Home Blog Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective: Bench Press Technique Edition

Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective: Bench Press Technique Edition

Written on May 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm, by Eric Cressey

It's time for another installment of Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective, and in this round, I'll be focusing specifically on bench press technique.  Here are a few of the ones I find myself using most often with our athletes:

1. Push yourself away from the bar.

This is a cue that is especially important when doing sets with multiple reps, as everything after rep 1 can look worse and worse if you can’t repeat your starting position. You see, when you first unrack the weight to bench press, you want the shoulder blades packed underneath you to create a stable upper back “platform” from which you can press.  You should aim to keep this platform consistent throughout the set.

Now, imagine two bench press technique scenarios: 1) you thinking about pushing the bar away from you and 2) you thinking about pushing yourself away from the bar.  Which one is going to lead to your protracting your shoulder blades at the “finish” position? It’d be the former, for sure.  So, think about driving your upper back into the bench by pushing yourself away from the bar.  This is a great tag-along point to this previous video from Greg Robins, which discussed how important it is to just ease the bar out over the pins rather than jerking it out over them; you want the lifter to remain tight under the bar, not have to protract to go get it.

This platform discussion actually leads to my next cue…

2. Go up and get the bar.

It drives me bonkers when I see a lifter let the bar free-fall, only to bounce off the sternum and come halfway back up.  It’s a toss-up of whether this is worse for the sternum or shoulders, but regardless, it’s a bad move. 

Rather than getting dominated by gravity, I prefer to see lifters “go up and get the bar.” In other words, I don’t want them to wait for it to reach their rib cage; I want them to help the process along by actively using the muscles of the upper back to pull the bar down to them.  Additionally, they can bring the rib cage up to the bar by getting air in to create some intra-abdominal pressure.

Beyond simply reducing the distance the bar has to travel, this bench press technique will also limit how much the humerus (upper arm) extends past the body.  When it extends past the body too much (as with a dip), the head of the humerus glides forward and can irritate the anterior structures of the shoulder.   So, this approach allows you to press heavier weights and stay healthier while doing so.

3. Get the feet out wider.

If there is something out there that would drive me bonkers me more than people who kick their feet around while bench pressing, I haven’t discovered it yet.  There’s no place for antsy feet in good bench press technique, as it’s a sign that you aren’t putting any force into the ground and definitely don’t have sufficient core stability to press heavy weights.

While some folks would cue these individuals to pull the feet up under the body and create a big arch of the lower back, I don’t think that’s necessary in the general population (although many powerlifters utilize this approach with great success).  Instead, I’ll just tell folks to get the feet out wider.  It’s much more difficult to dance around with your feet when you’re in a more abducted position, as it’s likely closer to the end of the lifter’s range of motion in the frontal or transverse plane than the narrower stance width would be.

Just getting your feet a bit wider should help you to improve leg drive, transfer force up to the bar, and avoid looking like a tap-dancing schmuck under the bar.

Give these three tips a shot during your next bench press session and I'm sure you'll feel a lot stronger and safer under the bar.

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  • Kieran

    Excellent article. Have finally got round to benching properly rather than pissing about so will make sure to try these out.

    I have a question about the breathing. I always try to breathe into my diaphragm which I think leads to the apical expansion mentioned in the video. I feel like I do this correctly until after a few reps where my heart rate’s up and I need to breathe more quickly. I then either have to concentrate hard on my breathing which I don’t really want to be doing or I end up breathing more with my chest like the apical breathing shown. Currently I tend to just pause slightly between each rep to catch my breath but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to ‘train’ my diaphragm or to make it the more instinctive breathing pattern (I’ve been a chest breather forever I think). Is it just a case of keep on trying and eventually it’ll become hard wired? Is it a ‘core’ issue? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Ellen Stein

    this was an awesome article-I especially like the reference to the “tap-dancing schmuck”…I have been using the
    “push yourself away from the bar” technique since I learned it from one of your earlier posts and my bench has improved dramatically

  • That first point is really intriguing. I’m having a little trouble imagining how it would change things, so I’m eager to get out and try pushing myself away from the bar and see how it feels 🙂

  • Good article

    I especially appreciated the video demonstration on apical expansion. I read somewhere that Russian research proved by breathing that way you can actually increase strength and get a better work out.

  • EC – I know many coaches tend to coach the bench press as you described, by meeting the bar with your chest. But, the NSCA for example would cue you to keep your low back down (as you might when cuing a dead bug) versus arch it as would probably be needed to meet to the bar with your chest. Why is there so much variance on low back arch vs no arch. It seems arch allows you to handle more loads, does it actually give you a better stimulation for strength, power, or hypertrophy to the pecs?

  • John

    I think another good cue, especially when going for heavy 1s, 2s, or 3s, is to utilize the valsalva maneuver. Understanding how your lungs, your organs (aka fluid ball), and your core interact to help stabilize your trunk during heavy lifts is important.

  • Double over hand is a must, I always get stuck with someone going switch hand on my when I ask for a quick spot. Thanks for the video demo, hopefully more people will learn from it.

  • Kieran,

    Not quite sure what you’re asking, but I can tell you that good breathing is definitely something that needs to be practiced!

  • Kieran

    Question was Probably longer than it needed to be. I’m just wondering if you have any techniques to ‘strengthen’ the diaphragm or to make diaphragmatic breathing more subconscious as when i get out of breath my chest takes over. Or just practice lifting with good breathing and hope it grooves?

  • Kieran,

    The name of the game is getting out of a heavily extended posture, as you want to create space (a zone of apposition) into which the diaphragm can expand. Read this:

    http://posturalrestoration.com/media/pdfs/ZOA.pdf

  • Kieran

    Awesome. Thanks a lot!


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