BENCH PRESS & TRICEP TRAINING
By Keith Wassung
The bench press is the single most popular exercise in the history of weight training. Almost everyone who has ever had any type of gym/health club/sports experience has at one time or another performed the bench press. The bench press is used as the strength yardstick in football and is one of the three contested lifts in powerlifting. At a recent national meet, a world-class bench presser was unable to touch his chest with over 750lbs on the bar. This was due to the incredibly tight and multi-layered “bench shirt” that he was using. Use of ridiculous support equipment is just one of the problems that powerlifting is currently facing. What many people don’t understand is that the manufacturers of lifting support equipment have incredible clout with regards to the policies and rules of the governing bodies of the various powerlifting organizations. This influence ensures that support equipment will always be a part of powerlifting. This article details ways to improve your bench press along with adding strength and development to your upper body.
The first step to improving your bench press is to ensure that you are performing the lift with optimal technique. As popular as this lift is, it is rare to see good technique used during workouts. Perfecting your technique will allow for a more efficient lifting stroke, maximize development and will limit the chance of injuries. I highly recommend having your workouts videotaped and analyzed, as this will allow you to correct errors that might normally go undetected. The first step is to ensure you have a solid base on the bench. That means that head, shoulders, torso, butt and feet are firmly and solidly planted. The head should not come off the bench, the butt should remain in contact with the bench surface and the feet should be flat and dug into the floor. If your legs are too short to make solid contact with the floor, then use plates or blocks for a firm surface. When I am benching, I want my entire body to be tight and dug in—even to the point that when I am pressing the weight off my chest, at the same time I am pressing my head back into the bench and driving my feet into the floor, though there is no movement, just isometric contraction. Your approach to the exercise needs to be aggressive, though I am not talking about screaming, snorting, and slapping, but rather developing a sort of an internal rage and intensity that is channeled into completing the set. Remove the weight from the uprights and position the weight directly above chest. Lower the bar to the chest, touching in the general vicinity of just above the nipple. Drive the bar up and back so that when you are locked out- the bar is approximately at eye level. One common mistake that I often see in the bench press is that the lifter will lock out on the last rep and immediately dump it into the racks. This practice not only leads to injury but can disqualify lifts in competition. In fact, if you are a competitive lifter, then it’s a good idea to lock the weight and have the spotter say “RACK” and then place the bar back into the uprights. When I am spotting, I always guide the bar back into the uprights and then say “CLEAR” meaning the lifter can relax their grip on the bar.
I believe the repetition speed should be one in which the bar is moved with total control and without any type of jerking, bouncing or other ballistic activity. The lift should resemble a piston, solid, powerful, in a tight groove and moved with both precision and authority.
USE OF THE LATS IN BENCH PRESSING
An often-overlooked component of the bench press is the use and development of the muscles of the back and in particular the lats. Very few lifters utilize the strength of the lats in their bench press and when they are able to incorporate lat contraction into their exercises, immediate increase is always achieved. Here is how you incorporate the lats into your bench press: Take an empty bar or even a wooden rod and assume the bench press position. Lower the bar to the chest and pause. Instead of driving the weight up with the arms, contract or “flare” the lats in an outward direction. If you have decent lat development, you should see the bar move several inches off the chest. This takes practice to utilize the lats in this manner, but be persistent and practice over and over with an empty bar, gradually adding weight as you get used to the movement. The eventual goal is to use the lats as sort of a cushion or coiled spring when lowering the bar and then contracting them strongly on the initial drive at the same time you are pressing with the arms. DO NOT walk into the gym tomorrow and attempt this with your max poundage—if you do you will fail. I have worked with athletes who have increased their maximum bench press anywhere from 20-50lbs within 2 weeks as a result of using this technique. This also requires strong well-developed lats, which are developed by chins and rowing.
SET & REPS
I am often asked what type of reps are best for the bench press, high reps, medium reps or low reps? My answer is “Yes”. I think the best program is one that incorporates high, medium and low reps. There are many different ways to do this. My personal favorite is the 10-5-3 method. You can either do 3, 4, or 5 sets based on your individual needs, but each workout the repetition scheme changes. For example, the first workout would be 4 sets of 10 reps, where each set is an all out set of 10. This involves decreasing the weight each set. The next workout in which bench presses are performed would be 4 sets of 5 repts, and then the next workout would be 4 sets of 3 reps. This takes some trial and error to determine weight selection, but goal setting and accurate record keeping is a big help.
A sample workout series would look something like this:
The goal in each session is to always increase the total weight lifted. If all ten reps are not achieved, then simply multiply the weight by 9 or whatever number is achieved. You will find that the tens build incredible foundational strength, which helps you use heavy weight in the threes. The tens are physically taxing while the threes are more mentally challenging. The heavy weight used in the three’s makes the relatively weight used in the ten’s seem easier by comparison. The five’s hit the medium range which helps both tens and three’s. Varying the repetitions each session also keeps the body from adapting to one particular routine, which allows for growth and development. Make sure that you set and complete all of the sessions within certain time frame, which is an individual choice, You will find that the tens require just a bit more rest between sets than the fives and threes. The number of days between workouts is also based on individual needs and preferences, You can make great gains doing each session once a week, or even as much as all three sessions within a 16 day time frame if desired.
TRICEP TRAINING TIPS
Tricep strength is extremely important in achieving a big bench press. Here are a few tricep tips.
-The Parallel Bar Dip is an excellent triceps exercise—in fact it may be the best overall triceps exercise for strength and development. It is important to stay upright when performing dips and often there is a tendency to lean forward, which shifts the stress away from the triceps. The best way to maintain upright form is to put your hands right on the end of the bars, facing away from the equipment. Your thumb and forefinger will wrap just near the end of the parallel bars, which will make it almost impossible to lean forward.
-Use the power rack about twice a month to strengthen the triceps, particularly on the lockout portion of the lift. Place a flat bench in the power rack and set the pins about 6-8 inches below lockout. Perform 1-2 sets of 6-10 reps each. Control the weight throughout the entire movement and when lowering the bar to the pin, do not bounce the weight, but rather, touch the pin, hold it for a momentary pause and press the weight to a lockout. Hold the lockout portion for 2-3 seconds. It is important to maintain the solid body position on the bench. If your feet or butt is moving or shifting, then the weight is too heavy. Don’t overdo the power rack exercises—they are very brutal and can lead to over-training.
-Trying performing lying tricep extensions, aka “skull crushers” while lying on a decline bench. The slope of the bench makes it much easier to keep the upper arms in an upright and perpendicular position, which is very important. Dumbells can also be used and allow for a greater stretch. Perform this movement in a very slow controlled motion—the key is contraction, keep constant tension on the triceps and working them as intensely as possible. When positive failure is obtained, you can push the exercise harder, but simply pulling the bar down to the chest and pressing it up to arms length.
-A variation of the tricep pressdown is to perform them with the use of an incline bench. Place a portable incline bench in front of a pushdown machine with the seat facing away from the weight stack. The bar attachment can either be a straight bar or a V-bar. Sit in the incline bench and pull the bar over your head or have someone hand it to you. Keeping your elbows tight against your sides, simply press the weight forward and down to arms length, contract the triceps strongly, then return the weight bar back until the forearms contact the lower biceps. To make the negative phase of the movement even more effective, pretend that you are “pulling” the weight back towards you, rather than just letting gravity do that—you will see the increased emphasis on your triceps. Perform this movement in a slow and controlled manner and keep the reps above 10.