How to Set-Up for the Bench Press to Maximize your Strength.

It’s international chest day (a.k.a. Monday). You walk into the gym and realize all the benches are taken. There is only one option. You must find the guy who you can out-bench and steal his bench from him! The problem is, you haven’t hit a PR in 6 months on bench and you’re starting to question whether or not you should even be allowed to touch a barbell.

All jokes aside, everyone wants a bigger bench but many people struggle with bench pressing with proper form to begin with. This all starts with the set-up. In this article, I will give you 5 tips on how to maximize your efficiency on the bench press by mastering your set-up.

TIP #1: Set your shoulders

Let’s start from the beginning. Perhaps one of the most important factors in bench press efficiency is how you set up for the movement. The goal of setting up is to be as stable as possible while being able to apply the most amount of force. Think of your body as a spring. In order to this, we must first set our shoulders. We want to retract and depress our shoulder girdle. Think about pinching a pencil in between your shoulder blades and then pulling them down. It may seem and feel counterintuitive to have your shoulders so far back when we want to press the bar forward. However, by doing so we are protecting our shoulders and giving ourselves a stable base to push off of. The more stable we are, the stronger we are.

You may need to do some “MacGyver-ing” in order to get your shoulders into the proper position. Personally, I lift my upper back off the bench by grabbing the bar and then “wiggle” myself into position. Other guys lift their backs off the bench by thrusting their bodies up and then work themselves into position. This part is going to be up to you. Find whatever is comfortable and stick to that routine each time you set up.

TIP #2: Arch

Many people debate on whether or not it is good for you to arch your back when bench pressing. You will have extremists on each side telling you “That’s terrible for your spine!” or “You need to tuck your lats into your back pocket.”. However, when it comes to maximizing absolute strength, arching during the bench is necessary. It allows you to create more overall stiffness and it shortens the range of motion – allowing you to lift more weight. I believe that the degree to which you arch is dependent upon your personal anatomy and mobility. I would recommend starting with a smaller arch and then working up to a more exaggerated arch as long as you have no pain in your back and you maintain the necessary points of contact during the bench press(head, upper back, butt, toes/feet).

TIP #3: Leg Drive

This is a big one. Once I began utilizing proper leg-drive in my bench press, my numbers skyrocketed. It makes total sense when you think about it. Our biggest muscle group is the legs. Therefore, if we can involve them in the movement then we can maximize our strength.

Leg drive starts with finding a comfortable position for your feet. Most beginners will start with their feet in such a position that the angle of their shin is vertical. From here, you can move your feet back in order to create more of a full-body arch. You will have to play around with how far back you move your feet as you want to still be able to push into the ground with force and not cramp at the hips. You can also adjust how far you spread your legs and the angle at which you point your toes. Personally, I like to point my toes slightly out and “hug” the bench with my legs.

Once you have determined a comfortable position for your feet, you can focus on actually driving. Think about driving down and away from you. If you were to do this with no weight, you should be pushing yourself off the back of the bench. As you begin using leg-drive, you will become more comfortable with how to push with your feet. Some use the ball of their feet and others use the inside of their heels. Some people find lifting in a certain shoe(such as one with a raised heel) helps them as well. Lastly, as you begin to use leg-drive you will notice that your glutes will want to come up off the bench. Be sure to keep them in contact with the bench. This is why I point my toes out and hug the bench with my legs.

TIP #4: Grip Width & Rack Height

Now it’s time to actually grab the bar. But where!? Wide? Close? Somewhere in-between? You can actually calculate the most advantageous grip width for your bench by measuring the distance from the outside of each of your acromial processes. You then take this number and multiply it by 1.5. This gives you the best biomechanical advantage to produce force. However, using a variety of grips can be advantageous for developing strength.

As for setting the rack height prior to the exercise, you don’t want it so high that you are unable to un-rack the barbell without having the shoulders protract(move upward) significantly. Also, you should not have the rack so low that you have to exert a lot of energy to get it off the rack. It should be at a height where you can simply un-rack and rack the barbell with ease. When you go to set up for the bench, your eyes should be directly below the barbell so that you do not have to waist energy pulling the bar away from the rack prior to the press. Also, this will prevent you from hitting the rack when you are pressing the barbell up.

In summary, optimizing your bench press set-up gives you the most potential to efficiently perform the movement. If you can master your set-up, you will be throwing up more plates then a dish washer at a local buffet!

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