Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pimp yo' Deadlift

This is the 3rd part of the series on customising your lifts. The deadlift is probably the simplest and least technical of the 3 power lifts yet one that is often bastadized by terrible technique. I have seen many rounded back hipless deadlifts even amongst power lifters who should know better. Poor technique on the deadlift is probably responsible for more injuries than any other lift. So let's learn how to deadlift not only in a strong way but also a safe way.

So with the bar loaded the first thing you must do it set your stance. There are many options avaible here. The standard stance is feet just inside shoulder width. But this may not be ideal for you. There is the sumo stance where the legs are wider apart and the hands are placed inside the legs. This reduces the range of motion but like I discussed about the wide grip pull up in the bench article a reduced range of motion is not necessarily stronger if it puts you in a leverage disadvantage or relies on you using less dominant muscles. Within the sumo stance you can very the width from just outside the hands sometimes called a crab stance to as wide as possible that your hips will allow. Of course you could be somewhere between these two points. Generally a sumo stance will make it harder to break the bar off the floor and will require more leg strength and less back strength. The wider you take the stance generally the harder it will be to break off the floor but the less distance you will have to lock it out. A very wide stance also requires great flexibility and while the stress on the back is reduced the stress on the hips is greatly increased. If you are more quad dominant and a good squatter the sumo deadlift may be more suited to you.

Wide sumo stance

Crab stance

You can also take your stance the other way making it more narrow than the conventional stance. If you take your stance in narrower it also means you can take a narrower grip on the bar which can decrease the range of motion. If you look at my picture at the top you can see I take quite a narrow stance around hip width. I find this makes the deadlift stronger off the floor which is my weakness. Some deadlifters take their stance even narrower than that and have the heels touching. This is referee to as a frog stance.

Frog stance

As well as stance width you can also vary the angle of your feet. A very wide sumo stance will require you to angle your feet out more as will a very narrow stance. You will find that by varying the angle of your feet you change the action of the quads and hips. Generally the greater the angle of the feet the better the quads can be used but at a cost of reduced hip action. You can experiment with different stances and foot angles until you find your optimal stance. This may take some time and will be dependant on your leverages and muscles dominance.

When setting your stance you also need to gauge the ideal distance your shins will be from the bar. A bar that is too far from the shins will have to be pulled in otherwise the bar will be too far away from the lifters centre of gravity making the lift harder. How close will depend on your build and start position. Some lifters will have the bar directly over the middle of the foot while others may have it closer and touching the shins. Experiment with the start position to give you the strongest pull and which helps you keep the bar closest to your body.

Now we have the issue of grip. There are four possible grips a lifter could use. Most beginners start with a double overhand grip. This is a good place to start as it allows them to pull evenly with their back and avoid twisting. To begin with the grip will not be a limiting factor and it helps the grip to develop to a greater degree than someone who starts with a mixed grip from the get go. Eventually a lifters back and hips become so strong that a double overhand grip will no longer suffice. The most common solution to this problem is to use a mixed grip. This is where one hand holds one side of the bar while the other side is rotated and holds the bar underhand. This puts four fingers and a thumb on each side of the bar and stops any rolling or slippage. There are some disadvantages with this technique however. Due to holding the bar in an uneven manner it can cause a lifter to twist slightly and favour one side of the back more. This can be especially prominent in those less experienced. Long term it can lead to uneven development of the upper back with the overhand side becoming more dominant. As you switch from double overhand to mixed grip you may notice a slight change of position. You actually have to get closer to the bar to pull mixed grip and this is not quite as optimal a position compared to double overhand. The final problem is the the underhand arm is exposed to injury as the weights start to get really heavy. The bicep tendon can become the weak link and can be at risk of tearing. Talk to experied dead lifters who handle a lot of weight and they may well have had this injury at some point.

The alternative to the mixed grip is the hook grip which is less commonly used. This is a grip adapted from Olympic lifting where you wrap your thumb around the bar then wrap your fingers over your thumb. This wedges the bar in place and allows you to pull double overhand very securely. This is advantageous as it allows you to pull without worry of uneven emphasise or development. It allows a slightly higher start position and allows you to adopt a narrower grip on the bar. Your forearm actually attaches at an angle to the elbow and when you hold the bar underhand your arm is angling out making you take a wider grip and in turn gives you a greater distance to pull the bar. The hook grip solves this problem. So why is the hook grip rarer than the mixed grip? You only have to try it to find out. The hook grip is more about pain tolerance than strength. Friction keeps the bar locked in but hanging on depends on how well you are able to deal with your thumbs being crushed by a heavy weight. If can take a lot of time and patience to build up to the point where dead lifting with a hook grip is merely uncomfortable rather than agonising. Long term while saving the bicep it can potiently damage the thumbs. I have been using the hook grip for the past few months and have finally got to the point where I can handle my previous best mixed grip with it. But the first time I tried it with only a light weight I felt like both thumbs were going to dislocate. If you are going to try it take your time and build up slowly. Another disadvantage of the hook grip is that you can't really train reps on the deadlift with it. I have taken to using straps for reps and hook grip for singles and always make sure I hook grip all of the warm up sets.

