The beginning of the bench press, when you lift the bar off your chest, is for many the most difficult part of the exercise. Not surprising, because it is actually the point in the exercise where you are the least strong. And well, you are only as strong as your weakest link.
THE RIGHT DIAGNOSIS
If your bench press fails on this crucial point, first of all I hope you have a good spotter behind you. But what went wrong?
It is possible that you simply used too much weight. In that case: stop ego-lifting!
Or was it the mental aspect? The audacity, the confidence to lift the bar off you. In that case, a good coach can be of service to you.
A third possibility is that you are simply relatively weak in the first part of the press. That’s what the rest of this article is about: how do you get stronger off the chest? Seven tips.
1. WORK ON YOUR TECHNIQUE
Technology is always priority number one. If your set-up and execution aren’t perfect, you’ll never be able to reach your full strength potential. To quote acclaimed powerlifter Dave Tate:
Improving bench press is 80% technique, 10% side exercises and 10% mental.
Therefore, first check your performance point by point, for example with the help of this instructional video by coach Jeff Nippard.
2. GET MORE EXPLOSIVE
Make sure you can deliver all the power within one beat. Something that is certainly advisable in a powerlifting competition, where you can only start pushing after the command ‘press!’. To go from zero to one hundred percent in no time, explosive power is needed. You can train these specifically through:
- plyometric pushups;
- speed / explosive bench press @ 60% 1RM for 2-3 reps per set;
- bench press with bands and/or chains (50% weight on the bar, 25-35% ‘weight’ with elastic)*.
* Basically you use this exercise to improve your lockout. But because you know that the weight will become extra heavy upwards, you are, as it were, forced to press explosively (do you want to successfully complete the reinforced lock-out). Thus, this exercise mainly helps you mentally in improving your off the chest.
An explosively powerful off the chest is also the prelude to successful lockout.
3. STRENGTHEN YOUR CHEST
Your pecs do most of the work in the beginning of the bench press. If you fail in this section, it may be because your chest muscles are lagging behind your shoulders and triceps in strength and muscle mass.
In that case, some extra chest training, once or twice a week, can’t hurt. Think of:
- (weighted) dips;
- (weighted) deficit push-ups;
- dumbbell (incline) bench press;
- cable chest fly;
- pec deck.
Keep in mind that your elbows already have a lot to endure with heavy benches and variations thereof. For the isolation exercises, therefore, opt for relatively light weights and consequently high repetition sets, in order to limit the load on the joint, while stimulating the muscles for muscle growth.
Example: 3x a week bench press or variation, with a fly variant on 2 training days, such as cable chest fly for 15-25 repetitions per set and a machine pec deck for 10-15 repetitions per set.
4. FOCUS ON YOUR FAILURE POINT
You get better at something by doing it often. That is why you will have to pay extra attention to your weaknesses. That can be done in different ways.
With the paused bench press, you keep your muscles tense for a while. That way, you’ll train your isometric strength, so you’ll be able to press from a stronger position. If you perform this exercise with a wide grip, you will also activate your chest muscles extra.
By increasing the range of motion (ROM), namely by pressing from a deeper position, you make the starting position of the pressing extra difficult.
In addition to the dumbbell bench press, the cambered or buffalo bar press is extremely suitable for this. A buffalo bar is a very curved bar, so it takes longer to touch your chest. A cambered bar has a center bar, with two vertical bars at the ends with horizontal load bars on which you can hang the discs.
5. STRENGTHEN YOUR UPPER BACK AND LATS
Why make your upper back and lats stronger and more muscular to improve your bench press? Because a strong back is the foundation of a good bench press. And from a powerlifting perspective, the thicker your back, the less ROM to your chest. Every millimeter helps!
If you are looking for some extra exercises for your upper back, I have these suggestions for you:
- (TRX) inverted rows;
- chest-supported rows;
- are over row;
- one arm DB row (and variants such as the kroc row);
- face pulls, rear delt rows;
- barbell shrugs;
- reverse band rows.
And a little more specifically for your lats:
- pull/chin ups;
- lat pulldown (supinated grip, pronated grip, unilateral);
- straight arm lat pulldown.
6. TRAIN SPECIFIC
If your (main) training goal is based on strength, for example improving your 1RM, then that is the skill you need to train. In that case, training in like the 10-15 rep range is not specific to your goal.
You may use higher repranges in an auxiliary exercise, because you indirectly try to improve your bench press by increasing muscle mass.
However, on the bench press itself, it is advisable to train in the range of 2-4 repetitions. Because although in theory you can achieve optimal muscle growth in every reprange, the range of 1 to 5 repetitions has been shown to be the most effective for strength gain.
7. FIND A SKILLED COACH
A coach can help you by giving feedback on your technique, providing technique tips and hopefully by coaching you competently to achieve your goal (in this case improving off the chest). Until after a while you can handle it on your own.
There’s something magical about the bench press. Even many a right-minded bodybuilder would like to be able to ‘press’ a lot, purely for the ‘much’.
Hopefully in this article I have made it clear to you that in order to make progress you sometimes have to highlight specific aspects of an exercise and try to improve them. So that they ultimately benefit the whole.
Finally, a tip from Dave Tate:
When you bench, try to push your body away from the bar, not the bar away from you.
Written by Victor Bosch, Victory Coaching.