Tyler Robbins Fitness

B.Sc. Biochemistry, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified CrossFit Trainer (CCFT/CF-L3), USA Weightlifting Level 1

Filtering by Tag: Chest

How to: Bench Press

This guide will take you through the progressions and intricacies of how to bench press. The bench press is one of the best exercises to develop upper body strength and power. Lots of people love to bench press, especially men, however many are missing some key cues or techniques to maximize their bench press.

In my experience, most people I come across (in a training environment) have 2 main problems when it comes to incorrect or troublesome bench pressing. Either they are promoting too much anterior deltoid and not enough pectoral use, or they are not taking full advantage of using their lower bodies. Yes, the lower body is involved in the bench press as well.

Although it may seem like a pretty simple and basic exercise, there is far more going on with a bench press than what most people realize. There are also some pretty important technique flaws that hold many back.

Keep in mind that as with any form of exercise, there are inherent dangers associated with lifting weights, and if you have a history of injury or are unsure about a specific movement, it would be best to speak to a qualified medical professional such as your doctor to seek their opinion on whether or not you should partake in a particular exercise or program.

Setup

  1. You should have a sturdy bench positioned so that when you are laying down, your feet can be flat on the ground.
  2. Position yourself so that your eyes are directly beneath the bar.
  3. You should maintain 5 points of contact throughout the entire range of motion: 2 feet on the ground, glutes, upper back, and back of head on the bench.
  4. You should keep an arch to your lower back. This will help transition force from your legs, pushing heels into the ground, to your upper body. Having said that, make sure not to lift your glutes up off the bench when pressing hard.
  5. Grip the bar tight with the bar sitting in your palm rather than towards the fingers.
  6. Shoulder blades should be retracted and down. Rather than just squeezing your shoulder blades together, aim to bring the bottom tips of your scapulae together.
  7. When I am about to begin, I get my grip on the bar, pull my chest up towards the bar, lifting my back off the bench, and squeezing my shoulder blades together.
  8. Act as if you are about to break the bar like a pencil.
  9. If you do not have someone to spot you, make sure you are using a rack with safety rails to catch the bar if you cannot complete a repetition. The rails should be at a height allowing you to complete the full range of motion (bar to chest), yet not too low that it is not able to protect your chest from the bar. This needs to be taken seriously. The bench press is one exercise that can cause serious injury, even death if you do not take the correct safety precautions. If you are in a box gym, most people are more than happy to spot you so don't be afraid to ask!

Execution

  1. Take a nice deep breath and unrack the bar with straight arms and bring the bar into position straight over your mid-chest.
  2. Lower the bar to your chest, under control, without bouncing the bar off your chest. You should aim for the bar to touch your chest at the very tip of your sternum, about an inch or two below your nipple line. Hold your breath on the eccentric, or lowering portion of the lift.
  3. When the bar is touching your chest, your lower arms should be perpendicular to the bar. If not then you may need to either widen or narrow your grip. Your elbows should not be touching your sides nor flared out, in line with your shoulders. Instead, aim for about a 30 degree angle from your torso.
  4. Press the bar straight up as forcefully as possible while exhaling, driving through your heels.

Key Points to Focus On

  1. The bench press is a great way to increase the strength and size of the anterior shoulders, pectorals, triceps, etc. Having said that, make sure you avoid muscle imbalances by having a well-rounded program that also includes lifts like the overhead press and barbell row to work the posterior delts and upper back. This will not only make the shoulder more well-rounded and strong, but will also help you to better stabilize your shoulder blades, thus improving your bench press.
  2. The bar path should be straight up and down directly over the tip of the sternum.
  3. Do not use a thumbless or "suicide grip." There is a reason why it is called a suicide grip, because if that bar rolls out of your hands then that bar will end up on your chest or neck causing serious injury or death.
  4. Elbows should be close to your torso but not touching. Aim for a 30 degree angle.
  5. Maintain engaged shoulder blades throughout the entire range of motion. If you lose engagement then your anterior shoulders will be taking more of the load rather than your pectorals.
  6. Maintain your 5 points of contact throughout.
  7. Pressing your heels into the ground will help to transition force from your lower body, through your core, up to your arms and chest.