For the truely mad or perhaps for those whos grip is a real limiting factor you can try a mixed hook grip. I've never heard of any high level competitor ever using this grip but it doesn't mean you can't. While it would give you all of the disadvantages of both grips in terms of start position, uneven back development and injury risk to the bicep and thumbs there is no stronger grip available to you. That bar is going nowhere but staying in your hands and it will be your pulling muscles that fail you never the grip. Another potential advantage is a little neurological phenomenon to do with how your hands perceive a weight. Most lifters can lift more wearing wrist straps than they can without them even if their grip is never normally the limiting factor. Now take a very thick bar like a 2-3 inch diameter bar and deadlift it. Work up to a max. The grip will be the limiting factor here but you may find you get to the point of bugding the bar off the floor and not being able to hold on long enough for the lockout. Your hands perceive the weight as heavy because it is hard to hold onto even if it is much lighter than your conventional bar max. This sends a signal to your pulling muscles to shut down to avoid injury because they think the weight is very heavy. Now when a lifter wears straps the hands are not peiceving the weight as heavy and so no signal is sent to the muscles to hold back to avoid injury. So by adopting a mixed hook grip, the strongest grip you can take it is almost like wearing straps. This would reduce any feedback the hands are feeling because the grip is so secure and may actually allow you to lift more weight like that. This is quite theoretical so do take it with a pinch of salt. Ultimately you must test for yourself to see.

Once you have decided on the type of grip you are going to use you must decide on the width of the grip. A closer grip slightly reduces the range of motion but you don't want to take your arms narrower than vertical other you would again increase the ROM the same as a wide grip. Also you would lose a lot if stability on the bar. You want to make sure your hand stays on the knurling aswell as the smooth part of the bar is much harder to hold onto. Grip width will depend on how broad you are and the type of grip you use.

Getting down to the bar can become a ritual in itself as can the start of the pull. You can lower yourself to the bar like you are reversing a deadlift or bend over like a stiff leg deadlift then bend the knees and pull through. There are a few tricks that can be utilised other than just bending down and picking it up. The deadlift gets its name because it happens from a dead stop. Unlike the squat and bench which start with the negative portion first and rely on a stretch reflex the deadlift starts from the bottom with no momentum. Its possible to create momentum using a few techniques made famous by big pullers.

First you have the drive bomb technique. This is simply getting down to the bar quickly and pulling as fast as possible. This attempts to create momentum with speed and the reflex of lowering quickly. But its important to make sure you have a proper grip and set your back correctly otherwise this could lead to some dropped barbells.

The next technique is the rolling start and has been made famous by the best dead lifter ever Benedict Magnusson. You start with the bar a foot or so in front of you. Bends down into a stiff legged position. At the start of the pull you roll the bar slightly away from you then strongly in towards you. As the bar reaches you bend you knees and begin the pull upwards. This is like creating a ramp for the bar. But this technique can be hard to master. You can end up putting too much spin on the bar and it rolling out of your hands. Or you can pull it into yourself too much which creates resistance for the bar to move upward. But not rolling enough creates no benefit at all. You will have to practise it a lot if you are going to make it work for you.

Benedict Magnusson may be the strongest dead lifter ever but the man to break the 1000lbs barrier first was Andy Bolton. He uses a completely different technique to start his pull than Magnusson does. Its referred to as dipping and Bolton uses 2 dips before he starts to pull. Bend over and grip the bar with your legs still straight so you are like a stiff legged deadlift. Then bend the knees and start to pull on the bar but only enough to create tension in the muscles and take the slack from the bar. Straighten the legs again back to the stiff legged position. Repeat this once more. Then on the third pull fully and deadlift the bar. This technique helps to create momentum as well as progressively build the tension in your muscles. You don't have to do three dips you might do one or more but this is what Andy Bolton does and seems about right to get a benefit from the technique. Only pull enough to create the tension don't tire youself out unnecessarily before a big pull.

