Basics of the movement
The bench press, specifically the flat barbell bench press is a popular compound exercise that is a commonly used to measure upper body strength. It involves lying on your back on a bench with your feet planted firmly on the ground, and your shoulder blades tucked in. You hold the barbell in a neutral grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart, and at full extension, your arms should be perpendicular to your torso. You lower the bar slowly, using your core and legs to assist with stabilisation until the bar touches your chest, then using your chest and assisting muscles explosively drive the barbell back to the starting position. Continue reading to find out how and why this famous exercise is used by almost all strength athletes as a complete upper body builder.
How to warm up
The flat barbell bench press is a multi-joint exercise so it is important to properly prepare before attempting to place any kind of load on the joints. The main, and most important joint that is used is the shoulder joint. It is important to stretch out the anterior deltoids, as well as the pecs. This can be done by extending your arm out straight by holding on to a wall or power rack and rotating your body to create a stretch in your chest. Bending the arm and placing your elbow on the wall instead targets the shoulder a bit better.
Warming up the rotator cuffs is very important, and for this I suggest ‘shoulder dislocations’. You can do this with a broomstick or similar object and hold it as close together as you can while still being able to do full revolutions with your arms straight.
Do NOT do this with a 20kg barbell.
Alongside a good amount of stretches and mobility drills, it is important to start light and gradually increase the weight during the first few sets, to give yourself time to get used to the load and get your muscles and joints warm. I sometimes even keep my jumper on until after my warm up sets!
Set up and cues
The set up is quite important for bench press, as the more stable your body is the more force you will be able to apply from the ground through to the bar. An important rule to remember when thinking about your position on the bench is the 5 point rule where there must always be 5 points of contact between yourself and the bench or the floor. The first three points which should be in contact with the bench is the back of your head, your upper back/shoulders, and your glutes. Your bottoms of your feet are the final 2 points and they should be in contact with the floor.
Here is my set up position before I place my feet on the floor. I am in this position to ensure I get an optimal arch in my back which allows me to tuck my shoulder blades in and down which engages my upper back including my lats, retracting my scapula and also provides a more stable surface to bench off.
You can also see me measuring my grip width with my thumbs, this will change depending on your own proportions but as a general rule of thumb (pardon the pun) you should be gripping the bar slightly wider than one thumb length from the smooth section.
When you lift the bar off the rack, make sure that you are just extending your arms, and that your back and the rest of the set up stays tight. It should feel like your entire body is being flexed before you even start moving the weight.
During the lift
At the starting position get a big breath of air into your stomach right before beginning to lift,
During the eccentric (downward) phase of the lift, the goal is to lower it in a controlled manner, but not too slowly that it fatigues the muscles too much. You should be holding your breath during this stage, and retracting your scapular in order ‘puff’ out your chest to meet the barbell. At the bottom of the lift, there should be a brief pause where the weight is touching your chest, without much weight resting on your chest. This downward phase should be as consistent as speed as possible, because if you accelerate the weight at the bottom, it may be harder to reverse the momentum which will take away from the amount of force you will be able to exert during the concentric phase.
The concentric (upward) phase begins with a quick exertion of force on the bar, your muscles should already be contracted from controlling the descent so it is just a matter of contracting even harder in order to force the bar back to the starting position. At the beginning of this stage it is a good idea to blow out the air you were holding in as it will assist you in putting all your energy into driving the bar upwards.
The main benefits of the barbell flat bench press lie mainly in the fact that it is the heaviest upper body movement that you will be able to do, and because of this you will be able to overload the chest muscles and triceps. This means that as well as getting strong as hell, you will get a thicker chest, juicier triceps, and have the numbers to back them up.
So how much do YOU bench?