Friday, May 4, 2012

Teaching (and Learning) The Bench Press Efficiently

By Andrew McGunagle

I love teaching newbie trainees how to bench press. Why? Because I am great at it. Sure, benching is not all that complex; instructing someone how to do it properly does not demand a degree in biomechanics. Yet, an experienced coach with a trained eye and a systematic teaching approach can make the learning process much more efficient.

Trust me.

When I first learned how to bench properly, I was ecstatic. All throughout high school I had simply plopped down on the bench, grabbed the bar, and haphazardly pumped out ugly, often painful reps. The first time I benched correctly was heavenly. The first time I attempted to teach another person how to bench correctly was hell.

I knew every little detail about how to bench press, but I did not know how to present everything effectively. My initial coaching experience consisted of me shouting out commands until both my trainee and I were completely flustered. Honestly, the person I was trying to help would have been better off if I had not told them anything.

After that disaster, I knew I had to refine my teaching approach if I was ever going to be a successful strength and conditioning coach. I wanted to be able to teach people how to lift quickly and with as little frustration, on both their part and mine, as possible.

My problem was not a lack of knowledge about how to bench correctly, it was an organizational problem. I needed to isolate the most important aspects of the movement and then present them in a logical, sequential order. Once I did this, my trainees had a much easier time learning not only the bench press, but all exercises I showed them. As I trained more and more people, I refined each of my exercise presentations. Some of these presentations still need some fine-tuning, but I believe my bench press presentation is nearly perfect. This is how it goes...

1. Give Context: Before coaching any complex lifting maneuver, I always give my trainees a standard spiel. I inform them that learning certain lifts can be difficult, and that it may take them some time to get their technique under control. I ask them to be patient with themselves throughout the process, and I tell them that we will fix things as we go. I make sure they understand that not being perfect right away is not an issue. Essentially, I give my clients permission to make mistakes. Warning trainees of the inevitable initial imperfections seems to remove almost all of the frustration from the process. Concentration can easily be broken by magnified self-consciousness and aggravation, so framing the learning process positively from the onset is vital.            

2. Stay Calm and Give Praise: Effective coaching demands patience. Yelling commands and getting angry usually does little more than fluster your client and bring their technical progress to a standstill. If you are having your client learn the movement with an unloaded barbell, as you should be, then learning how to bench is not a life-or-death situation. The people that are seeking your help are not looking to be treated like they are in the military, so chill out and make the process enjoyable.
Chill out, sir.
If a client is just not getting it, then it is your fault, not theirs. As a coach, you are responsible for your client's failures. Becoming noticeably irritated and blaming them is a sure-fire way to be ineffective. In order to facilitate technical success, you must maintain a standard, understanding disposition. Stay calm and introduce the movement at a comfortable pace. If your teaching process is well-designed, then the potential for frustration will be minimized. In addition to remaining relaxed, make sure you never hesitate to give your clients praise. No one enjoys feeling incapable, and the awkwardness that learning a new movement may create can make individuals anxious. Offering regular reinforcement when your client is following your commands and doing things right can ease the tension and help them to concentrate.

3. Nail The Set-up: Once you have set the stage for skill acquisition, you can begin to introduce the movement. When teaching any complex lifting maneuver, I always break the lift down to two main components: the set-up and the execution. Time after time, I have watched coaches attempt to teach exercises without showing their clients how to set-up for them properly. This method usually yields poor results, as a sound set-up is often vital to correct lifting execution. Furthermore, setting up properly increases lifting safety; it is difficult to get out of a bad position with weight in your hands, so make sure your clients don’t start lifts in bad positions!

Basic, solid set-up. Heavy weight. Spotter. Nice work.
Both the set-up and the execution components of every complex lift I teach are further broken down into sets of main technical points. When teaching clients how to bench press, the three points I focus on are:
  1. Move your feet back to a position underneath or behind your knees. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor and keep them there throughout the movement. Do not kick your feet up in the air when the weight gets heavy.
  2. Arch your back and lift your chest up high. Maintain this position throughout the set.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as tight as you possibly can. Do not allow your back to loosen up until you have completed your set and the bar is back in the rack.
As I introduce and explain these main set-up points, I demonstrate them on the bench. Even the best exercise descriptions can benefit from visual examples, so I always make sure that my clients see what I want them to do in addition to hearing it.  

4. Remember The Intermediate Points: In between showing my clients the set-up and the execution of the bench press, I always touch on a few intermediate points that I believe are important. First, I explain to my trainees how I want them to grip the bar. I tell them to dig the bar deep into their palms, and I make sure they understand that doing this will make it easier to keep their wrists in a safe, neutral alignment. I also tell them to squeeze the bar as hard as they possibly can throughout the lift, as doing so will make it easier for them to maintain their upper back tightness and it will improve their bar control. Next, I tell my clients that they must, at the start of ever set, look their spotter in the eye, count to three, and bring the bar out to the starting position with the aid of their spotter. Setting this standard from the get-go reduces the risk of lifting accidents that can result from un-racking a bar and benching without a spotter. I can only image how difficult it is to bench with a crushed windpipe, and I do not want any of my trainees to enlighten me.

