Sunday, December 18, 2011

Setting Up For The Bench Press: A Systematic Approach

I would like to precede this article by stating that I am not a world-class bench presser. Hell, I am not even a "good" bench presser by any standard. My best bench press is 225 pounds at a body weight of 185 and, while I could frame this with a bevy of excuses, the fact of the matter is that I haven't been lifting correctly for very long. Given that honesty, believe me when I say that I absolutely love powerlifting. I have dedicated a ridiculous amount of time to studying and thinking about the sport over the past couple of years, and that has led me to gain insights that, I believe, can help other lifters achieve better lifting performances. What follows is a a step-by-step guide to improving your bench press set-up. Watch the video below for a quick visual introduction, read the article that follows, and then watch the video again with the process I outlined in mind. I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that every lifter should adopt my exact set-up (although, you could). Rather, I want you to understand how putting a little more thought into your set-up can improve your consistency and, ultimately, your bench press strength. With those points in mind, let's get started:

1. Use your head: Getting good at any lift requires consistency in both the set-up and the execution of the lift. Consistency in the set-up requires the use of a number of visual and tactile markers. The first marker I use is the back of my head, which I align with the top end of the bench pad. On the bench that I usually use, I make sure that my external occipital protuberance (the bump on the back of the skull) is right on the edge of the bench pad. On the bench I am using in the video above, which is not the bench I usually utilize, I align the bottom of my skull with the edge of the bench pad. This is because the length of the pad behind the bar on this bench is shorter than it is on the other bench. Using this marker is crucial, because it allows you to duplicate your foot positioning every set. This, in turn, ensures that the distance that you have to bring the bar out of the rack and into the starting position remains optimal. The distance that you need to bring the bar out of the rack is based on your training situation. If you need to un-rack the bar yourself, you are going to need to be positioned closer to the rack in order to be able to press the bar out of the rack. If you have a training partner that can give you a hand-off, then you can get away with being a little further away from the rack (which allows you to "pull" the bar out of the rack with locked elbows). Disregarding this marker often causes lifters to either excessively arch or flatten out in order to get in the proper position to un-rack the bar. Or, the lifter will get into their arch and not be in a consistent, optimal position to un-rack the bar. Either way, if you disregard this first step, there will inevitably be slight variances in your set-up from set to set.

2. Plant your feet: Proper foot positioning is absolutely crucial. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was first learning to bench with an arch was having my feet too far back. When your feet are too far back, your leg drive is not going to transfer into your upper back efficiently. Instead of being able to use the force generated by your legs to drive your upper back down into the bench pad, your leg drive "leaks" out at your lower back. If you do not feel your leg drive transferring down through your upper back, then evaluate your foot positioning. Furthermore, if your lower back is in extreme pain during and after each bench press set, then your feet are likely too far back. Foot positioning should maximize your lower-body stability by creating a stable base of support on the floor, as well as maximize your upper-body stability by allowing you to use your legs to push your upper back down into the bench pad. My personal preference when it comes to foot positioning is in close to the bottom of the bench support. I find that, with my fairly long legs, having my feet in close allows me to "shorten" the length of my lower leg and get my knees lower. The lower my knees are in relation to the bench pad, the easier it is to keep my butt down on the bench when I push my feet into the floor. Furthermore, feeling the metal support underneath the bench is a second tactile marker that allows me to consistently adopt the same set-up position. I have learned how far back to set my feet based on how the ground feels on the balls of my feet and the angle of my knee joints. Once I find this position, I "screw" my feet into the ground and make sure that they do not move throughout the remainder of the set.

3. Flex your glutes: Flexing the glutes does a couple of important things. First of all, it allows your hips to be higher, which improves the transfer of the drive from your legs into your upper back. Why do novices lift their butt off of the bench when grinding through a tough rep? Because higher hips allows them to use their legs to drive their upper back down into the bench. As a powerlifter, you are not allowed to lift your butt up off of the bench, but you can improve your leg drive by flexing your glutes and getting your hips up as high as possible. The second advantage of flexing the glutes is reciprocal inhibition; when your glutes are contracted, your hip flexors on the opposite side of your pelvis are forced to relax. With your hip flexors relaxed, you are able to create "global extension", which is a fancy term for "having a big, full-body arch". Lastly, flexing the glutes seems to help protect the lower back from over-extending during the set-up. Instead of getting most of your arch at the lower back, you get extension at the hips and thoracic spine, which respond more favorably to this abnormal positioning.

4. Arch up: Once the feet are firmly planted in the perfect spot, use the bar to bring yourself up into a big arch. Make sure that your feet do not slide and that your glutes are still flexed, and try to make this part of your set-up one smooth motion. If you crank your body down into position in a series of pulls, it is more likely that you are going to end up with your feet too far back. As stated previously, having the feet too far back will compromise leg drive. It should be noted that this step is intimately linked with the previous steps. If you started with your head too far back, then you likely planted your feet too far back as well. When you bring yourself into your arch, you will likely find that you are too close to the bench supports, and you will then proceed to bring yourself lower on the bench. Assuming that you kept your feet planted, your feet are now much more likely to be too far back, which will lead to inefficient transfer of force from your legs to your upper back. So, the take-away is this: if you cannot bring yourself down into the proper position in one smooth consistent motion, alter your head and foot positioning in the earlier parts of your set-up.

