In our first fitness article we begin our journey with a look at one of the four core lifts, and probably the one you’re most interested in improving – ‘cos, what do you bench brah’?
The Bench Press
The bench press is typically perceived as a strict upper body exercise that engages the chest, triceps and deltoids (Eds: ya top/outta shoulder bits that make you look hench). It is the premier exercise to test your upper body strength, with plenty of new-coming American football fans being introduced to its importance via the NFL Scouting Combine in late February in Indianapolis. One’s weight and reps on the bench press is a key determiner of strength in many scouts’ eyes; translating into skills on the field such as blocking, engaging solid contact in a tackle and the ability to deliver a hard hit.
Thanks to the progression and development of kinesiology and research surrounding human bio-mechanics, more athletes are beginning to integrate more than just their typical pushing muscles towards the bench press. Athletes are realizing the true extent of using their entire body in the bench press.
American Football involves many motions and maneuvers that requires almost all of our body to coordinate and synchronize together. Applying muscle groups such as your upper back and legs to the bench press perfectly simulates the engagement of the same muscle groups towards applying a tackle. You may think it’s just running into somebody via your shoulders and wrapping with your arms, but it’s the drive in your legs and the stability of your back that initiates power and strength in the tackle. And it is exactly the same with the bench press. Think outside the box and you begin to realize the ability to applying more of your body towards lifting more weight.
Here are my key tips towards maximizing your bench press:
The ideal position for the bench press is when your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Ensure you grip the bar tight with your thumbs wrapped around to minimize the chances of losing your grip. Your elbows should be corked inwards to ensure correct activation of your triceps; combined with keeping your hands level and not bent back, this will make sure you engage your triceps to their maximum potential and put less stress on the fronts of your shoulders.
Tighten your Traps.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together and shift the pressure onto your traps, i.e. your upper back. This will both engage your back muscles as the bar touches your chest, as well reduce the range of motion to take the pressure off of your shoulders. As a powerlifter, whose goal is to lift as much weight as physically possible whilst conforming to the rules and regulations, I arch my back. This is to make sure I can elevate my chest as high as possible, which in the process allows a shorter range of motion, thus making the lift more powerful and faster to accomplish. My elbows won’t go as far down my body compared to a “flat back” bench press; this ensures that my deltoid muscles in my shoulders don’t stretch too far and potentially strain themselves trying to maintain control of the weight.
Squeezing your Gluteus Maximus (Eds: Ya bum!) up the bench will complete the back arching motion that began when you squeezed your shoulder blades together to elevate the chest. Good lower back flexibility and hip mobility are essential towards carrying out these cues without any cramps or discomfort. Stretching these body parts prior to heavy lifting will help prevent injury and discomfort, as well as develop and improve flexibility and mobility.
Know your anchor points.
What are anchor points? They are the parts of your body that should be fully planted to the floor, thereby becoming your dominant gateways of force into the ground. Your two anchor points are your shoulders and your feet. The big omission is your glutes, which are typically perceived to be fully planted on the bench. They should be braced and- if executing your other cues correctly- should be barely touching the bench upon lifting. This ensures kinetic energy is fully transferred from your feet through your legs into your shoulders as they drive into the bench as you press the bar.
Bend the bar.
To fully engage your triceps from the start of the pressing movement to locking out clean, envision yourself bending the bar from your pinky fingers and away. Doing so will engage your triceps much earlier in the negative movement and in the press, and will help towards establishing a smooth press.
Hold on the Chest.
Maximum strength is achieved when you are in full control of the weight without any form of momentum or gravity aiding you. In the bench press, bouncing the bar off of your chest exposes a lack of control in the negative motion before pressing. Thus, your muscles are not fully pressing the weight; momentum via the greater force of gravity is helping you out. The opposite scenario is not allowing the bar to touch the press whatsoever. This shows a lack of engagement of the pectoral muscles and the front deltoids in your shoulders, and it perceived as being too passive. Not lowering the bar low enough- to your chest into a motionless pause- will disable the explosive power required to initiate your fast-twitch muscle fibers in your deltoids and pectorals, which is where the majority of your upper body press strength lies.
Meet the bar half way.
