When it comes to working out there are very few exercises that are more popular than the barbell bench press. It is a staple when it comes to building a strong upper body and a massive chest. Here are 10 ways to improve your pressing power.
Some of these tips will allow for an instant increase on your bench press by cleaning up your technique while others will help you bust through any strength plateaus if your poundage hasn’t moved in a while.
1. Plant your feet into the ground
We've all seen someone at the gym throw their feet up in the air as soon as the reps start getting heavy. Don’t do it! Perhaps the biggest mistake made when attempting heavy reps is losing tension and stability that you create with your legs. Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor and use your legs to create stability and force.
2. Don’t neglect the lower-body
Your legs are the largest muscles in your body, which is why you should use them when you bench. Add more pounds instantly to your bench by trying to extend your legs once you have planted your feet. If you are doing it right it will feel like you are sliding up the bench when you are lying down. The force that you generate with your legs will translate into the bar during your set.
3. Build your base
If your foundation is weak you will never be able to support big weight. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and together as if you were trying to crush an egg between your shoulder blades and keep them back during your entire set. Next brace your abs and tighten your glutes. When you do these three things you build an effective and stable base to press from. Generating a solid base of support by staying tight in the upper-back, abs, and glutes allows you to effectively transmit the force you generate with your legs into your press.
4. Drive the back of your head through the bench
Don’t get caught by your sticking point! We all have a point in the bar path where it feels like the barbell stops dead in its path. Bust through your sticking point by driving the back of your head through the bench. When you drive your head back into the bench it increases your bar speed allowing for you to make it through the toughest part of your range of motion.
5. Be more direct
When you establish your grip on the barbell check to make sure your wrists are stacked on top of your forearms and that your elbows are underneath the bar. One of the easiest ways to sabotage your bench press is to allow your elbows to drift out from underneath the bar.
During your entire set, from the time you unrack it to the time you finish, keep your forearms under the bar! If you have your forearms directly under the bar it allows for you put more force directly into the bar which means you will be able to use more weight.
6. Crush the bar
Another way to instantly add a couple pounds to your bench is to keep a firm grip on the bar. This accomplishes two things. Number one is that it creates a strong wrist position with the knuckles pointed towards the ceiling and allows for proper bar position over your forearms. One of the most common errors in the bench press is to allow the bar to roll back into your fingers, this bends your wrists back out of alignment with your forearms and causes a lot of strain on your wrists.
Accomplishment number two is that you get instantly stronger by recruiting more muscles when you crush the bar. This phenomenon is what Russian sport scientist and founder of Strong First Pavel Tsatsouline calls irradiation. When you grip the bar with a white knuckle intensity it recruits more muscles and the muscles that are working contract harder and produce more force than if you grip with a lackluster grip.
7. Break the barbell
It is not uncommon for gym rats who bench press often to develop shoulder problems. Avoid shoulder pain associated with bench pressing by ensuring you have good pressing mechanics at the shoulder. This is accomplished by attempting to “break” or “snap” the barbell in half. As a bonus on top of keeping your shoulders healthy you will also be able to lift more because it creates stability and torque at the shoulders allowing for you to direct more force into the bar. Remember the more stable you are, the more you can lift.
8. Practice. Practice. Practice.
If you want to lift heavy weights you must “practice” lifting heavy weights. If you want a big bench, you must train with 75-85% of your 1 RM with perfect technique multiple times a week with low rep sets (1-5 reps) and never train to failure if strength is your goal. View the bench press portion of your workout as practice. When you train this way you are training the nervous system to contract and relax the working muscles with better timing and efficiency. During your training, build strength with the bench press and save the high sets and reps for other exercises later in your workout.
No, I’m not talking about a new set of wrist wraps or a new set of Chuck Taylors for the gym! I'm talking about performing accessory exercises that will build up weaker muscles holding back your bench. These exercises are usually dumbbell or isolation exercises like incline dumbbell presses, shoulder presses, triceps press-downs, chest flies, face pulls, front/lateral delt raises, and resistance band exercises. When you get stronger in these exercises your bench press will go up too. Perform your bench press “practice” and then perform 3-4 accessory exercises with higher volume and higher rep sets.
10. Stay Balanced
With all this talk about bench pressing , this is very important to note: If all you are doing is pressing, you are setting yourself up for failure and possibly injury! You must balance out all that pressing with some pulling exercises. A strong back is not only necessary to provide a base for you to press from but your shoulders will be more prone to injury if you have strength imbalances. Your body must be balanced to be strong! Shoot for a 1:1 ratio of pushing to pulling work. A good rule to go by is for every bench press workout you do, perform a back exercise with the same amount of sets and reps of a rowing variation.
There is no better way to create a base of strength in the chest than with the barbell bench press. If your goal is to add plates on the bar remember that strength is a skill that must be practiced frequently and with great technique. I was amazed in my own training how some of these changes in technique and training frequency added up to more weight on the bar. Give these ten tips a try for a couple of weeks and you will be amazed too.