The king lift of the bro-jungle that is the gym. The measuring stick of strength, ego and status for all those who go to the gym. The Bench Press.

“What do you bench?” is what we strive to be asked, when we know we are looking swole. It’s the be-all-end-all lift for anyone looking to be strong and powerful…

Okay, okay, I’m being a bit facetious here. This might ring true for a lot of people, primarily with males when we are first getting into lifting (I know it was for me) but as we move along we realize that maybe, just maybe… the bench press is a bit overrated as a lift.

I’m not saying the Bench press isn’t a great lift, because it is, but there are better indicators of strength such as a deadlift, squat and even an overhead press. While it might not quite be the king of the gym, the bench press is a great compound lift that can elicit a great metabolic response on our body and is quite functional when it comes to building strength and muscle. Practically, the Bench Press can help us with any type of pushing movements in life such as when a friends car dies on the side of the road, opening a heavy door, pushing a cart around a store, and pushing ourselves off the floor.

Maximizing our Bench Press ability can be a great way to build upper body strength, stability, and even mobility when done properly. So today, I’m going to be going over a few tips on how we can maximize our Bench Press and get the most out of this lift.

Engage Your Shoulder Blades

As with any lift, proper form is vital to maximize your Bench Press. While the lift is simple enough, there are smaller factors we need to take into consideration when we are doing this lift, primarily with the shoulders and scapula (shoulder blade). A very common issue when doing a Bench Press is that we will almost reach up as high as we can as we push the bar up, which lifts the shoulder off the bench, and rounds the shoulder joint. This ends up putting more force on our Anterior Deltoid (front of the shoulder), and less focus on the Pectoralis (chest muscles). This can also be seen at the bottom of the lift, as our shoulders will round forwards and engage the trapezius muscles rather than get an effect on our chest muscles.

The way we can fix this mechanical issue is by engaging our shoulder blades, and the muscles of the back to create better base to stabilize our lift on. We first want to think about pulling our shoulder blades back towards each other, as if we are trying to puff our chest out or trying to touch our elbows behind our backs. This is called shoulder retraction. We also want to think about pulling our shoulders down away from our neck, again, think of puffing up our chest and standing as tall as you can (even as we lay down on the bench). This is called shoulder depression. Almost think back to when you were a child and your parents told you to sit up straight (also, how many of you just started to sit a little more upright? I know I did). Now we need to translate this to our Bench Press position. Having our shoulders in a stabile position will prevent the Anterior Deltoid from engaging in our lift as much in our Bench Press and puts more focus on the chest muscles themselves. At the bottom of the lift, when we have our shoulders engaged, it will engage the stretch reflex of our chest muscle which will create a stronger contraction of the Pec muscles and ensure that the trap muscles do not take over the movement (our shoulders will shrug up if this is the case). At the top of the lift it will not feel like we are pushing all the way up, which is fine, if we are maintaining proper shoulder engagement. When we have the shoulder blades engaged, it will naturally engage our latissimus dorsi (long back muscles) which will internally rotate the arm, creating even more adduction of the arms creating a great squeeze on the chest muscle. This should also keep the elbows tighter to the body, engaging the Triceps to assist with your lift.

Keeping the shoulder blades strong is the key to the movement and can make the Bench Press much more shoulder friendly and powerful.

The Lower Body Focus

Now, when we are performing the bench press, we rarely think of our lower body. When we have a heavy weight over our chest, the priority is to keep pushing with the upper body until you are safe. But did you know you can make a much more effective, and actually increase you Bench Press? Engage your lower body!

Our body is a kinetic chain, so we need to think of keeping the entire body tight and engaged regardless of the exercise we are doing. When our legs are planted firmly on the ground or an elevated surface (if needed) it creates a solid base for our entire body. This stability translates to the core and glutes as well. When we keep our entire body engaged, it prevents mechanical faults from being created, there are no “chinks in the chain”. Even when we are struggling to get the bar up, we can drive into our legs, engage the glutes and create extra tension to get the bar up for one last rep. Keeping this stability and engagement even of our lower body is important if we want to maximize our Bench Press!

Variety is Key

If we are ONLY doing Barbell Bench Presses, we’re missing out on some big gains! Adding variety to our Bench Press is one of the best ways to maximize our overall lift and keep training fresh. Swapping out the barbell for dumbbells for example can have a huge impact on our Bench Press. Not only is it more shoulder friendly and safe to utilize dumbbells, but it forces each side to independently lift the weight being used. Sometimes muscular imbalances can be masked while using barbells, as one side will dominate the movement while the other side is not as active. Not only does it isolate each side of body, but it will help create a stronger and more stable joint, by adding instability to the exercise. This can be taken even further by using Kettlebells individually or adding banded Kettlebells to the barbell. Bands can be used to help get through sticking points of the lifts. Using bands on the barbells can also help get us through different sticking points that we struggle with as well. Creating instability works smaller, lesser used parts of our muscles, which can create a stronger overall muscle when we are testing our one rep max.

Not only is swapping out equipment important but switching the angles in arm position and body position can help change the results that we see. There are two attachments sites for the chest, on the clavicle and the sternum, which have different functions in the body. The Clavicular attachment site is commonly referred as the upper chest, where as the Sternocostal attachment is the mid/lower chest. Both portions of the chest have similar functions in the body but can be individually targeted as well.

By doing exercises like Incline Presses or Low to High fly we can really target the Upper Chest, and by doing Decline Presses or a Normal Fly we can target the lower & mid chest. Developing strength through both areas are going to be important, so changing the angles in which we are doing our presses in will be important.

By changing the angle of our hands, we can also change the way we target these muscles. By having a closer grip on a barbell, we can target the Triceps more, or if we perform a Crush Press (dumbbells touching in front of the chest as we press) it will create a deeper contraction of those chest muscles. Try doing neutral grip presses, close grip presses, wide grip presses. We can’t sell the exercise short by doing the same press over and over again.

In Summary:

Retract and Depress your shoulders as you perform your Bench Press

Keep your feet planted for the entire lift

Engage the glutes and core as you’re performing the bench press

Add variety to the way you are lifting, or how we are building strength in our program.

The Bench Press may not be the be-all-end-all lift, but it’s a nice feeling to get some heavy weight moved, and it’s a great compound lift to build up our upper body strength. Let’s not shy away from this lift, but let’s make sure we are doing it safely and properly. While I couldn’t fit everything into this one blog, this is a great start and stay tuned for a follow up article coming soon!  

Rich Hill

CSEP – Certified Personal Trainer

RK Athletics – https://linktr.ee/RK_Athletics