I was talking to a new client recently about her bench press struggles.
Her story sounded eerily familiar. She had almost exactly the same issues with the bench I had years ago.
Bench press gave me trouble for the longest time. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I struggled to do it.
I was over-tucking my elbows.
I couldn’t use my lats.
My shoulders (sometimes one, sometimes both) would roll forward when I pressed.
My setup looked nice, but something was off.
I was reading a ton and I was getting help from some really strong people. For the most part, everyone was saying the same stuff.
Pinch your shoulder blades together. Bend the bar. Pull it apart. Tuck your elbows…
I kept trying, and of course, continued getting the same result.
It’s not that these cues were wrong, they just didn’t work well for me. I was unable to use my back, my setup was falling apart and my bench form was getting sloppy.
This quick tip changed my entire bench press forever.
Pull your shoulder blades into your back pocket. This simple cue accomplishes a lot. With your scapula or shoulder blades locked down, your back will stay tight and your shoulders won’t protract, or roll forward when you press the weight.
Now you can engage your lats and upper back, something that seems near impossible when pinching your shoulder blades together incorrectly.
Common Mistake: Pressing the weight out of the rack. After getting setup and getting your upper back nice and tight, pull the weight out of the rack like you are doing a pullover.
Don’t press the weight out of the rack and lose your upper back and lat tightness you worked so hard for.
Tuck your lats into your back pocket, flex your lats.
Get more lat recruitment by tucking them into your back pocket as well. If you have trouble engaging your lats, put your hand between your armpit and squeeze (with your shoulder blades still tucked in your back pocket). Pretty much do what you would do if you were holding the bottom of an armpit fart.
This might be a goofy tip, but it’s really helpful for gaining use your lats, something a lot of people struggle with. Now that your lats are “on”, you can use them to row the weight into you. Another benefit to setting your shoulder blades and lats properly is it puts your elbows at about a 45-degree angle and makes it easy to keep hands wrists and elbows stacked in proper alignment.
Now that you have proper use of your lats, you’ll have more control and build more tension during the descent. This gives you a nice pop off your chest when it’s time to press.
Common Mistakes: SQUEEZE! So, you’ve done everything above properly. You’ve set your back, everything is in proper alignment, but you’re not squeezing the bar hard enough. Your wrists get bent back and now the bar is sitting too high in your hands throwing off your alignment.
Start with the bar deep in the palm of your hand, as tight in to your thumb as possible. Squeeze down and white knuckle it. Try to melt your fingerprints into the bar.
Row the bar into you. As you lower the bar, think about rowing or pulling it into you using your lats. Think of further tucking your lats into your back pockets as you pull your elbows towards your lats. Your elbows won’t actually move much, instead they’ll stay at about 45-degrees.
This keeps you from flaring too much and compromising your shoulder health. Flaring or tucking too much is very common. When you flare too much the bar often touches high on your chest. When your elbows are over-tucked it often touches very low.
When done properly, the bar lowers to your sternum, under your nipple line. By simply screwing your shoulder blades down and rowing the bar in, it will lower properly to the same place every time.
As you lower the bar you will create tremendous tension in your back. You will feel your lats load up. The bar will want to explode and pop right off your chest.
Often people struggle pressing the weight off their chest. Sometimes it is a muscular weakness.
Often it’s technique issue and they’re not tight enough.
Stan Efferding, one of the strongest people of all-time, has a great analogy. He thinks about a spring, or coil being pressed down as he lowers the bar.
When he is ready to press the weight, the spring releases and explodes up as he presses.
It’s the idea of building tension as you lower and exploding up as you press.
Follow along with me in the video above. Get tight and hold the bottom position right before you press the weight.
Have someone try to push your fists back further without you pressing back at them.
If you do this correctly, the person will have a tough time moving your hands any further back.
When your hands get pushed further back they will want to pop right back giving you the spring effect.
Common Mistakes: Letting the bar drop and bouncing it off your chest.
Control the weight and build tension as you lower it (think about the coil). Don’t try to get rebound by bouncing it off your chest.
If you’re a powerlifter, you need to be able to pause the bar on your chest long enough that it comes to a complete stop.
Meet the bar.
Force a proud chest and arch your lower upper back hard to the ceiling.
Many people have heard “arch your back”. What’s often forgotten is arching your upper back or chest to the ceiling too.
You want to meet the bar as you lower it.
This means bring your chest/sternum to its highest possible. Make the distance the bar has to travel as short as possible.
Get your chest up to the bar the entire time rather than only trying lowering it to you.
This will further shorten the ROM and create more tension.
The more tension you create through your body, the more stable of a platform you will have to press from.
If you want a strong bench make sure you’re getting a lot of bench work in.
This doesn’t mean doing a ton of incline, floor press, dumbbell bench work.
While these exercises are great, make sure you get a lot of practice with the actual bench press.
For beginners I recommend getting a lot of work in the 3 – 5 rep range. Use a reasonable weight to maintain proper form.
The reason for using a 3 – 5 rep range is because as you do more reps, it becomes more of a struggle to maintain your setup and technique.
As you get more practice you can introduce a variety of set/rep ranges.
The bench press can be quite the journey.
Mastering it takes time.
This tip was a major breakthrough for me and many of my clients.
Here’s my client Scott hitting a big bench PR (420lbs)! Gaining proper use of his lats and leg drive was a big breakthrough for him.
If you’re struggling to maintain proper form on the bench press or looking to get to that next level, give these cues a try.
- Screw your shoulder blades into your back pocket to get the most out of your upper back and lats.
- Flex your lats. Row the bar into you. Pull the bar in using your lats and build tension for a nice spring off your chest.
- Meet the bar. When you’re lowering the bar pull your chest to its highest point, shortening the distance the bar has to travel.
- Practice benching, a lot! Stay consistent and master your setup and technique for optimal performance in the bench press.
If you’d like to learn more on how to setup or program for the bench press, send me an email at email@example.com with “BENCH QUERY” in the subject line.