Articles

The Serious Guide to the Bench Press

Written by Keith Hansen

February 15, 2018

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If the bench press hurts your shoulders it's because you haven't read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.

If your girlfriend can't put up her own bodyweight on the bench press, well, it's because she hasn't read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.

If you have seen people benching with their feet in the air it's because they haven't read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press (and they have a death wish).

If you want to add some serious pounds to your bench press it's time to read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.

If you want to build a massive chest and horseshoe-shaped triceps it's time to read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.

Did I mention The Serious Guide to the Bench Press?

table of Contents

Equipment
Technique
PROGRAMS
VARIATIONS
ACCESSORY WORK
PAIN POINTS
USEFUL LINKS

Equipment

The necessities for the bench press are:

-A barbell
-A sturdy bench
-Plates
-A rack to hold the bar between sets

If you're setting up a home gym for strength training these items are the first things you will buy.

Just about every gym in America should be equipped with a bench press, and if your gym doesn't you need to switch gyms (I'm looking at you Planet Fitness). 

You can read more about the necessary equipment in our How to Perfect Your Bench Press Setup article.

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Technique

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If you are using a standard bench press in a commercial gym there isn't much to setting up the equipment correctly. If the starting height for the bar is adjustable then that is something important to set correctly and you can read more about that here.

Assuming you've got the equipment set up correctly the next step is setting yourself up correctly.

1. Chin under the bar
2. Slightly wider than shoulder-width grip
3. Shoulders set
4. Back arched
5. Legs planted firmly at 90 degrees in ankles and knees

Next, unrack the bar by extending your elbows. This should lift the bar 1"-2"; just high enough to clear the catches but without fully extending your elbows. You should never fully extend your elbows when bench pressing unless performing single reps in preparation for competition. Maintaining "soft" elbows gives you more control over the bar.

Move the bar out of the rack so that it is directly vertical over your shoulder joint.

Lower the bar until it touches your chest. We're looking for a mostly vertical bar path here, but the most important part is the bar needs to stay in perfect vertical alignment with your forearm.

Press the bar back to the starting point directly above your mid chest but do not fully extend your elbows. We're looking for 90%-95% of full extension. This is important because it helps you stabilize the load better by always keeping muscles on both sides of the elbow joint engaged between reps.

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When you have completed the prescribed repetitions for the set rack the bar by returning the bar to its resting place on the catches. If the rack is set to the correct height you should never have to look where it is going--it will clear the catches and you can set the bar down.

Here is an entire video series on the bench press. 

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General Strength PROGRAMS

A quick word on programs:

Programs don't work unless you do. A mediocre program with consistent application will always yield better results than a perfect program with inconsistent use.

A slightly longer word on programs:

Beginner programs are made for beginners. They are beginner programs because they progress quickly. Your fastest progress will always come when you just start something (called beginner gains), and beginner programs are tailored to this.

Advanced programs progress slowly because as you improve at anything your results slow down. If you are new to strength training or bench pressing, or haven't done it in a while you will get the best results from a beginner program. 

Advanced programs WILL NOT make a novice lifter progress quicker than a beginner program.

Beginner Program

Without getting into all the details of the program let's cover the important parts:

-Bench press for 5 sets of 5 reps
-Increase the weight by 5lbs each time you do a bench press workout

If you are a complete beginner to the bench press then it is a good idea to start with the bar (45lbs). This allows you to focus on a correct setup & develop good habits when bench pressing without distracting you by making the set overly challenging.

If you bench press twice per week adding 5lbs each workout you will be at 5x5x85lbs in one month, 5x5x125lbs in two months, and 5x5x165lbs in three months. Those are very quick gains and would calculate to a 200lb bench press assuming you can hit all the sets & reps for each workout leading up to that 5x5x165lbs day.

Remember that you will strength train for the rest of your life. Instead of being in a rush to put as much weight on the bar as possible I want you to be in a rush to develop the best technique as early as possible so you don't get hurt or have to relearn it later.

You will cruise through the first 5x5 workouts and that is fine. That is the reason we have accessory work (there is a whole section on this below). Focus on your technique & setup for the 5x5 bench and then get your soreness and pump from the accessory work. As the weight get's heavier it will take more time to work through and you will have less time for accessory work.

Download the Seriously Strong Beginner Program

Intermediate Program

You can download the Seriously Strong Intermediate Program here.

This program has 12 weeks of programming for you. Follow the instructions, enter your 5RM lifts, and do the work.

Download the Seriously Strong Intermediate Program

Advanced Program

You can download the Seriously Strong Advanced Program here.

This program is just plain fun. We've taken elements of 5/3/1, the Cube method, and combined it with our expertise on teaching strength training to everyday people. It is a four day per week program. Two days are upper and two days are lower. 

This program is 12 weeks long, and will make advanced weightlifters tremendously strong.

All you have to do is download the program, put your maxes in, and follow it.

Download the Seriously Strong Advanced Program

Bench Specific Program

Smolov Jr. is 3 week program based on a much longer, more intense program called Smolov. Originally it was designed for squats, but people figured out it's very effective for the bench press as well.

