4 Improvements to Make your Bench Press Awesome

The Bench Press. When done properly it can be an awesome tool to help you build tremendous upper body strength, including strong shoulders, triceps and pectorals. When done poorly however, the bench press can wreak more havoc on the shoulder joint than Justin Beiber can on society.

On the surface, the bench press looks relatively simple. Lie down, get comfortable and go to town, right? That will work if you’re content with MAYBE bench pressing your body weight and leaving your shoulders exposed to greater risk of injury. If you have greater aspirations though, and want to bench press more while maintaining healthy shoulders, these following technical corrections will have a profound effect.

1) Keep your shoulders packed

What do we mean by packed? Essentially squeezing your shoulder blades together and holding them there as if you were going to crack a nut between them.

Unpacked shoulders

Unpacked shoulder

Shoulders packed

Shoulders packed

This creates stability in the upper body which is paramount if you want a solid bench press. As the saying goes, you can’t shoot a cannon ball out of a dragon boat. If you don’t have a stable platform – in this case your upper back – to bench press from, energy is transferred poorly from your body into the bar. By maintaining a packed shoulder position, there is a more efficient transfer of force; more force = more weight.

Keeping the shoulders packed has the added benefit of making the bench press a more joint friendly exercise. Those that don’t pack their shoulders during the bench press end up allowing the shoulder blade to round forward. This restricts the space for the upper arm to move and may lead to injuries or discomfort, such as rotator cuff issues. Not a good time. as time spent injured, is time NOT spent training. At the end of the day, the more bench press sessions you can get in while staying healthy, the better your bench press will be.

Unpacked set-up

Unpacked set-up

Packed set-up

Packed set-up

 2) Choose the right grip for you

Where you hold the bar can have a huge impact in how much you can bench press. Everyone has different mechanical advantages and holding the bar too narrow or too wide could stealing weight from your bench press. There isn’t a magical formula for this but the key here is to play around with various grips to see what is the most comfortable and where you feel the strongest.

The closer your grip, the more shoulder and tricep dominant you make the exercise. The wider your grip, the greater the pec involvement. Close grip has the advantage of being safer on the shoulders whereas the wider grip usually causes more issues for people. For most people, we recommended starting somewhere in the middle where you hands are slightly outside shoulder width.

Wide grip

Wide grip

Middle - Recommended

Middle – Recommended

Narrow

The other technical consideration for grip is whether or not to use a false grip (thumb off the bar) or a full grip (thumb around the bar). We always recommend full grip to athletes as with the false grip there is a chance of the bar slipping. It won’t matter how much you can bench press if that bar slips and crushes your chest; instead of a celebrating a PR or winning a race, you may be nursing broken ribs. In defense of the false grip, some people find it easier on the shoulder joint because it stabilizes the wrist which in turn stabilizes the shoulder. If this is the case and it hurts when you bench press with your thumb around the bar, there may be bigger underlying shoulder problems you might want to investigate.

3) Keep your feet on the floor

This is one of the biggest issues with the way most people bench press. It usually plays out something like this: they lay on the bench, grab the bar, do a little jig with their feet, then begin the bench press. After realizing it was way heavier than they thought, they continue to do a jig with the feet and sometimes the legs will go shooting out from underneath them like snakes in a can.

Remember the cannonball/dragon boat analogy? Well the same applies with the lower body. The feet should be planted firmly on the floor so we can bench press with a stable base, not rocky boat. Stability = greater force transfer.

The only exception to this rule is if you have a broken leg. Only then is it acceptable to cross your legs and put them on the bench.

Snakes in a can - Unacceptable

Snakes in a can – Unacceptable

Feet up - Unacceptable

Feet up – Unacceptable (unless you have a broken leg)

 

Heels planted - Acceptable

Heels planted – Acceptable

On toes - Acceptable

On toes – Acceptable

 4) Use your lower body

This point builds off the last. Not only do the feet need to be planted, but you should be actively driving through your lower body. The heels should be planted into the floor with the knees driven out and your butt squeezed. This will help engage your butt muscles and stabilize the lower body.

The other option – usually for people with hobbit-sized legs – is to pull your feet back so you end up on your toes. From here you’ll want to drive through your toes as opposed to your heels.

By actively using the lower body, it also helps with the principle of irradiation. Irradiation means the more muscular tension and recruitment in the body, the more horsepower available to do work or in this case, bench press. Just make sure you squeeze your butt so it doesn’t come off the bench. Nobody wants to see hip thrusting bench presses.

So what did we learn?

1) Keep your shoulder blades packed throughout the movement.
2) To start, grip just outside shoulder width, with thumb wrapped around the bar. Experiment with slightly wider or slightly narrow grips to see what feels best for you.
3) Feet stay planted on the floor. Always.
4) The bench press is a full body exercise. Don’t forget to use your lower body.

Working on these 4 improvements, not only will you be able to bench press more, your shoulders will thank you for keeping them healthy. After all, we need them for paddling!

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