Back to Basics: Strength Day 1

Warm-up

The warm-up shouldn't take you more than about 5-10 minutes to complete, especially once you become familiar with the exercises and sequencing. Watch the video to get an idea of how each exercise is done.

Quadruped Shoulder Series x 240 reps
Open/Close x 15 reps
Scarecrow x 15 reps
Scapular Retraction x 10 reps
Plange Push-ups x 10-15 reps
Face Pulls with Scapular Retraction x 15 reps
External Rotations x 10 reps
Overhead Squats x 10 reps
Leg Swings x 48 reps
Scorpions x 8 reps
Fire Hydrants x 20 reps

Strength

Back Squat - all sets are 5 repetitions
40% of "working weight"
50% of "working weight"
60% of "working weight"
Working Set 1
Working Set 2
Working Set 3
Working Set 4
Working Set 5

Bench Press - all sets are 5 repetitions
40% of "working weight"
50% of "working weight"
60% of "working weight"
Working Set 1
Working Set 2
Working Set 3
Working Set 4
Working Set 5

Barbell Row - all sets are 5 repetitions
*shoulders and body should be warm by this point, only a 60% warm-up set should suffice
60% of "working weight"
Working Set 1
Working Set 2
Working Set 3
Working Set 4
Working Set 5

Each exercise has anywhere from 1-3 warm-up sets with 40, 50, and/or 60% of your "working sets" weight. All "working sets" weight stays the same for all working sets. I usually round to the nearest 5-pound increment for my warm-up sets. This is where 2.5lb. weight plates come in handy so that you can micro-load your barbell with 5 total pounds.

A set of squats (180lb. "working weight") would therefore look like this:

40% - 70lbs. x 5 reps
No rest
50% - 90lbs. x 5 reps
No rest
60% - 110lbs. x 5 reps
90 second rest

180lbs x 5 reps
*90 second rest
180lbs x 5 reps
*90 second rest
180lbs x 5 reps

*90 second rest
180lbs x 5 reps

*90 second rest
180lbs x 5 reps

*There is no set rest time between warm-up sets (besides the time it takes you to load your barbell), however, the following guidelines should be followed for the working sets:

  1. If you complete all 5 repetitions with ease and no break in form, take a 90 second break before the next working set.
  2. If you struggle with one or more repetitions to reach 5, take a 90-180 second (1.5-3 minute) break prior to starting your next working set. Do not be in a rush to start the next set, as your body requires time to recover from the previous set's effort. Your central nervous system also needs time to recover.
  3. If you miss one or more repetitions, which means you either fail to lift the weight at all, or substantially break form to complete (not recommended), then rest for 5 minutes before attempting the same weight again.

If you complete all 5 working sets with the same weight then you increase your weight by 5 pounds for the next workout you complete this exercise.

Accessory

Incline Press/Bent Over Row - 6-12 repetitions per set, 3 sets

Incline Press - 15, 12, 8, 8, 12, 15 repetition pyramid set

You will notice that I do not have single-muscle and/or single-joint accessory exercises (bicep curls, tricep extensions, etc.). The main strength lifts across all 4 strength days cover essentially every muscle in your body. Coupling that with some of the accessory work to aid in strength and growth, muscles like your biceps and triceps get plenty of work. For example, during a bench press or overhead press, although your are primarily pressing with your pectoral muscles of your chest or deltoid muscles of your shoulder, your triceps are heavily involved in the movement. By doing these exercises, your triceps will get stronger and grow.

Remember that these exercises/lifts are here to aid your main lifts. All of your focus and energy should be focused on your strength work. If, however, you wish to complete the accessory exercises, do not be as attached to previous workouts' numbers and wish to increase numbers. For example, you may have pressed 40lb. dumbbells for 8 reps on the incline press, but as you get stronger and push your bench press numbers higher, you may be more fatigued by the time you reach the accessory work, forcing you to either get fewer reps or drop the weight of the dumbbells a bit.

