How to Increase Your Bench Press

bench team 001

The Team After Another Successful Meet

Most Common Bench Press Mistakes

As soon as I walk into any gym I start critiquing every lifter. I can’t help myself. “Those are some great half reps buddy” or “lady, if those dumbbells were any lighter they’d float away.”Sometimes “pal, I have no idea what the Christ you’re trying to do.”

Obviously I don’t say these things out loud or I’d spend more time fighting than lifting. One of my rules is I never give unsolicited advice. Sometimes this rule tortures me especially when I see common mistakes with the bench press.

What does Jim know about bench pressing?

At the top of my list of qualifications is the fact that I spent several years competing in this lift as the captain of a traveling team that participated in meets all over New England. Our results were often published in Powerlifting USA magazine.

I’m not one to do anything half-assed so I did my research, read the books, watched the videos and experimented with different methods in preparation for my contests. My work paid off in many official lifts over double body weight and in one strange contest, where I benched my bodyweight for 29 reps. I spent hours at a bench contests watching hundreds of lifters making thousands of attempts. I couldn’t help but analyze their form and critique their mistakes.

This is my list of the most common bench press mistakes and how to correct them. Fix each one to bring you closer to fulfilling your quest to a bigger bench.

Foot placement

If you want to press some heavy weight you need to start with a solid base and incorporate your whole body. I’ve seen guys straining for another rep and their feet are kicking like they’re being strangled. Even worse than that is putting both feet up on the bench. Unless you’re practicing to walk a tight rope there’s absolutely no benefit to that position.

Here’s how to build your base: After you lie back on the bench you should bring your feet straight back toward your head, to the point where your heels are about to come off the ground, but no further. Your heels should stay in contact with the floor throughout the lift. If you’ve got long legs your butt may tend to come off the bench. You could avoid this by widening your feet. On the initial drive, off your chest, you should drive your heels through the floor and hold that position until you rack the weight.

Hand Placement

Where you grip the bar determines what muscle groups will have the most influence on your lift. Use the power rings as a gauge and obviously your grip should be exactly the same on both sides. Whether you generate more power from your chest or your triceps you should start out with a placement that uses both equally.

Here’s how to determine hand placement: You will need someone to help you with this.

Have your helper stand either directly behind your head or directly in front of your feet. Lie back on the bench and take an equal grip on an empty bar. Lower the bar to your chest and hold. Have your helper determine if your forearms are exactly vertical and perpendicular to the floor. Your hands should be directly over your elbows. If you hands are flaring out you should narrow your grip. If you’re interested in power and you believe most comes from your chest, you can widen your grip. If you feel like your triceps are your big movers you can narrow your grip but I’m talking only an inch or two at most.

Do not use a false or “thumb-less” grip. It’s dangerous and it tends to keep your elbows in tight to your body forcing your front delts and triceps to do most of the work.

Don’t shrug your shoulders

When you lie on the bench your shoulders should not be up by your ears. In the shrugged position you’re not getting the full benefit of your pecs and you’re taking your lats completely out of the lift “yes, your lats assist in your bench press.” This position also leads to shoulder impingement syndrome.

Before the lift, flex your lats and drive your shoulders down toward your hips while squeezing your shoulder blades together. This should create an arch in your lower back but your butt should always stay in contact with the bench. Only your upper back should be pressed hard into the bench. Always look straight up and do not press your head back into the bench, as this could cause a neck injury.

Sagging Wrists

When you grip the bar don’t let your wrists sag back. The bar should remain directly in line with your forearms. Allowing your wrists to sag will lead to wrist problems. More importantly, you’re not in the direct line with the source of your power. Hold your wrists tight as if you were punching a heavy bag.

Perform full reps

‘Who said it was OK to stop six inches above your chest? Are these the same people parking two feet from the curb?

The bottom portion of the bench press is where your pecs are heavily activated. If you don’t touch the bar to your chest you’re only cheating your pecs out of a lot of good work.

If you’re doing these partial reps to inflate your numbers, be advised: Any rep that doesn’t touch your chest, followed by a complete unassisted lockout, is not a rep. This means you cannot claim to have lifted it when a fellow gym rat asks “How much do ya bench?”

It’s true that partial reps are acceptable in certain training programs but the topic of this article is the standard bench press.

Your chest is not a trampoline

Thankfully, I don’t see this much anymore, but back in the day, guys were bouncing the bar off their chest like it was a bell ringing contest. It’s just another form of cheating, it’s counter productive and you better believe it’s dangerous.

I know a guy who never benched without bouncing. Then he entered his first contest where he had to pause the bar on his chest. His pec ripped like an old gym towel.

One problem I still see is guys dropping the bar on the descent and then coming to a quick stop. They’re cheating themselves out of the negative portion of the lift, which is just as effective in building muscle as the positive portion.

Your descent needs to be controlled, as if you were compressing a heavy spring. When the bar touches your chest the spring releases upward, powering the bar past the sticking point.

Too Much Weight

This is another chronic problem I see all the time. I want to ask some guys “Are you benching or are you assisting your spotter with upright rows?”

If you’re doing a set of eight with a weight you can only get for two reps “lighten up buddy.” One or two assisted reps, after you perform at least five on your own, is all you should need for assistance.

And if you’re spotting someone don’t let the bar stop. Always keep the bar moving, upward and level.

I just needed to get that off my chest

Chances are you’ve committed some of these crimes in your bench press training. I hope I’ve helped you on your quest for a bigger bench and sent you on the lawful path of the righteous.

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