Adam Piggott

Gentleman adventurer

Sunday lifting thread – Fixing the bench press.

Out of all the core barbell lifts I find that the bench press is the most difficult one to self regulate your technique. It’s hard to know if you’re doing the bench press incorrectly simply because you can always get the bar down to your chest and back up again as long as the weight that you’re lifting allows you to push through the mistakes that you’re making.

But if there is one lift that I have continuously failed to make significant gains then that lift is the bench press. Which means that I am doing it wrong. I have the Starting Strength book which has a great deal of information on this lift. I have watched numerous videos on this lift as well. For example:

And the Stronglifts site has extensive information, photos, and videos on the bench press.

Be that as it may, all of that hasn’t helped me to fix my technical issues with this lift because it’s just so hard to work out what you’re doing wrong when you’re lying down and staring at the ceiling, (you know what I mean, girls?)

So this week I bit the bullet and booked an hour session with one of the trainers down at my gym. There are several trainers there so the first thing that I needed to ensure was that I chose the best one. I’d already eliminated a couple simply based on what I had observed but there were still a half dozen to choose from. So what I did was to pick the youngest and most enthusiastic and ask him who would be my best choice for the coaching that I had in mind. He gave me two names, one of which was on my shortlist, but I ended up going with his new suggestion.

Yesterday we had our first coaching session and I was very pleasantly surprised. We had a look at all of the 4 major lifts – squat, overhead press, deadlift, and of course the bench press. The OH press only had one small issue to tweak which did not surprise me as it’s a lift that you can do standing in front of a mirror if you’re trying to fix your form.

The squat and deadlift had a few issues each. Of these two the squat needed the most attention. My notes from my trainer on the squat are as follows:

 

  • Warm up with the stick (squat stick) 
  • Rotate your pelvic to anterior at the bottom position (try to make your lower back more hollow + push your chest forward) 
  • Squat till parallel 
  • Paused squat (21-22) to improve your bottom tension 
  • Push your knees outside while squatting (torque) 
  • When coming up push your hips forward (hip drive)

My hips are my big concern in both the squat and the deadlift. But I’m getting there.

As I thought going into the coaching session, the bench press was my biggest concern and I was correct. Simply put, I haven’t been utilizing my lower body correctly which has severely limited the weight that I am able to lift. If you’re only using half of your body then you’re going to be lifting a lot less weight than you should.

My other big problem was the bar direction as it traveled back up. I was coming too far back with the bar which meant that I was out of balance at the top of the lift. Here are my trainer’s notes that he gave me for the bench press:

  • Focus on your set up position (feet placement, lying straight on the bench) 
  • Bar – Shoulder in a straight line at the top position 
  • Use your feet & push yourself into the bench

Sitting down on the bench I now have to pay particular attention to whether I am centered on the bench platform. A couple of centimeters out can ruin it. I then need to point my feet out to the sides at an exaggerated angle and bring my legs as far back as I can. This puts a lot of tension on the hamstrings. Lying down with this set up means that there is now a great deal of tension through my legs. I can feel them on the lift which means that I am using them. The bar movement I have fixed both by concentrating on a spot on the ceiling and now being certain of exactly where I want the bar to be.

After the hour session I was quite fatigued and sore as I am now utilizing my core a lot more in 3 out of the 4 lifts. It was also quite tiring in a mental way. But I went straight back to the bench press to see if the changes to my technique made a difference, and I smashed out a personal best and I still had a bit left in the tank.

I’ve booked another session for next Saturday as I want to make sure that I am on the right track and stay there. What is slightly infuriating is that a couple of years ago when I was living in Melbourne I asked a trainer at my local gym at the time to check out my bench press and make sure that it was okay. He told me that it was perfect which on reflection obviously means that he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, but it was what I wanted to hear so I accepted it.

Remember the golden rule: 90% of people cannot do their job properly. I think the most important aspect of the process that I have outlined above was the method that I used to select my trainer. It didn’t hurt that I am in a gym dedicated to serious lifting and not the local trendy spot for middle aged women to book lessons with cute but dumb gym bros.

 

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7 Comments

  1. The one time I tried to use a trainer, he tried to sell me on a exercise plan in violation of my chiropractor’s recommendations (who used to be a lifter himself, in his military days). Been using youTube videos ever since. I prefer Athlean-X (Jeff Cavaliere) for his in-depth explanations.

    But I’ve hurt myself a few times going the solo route even with mirrors and obsessing over form.

  2. I struggle with bad shoulders. Had my left repaired some years ago and now it is really starting to hurt again. I partially blame lack of good form (there was no internet then). I think I was keeping my elbows too far out. Not sure what the other part might be so i’m just guessing. I lift at the school weight room since it’s free and really nice but there isn’t anyone there to ask about form. Not sure if the gym teacher really knows although I suppose I could ask and see what he says.

    • Shoulders are a pain. I had an elbow injury once though and that was horrible.

  3. didact117

    It is indeed common for the power of the legs to be forgotten when benching. While it might seem like a pure chest/arms exercise, in fact the legs are heavily involved for stabilisation and power, especially during the pressing part. The leg drive during the eccentric motion of the press is critical.

    Like the other two big lifts, the bench is actually a full body exercise. It just doesn’t seem like one given the chest-heavy focus.

    Three bits of advice that I can provide:

    First, pause reps are very helpful in benching, as they are with squats. In fact, if you look at IPF judging standards, a pause of about one second is required at the bottom of the lift. This is scary if you’re benching upwards of your bodyweight, but it will help strengthen your core and upper body very quickly.

    Second, once you’ve finished your work sets, try doing 10-15 reps with, say, 60Kg (or whatever feels like relatively light warm-up weight). All strength fundamentally comes down to hypertrophy – either more weight, or more reps.

    Third, chin-ups are a good accessory lift on both bench and deadlift days. On bench days you can use them to work out your back and stretch your tight chest muscles after a lot of benching. On deadlift days they help loosen up your lower back, which is useful if you suffer from back problems (like me).

    • All strength fundamentally comes down to hypertrophy – either more weight, or more reps.

      Rippetoe disagrees with you. He repeatedly states that light weights have no benefit whatsoever.

      • The Cob

        I’d rather lift light weights with good form than a heavy weight with bad form.

  4. 7817

    That’s why I like Jim Wendler. He comes in on between Rippetoe (moar weight!) and bodybuilders (moar reps!). Rippetoe’s plan was great to start with, but I’d like to remain uninjured and lift all my life, and linear progression doesn’t last forever. Towards the end of starting strength there was a lot of pain. Had to switch to something that had a pace I could keep up with. 5/3/1 was good for that.

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