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Bench Press Blastoff

Author: Tom Venuto
Publisher: Ironman Magazine

Without a doubt, the most coveted and respected lift in the iron game is the barbell bench press. Ironically, no other lift is the source of so much frustration either. Sticking points and plateaus seem to trouble nearly everyone at one time or another. It's not uncommon for someone to spend months or even years benching the same amount of weight with no improvement at all - but it doesn't have to be that way.

With a few small changes in your technique, a good dose of hard work and some patience, a 300, 400, or even 500-pound bench press is within your reach. If you’d like say goodbye to sticking points and finally break through the plateau’s that have plagued you for so long, then put these 15 powerful bench-boosting principles to work and you'll smash through previous limitations and send your bench press soaring into new territory faster than you ever believed possible.

1) Position your body properly on the bench.

The first step in boosting your bench press is also the simplest; positioning yourself on the bench. Proper body positioning and alignment can increase leverage, improve mechanical advantage, decrease the distance the bar has to travel and provide a powerful foundation to press from. There are four steps to proper body positioning:

a) Lie on the bench with your eyes in line with the bar. If you slide too far up on the bench, the bar may hit the uprights as you are pressing. If you're too far towards the foot of the bench, you have to struggle just to get the bar off the rack. Even with a lift from a spotter, you’re still wasting strength, and an awkward liftoff could throw you off balance.

b) Place you feet firmly on the floor and close to the bench. Putting your feet up on the bench, straightening your legs, or just letting your feet lightly brush the floor are cardinal benching sins - they can all reduce your power and throw you off balance. If you’ve got your feet planted firmly on the floor, you can draw power by pushing from that base when you hit the sticking point. With your feet close to the bench, it's also easier to maintain the arch in your back.

c) Keep your shoulder blades tight, retracted and firmly planted in the bench. To bench press big weights it’s important to create stability. If you lift your chest up and retract your shoulder blades, your back stays firmly in contact with the bench, providing the solid foundation you need.

d) Maintain a tight torso and a slight arch in your back. Keep your torso tight and your chest raised and expanded. Your lower back should be slightly arched, not pressed into the bench. Excessive arching, or thrusting your hips in the air can injure your lumbar spine. A raised chest with a slight arch in the lower back is safe and will reduce the distance the bar has to travel. The shorter the distance the bar has to travel, the more weight you'll be able to lift. Australian strength coach Ian King says, "Arching is probably the most powerful of all benching techniques and can give you as much as 20% extra on your one rep max."

2) Get a firm grip

You can increase your bench press simply by improving your grip strength. Grip the bar tightly; imagine squeezing it so hard that you leave your handprint in the steel. The tighter you grip the bar, the more control you’ll have. Always wrap your thumbs around the bar. There’s no advantage to a thumbless grip; if the bar slips out of your hand, you could suffer a serious injury.

The most common grip mistake is holding the bar too high in the palm near the base of your fingers, which causes your wrist to bend backward. Instead, grip the bar low in the palm towards the heel of your hand and keep your wrists straight. Straight wrists allow you to transfer the power of your chest, deltoids and arms directly through to the bar. A locked wrist also helps prevent injury.

3) Maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses with the proper grip width and arm position.

The dreaded "sticking point" is usually caused by a weakness in one muscle group compared to the other muscles used in the lift. When the lift approaches the point where the weak muscle is involved the most, the bar will stall. For example, the most common sticking point in the bench press is the mid point where the front deltoids are involved less and the pecs and triceps take over. If your pecs and triceps are weaker relative to your front delts, you’re more likely to get stuck. One remedy is to take a grip width that minimizes your weak muscles and maximizes your strong ones.

Because people have different body sizes, limb lengths and strong points, the ideal grip width and arm position can vary greatly from one individual to the next. In his book, The Complete Guide to Powerlifting, Fred Hatfield identifies several critical anatomical factors that you must adjust your benching style for:

Long arms - elbows out, wider grip,
Short arms - elbows in, closer grip.

