Chest Exercise – The Bench Press

This post is a timely one, because it was today that I gave some unsolicited advice to 3 young lifters (could have been in High School) who were doing flat bench press, or trying.    I was doing my workout, and noticed them at a nearby bench.  I don’t give unsolicited advice often, but once in awhile I can just tell when someone isn’t sure about what to do, and either is hoping someone will help them out, or they’d at least be accepting of help if someone gave it.

I didn’t know if that was these 3 guys, but I couldn’t continue to see them gripping the bar in the position they were.  Just wrong.  Way wrong, unless they were intending to do this exercise to get a very specific result.  I waited until the one lifting finished his set, and took a few steps over and said,

“Hey guys, are you trying to work your chest and get stronger in the bench press?  (all 3 nodded yes)   Well, if you’ll grip the bar wider, so that when your upper arms are parallel to the floor, your forearms are at about 90 degrees to your upper arms, that will give you the most leverage.  Otherwise, you’re wasting energy and strength, and not working your chest as much.”

They seemed to appreciate the advice, said they did, and were polite, anyway.  And they adjusted their grip and continued bench pressing.  I didn’t wait to watch, I just went to do another set of Back Rows.  After my set, I look over… Ooops!  I need to tell them something else.  Again, only after the one on the bench was finished with his set.

This time I started off saying, “I know unsolicited advice isn’t always wanted, but I’ve got a tip for you.  If you don’t like it, don’t use it.”  They were ready for it.

“This is the key to the bench press, getting stronger, and building your chest.  When you bring the bar down to your chest, do it under control, and pause… for a full second, but you’ll count fast, so pause for 2 seconds at first, and then press the weight up from a dead stop.  Keep tension at the bottom, but lightly rest the bar on your chest, each rep, for a full second.  You may feel weaker at first and have to decrease the weight to do it that way, but in two weeks?  Your strength will shoot up, and keep going from there, much faster than any other way.”

One of them then asked me if I was familiar with training with bands on the barbell, a method of increasing resistance as the bar is pressed up and the band stretches.  He said that he had used that method with someone before, so we chatted about the technique briefly.  They thank me, and again, I leave to do my next set of Rows.

As I walk a few steps to a Lat Pulldown machine for my last exercise, I glance over to check on their progress.  What I noticed when I glanced over was that I was going to have to give them one last bit of information.  So after my set, I approach them for the last time.

“OK, the last thing I’m going to say (smiling) – you need to find the angle that feels the most comfortable and strongest for your arms, across your chest, elbow to elbow.  If they’re straight across, you’ll probably feel the most tension, but you may feel some discomfort in your shoulders, so you may naturally drop them down at a slight angle.  That’s important.  You don’t want shoulder impingement.  So feel for good tension, but so that it feels “right”, not “wrong”.   That’s it guys, see you later.”

The bench press is the king of chest exercises, and whether you’re doing flat bench barbell or dumbbells, or incline bench barbell or dumbbells, the principles to your technique should be the same.  Grip the bar at a width that makes the angle between your forearm and upper arm 90 degrees when the bottom of your upper arm is parallel to the floor (when the bar is a few inches or so from your chest, your arms become parallel to the floor).  That’s just to establish your proper grip so the work you do benefits you fully.

The other positioning principle is for tension through the chest.  The more your arms are in a straight line, elbow to elbow, across your chest, from side to side, the more tension you’ll feel.  But the chest happens to be activated more when your elbows are tucked under a bit.  Find what feels comfortable, but where you have a good bit of tension, like a rubber band stretching, and seek that maximum tension across the chest.  You’ll feel the variation in tension if you move your arm positioning during a set.

And The Pause method is just a tip, but the most significant thing I can tell you about getting strong!   It’s the most effective way to gain strength in the bench press, it was taught to me when I was 18 and a novice.  He knew what he was talking about.  I felt like a weakling taking substantial weight off the bar in order to pause correctly, but it only took 2 weeks until I was back to my previous weight.  And my strength did continue to increase way past that.  Rock solid, real strength.  Try it!


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