The only other technique that I know of to help get the bar moving is the squat start. This involves taking your grip on the bar then dropping into a squat. You rise out of it then start to pull when you reach the correct dead lifting height. This is attempting to create a stretch reflex by trying to add a negative portion to the lift first. You can see Mikhail Koklyaev use this technique here:

Of course you don't have to use any of these techniques. You can start the deadlift however you want and you may not feel any benefit from them but I would advise against spending too long in the bottom position. If you have ever held a ski squat or horse stance in martial arts you know your legs quickly tire in that bent position. The longer you spend down the bottom the weaker your pull off the floor will be. If you don't believe me load up a deadlift bar with about 80% of you max. Get set up in the bottom position then wait. Count to ten and then pull. See how slow and grinding the lift will feel off the floor. Sometimes you will see people messing around trying to find the perfect grip or back position for ages all the while they are losing strength. Make sure you do all of your psyching up and mental preparation standing up before you grab hold of the bar. Then when you take your grip begin the pull. Don't attempt to psyche up when in the bottom position. Look at the video of Magnusson. He does his spectacle of a psyche up routine before he grabs the bar. Once he grips it he pulls instantly and doesn't pause at all.

Now we have the start position itself. There are two main options here. You can bend the knees enough and lower the hips so the top of the knees are over the bar and shin is at a slight angle. The chest will be up. From here when you start the pull you press your legs against the floor and rely on alot of quad strength to get the bar moving. This action feels identical to a leg press machine. Alternatively you can have less bend at the knees and a higher hip position. The shin will be vertical and the chest will be down more. This requires greater flexibility of the hamstrings to achieve and is kind of a cross between a stiff leg deadlift and a conventional one. At the start of the pull the quads will still be used but to a lesser extent and there will be a greater reliance on the hamstrings and hips to move the bar. For those who are more hip dominant this can be a superior technique but can stress the lower back to a greater degree.

A little known trick to help you at the start of the deadlift is to use your lats. Tense your lats and pull the bar into you at the start and throughout the lift. For those who don't know how to tense their lats this is NOT a lat spread like you see in bodybuilding. When you tense them the shoulders should move ever so slightly downward not out to the side. Think of it like an isometric straight arm pull down. This keeps the bar close to your centre of gravity during the lifts and stops it falling forward out of line.

During the deadlift the safest position for you lower back is to maintain its natural arch. But what about the upperback? Injuries to the upper part of the spine are very rare and it doesn't have to abide by the same rules as the lower back. A lot of very advanced dead lifters actually bend their upper back while maintaining the arch in the lower back. This shortens the lever and can make the lifter stronger. Some lifters have the body awareness and mobility to adopt this position from the start if the pull. For others the weight will pull the upper back round during the deadlift while the lower back is maintained. This is probably the hardest technique to grasp and will take a long time to practice and develop the mobility necessary. Procede with caution this is for advanced lifters only. Many who think they are doing this technique end up also bending the lower back as well and risk injury. You may need someone to watch you or video you to ensure you are doing it correctly. When in this position the head and chest will be down unlike the conventional deadlift technique.

Both Andy Bolton and Konstantin Konstantinov use this technique

Head position needs to be considered in the deadlift. In the round upper back deadlift the head will be looking down out of nessesity. In the more conventional version you can either look up or slightly down keeping the head in line with the back. The head up version reinforces the chest up and arched lower back position so is a good start for beginners. You can also pull back with the head to try and get the body to follow midway through the deadlift. But you must be careful not to over arch the neck or lowerback in doing this. The head slightly down inline with the spine is more of mental focus thing allowing you to keep your eyes fixed on a singular point and narrow your focus.

Breathing during the deadlift is similar to the other lifts you want to take a big breathe of air and hold it while tensing your abs. You can then either exhale at the top of the lift or exhale forcibly and slowly at the sticking point while still keeping the abs tense. Avoid shouting or any other macho displays mid deadlift as this will simply cause you to lose tightness in the core.

While the deadlift is often thought of as a back exercise it is the hip muscles that lock the bar out namely the glutes and hamstrings. The back is only working to stabilise the spine not lift the bar. Once the bar has passed the knees you must thrust the hips through. Its exactly like what it sounds like. Think about pushing your hips through the bar. Once you have locked the bar out squeeze the glutes together. This insures your hips are all the way through and stops you leaning to far back. Some people have a trendancy to lean way back at the lockout which can cause the knees to unlock and a no lift in competition.

You would think putting the bar down again bears no instruction but you would believe how many people get this wrong. There is only one way to put it down properly. Once the bar is locked out unlock your hips but keep the knees straight lower it down like you were doing a stiff legged deadlift. Once the bar goes past your knees unlock your knees and bend them until the bar reaches the floor. The alternate of course that many beginners do is to unlock the knees first keep the torso upright and then smash the bar into your knees on the way down. Stick to the first option. Keep hold of the bar until it is resting on the ground. Letting go too early or dropping it is cause for no lift.

The squat and bench can both be cheated in the gym by cutting depth or bouncing the bar off your chest and unfortunately the deadlift can also be cheated by hitching the bar. This is where you lift the bar to your knees then rest it there. You then lean way back and attempt to roll it along the thighs to the lockout position then stand up right with it again. You sometimes see this in strongman competitions but is illegal in powerlifting and will get you red lighted. If you find yourself unintentionally hitching the bar lower the weight and do the technique properly.

Now its time to discuss equipment. Belts can be worn and offer extra support around the core. I don't find that a belt helps the deadlift quite as much as the squat but is still of some benefit. Don't get one that is too thick or too tight as it can make it harder to achieve the correct start position. Make sure you get one that is the same thickness all the way around not one that tapers at the back. For shoes generally you want something with the thinnest possible sole. This will reduce the distance you have to pull the bar. You can get specialist slippers made for this purpose quite cheaply. Other good shoes are wrestling or boxing shoes or plain old school plimsolls. Some lifters actually get benefit from dead lifting wearing heeled Olympic shoes. While the elevated heel will increase the range of motion slightly it enables a stronger position for the quad to be in which could help you off the floor. Its worth trying to see which feels best for you.

Under no circumstances should gloves be worn as they only make your grip worse and stop your hands from becoming conditioned. Straps can be of some benefit as I said above I use them for reps instead of the hook grip just make sure you don't use them constantly and allow your grip to become weak. Wrist wraps are also allowed to be worn in competition but offer absolutely no benefit to the deadlift.

Overtime you must learn to customise your lifts to make them as suited to your body as possible. This requires a lot of experiment and practise. The perfect technique will not fall on your lap straight away and may change again over time. Sometimes generally excepted rules of technique aren't always optimal for the individual. Case in point a lifter called Bob Peoples. Bob was a farmer who also happened to be an amazing deadlifter. He pulled around 720lbs at a bodyweight of 175lbs. He had some freaky long arms but also had the most unconventional technique. He would fully exhale all the air out of his lungs and then pull with a completely rounded back. This breaks the rules and sounds like his vertebrae would explode yet he managed to lift amazing poundages in this style. He experimented, didn't listen to conventional wisdom and really made the lift work for him. Now I'm not suggesting you try his technique. I doubt it would work for most of use but you must learn to find exactly what does work for you through trail and error.

Bob Peoples

That finishes of this series of posts. Its up to you to customise your lift and go forth and smash some PR's!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Pimp yo' Bench

As I outlined in the first part of the series there is no one size fits all to technique when it comes to performing a lift. It's those who tend to work out the best ways that work with their own body that tend to perform best. The bench is no exception and probably has more minor technical details then any other lift. I would say it's definitely the most complicated of the big 3. Surely you just lie down bend and straighten your arms but a strong bench requires much more attention to the finer details of technique. It is really a lesson in body tension.

 The first thing you have to do when lying down get the right distance up the bench. Most feel the best way to do this is to have the bar directly over their eyes. This puts them in the ideal position once the bar is unracked. Next you have to set your arch. You'll notice that strong benches has a pronounced arch in their lower back when benching. This serves a few purposes. It raises the chest towards the bar which decreases the range of motion and allows heavier weights to be lifted. It also improves stability while benching. If you watch a beginner with no semblance of technique bench in the gym you will often see them and the bar wobble all over the place. This is a lack of stability and leaks strength all through the movement.

The severity of your arch needs to be experimented with. It will be dependant on your flexibility and how it feels to you. Some people find too much of an arch causes their lower back to cramp or feels too uncomfortable to focus on pushing strongly. Practise and find the strongest position to you. Think about trying to get your glutes as close as possible to your traps. If you are mearly concerned with developing your pecs and are not concerned with the weights you are moving then there is no need to arch at all.

Here's a good example of arching
While arching you need to keep your upperback tight and shoulder blades squeezed together. This helps create stability and the base of your arch. It also keeps the shoulders locked in and raises the chest up further. If you have ever been to a powerlifting meet you will see all manner of rituals and routines used to set their arch. Some lifters may pull their glutes towards their shoulders then set their feet. Others may do this the other way round. Many grab the bar and pull themselves into it like a barbell row to get the upper back tight. You may see some putting their feet on the bench bridging up then putting your feet on the floor and maintaining the arched back. Experiment with finding the ideal way for you to setup and maintain your support and tightness. Remember i said earlier the bench press is a lesson in body tension and the ideal pisition is not necessarily a comfortable one. Foot position also comes into play when first setting up on the bench. You can experiment with stance width and distance from you. You dont want the knees the extended anymore than 90 degrees otherwise you would lose the benefits of leg drive latter on. Generally a wider stance will increase stability but will not enable as strong a leg drive as a closer stance. Either way you should activate your side hip muscles by pushing the knees out to the side. This is just like in the bottom of a squat. Some federations will allow you to bench on your toes with heels elevated. This can enable an even greater arch to be achieved and can allow a stronger leg drive but again at a cost of reduced stability. Some federations only allow you to bench flat footed however weightlifting shoes can be worn to give an artificial heel elevation. These are all things to consider and practise when benching to find your perfect groove.

So you ve sorted your foot placement set your arch and got your upper back tight and shoulders locked down. Now it's time to take your grip on the bar. The maximum legal competition grip is with your index fingers on the small ring on the outer knurling. Some lifters take the widest possible grip reasoning that it would reduce the distance the bar travels and therefore allow greater weights to be lifted. But this is not the full story. Just because you decrease the range of motion doesn't mean you can move more weight if you are at a leverage disadvantage. Let's take the wide grip pull up, most people would agree that wide grip pull ups are harder than shoulder width ones. Bodybuilders even use wide grip pull ups to target the lats more and take their arms out of the movement. Yet if you compare the wide grip pull up to a shoulder width one the range of motion is reduced yet the movement is harder. The same can be true of the bench press. A wider grip may not always allow you to lift the greatest amount of weight depending on your individual leverages and muscle dominance. Personally I bench with quite a narrow grip with my hands just inside the knurling. While the distance may be greater I can relie on my stronger shoulders and less on my weaker pecs. Also I feel much faster off my chest which creates momentum to finish the lift. You need to experiment with different grip widths to find the strongest for you. Try the widest, narrowest and everything in between to find your perfect groove. It's also worth bearing in mind that a wider grip can stress the shoulder joint more than a narrower grip making you more susceptible to injuries. However if you are using the bench press for muscular development then a wider grip can be more favorable for pec activation. Next comes the type of grip you use. Most use the standard thumbs around grip which allows you to maximally squeeze the bar as well as being the safest option to avoid any dropped barbells. But if you are not careful the bar can end up to high in the hand and end up loading the wrist. This not only puts unwanted stress on the wrist but also leaks strength so you no longer have a strong a chain to press with. Wrist wraps can help you to avoid this problem.  There are also a few other grip options available. You have the false grip where you don't wrap your thumb around and instead keep it the same side as the fingers.

The advantages of this grip is that you can better load the bar    over your forearms and avoid any bending of the wrist by allowing the bar to be placed in the heel of the palm. The disadvantages of this grip is that you cannot squeeze the bar as hard during the press and the potential of dropping the bar. While this is a risk it is very unlikely and would require a serious lapse in concentration. There is also the thumbs on grip. This is like the false grip but you place your thumbs running parallel along the bar. This is my preferred grip as it still allows you to have the bar over the heel of the palm but gives you increased safety and security by allowing you to wrap your thumb in the event of slippage and reduce the chance of accidents. A very rarely used grip is the reverse grip having both palms facing towards the lifters head. This is not often seen but some lifters have made it work. You must bear in mind that if you compete not all this grips are allowed in all federations so make sure you check the rules before picking your preferred style.

So you've set your arch got your upper back tight shoulders locked down. Foot placement set, grip width and style sorted. Now it's finally time to unrack the barbell. You can use a spotter to hand the bar off or unrack it yourself. If you use a spotter make sure they don't pull the bar up as they hand it off otherwise you can lose your upperback tightness. If you unrack it yourself do so by using a pullover action rather than trying to press the bar out of the rack. This helps you maintain your tightness and avoid pre fatiguing the triceps. When setting up it helps to have the bar directly over the eyes. When you unrack the bar you will have the bar in a good position over the chest. A typical bodybuilding bench press involves keeping the elbows at a 90 degree angle to the body throughout the lift. However the shoulders can be kept in a much safer position if they are moved closer to the body. 45 degrees or even closer. This takes stress off the shoulder joint and emphasises the pecs less. It also allows you to maintain a tighter and more stable upper back.