Weak pecs - elbows in, narrower grip
Strong pecs - wider grip, elbows out

Weak front delts - elbows out, wide grip
Strong front delts - narrower grip, elbows close to torso

Weak triceps - elbows out, wider grip
Strong triceps - elbows in, closer grip

4) Use assistance exercises.

Adjusting your form to accommodate a weak muscle group is important, but in the long run it’s little more than a band-aid. The ultimate solution is to bring up your weak areas with assistance exercises. If you want a stronger bench, you must get strong triceps, deltoids and lats, not just strong pecs.

Of all the assistance work you could do, developing stronger triceps will probably have the greatest impact on your bench press. Work hard on the basics, including various types of heavy extensions and close-grip bench presses (flat and incline).

Strengthening your front delts will also bring major improvements to your bench press. Assistance work for front deltoids should include military presses and all kinds of front raises (dumbbell, barbell, with a 45 lb. plate, etc.).

Your lats are involved in the bench press to a greater degree than you might think. Your lats help you maintain your arch and stabilize your torso. They also help you lower the weight by providing a "cushion" to lower against and push from at the bottom. The best assistance exercises for lats are rows, rows, and more rows! Barbell and dumbbell rows are the best assistance exercises for the bench press because they train the back through the same horizontal plane as the bench press.

5) Lower and press the bar through the optimal path.

Always have a spotter lift the bar off for you - it conserves energy. Once the bar is over your chest, go right into the lift; don't just lie there holding the bar at arms length over your chest or you’ll waste energy. Do your psyching up (more on that later) before you lift off the bar.

Lower the bar to a point even with the nipples or slightly below them. Touching the bar low on the chest recruits the triceps and powerful front deltoids to the maximum degree to assist the pectorals. If you lower the bar too high on the chest, your arms tend to rotate externally. This puts more strain on your shoulder joints and reduces your leverage. You’ll have the best leverage if your hands are directly above your elbows.

When the bar reaches your chest, pause for about one second. Never bounce the bar off your chest; not only can this cause an injury, but it’s also cheating (and it wouldn't pass in a powerlifting meet). This is not to say you should never bench quickly with no pause, but training with the brief pause eliminates the momentum, overloading the target muscles more effectively.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so it seems logical to push the bar straight up. Many great powerlifters such as Louie Simmons, point out that pressing straight up allows you to lift more by decreasing the distance the bar has to travel, and it reduces the chance of injuring your pecs or shoulders. Most people, however, press the bar in a path that curves slightly back towards the face. This arc is known as the "J-curve." This curve occurs because you unconsciously change the path of the bar to accommodate your weak joint angles (the delts are usually stronger than the triceps). So what's the ideal method? Ultimately, you should work on developing the necessary tricep strength to press straight up, but don't force yourself to follow any particular path if it feels unnatural.

6) Breathe out on every rep, but hold your breath

Novice lifters are often afraid to hold their breath at all because they’ve been warned that this practice is dangerous. Prolonged breath holding is dangerous (you could black out and wake up later with a barbell wrapped around your head). However, you'll never bench anywhere near what you're capable of without proper breath control. Breath holding at the right moment is critical because the increase in intra-abdominal pressure helps get you through the sticking point. It also gives you a feeling of confidence and stability during the lift off.

Without this tight feeling, you'd feel as if you were being crushed under a heavy weight (and that could blow the lift for you mentally before you even started the descent). As you begin to lower the bar, breathe deeply and inhale all the way into your belly - not just a shallow breath in your upper chest. Hold your breath as you change direction and continue holding until you've pushed upward through the sticking point. Then breathe out and inhale again as you start the next rep.

7) Choose the optimal eccentric and concentric tempos

It’s a general rule in bodybuilding to do your reps with a two-second concentric (lifting) movement and at least a three or four second eccentric (lowering) movement. Slowing down the eccentric part of the movement can increase the time under tension, decrease the use of momentum and isolate the target muscle better - all of which help to increase muscle size.

