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.

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