Experiment with the angle of your upper arms while benching to see what feels strongest and safest to you. This applies to both the negative and lifting phase. The speed at which you lower the bar is another factor to be considered. If you lower the bar slowly you can maintain control and tightness especially as you approach your chest. This allows you to store tension for the paused style powerlifting bench press. However it required more strength to lower slowly like this than a quicker decent. Quicker descents use less energy but it's harder to control the bottom and keep the tension. I feel a faster decent is more useful for the touch and go bench press whereas a slow decent is more useful in the paused style especially when using max attempts. You must try each style to find out for yourself. When the bar is on your chest you can simply pause it there for the required time making sure to keep the tension on before pressing. But there is another technique I refer to as the catapult. Lower the bar under control but when the bar is on your chest actively pull the bar into you using your back muscles like you are doing a barbell row. Make sure to still keep tension on the pressing muscles though and don't let the bar actually sink into your chest. Now we should discuss proper leg drive on the bench. At the commencement of the press push your feet into the floor and away from the bench without moving your feet. The best way to describe it would be to do an isometric leg extension using the floor as assistance. The drive should come from the quads not the hips. Alot of people misinterprete leg drive as pushing up with the legs and end up bridging and raising their glutes off the bench. This is cause for no lift in powerlifting and is cheating otherwise. Proper leg drive should create a ricochet across the body and into the chest giving you additional momentum for the first few inches of the lift. Your feet cannot actually move otherwise this is again cause for a no lift. When leg drive is combined with the catapult technique and timed together at the start of the lift you will see the greatest benefit from it. The bar will fly of the chest then it's up to you to finish it off. Make sure only to keep a slight tension on the legs during the negative phase but pushing before the pressing phase will cause you to lose the benefit of leg drive.

During the pressing phase there are a few more things to consider. First we have line of sight. Most look at the bar as its moving. But I've also heard it been suggested to keep your eyes on the ceiling the whole time. The logic being that you body tends to go where your eyes are looking. The only problem is I find that the bar path tends to be less consistent with this method. See which feels best for your self. There are a few different opinions when it comes to bar path. You have 3 options available. You can try to press the bar straight up. You can press slightly towards your head like an incline press or you can press slightly away like a decline press. Some find that pressing towards the head can help them break through the sticking point better. But there is the risk of the bar drifting too far out of line and you losing the bar over your head. Those who use a greater arch can do well pressing the bar slightly away instead. Due to a greater back arch the lift basically becomes a decline press by default. Press in the groove that feels most natural to you. However it can take some practice to nail the incline/decline bar path and they are subtle movements.

When you are pressing there are additional tension techniques you can use. You can maximally squeeze the bar while pressing also known as white knuckling. This creates tension throughout the entire arm that can contribute to strength and support. This only really works on the regular grip bench and not the false grip or thumbs on grip. Another method is to pull the bar apart as if trying to make the bar longer or pull it in two. This creates additional tension across the upper back to keep you stabilised and supported it can be applied to both the negative and pressing portion of the lift. Alternatively you can create tension by applying force as if you were trying to bend the bar in half. Imagine the motion of a strongman bending an iron bar. This is what you want to recreate while pressing. It allows greater activation of the pecs and lats.

Personally I don't use any of these tension techniques and bench with a thumbs on grip but they are worth trying to see if they help for you.

When it comes to breathing it helps to take a deep breath once you have unracked the bar, hold it and tense your abs to give support to the torso. This is the same as the squat and deadlift. You can either then keep the breathe held until you have locked out the bar or exhale forcibly but slowly at the sticking point all the way to lockout. This works in exactly the same way as the squat and deadlift.

A final note about equipment for the raw bench. Wrist wraps can be worn in all powerlifting federations and help keep the wrists in line under the bar, they are worth considering. A belt can also be worn. Some find this helps to add additional tightness by allowing the abs to push against it. Personally I find wearing a belt makes it harder to create my ideal arch and also causes cramping in my lower back. Not good if you are in a meet and have to deadlift later.

As you can see there is more to the bench press than you probably first thought. Don't try to use all of the techniques here but test them over time to see what feels best. Give a technique time to work. If it doesn't feel great after the first session try a few more before trying something else. Most of all be patient the bench press can take a long time to develop and feel right. Its a lift you really have to grow into.

Stay tuned for the final part soon pimp yo' deadlift.