When you're training purely for strength, doing negatives too slowly can be counterproductive. Resisting the weight with a slow negative requires more force, so it actually reduces the number of reps you can do. For example, if you can do three reps with 275 lbs. using a five second negative, you can probably get five or six reps with 275 lbs. using a one or two second negative.

In his column at, bodybuilding writer Doug Santillo explains it like this: "A lot of emphasis in bodybuilding literature has been placed on lowering the weight slowly. For the purposes of hypertrophy, the majority of the time should be spent using slower eccentric speeds. But there're times when lowering the weight fast can be advantageous. In training for maximal strength, the primary goal is to force your nervous system to more efficiently recruit fast twitch fibers.

With a faster eccentric speed, you give the nervous system more of a break between each explosion, since the tension is reduced. By doing this, your muscles must contract from a more relaxed position, thereby forcing your nervous system to adapt. For a bodybuilder, since his priority is gaining muscle mass, not maximal strength, a good choice would be to alternate between fast and slow eccentrics during his strength phases."

If you're after size gains, your best bet would be a slow negative, but if you want more strength, use a faster eccentric speed - not an uncontrolled, cheating fast, but a "controlled" fast.

Finally, EXPLODE the weight upward. Apply the maximum force possible. Fred Hatfield has named this technique "Compensatory Acceleration." With lighter weights, this means the bar will travel upward very quickly, so you'll have to "put on the brakes" at the top of the movement. With heavier weights, the bar will be moving slowly, but no matter how slow it seems to creep upward, you should still push as hard as you can through the entire range of motion.

One reason sticking points are common in the middle or top part of the bench press is because you don’t have enough velocity coming out of the bottom. Push up HARD from the bottom and don’t push less or give up if the bar starts to slow down or stall. Make a conscious effort to accelerate and keep pushing hard through the entire lift. Practiced consistently, this technique can completely obliterate sticking points.

8) Do the ideal number of sets and reps - not too many, not too few.

Overtraining is a major cause of bench press plateaus. When it comes to benching strength, more is not better. Cutting back on volume doesn’t mean doing one set to failure, it simply means you should reduce your volume to a level that allows you to gain strength consistently.

In the tradition of Arnold Schwarzenegger, most people follow high volume bodybuilding routines that look something like this:

1. Bench press 4-5 sets 8-12 reps
2. Incline press 4-5 sets 8-12 reps
3. Dumbbell flyes 4-5 sets 8-12 reps
4. Cable crossover 4-5 sets 8-12 reps

With the exception of genetically gifted people (like Arnold), this is too much even for an advanced bodybuilder, but it’s way too much for building strength. Most powerlifters and strength athletes who bench 400 -500 lbs. or more use extremely simple routines - sometimes only one or two exercises per body part. Doing too many sets and exercises is a sure-fire way to hit a plateau. It may seem hard to give up your high volume workout routines, but you’ll be amazed at how much stronger you'll get when you cut back.

Six to twelve reps is probably the single best rep range for muscle size gains (bodybuilding). However, if you want to get strong, you’re going to have to do a fair share of your training in the one to five rep range. In his book, "the Poliquin Principles," strength Coach Charles Poliquin recommends the following parameters for strength gains:

1 - 3 exercises per body part
1 - 5 repetitions per set
5 - 12 sets per body part
3 - 5 minutes rest between each set

(Charles should know: he’s trained over 400 Olympic and professional athletes and his clients are brutishly strong).

"Rest about one minute between each set." That's the standard guideline that’s been tossed around in gyms for years. It’s a good recommendation for bodybuilding or general fitness, but longer rest intervals are an absolute must for benching super heavy weights.

To use the maximum weight possible on every set, you must allow your muscular and nervous systems to fully recover between each set. The shorter your rest intervals, the less you will recover. The ideal rest interval for strength development is four to five minutes. Beyond five minutes is not effective because you'll start to cool off.

>> Click here for Tom Venuto's Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle program