of the bench press.

Why It’s Worth Trying

Out of the big three, the bench press is by far the most technical lift to perform. On top of that, the bench press will typically have the most variance in its form’s appearance from athlete-to-athlete — no two bench presses look alike. The way you bench press will more than likely look slightly different compared to the person next to you. However, there are constants in the bench press’s form that should upheld for everyone. 

One of those bench press constants includes creating a stable base to press from. No matter what your bench press form looks like, there’s no denying the importance of creating a strong, table-like surface with the upper back to press from. For most lifters, bench press success is reliant on the ability to absorb and displace force.

By pulling, then pushing, we can create a higher net force on the bench press, which can have carryover to the lift’s success. This concept runs true for every lift, and most athletic movements. Think about it, if you are not maintaining a strong base to press from, then you are pressing without hitting your full potential — It’s like squatting without gripping the floor and eccentrically loading the legs and hips. The pull is your cue to keep the lats tight and prepared to shift an eccentric force into an equal or greater concentric.

How to Begin Using This Cue

If you’re brand new to this concept, then start implementing the above pulling cues with an empty bar during the unracking and descending portions of the bench press. The goal in doing this should be to feel a shift in the upper back’s posture from a relaxed to a flexed position throughout the unrack and eccentric.

In addition to the upper back flexing, you should also feel the lats get tighter/contract, and a slight shift in the positioning of the arms. 

For anyone without a coach or lifting partner to check if they’re pulling the bar apart correctly, then there are questions one can answer to self-check themselves.

  1. Are the scaps depressing and coming closer together on the bench? 
  2. Are the lats contracting with the outsides of the hands feeling a slight pressure? 
  3. Are the elbows slightly shifting tighter to the body? 

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these three questions, then there’s a really good chance you’re doing this correctly.

Remember, this is only one portion of the bench press, and while it’s incredibly important for success, it’s not the only cue that should be used. My advice, try multiple bench press cues and create a sequence that works best for you on a consistent basis. 

[Love this article? Check out why pushing is an underrated cue for deadlifts!]

Feature image from Igor Simanovskiy / Shutterstock.

Jake Boly

Jake Boly

Jake holds a Master’s in Sports Science and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. Currently, Jake serves as the Fitness and Training Editor at BarBend. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has spoken at state conferences on the topics of writing in the fitness industry and building a brand.

As of right now, Jake has published over 1,300 articles related to strength athletes and sports. Articles about powerlifting concepts, advanced strength & conditioning methods, and topics that sit atop a strong science foundation are Jake’s bread-and-butter.

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