I use 90 second breaks between each set. I complete all sets of an exercise before moving on to the next exercise. I do not super-set. For example:

Incline Press/Bent Over Row x 6-12 reps
90 second rest
Incline Press/Bent Over Row x 6-12 reps
90 second rest
Incline Press/Bent Over Row x 6-12 reps

One exception to this workout in particular is the Incline Press Pyramid Set. I use 30 second rest periods between the 15, 12, and 8-rep sets, a 90 second break at the half-way point. For example:

Incline Press x 15 reps
30 second rest
Incline Press x 12 reps
30 second rest
Incline Press x 8 reps
90 second rest
Incline Press x 8 reps
30 second rest
Incline Press x 12 reps
30 second rest
Incline Press x 15 reps

The goal with the pyramid set is to choose a weight that forces you to struggle (close to failure) on the last 2-3 reps of each set. You will therefore increase in weight on the "up" portion of the pyramid (decreasing in reps from 15 to 8) and decrease in weight on the "down" portion of the pyramid (increasing in reps from 8 to 15).

Questions/Comments/Concerns? Make sure to comment below!





"Triple Threat" - 30 minute Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps Workout

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Q&A

Do you recommend that you always do the rotations you used in the seated alternating shoulder press and in the 6-direction fly, or were these the way you decided to do it for this workout.  In particular, I thought keeping thumbs up was safest for side and front shoulder raises.

I prefer palms down on the lateral raises because it recruits more muscle fibers that way (from lateral and even posterior delts). Shoulder impingement can be increased by overhead shoulder usage as well as palm-down anterior raises, that is why I like thumbs up for the anterior raises. If you don't like my variations, of course swap as you see fit. 

Do you get much triceps stress from the triceps moves where you were balancing on forearm?  For me, this turn out to be mostly core moves as I have to back off the weight to keep balanced.  I actually did not do the one where you move the weight in three directions while in one forearm plank as it looked risky for my old shoulders.

Since you are in plank, more emphasis gets placed on core and shoulder stability rather than triceps, I get that, but that is why I place the "heavy mover" exercises at the beginning of the workout. The "Robbins Rocker" where you move the weight in 3 directions is, and should be, done with very light weight. I have tested it and don't have any problems with it, although I can see some people having issues, which is fine. I still recommend you try it, even with just 2 directions (side arm extension and then triceps kickback) as extending the arm laterally has been shown to be an incredible core recruitment exercise.

The triceps are being worked on nearly every single chest and shoulder exercise in this workout, albeit just as synergists, but for just a 30 min workout, I would rather get more "bang for the buck" by doing chest and shoulder work rather than focusing solely on such a relatively small muscle group such as the triceps. That is why the triceps-only sets are sparse and often include other muscle recruitment.

Multi-joint movements not only recruit more muscle fibers and burn more calories, but they also improve neural adaptations better too!

For chest multi-set, I prefer to do the iso move (flies) first.  The idea is to work the pecs, then use the triceps to work them so more with a DB press, then finish things off with a body weight move.  Any thoughts?

Strength training always recommends large muscle groups with multi-joint recruitment first before "accessory" work. For example, a chest press has more muscle recruitment and 2 acting joints involved (shoulder and elbow). I would never have someone do a hamstring curl machine and then go do heavy squats because you are pre-fatiguing the hamstrings potentially leading to an imbalance in muscle recruitment for the heavier exercises that require more strength.

By doing iso flies first, although the elbows are isometrically involved, you are targeting the pecs only, so if you then progress to chest presses, you may over-compensate with other muscles such as anterior delta or triceps because the chest is already fatigued. Plus, rather than doing say, 30lbs for 8 reps of chest flys followed by 40lbs for 8 reps of the chest press, I would much rather do 60lbs for 8 reps of the chest presses followed by 30lbs for 8 reps of the flys.