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Tips to Improve Your Bench Press
The muscles of the chest—pectoralis major and minor (pecs)—are the most often trained muscles in the body. Monday is even “unofficial international chest day” at most gyms! The bench press is a standard movement most clients should do to increase full-body strength and balance. As you work with your clients to train the pecs, here are tips to help them specifically improve their bench press.
Bench Press Basics
While the pec major and minor are the prime movers, the triceps brachii, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi (lats) are synergists in the bench press exercise. All these muscles are recruited differently based on the equipment used and the angle at which the press occurs. The starting point of the bench press has the arms locked out at the top with triceps, anterior deltoids, and pecs engaged. As the bar lowers to the middle of the chest, the lats and rear deltoids decelerate the bar and control the eccentric movement of the pecs. To begin the concentric push, the triceps help the pecs in contraction with the anterior deltoids being heavily recruited for the top third of the range of motion with the elbow lockout.
The basic flat bench press uses a flat bench and an Olympic barbell. We’ve explored bench press variations in other blog posts, but for the sake of this one, we’ll refer to the flat bench alone.
Most Common Bench Pressing Errors to Avoid
We’ve got the top tips to help you avoid common mistakes so your clients can improve their bench press strength and power through plateaus.
1. Poor Body Position
Old school gym lore would have most people believe that arching the back and lifting the hips will help with a bench press. This couldn’t be more wrong! Correct bench press form will ensure your client is using the correct muscles to complete the exercise and it helps prevent injury.
Bracing is a vital part of a strong and properly executed bench press. First, plant the feet firmly on the ground as an anchor. Bend the knees 90 degrees and nothing less to prevent arching in the spine. Next, with glutes on the bench, engage them to extend the hips (without hyperextension caused by arching). Engage the core. Keep the shoulder blades flat on the bench by keeping the shoulders down and packed in the socket and the chest is big. It’s a lot to think about, but the body position is the first step before un-racking the weight!
2. Weak Core
Speaking of the core, many clients are not as strong as they could be in this area. Incorporate core exercises daily into your client’s routine. You will not only help them improve their bracing posture for a bench press, but a strong core will make nearly EVERY movement we do as human beings easier!
Core is so much more than just the abdominals. The core includes the muscles of the lower and middle back and the obliques as well. Core exercises do not need to cause daily fatigue as this will limit your client’s ability to train. Simple elbow planks, push-ups, and dynamic hand planks are great ways to throw in more core work!
3. Poor Breathing Control
Have you ever seen a client turn bright red trying to push through a range of motion? This is poor breathing control! There is a science to breathing that will increase power and strength. Bracing, as discussed earlier, is a major piece of this. Have your client inhale and engage their abdominals and glutes just before beginning the eccentric movement to drop the bar. Coach them to hold the breath as they change directions and begin the concentric movement with the exhale coming just after the “sticking point”. This is the point where the triceps become more heavily recruited—at about a 90-degree bend in the elbows.
There is research being done on breathing control and intra-abdominal pressure during lifting. If you’d like to nerd out, check out one of many!
4. Weak Triceps
Circle back to the sticking point of the bench press. During the concentric push as the elbows reach 90-degrees, the triceps should activate to create elbow extension. If your client has weak or underdeveloped triceps, this is often the point when they fail and you must lift the weight for them as a spotter.
In your programming, incorporate exercises like the triceps extension, dips, or the floor press to focus on triceps strength and help them power through this sticking point. You will also want to plan the workout routine to ensure your client is not fatigued or sore in their triceps on the day they are bench pressing. This will surely lead to submaximal lifting strength.
5. Poor Elbow Positioning
Many people hold their elbows at or near shoulder height. This common error recruits the trapezius, overemphasizes the deltoids, and leads to discomfort, arching of the back, and injury.
The positioning of the elbows starts with the grip on the bar. Whether wide grip or close grip, a firm grip is necessary. Ensure your client’s wrists are as neutral as possible and knuckles are pointing to the ceiling. The bar rests on the heel of the hand with the thumb wrapped under and the fingers over top. External rotation of the elbows will drop them to 45 degrees from the side of the body and will pull the shoulders down into the socket for stability. This angle will also make it easier to keep the bar at mid-chest. Coach your clients to keep this rotation and position during the entire range of motion for success.
6. Insufficient Pec Activation
If your client is unable to lift the bar and begin the concentric movement at all, they are having a tough time activating their pecs. To focus on this activation, consider adding a series of power chest press sets into their training protocol with either dumbbells or a barbell. This will require lower weight and a faster tempo on the concentric push for 3 to 6 reps at a time and 8 or more sets. Training for power will recruit a different type of muscle fiber- the type II fiber- that the body will recruit when the Type I fibers are not being effective.
Don’t let your clients skip the warm-up! Five to 10 minutes of light, low-impact cardio will raise the heart rate, increase blood flow, and lubricate joints. Follow this with a specific dynamic warm-up aimed at warming up the chest, shoulders, and back. All-in-all, they are warming up for 10-20 minutes before the actual workout to be effective and prevent injury!
Make sure clients are training their shoulders and back one or two days a week. As noted earlier, these muscle groups play a significant role in building a stronger bench press. The stronger they are, the stronger the bench press will be.
Carefully watch your client’s programming to ensure they are not overtraining. Two days a week is ideal for each muscle group to allow for proper recovery and effective strength gains. Anything more will leave them fatigued and not ready to lift at their best while one day a week will not be enough to see sufficient strength improvements.
Put It All Together and Make Gains!
Your clients trust you to design a program that will help them achieve their goals. Using these tips and the knowledge you have as a trainer, you can effectively and safely guide them to a stronger and more efficient bench press.
If you are not an ISSA certified fitness trainer yet but are ready to take the steps, contact us today! Your future awaits!