If bench pressing were a romantic relationship our status would be “It’s complicated”. I want to love it, but it doesn’t always love me back. Yet somedays the stars align and it feels smooth like butter and it’s puppy love all over again.
Regardless of my personal qualms, the bench press is still a great lift for developing upper body strength for guys and gals. In fact, many of my female clients do end up benching (given their goals and capabilities, of course) so it behooves me to know how to execute and coach this lift properly.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with the bench press (and one I committed myself) is fudging up the set-up. Yes, there is a method to the madness in terms of where your head, feet, and hands go. For a comprehensive article on bench press set-up, look to Mike Robertson’s article here. It’s in-depth and hits on every point you need to know.
The other mistake I see is in the execution, either at the start of the lift (unracking the barbell) or widening the elbows too much during the descent. Playing around with set-up is one way to mitigate these issues, but as I recently learned, sometimes all you need is a new cue to make it all click.
Here are two that have really helped me push past my bench press plateau:
Cue 1: Push and slide up
Stabilizing the shoulder blades is imperative to executing a heavy bench press. Unfortunately, when we reach back for the barbell and pull the bar over the chest, we end up losing stability around the shoulders and then all hell breaks loose. Instead, you want to think of “pushing” the bar back and up to unrack the bar without losing tension in the lats. (P.S. Especially helpful when you don’t have anyone around for a lift-off)
Here’s a quick video that shows what I mean:
Cue 2: Hug your elbows in
Looking around Globo Gyms across America, you may see bros (and some gals) bench pressing with wide elbows and a flat back.
This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s less than ideal if the goal is to move big weight around while minimizing stress on the shoulder. After a year of riding the struggle bus it dawned on me that the reason my elbows flared out like goal posts was because my hands were too close together, putting a greater emphasis on my arms and shoulders rather than my chest.
First, I changed my hand set-up to a wider grip. This made it more comfortable to keep my elbows tucked in and helped get my shoulders more stabile. Second, I started paying attention to my elbows during the lift instead of the bar path*, using my self-cue “hug your elbows in” as I moved the bar. This immediately cleaned up my technique and made benching more comfortable.
*Bar path is important but not as helpful as elbow positioning if you’re struggling to push the bar off the chest. Focus on bar path after all other matters have been addressed.
Now, if you’re putting this into practice, let me add that it takes patience and a few weeks of experimentation to see if a new set-up or cue is right for you. If you’re changing your technique, sit with it for a few weeks. If you’re experimenting with one of these two cues, start with an empty barbell and work your way up in load.