Your Guide To A Bigger Bench Press – Part 2

Here is the second instalment in Ryan Hayes’ Bench Press mastery series. In this part, Ryan explores the Bench Press set up, something that is overlooked by many lifter’s, but is critical in creating the optimal position to apply¬†the most amount of force into the barbell. Enjoy!
Set up
The set-up is one of the most important things to get right in order to maximise your performance on the bench press. It will be dependent on numerous factors including morphology, mobility, gear/no gear, the rules of a powerlifting federation you lift in etc. Whilst there are many different styles of benching that successful lifters use to great effect there are also several commonalities that all great lifters share. When observing a top lifter in training for example, you will notice that each and every repetition they perform looks identical to the rest. This consistency is crucial in order to reinforce your technique over and over until it becomes engrained.

Another commonality is the pre-lifting routine will always be exactly the same and this will not change in competition either, this is why developing good pre-lift habits is important in order to make sure they’re repeatable and practical for whatever environment you may find yourself in whether that be in a hotel gym on holiday or the biggest competition of your life. The actual set-ups themselves however are greatly varied and whilst there is certainly not one perfect technique for all to use I do believe there is an optimal technique for each individual.

In order to find this optimal set-up there will need to be a lot of experimentation taking place. If you plan on competing in a powerlifting competition it is essential you need to make sure you know the rules of that federation and therefore adjust your set-ups in accordance with the rules. For example some federations allow your heels to be off of the floor and some do not, it would be detrimental to run your entire meet preparation setting up with your heels off the floor only to find on competition day you have to plant them as this will change the entire feel of the lift and could easily throw you off.

The main things to look for in a set-up are as follows:

Upper back tightness

In order to press serious weight you need to have a very tight upper back. To achieve this you need to focus on pinching your shoulder blades together tight and turning/tucking your elbows in to your side (external rotation of the humerous). This is sometimes referred to as breaking the bar and its purpose is to engage the lats. This will help you lower the weight under more control as more musculature is engaged and reduce the range of motion of the lift. By pulling your shoulders back you are also placing them in the most stable position possible reducing the risk of injury.

3 points of contact (POC)

In a proper set-up there will be 3 POC’s in which you will pressing off of. This will consist of your upper back and head against the bench, your glutes against the bench and finally your feet against the floor. Notice I used the word against when describing the relationship between your POC’s and the various body parts and this is an important concept to be familiar with. When bench pressing you are not simply resting on the bench and applying force to the bar, in fact what you need to think about doing is applying force into the bench using the bar or pressing yourself into the bench which will help maintain your tightness and position as well as the overall force being applied to the bar.

Full-body rigidity

Another very important aspect of the set-up is full-body rigidity which is something many beginner and intermediate lifters do not have. The bench press when performed properly is not just a chest, shoulder and triceps exercise. It is in fact a full-body movement that is uncomfortable to perform and exhausting at the same time. Once the bar has been unracked there should be absolutely no movement anywhere in the body other than the shoulder and elbow joint (unless your utilising a style of bench with lots of leg drive). If I was to try to push your legs inwards or destabilise you in some way when benching I should find it extremely difficult to do so, this is the level of rigidity needed.

Arch

The three points above are universal techniques used by virtually any skilled lifter, however the arch, and rather the degree of your arch is highly individual. Some people have huge arches and others relatively shallow arches. This can be down to preference, mobility of the spine and hips, whether they bench feet up or down etc. I personally have a relatively big arch and the advantage to this is that it reduces the range of motion of the lift. It does however limit the amount of leg drive you can use and instead you are using your legs to drive your chest up as high as possible and maintain it there. To find your strongest position make sure to use a variety of combinations of different foot widths, heels up, heels down, big arch, shallow arch until you find an arch that allows you to be the tightest, most rigid and most powerful.

Ensure you practice each of these aspects of the set-up and repeat them on every set of bench press you do until it is second nature. Do this and you will not be far off of an ideal bench press set-up!

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