5. Drop your upper back straight down: All too often, lifters will bring themselves up into a big arch, only to drop their head and upper back back towards the head end of the bench when they go to make contact with the bench. If you want to maximize your arch height, you must drop your head and your upper back straight down to the bench. At first, this will feel awkward and uncomfortable, as you will experience much more tension throughout your entire body. Lots of lifters think they are arching as much as they can when, in reality, they are flattening out and avoiding the uncomfortable tension that a big arch demands you endure. Furthermore, assuming your head and foot positioning were correct in previous steps, dropping straight down should allow you to be in the optimal position to un-rack the bar. Since I usually lift with a partner that can give me a lift off, my optimal position is slightly in front of the bench supports. I know that I set-up correctly when my eyes are slightly in front of the bar, which is an important visual marker.

5.5 Squeeze your shoulder blades together: This point is not new or all that exciting, but it must be stated. Squeezing your shoulder blades together ensures that your shoulder stability is maximized. In turn, maximum stability should translate to maximum force output. Now, there are a couple of different schools of thought when it comes to the shoulder blades and benching. Some lifters squeeze together and back and down, others squeeze and shrug up, others just squeeze them right back. I personally just squeeze my shoulder blades back, but finding which method works best for your is probably the best advice I can offer. When in doubt, just squeeze your shoulder blades together as hard as you can; the stability and firm base of support that this creates is vital to benching safely and effectively.

6. Dig and squeeze your hands: Not doing this is a big-time rookie mistake, for two main reasons. First off, the deeper the bar is in your hands, the easier it is to keep your hands and your forearms in perfect alignment. When the bar sits up near your fingers instead of down in your palms (where it should be), a longer lever arm is created. Longer lever arms create more torque, and this torque is going to cause your hands to bend back. Now, with the hands bent back, the weight is not in alignment with your forearms, and this leads to inefficient force transfer. In order to combat this, dig the bar deep into your palms and, this is the second point, squeeze the crap out of the bar. The best reasoning I have heard regarding squeezing the bar has to do with the activation of the rotator cuff. When you squeeze an object, your rotator cuff "turns on" and works more effectively. This activation should lead to greater stability while pressing, and this stability should translate to improved force production. Bear in mind that, for most lifters, these recommendations probably will not cause you to instantly smoke a 50 pound PR (although it would be awesome if they did). Rather, these recommendations should allow you to press safer and more effectively, which should lead to greater poundages over time.

7. Leg drive: Ahhhh, leg drive. The fabled beast that the biggest benchers in the world tell us mortals to harness the power of if we wish to move big weights. While you have surely heard of leg drive in past articles, and you may have even witnessed it (on Youtube), I am willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of lifters have not learned how to use it effectively. Leg drive is not simply pushing your heels down into the ground while you bench; it is using your legs to push your upper back down into the bench pad. Think about that for a minute: leg drive is all about transferring the force generated by your legs down through your upper back. If all you are doing is pushing your heels down, you are missing the point. Now that your understand what leg drive is, I will tell you how to get it. First, good leg drive starts with a good set-up. I know I am beating the following point to death, but having your feet too far back will pretty much guarantee poor leg drive. Your feet need to be in a position that allows you to use your legs to "drive the bench back". Instead of just pushing your heels down into the floor, you should be pushing through your feet in a way that would cause the bench to slide back if it were not bolted to the floor. If you set-up correctly and keep your upper back firmly planted, this should cause the force generated by your legs to go down through your upper back into the bench pad. In my video above, you will see me doing this at the 36 second mark. I set my upper back on the pad and squeeze it tight, then I reinforce this tightness using my legs. You might also notice that I lift my butt up and try to place it closer to my upper back. This trick seems to reinforce my leg drive and get my arch just a little bit higher. If you set-up correctly and are driving hard, this position is going to be fairly uncomfortable. The best way to forget about discomfort and focus on your objectives is to have cues. The cues I think are...(#8)

8. "Back tight, legs tight": This is the phrase I am thinking throughout my entire set-up, and I make sure to reinforce these two points immediately before I un-rack the bar. Once I am set-up in a tight, arched position, I squeeze my shoulder blades together as hard as possible and I make sure that I am squeezing my glutes and driving with my legs. The trick is to maintain this tightness as you un-rack the bar and throughout the entire execution of the lift. If you loosen up in between reps (or, worse, as you take the bar out of the rack), it is very difficult to reclaim the tightness you painstakingly took the time to attain during your set-up. When in doubt, think "Back tight, legs tight."

If you made it this far, congratulations. That turned out to be a bit longer than I originally thought it would. However, keep in mind that you will probably be thinking the same thing when you give this process an honest, systematic try. It is not unusual for my set-ups to last longer than my sets, and it should be the same for you. Just remember, getting good at the powerlifts comes down to two main things: tightness and consistency. Keep these points in mind and customize your own set-up process in the gym. I guarantee that, over time, this process will lead to bigger lifts - and that is what the sport of powerlifting is all about.

Like it? Hate it? Have questions? Any original thoughts you would like to add? Let me know in the comments below...

(Note: If you have never seen or attempted a powerlifting-style bench press before, I highly suggest that you check out this article by Dave Tate. That will more than get you started; think of my article as fine-tuning.)


  1. Fantastic article. For those of you who bench feet out in front (USAPL / IPF style), once you get your feet set out wide and in front, try this trick:

    rotate your heels out so they are less pointed like this \ / and more pointed like this | |

    This creates a tightness in your glute med's and almost LOCKS your hips / butt into place on the bench. Sneaky, but it works!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you found it in the archives.

    Also, excellent tip. I have noticed the same thing; when the feet are turned out, some leg drive is lost out at the knees. Turning the feet in winds everything up and creates torque, which improves leg drive and in turn stability. Good stuff!