Add 20 Pounds to Your Bench. Right. Now.

I just promised a friend that I could add 20 pounds to his bench press if he just let me show him how to do it. I’m 100% confident that this is true – and honestly it might be more like 30 or 40 pounds. He is stronger than I am but he’s just lacking the technique – all I see is untapped potential!

I have spent more hours researching the bench press than I care to admit. In truth I studied so much because I was that stereotypical ninety seven pound weakling when I was younger. I have spent over a quarter of a century now (27 years!) grinding it out in the gym, and since I’m built like a distance runner, it’s been a long, slow journey for me. The only way I could get any kind of edge on my competition was by learning everything I could and applying it to my training. My best bench ever was not anything to write home about – I did 275 raw, and 365 with a shirt – and that 365 didn’t even touch my chest so it wouldn’t count in competition. But I tell you this to let you know that I’ve felt a decent amount of weight on the bench before – and the only way I pushed that sucker back up was by doing every one of these points that I’ve listed here.

So if you’re looking to up your bench, try out some of these tips! If you don’t know these techniques already, I can actually promise you your bench numbers will go up!

  1. Set yourself up properly. Take the time to center your head and body properly on the bench. Ensure you’re gripping the bar at the same width left and right. Your feet should be flat on the floor (as a starting point) and tucked in underneath your butt.
  2. Take the correct grip width. Too narrow is all triceps. Too wide won’t be a strong enough position. Aiming for a vertical forearm position is probably a good starting point for where you need to grip the bar.
  3. Grip the bar hard and with straight wrists. Tight wrist straps can help here – where you wrap the wrap across the wrist joint and prevent it from bending back. Additionally, you’ll want to take a full grip on the bar. You might feel stronger with a thumbless grip, but it’s just not worth the risk of the bar slipping and falling onto your chest. A good cue here for how to grip the bar properly is to squeeze your pinky as hard as you can around the bar. Similar to the entire body being tight, your entire grip needs to be tight. Gripping the bar as hard as you can fires the central nervous system and allows you to lift more weight.
  4. Get your body tight. I mean, really tight – head to toe. This is the number one error you’ll typically see when you watch most people bench. If there is any looseness in the body, any twisting, any jittery feet or knees, I guarantee they are benching far less than they could. Not to mention setting themselves up for injury. You need a stable base to push off of- just like a squat or a deadlift, every part of your body has to be tight when you bench. When you get it right, every part of your body should be uncomfortable. Pull your feet in tight underneath your body, a flat foot is a good starting point, this will allow you to learn how to drive into the floor and tighten up every muscle in your legs, your butt, your lower back, your core.
  5. Pack/Pinch your shoulders underneath you. Primarily this puts your shoulders in a safer position, but this also further creates more tension and significantly SHORTENS THE RANGE OF MOTION. Pinning your shoulder blades together under you simultaneously raises your chest towards the bar. You can dramatically reduce the amount of travel you have to move the bar to complete the rep. This shortened range of motion makes a massive difference in the amount of weight you can move.
  6. Arch your back. Essentially this changes the movement into a slight decline bench, (a stronger position), creates more tension, shortens the range of motion further, and keeps those shoulders pinned back. If you do all of this right, your glutes, hams and quads might even start cramping. Especially if the day before was heavy squats and deadlifts… It takes some getting used to. But if you’re uncomfortable, you know you’re getting it right.
  7. Take a big breath. The cue I always yell is “Big air!” Before your decent you take a big breath of air, further expanding your chest towards the sky and tightening up your body. The bar descends while you’re holding your breath, and you drive it up using the pressure. You can’t drive big weight without getting the breath right.
  8. Keep your elbows tucked. If you’re t-bar benching, you’re not going to be moving a lot of weight, and you’re putting your shoulders in a position that’s begging for an injury. If you’re not sure where your elbows should go, aim to have your upper arm at about a 45 degree angle from your torso. Halfway from being tucked right at your sides and flared out by your ears.
  9. SHOVE the bar. Once in the above position, with head to toe tension, chest full of air, when you push the bar off your chest, you can SHOVE it off your chest – and this movement starts at your feet. Driving from your feet at just the right time will assist you in shoving the bar upwards. You don’t bench with your chest. You bench with your entire body. Further, you want to accelerate the bar quickly. Moving fast will help you coast through the sticking point. (for most people, this is around the middle of the lift)
  10. Flare your elbows to get through the sticking point. But if you flare too early, you’re just putting yourself in a weak and vulnerable position. This is a bit more advanced though, and might take more explanation than I can give here – but it’s probably enough to explain that the move starts with your elbows tucked, and the flare is there if you start to stick. Along with the next point:
  11. The bar path is a slight arch. The bar touches the point of your chest that is closest to the sky (typically below the nipple line), but as it travels upwards there is a natural arch back towards your eyes. This is different from person to person, and some people argue that straight up is more efficient – but generally, when you hit your sticking point, if you drive the bar back towards your eyes and start to flare your elbows at the same time, you’ll get through it.

Things not to do:

  1. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest. Sooner or later you’ll injure yourself.
  2. Don’t take a thumbless grip. Not worth the risk.
  3. Don’t let your butt come off the bench. That’s just cheating bro. But have you ever thought about why people lift their butts when they struggle? They are creating a decline position where they are stronger. You can do that with sufficient arch.
  4. Don’t fail. Train yourself to make lifts. If you always put more on the bar than you can handle, you’re training the pattern of failing and giving up. I always trained to make my lifts, and have almost never failed in training. Train yourself for success.

If you have any questions or comments let me know! Either comment on this or feel free to send me an email. matt@matthewtoth.com.

Now go crush that bench press!

eric-spoto-722-bench-press-record-2013

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