The premise of the program is to put all of your focus on one lift (the bench press) for one month and essentially neglect the rest of your training. This is necessary because the intensity of the program insists that all of your recovery efforts be focused on the bench press.

I've watched advanced clients add 30lbs to their bench in a month, increase their 1RM by 15%, and set lifetime PRs after stalling for months.

I've also watched beginners & intermediates develop tendinitis or be so sore from the high volume that they are weaker from this program. Your body needs to be ready for this level of intensity, and if you haven't trained consistently for at least a year your shoulders aren't ready. 

Here's a link to the Smolov Jr. Program so you can try it yourself.

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Variations

Incline Bench PRess

The incline bench press is a great variation of the flat bench because it allows for more load on the chest with a lighter weight. This happens by increasing the bottom range of motion--the part of the bench where your chest works the hardest. 

Tips:
-Setup your body like you would for flat bench. Leg drive & bar path are still important
-Put your hands 2" wider on each side than your optimal flat bench grip
-It isn't necessary to touch your chest. Work in a range of motion that is pain free

Bands

You can use resistance bands to increase the load at the top of the rep (band resisted bench press), or decrease the load at the bottom (band assisted bench press).

Band assisted bench presses require bands & a power rack in addition to your usual equipment.

Band resisted bench presses require bands & an anchor point on the ground in addition to your usual equipment. This could be something heavy like dumbbells, or if you have a power rack the pegs along the bottom. Another option is to loop the band around the end of your barbell then pass it under the bench before hooking it on the other end. This uses the bench as an anchor point.

Both make for useful alterations to the bench, but vary slightly. Band assisted work will allow you to handle more weight at the top of the rep than you normally could. Band resisted work makes it feel like you have more weight on the bar at the top.

Chains

Chains do something very similar to the bands. They work on the concept of variable/accomodating resistance. They look cooler than bands, and may or may not be easier to set up based on your equipment. 

Another perk of using chains is that with the correct setup it is possible to know exactly how much weight you are adding at the top of your bench. This is difficult to do with bands.

Earthquake Bar

IMG_8695-417212-editedThe earthquake bar is a great way to train shoulder stability in the bench press. It is a lightweight bar made to suspend weights from resistance bands. This will cause the bar to oscillate throughout the movement & it's up to your shoulders to stabilize the weight during the movement. 

If this sounds interesting to you then cruise over to the article on How to Use an Earthquake Bar to Improve Your Shoulder Stability.

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Accessory Work

Accessory work is what you do to augment your main lift. That is why it's called accessory work.

You should use your main lift to assess weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Next you should decide what accessory work will bring your weaknesses up to par, and use them for that purpose.

Don't have any weaknesses apparent in your main lift? That's because of one or more of the following reasons:

-You aren't looking hard enough
-You aren't lifting hard enough
-You don't know what to look for

Weak Triceps

If you fail a the top of your bench press it is because of tricep weakness.

Tricep pushdowns are my favorite exercise to add mass to the tricep. You can use a straight bar or v-handle, single arm or both. It's easy on the elbows, gives the shoulder a break, and is easy to get high volume in for huge hypertrophy. Go high volume--5+ sets of 10-20 reps.

Weak Chest

If you struggle to get the bar out of the bottom on max effort sets it is because your pecs aren't up to par.

The cable machine is the answer. Instead of using it for traditional flyes you want to perform a movement more similar to the dumbbell bench. Let the handles go back by bending the elbows and then press them forward & together with a focus on chest squeeze. Nothing will leave your pecs sore like this variation. Go high volume here as well--5+ sets of 10-20 reps.

Instability

This is a problem with your shoulders. It's hard to pinpoint one muscle responsible for an unstable bench press, but it's easy to recognize when this is the problem. If you don't have complete control over the bar path of every rep then you could use some instability work. Nothing beats the earthquake bar for this. 

How to Use an Earthquake Bar to Improve Your Shoulder Stability

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PAin points

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain in the bench press is very common, and can be tough to fix. The best medicine is avoidance through great technique from day one. The most common cause is a poor setup that stresses the shoulder joint.

First, work on creating a perfect bench press setup.

Wrist pain

Easy fix here. Squeeze the bar harder. If your wrists are relaxed the bar will typically be misaligned with the forearm and manifests as pain in the back of the wrist.

Aim to have vertical alignment of the barbell over your ulna & radius (the forearm bones). Your forearm should be directly upright.

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The first picture shows correct alignment.

The second demonstrates what the wrist looks like when it is too relaxed.

Picture three shows the wrist too straight.

Elbow pain

Another alignment issue. Not only do you need to have the bar directly over your wrist, but you need to have your wrist directly over your elbow.

Anything short of perfect vertical alignment in these three points will manifest as joint pain.

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Useful Links

The Serious Guide to the Conventional Deadlift
The Serious Guide to the Low Bar Squat
The Serious Guide to Nutrition
The Serious Guide to Core Training
The Serious Guide to Glute Training
The Seriously Strong YouTube Channel
The Seriously Strong Beginner Program
The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program
The Seriously Strong Advanced Program