Beginner to intermediate lifters generally do not give much thought to the proper set-up of each lift, but doing so can rapidly increase your strength as well as prevent injury. With the bench press, for example, many people flop down on the bench and bang out a few reps – concentrating their efforts into their shoulders while forgetting that the bench press is in fact a full body exercise.
Over the next few posts, I will outline what you should be doing step-by-step prior to commencing the bench press, squat and deadlift. Most of these are what I recommend to all of my clients, while other points are just personal pre-lift rituals. You don’t have to be a powerlifter to apply these tips! By setting up correctly, you will see immediate improvements in your strength.
Let’s begin with the bench press. 90 per cent of people at commercial gyms bench press something like this: lie back on bench with a flat back, grip the bar loosely and lift off, lower the bar to a foot above the chest and return to full extension by almost dislocating a shoulder. If they do manage to reach a full range of motion, it is usually achieved by bouncing the bar off their chest with no control or tension whatsoever.
A high percentage of older recreational lifters have jacked their shoulders up from benching. I believe that these problems do not relate to benching itself, but rather an incorrect set up and improper warm up.
(Side note: Aside from problems with the set-up, there are obviously issues with loading too much weight on the bar. Put your ego aside and make sure you hit a full range of motion! I always emphasise the importance of quality over quantity to my clients: I’d rather you bench 20kg for one rep all the way to your chest, than 10 reps at 50kg only moving the bar a couple of inches.)
This is how I set up for a bench press:
- The first thing I do is lie back on the bench. I wrap my hands around the posts either side of my head, and lift my butt off the bench while keeping my feet planted. When I lay back down, I keep a small arch in my lower back and push my chest towards the ceiling. Powerlifters do all kinds of crazy backbends on to the bench, but my arch is modest. Ladies, this is a good time to make sure your hair is out of the way.
- Still holding on to the rack posts, I squeeze my lats as hard as I can. Despite what most people (don’t) do, these muscles should be doing a lot of work during a bench press. I think of squeezing my shoulder blades together – think of keeping a pencil between the shoulder blades throughout the whole set. (Note: it is not necessary to hold on to the rack, and most people instead find their initial set-up by grabbing the bar with an underhand grip, but I find it helps with correct lat engagement.) As you are benching, it helps to think of using your lats to pull the bar down to your chest.
- Only at this point do I let go of the posts and grip the bar. I take a moment to make sure my lats are still firing correctly, and then I check my grip. I used to use a wide grip but now I am slightly narrower. Most bars have a silver ring about a hand-width beyond shoulder-width apart, and I used to wrap my pinky finger around that. I now bring my hands in about two finger-widths on either side so that my upper and lower arms reach a 90 degree angle at the bottom of the press. You can experiment from a very wide to shoulder width grip to find what works best for you. Generally, the wider the grip, the easier the press but also the more stressful on your shoulders.
- When you grip the bar, imagine that you’re trying to break it in half over your chest like a piece of wood. Too many people grip the bar loosely, and some are even stupid enough to use what is called a suicide grip (thumbless, AKA one way to decapitation city!). When I first started lifting, I was guilty of this as I used to let my ring and pinky finger wave around when I started struggling. Squeeze the bar as tightly as you possibly can throughout the entire lift. If this hurts, you need to spend more time working on grip strength and less time wearing gloves! And for the love of God, make sure your wrists are straight.
- Next up, push your heels down into the ground as hard as you can. When you bench, think of pushing your body away from the bar, rather than pushing the bar away from your body. To do this, you need a strong foundation. Next time you’re in the gym take a look at how many guys flail their feet around when benching – it’s very common yet totally counterproductive. (Again, I bench with my heels directly underneath my knees. I have tried tucking my feet underneath me like in the picture below, but I prefer my current method.) Actively pushing your feet into the ground will also help to activate your quads.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, squeeze your glutes! My favourite trick question for clients is: What muscle should you be squeezing harder than anything during a bench press? No one ever guesses correctly (the glutes!). In my opinion, squeezing the glutes is even more important than squeezing the lats. The glutes are the strongest muscle in your body, and activating them is what takes the bench press from an upper body exercise to a full body workout (see this post for tips on glute activation). Push your glutes down and into the bench, imagining that you’re trying to break a walnut between your cheeks.
- By this point, you’re ready to bench! I lift the bar off and focus on keeping everything tight throughout the entire set. It is actually more important to have help moving the bar into the initial position than having a spot for your final rep, as you don’t want to lose all that tension you’ve built in your set-up. The bar should be directly over your nipples, and remain there throughout the set.
- A final note on breathing: I find breathing during a bench press the easier of the three main powerlifting exercises to master. I typically take a big breath into my stomach and hold it as I lift off and lower the bar to my chest. I exhale hard as I press the bar upwards, and then repeat. It is common for lifters to hold their breath throughout the course of a 1RM or 2RM lift, however, I don’t because of my eye condition.
Although this sounds like a lot, the whole set-up takes me less than 10 seconds. When I don’t set up correctly, my lift suffers enormously.
I know it might seem overwhelming to remember all of these things if you don’t do any of them currently, so just try to start with one pointer at a time. Think “lats, grip, feet, glutes” and eventually it will become second nature.
Do you do these things when you set up for a bench press? Do you have any additional tips to share?