If you’re a raw lifter, odds are that you have much more trouble with the bottom of your bench than any other part. When I say “the bottom”, I mean anywhere from chest level to 2 inches off the chest.
I myself am not known for my benching power. I’d rather deadlift any day. I could give you the line about how that makes my advice more useful because I had to fight tooth-and-nail for what I know. And to some extent that’s true, but everyone works hard for knowledge. To me, it’s a lot more valuable if it translates to the real world in other people. While I’m not a great bencher myself (yet), I’ve coached several very good benchers – even an IPF world record holder. And these recommendations have helped lifters at all levels improve. That doesn’t mean it’s a magic bullet — just that this is worth paying attention to.
So if you’re giving your spotter a trap workout anytime you take a heavy single, then here is some advice on how to get things back on track:
“Oh man, he started with technique. Skip that section.”
Technique is SO under-appreciated. If I told you, “I’ve got a way to add 10% to your bench within the next two weeks” people would be all about it. But once they found out it was due to technique, interest fades. I don’t get it.
A common mistake that causes people to miss low is not being tight enough. Set up tight on the bench. Of course you know that, but knowing it and doing it are two different things. Here’s a hint, you are never tight enough.
Of course lots of lifters talk about being tight in the lats and upper back. I agree. It’s very important to have a stable platform to push off of. Something that helps me tremendously is to brace my abs just like I would in a squat. I don’t go so far as to wear a belt, but bracing my abs definitely makes a big impact to my overall tightness.
It also should go without saying that you should have your shoulder blades pulled together and drive with your legs, while not letting your butt off the bench. This goes along with being tight and some other common-sense technique advice. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then find some bench press 101 technique stuff from a competent powerlifting coach. If you don’t already know what you’re doing with shoulder blades or leg drive, there is much to learn. Master the fundamentals.
So here’s where we can talk about the SECRET to getting a heavy bar moving off your chest. Ready for it? Okay, here we go.
Yup, that’s the biggest secret. Want to get good at pressing heavy weights? Practice pressing heavy weights. Okay… we can get a little more detail than that.
The bulk of your training progress is going to come from practicing your competition lift. So before you skip ahead (again) to the section on assistance exercises, make sure you’re covering the basics. Are you pressing full range of motion? Are you doing it often enough? I’m a frequency advocate and in my experience 2-3 times a week seems to be ideal. Are you pressing heavy enough? If your bench sessions are super light, then it doesn’t help you get a very heavy weight moving from a paused bottom position.
If you have issues (injuries, etc) that keep you from benching heavy and often, then things will be a little different for you. But you will still want to bench heavy in the competition style as close as you can to those recommendations without causing further injury.
If you’re pressing often and heavy from the chest, but your programming allows for assistance exercises to help develop this sticking point, still don’t stray too far from your competition skill. Use Pause Benches. Use a ton of them. Use two-count pause, three-count pause, even as much as five-count pause. Of course the longer the pause, the fewer reps you should do.
Pause benches are the single best exercise for strengthening your bottom position. It’s practice. You take a heavy weight and practice generating force at chest level – precisely where you need to get better at generating force! It quickly becomes a tremendous amount of “volume” in that position, which is a huge catalyst for improving strength.
If you need a break from pause benches, I recommend a pin-press from chest level. Lots of people will want to start from pins, but I don’t like that approach. You’ll never get the setup right. It’s much better to start from the top. Take it out of the rack and do everything just like you would in a competition bench press, except you pause on the pins in the bottom.
Pin press is good for those needing bottom end strength because it forces you to overcome inertia. Once you set the bar on the pins, you have to produce a high impulse to complete the rep. Some people with shoulder or pec problems are going to have trouble with this exercise. If that’s you, then don’t do it. It’s just an assistance movement and therefore, replaceable.
Should you need to replace Pin Press, give Half Board Press a try. Just use a piece of half-inch or three-quarter-inch plywood and do board presses. Let the bar sink the board just slightly (not a huge sink-and-heave). This is a third option and in my opinion, not as good as the first two. But it can be useful for some people. The training effect is very similar to a pin press, but obviously not exactly the same as the dynamics of a board press are different.
I didn’t include lat and upper back work. I’ve not seen lat and upper back work make a big impact on getting barbells off chests. And believe me, I’ve tried. Is it important to the bench in the general sense? Maybe. But that’s a conversation for another time. What is important is this: If you want to get better at benching, at a certain point you’re going to have to bench more. And by choosing movements that are specific to the skill you’re trying to develop, you’ll make better progress.
The final piece of advice I will give on improving off-the-chest strength is to show some patience. If you’re a raw lifter, understand that this is SUPPOSED to be the hardest part of the lift unless you have a super narrow grip. So I wouldn’t expect it to go away entirely (though it might). Think about improving your off-the-chest strength in terms of months and years, not days and weeks. The good news is that you’ll improve your strength along the way, too. So enjoy benching bigger weights while the sticking point moves up as you master these skills.
The take home point(s)
- Master your technique. Don’t overlook it because you’re a tough guy.
- Get tighter on the bench. No, that’s not tight enough. Always tighter.
- Don’t forget about tightening your abs
- Bench press in the competition style A LOT. And heavy.
- Focus assistance work on Pause Bench, Pin Press, and Half Board Presses
- Don’t expect the lat work to improve the bottom of your bench
- Exercise some patience. Building the bench can take a long time.
Train like an animal, think like a human.
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