12 Simple Strategies to Boost Your Bench Press (and Save Your Shoulders)
Pretty cool title, right? But surely it can’t be true? Putting kilos on your bench press doesn’t usually mean happy days for your shoulders.
How many of you have started to focus efforts on your bench, only to be foiled by shoulder issues and therefore forced to cut your benching program short?
Our Shoulders vs. the Bench Press
Looking to the top powerlifters doesn’t help much either. Bench techniques employed by powerlifters to increase their one-rep-max typically pay little regard to the longevity of the shoulders, or body in general. Think arched back, wide grip - the objective is to decrease range of motion and thus increase maximum weight, not to do what is best for your body.
"You already have the strength to take your bench to the next level. You just need to find it."
So at a glance, we have a problem. Adding weight and looking after your shoulders are seemingly at odds. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if I told you the tips I am going to give you will not only increase your bench press but will actually take better care of your shoulders than ever before?
Here are twelve simple strategies to boost your bench press and save your shoulders in the process.
Squeeze the Glutes
There is no lift you will do in the gym that cannot be improved by squeezing the glutes. The bench press is no exception. Want to know what this is meant to feel like? Get yourself into a plank and squeeze like hell. Now replicate that feeling on the bench.
What is it about the fact that you are lying down that makes people forget to breath? I don’t know, but I see it all the time. Make sure you go through the same bracing and breathing sequence as with any other lift.
WATCH THIS VIDEO: Breathing and Abdominal Bracing For Strength
Tighten the Lats
If there’s any kind of wobble on the bar (and there often is), it’s most likely because you need to work harder through the lats. The easiest way to get those suckers to join the party is to think about pulling the bar apart. Seriously, if you do one thing, do this. It will have a massive impact on your lift and you’ll instantly feel more stable in the movement.
Set Your Hooks Correctly
The majority of people I see benching set their J-hooks too low. Setting the hooks too low means you have to press the bar some distance off the hooks to even get started. Pressing the bar off the hooks means you’ve lost valuable tension and wasted valuable energy. Set the hooks in the highest position from which you can safely clear the hooks with minimal pressing.
"There is no lift you will do in the gym that cannot be improved by squeezing the glutes."
Set Yourself Correctly
For f***’s sake stop benching so far up the bench that you hit the pins on the way back up. Just in case you were unclear, that’s not a rep - it’s dangerous and completely avoidable. Set yourself up with your eyes directly underneath the bar and you’ll be in a much better place.
READ SOME HISTORY: How the Flat Bench Came to Be
Stop gripping the bar so wide. Your grip in the bench press should be the same as your hand spacing for your push up (assuming you do push ups correctly, with your elbows tucked to your side). In both the bottom of a push up and the bottom of a bench press, your forearms should be completely vertical. This is called universal motor patterning, and it’s critical for both carryover and upwardly scalable movements.
Pull the Bar Down to You
The bar doesn’t decide how fast it’s going to come down or where it’s going to touch your chest. You do. You are in control. Lower the bar under control, maintaining all that beautiful tension. Keep the elbows tucked in. You should feel like you’re winding yourself into the bench. For those old enough to remember, it’s the same feeling as winding up an alarm clock. The mechanism gets tighter and tighter, ready to release when the time is right. That mechanism is you.
Keep Your Shoulders Down on the Bench
So you’re getting to grips with most of this stuff. You’re bracing, breathing, and getting tight from the toes through to the torso. You pull the bar down to you under tension and then drive it up as quickly as you can. You drive it with such aggression that you shoulder blades go from being retracted to almost leaving the bench. At this point, it’s game over. Your shoulders need to be pinned down and back onto the bench at all times to retain tension, stability, and safety.
"How many of you genuinely perform a 2:1 ratio of rows to bench press? For each of those reps, you need to be doing two reps of rows."
Push Through the Floor
Be honest, do you actually get drive through the floor when you are pushing the bar? If not, you are selling yourself short. Plant your feet flat on the floor, drive through them hard on the concentric phase, and use the full-body tension you’ve worked so hard to create to help you transmit force from the ground up right into that bar.
How many of you genuinely perform a 2:1 ratio of rows to bench press? Now, add in all your other upper-body press work. For each of those reps, you need to be doing two reps of rows. And pull ups don’t count (they make the issue worse). Get those rows done. Don’t make me come ‘round there.
Train With a Spotter
Here’s the deal. If your mind doesn’t believe you are safe, it will shut your body down. And even if you think you don’t care, your mind does. Training with a spotter will allow you to allow yourself to work at your potential. Not to mention that getting a hand-off with the bar will allow you to maintain tension through the upper back better.
Stop When the Speed Slows
We’ve all done them. The kind of reps where your whole body feels like it wants to rise up off the bench to help the bar. One side comes up quicker than the other, the elbows flare out, the feet start to leave the ground, and the hamstrings start to cramp. Let’s make a deal. Let’s not get to this stage. It’s not worth it. This type of rep takes too much out of you and puts you at too much risk. You will improve faster through consistent, fast, solid reps. The golden rule - when the speed of the rep starts to slow, you are done.
"If your mind doesn’t believe you are safe, it will shut your body down. Training with a spotter will allow you to allow yourself to work at your potential."
Now, Go Bench
You already have the strength to take your bench to the next level. You just need to find it. The human body is capable of far more than we give it credit for. The secret is getting it to work as a whole unit.
There is nothing here that you do not have the ability to put into action today. Print out this list and put it in your gym bag. Systemically work through each of these points and you will become a better, stronger, more-connected bencher with shoulders that still love you.
Photos courtesy of Strength Education.