5. Simplify The Execution: Some coaches make a big deal out of teaching their clients how to achieve a perfectly efficient bar path; I am not one of those coaches. If I were helping an advanced powerlifter, then I might mess around with that. But, when teaching a newbie how to bench press, I make sure that I keep things simple. To start, I give my clients just two main points to focus on:
  1. Tuck your elbows. In the bottom position, your elbows should be around 45 degrees from the sides of your torso.
  2. Keep your chest up throughout the movement; do not let it fall flat.
Benching can, and eventually should, be more complex than just those two points. However, I have found that presenting too many things at once will interfere with a client’s ability to grasp the basic movement pattern that I am trying to teach them. Over the course of several weeks I will add in new concepts, such as taking in and holding a big breath before the eccentric portion of each rep and “pulling” the bar down with their back. This is done as I observe the client become proficient with what they have already been taught.

6. Refine The Pattern: Refining the pattern concerns the positioning of the barbell and the client’s joints at both the top and the bottom of every rep. Lots of beginners will hold the barbell either too far forward or too far back at the top of every rep. When I see this, I calmly tell the client to pause and hold the bar at the top. I then guide the bar to the position that I want it to be in, and I tell them to start and finish every rep in this exact spot. This repositioning is done as many times as is necessary, as developing good habits early is much easier than breaking bad habits down the line. Furthermore, I will ask clients to pause in the bottom position of the lift, with the bar held on their chest, in order to reposition their elbows and their forearms. I do not want lifters to flare their elbows straight out to their sides, and I also do not want them to over-tuck. While I tell them to tuck to 45 degrees from their torso, I am satisfied if they can consistently find a spot between 45 and 75 degrees. Additionally, I will view the client’s bottom position from the side in order to make sure that their forearms are vertical. Most clients will have their forearms reclined back towards their shoulders in the bottom position, and it is important to notice and rectify this mistake early in the learning process. Lastly, it is worth noting that elbow position, forearm position, the location of the bar on the chest when in the bottom position of the bench press, and grip width are all intimately connected variables. Limb lengths change from lifter to lifter, so not everyone will touch to the same spot on their chest. Furthermore, sometimes all of a beginner’s bottom position issues can be fixed by either altering their grip width or pointing to a spot higher or lower on their chest that they should touch.        

7. Repeat The Main Points: Repetition and learning go hand in hand, but repetition is not excluded to simply doing a bunch of reps of the exercise being learned. As a coach, you must repeat the main points that you introduced to your client a number of times. Even if you are working with a client that picks the movement up quickly, repeating yourself is still necessary. You want to get all of the main points of the exercise ingrained in your client’s mind, as this will allow for better skill retention for subsequent sessions. Eventually, the client should have an automatic internal dialog going every time they bench:
“Feet back and kept flat, arch the back and get the chest up, squeeze the shoulder blades together. Dig and squeeze the hands. Okay, 1-2-3. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Rack it.” 
This dialog does not get memorized after hearing it only one time, so I make sure to repeat all of the main points to my client during every set they do in their first few sessions. Typically, we will run through this process with the unloaded barbell until they are setting up and moving correctly. This usually takes a couple of sets. Then, we will make small jumps up in weight until they reach a weight that is challenging, yet comfortable enough that they are still able to maintain their newly acquired sound technique. More weight often causes people to revert to bad habits, so it is important that you, as their coach, take control and force your clients to be conservative until they are able to maintain their form. This does not mean you should force your client to use light weights and work on their form for three months until it is absolutely flawless; being overly cautious is not conducive to getting strong. A good coach will know the difference between major, hazardous issues and minor, innocuous ones. Major issues can lead to injuries and should be dealt with before advancing, but minor issues can be addressed on the fly.

Deal with issues before they lead to injuries.
The final point I want to make concerns the number of reps that should be done while learning how to bench press. Typically, I have my clients do between three and six reps for every set while they are learning the movement. Less than three, and you are not maximizing your time with them in the gym. More than six, and their technique will usually begin to break down and get sloppy. Doing sets of five seems to be the most optimal approach, as it allows for your client to rack up a good amount of high quality volume.

In Conclusion...
Learning a new movement can be a lengthy process. Mistakes will be made, but you will eventually refine your technique to make it efficient and effective. The same can be said for coaching; it takes time and effort to learn how to do it correctly. I hope this article streamlines the learning process for both new lifters and young coaches, as it was developed in the process of making mistakes and slowly learning from them. If you found it to be helpful, be sure to pass it on to your lifting buddies or your fellow coaches. The more people available to teach this movement effectively, the more people we can get stronger, quicker.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment below or email me at  

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