No one likes a deflated chest. It is a sign of your pectorals not being fully engaged. When you lower the bar, try to keep your shoulders pinned back and stick your chest out like an exaggerated pigeon. Not only will this fully activate your pectorals, your biggest muscle group towards the motion of pressing, but it will also cut off a tad of that unnecessary range of motion, taking pressure off of your deltoids.
Think, Lift Multidimensional.
The bench press is more than just using your chest, deltoids and triceps. It is a three-part multidimensional movement that engages almost your entire body in both the negative motion and the press itself. To maximize your strength potential in the bench press- whilst taking the previous tips on board- drive your feet into the ground and drive your body through the bench, as if you were a sled. With tight traps, drive your back into the bench as a buffer to stop you from physically sliding off the bench or losing your tightness. Whilst doing so, using your typical upper body muscle parts (i.e. chest, deltoids and triceps), push yourself away from the bar. Doing so will keep your shoulders back and your traps tight, keep your chest high and active, as well as avoiding any extended, unnecessary range of motion.
All of these tips and cues take time to practice and to perfect, as well as synchronizing them together with other cues. If you feel as if your bench press needs improving, or if you really want to maximize the performance of your bench press and your upper body strength, I recommend training around your bench press twice a week.
Accessory exercises you can perform after your bench press are the Incline Bench Press, Dumbbell Flat Bench Press, Dumbbell Floor Press and the Dead Bench Press (bench press but pressing the bar off chest height from safety bars).
The next compound lift broken down and covered will be the squat.
Chest Regime example:
Main Lift: 5×5 Bench Press (75% of 1 Rep Max( (plus 2-3 warm up sets)
- 4×8 Flat Back Pause Bench Press (2-second hold on chest for every rep); start at 50kg and slowly build up
- 4×8 Dumbbell Incline Press (adjust bench to 45 degrees); start with 18kg dumbbells and slowly build up
- Isolate Lifts: 4×10 Cable Flies (stick to 3 plates each side of cables; moderate speed of reps to increase difficulty)
- 4×10 Chest Press Machine (start with 5 plates and slowly build up)
HIIT: Incline Walk; 60 second intervals between speed 5.0 and 3.0, always at incline level 15. Allow first minute as warm up and to set the incline, then start intervals. Do for 12 minutes total. Hold on to rails if needed.
Not gonna lie. I thought I knew how to bench.
At multiple points during the rise and fall of my fitness over the years I’ve gotten comfortable benching over the sacred 100kg NFL-combine repping weight.
However, thinking you know how to bench, and actually thinking about how you bench are apparently completely different things!
Simple things such as actually paying attention to your body as you get down on to the bench – you notice how you previously weren’t engaging so many muscles that can really help you have a smooth flow to your movements.
Working with Darren, suddenly rather than just laying down and pushing a bar up, I found myself working to ensure I engaged my lower and upper back, which really helped find some explosiveness at the bottom of the lift I’d lacked previously.
With my previous technique (or lack thereof) of my back flat on the bench the last couple of inches were always the hardest. Often I’l push up and find myself fighting to get past the first few centimeters before other muscles engaged and I could finish the lift off comfortably.
Try Darren’s tips yourself and see how it feels. At first, you’ll probably find it very weird.
But once you’ve done a few sets, try going back to your previous casual benching technique and you’ll see just how many muscles are suddenly sat lax and wasted.
We’ll be sharing more information about the regime in coming weeks so stay tuned to learn more. Each week we’ll focus on a particular aspect of it – either a particular lift, or some of the more specific accessory lifts, or the rhyme and reason behind some of the diet changes.
All the time I’ll try to feedback about how I feel, which bits are working for me, and why.
But I won’t lie to you, it’s not going to be an easy process. Since taking on DC I can spend anything up to 12 hours a day sat in front of a screen talking Britball, editing text and video and nagging teams for tape. If I’m not at my desk, I’m off out filming – and so already I’ve become very aware that unless I make it a priority, finding time and means to do more exercise and improve my diet will not come easy.
Hand on heart, this first week has been a bit of a fail – I’ve been over in Bristol with the guys at Filton Pride filming the great work they do, truly sat at the cutting edge of the game in this country, and when ya travelling with a whole one hours sleep following the Super Bowl, staying in a guest house, editing all morning, filming all afternoon…
It’s been a bit of a fail this week, Nation.
Good thing we’ve got many more ahead of us to get things on the right track!