6 Little-Known Tips to Improve Your Bench Press
The loud speaker switched on and silence fell over the crowd. Barely able to control myself, I sat restlessly on the edge of my seat anticipating the announcement.
Distracted by the overwhelming silence, I turned just in time to see the announcer place the mic beneath his lips and say:
“Dave Hoff will be attempting 945lbs. Load the bar to 945lbs.”
Without hesitation the plate loaders began stacking weights onto the bar. The standard 45lb plates weren’t used since the bar wasn’t long enough to fit them all. Instead, 100lb plates had been specially made to accommodate the superhuman strength of the competitors.
As Hoff approached the bar I analyzed his every move. I took in everything from his movements and breathing patterns to his psyche-up tactics. I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing something important.
I captured every moment of the lift as a mini snap-shot in my head. I took note of everything: where he placed his feet, how far apart his hands were, at what point he took a big breath, and how long it took him to lower the weight.
Hoff successfully Bench Pressed 945lbs for a new World Record – the lift took 7 seconds to complete.
I was blown away.
How in the world could he Bench Press so much weight?
I began asking questions, experimenting, and searching for unique ways to improve the Bench Press. The old rehashed information didn’t interest me — I knew there was more out there, I just had to find it.
After several years of research, practice, and experimentation I’ve accrued 6 little-known tips to improve the Bench Press:
1. Improve Hip Mobility
Adequate hip mobility is necessary for optimal performance in lower body movements, but why is it important for the Bench Press?
- Improved leg drive
- Potential for a bigger arch
Leg drive refers to the contribution (or lack thereof) of the lower body during the Bench Press. Those who know how to use leg drive effectively can generate a ton of total body tension – from their toes all the way to their upper back – which allows them to produce more force and lift heavier loads.
Hip mobility is important because in order to use leg drive effectively the lifters’ feet must be placed behind the knees or, in other words, closer to the head. While they don’t need to be torqued back so far that she/he looks like a pretzel, if the feet are in front of the knees it will result in a significant biomechanical disadvantage.
In order for a lifter to place her/his feet behind the knees they will need sufficient hip mobility. Without it they won’t be able to achieve an appropriate starting position and will inevitably leave pounds on the bar.
Developing a bigger arch
Many of the strongest benchers assert that a bigger arch will lead to a stronger bench. However, what they often neglect to clarify is how to achieve a bigger arch.
While there are numerous components involved, most of which depend on individual needs and goals, one of the most important components of achieving a bigger arch is adequate hip mobility.
How do we improve hip mobility?
Through the addition of targeted mobility drills such as:
For more on improving hip mobility you can download my FREE e-book The Syatt Fitness Guide to Warming Up: A Step by Step Guide for Optimal Performance by signing up for my free newsletter on the right side of this page.
2. Press Through the Outside of Your Palms
Three things must be happening with the hands and wrists to optimize Bench Press performance. They are:
- Keep the wrists in a straight line
- Grip the bar as tight as humanly possible, and
- Try to spread the bar apart
What many coaches fail to address, however, is where to place the bar within our hands and where most of the pressure should be felt.
I’m of the opinion that the weight of the bar should be felt on the outermost portion of the palm; beneath the pinky and above the wrist. Louie Simmons originally gave me this advice during my time training at Westside Barbell and I saw immediate results.
I’m not sure why it works so well but, if I had to guess, I’d assume that by pressing through the outer aspect of the hand it’s easier to “spread the bar apart” and generate more force directly into the bar.
3. Push Yourself Away From the Bar
I wrote about this in my article Building the Bench Press – Westside Barbell Style, but I’ve found it to be so simple and effective that it bears repeating here.
Instead of trying to press the bar away from you, visualize pushing yourself away from the bar. For more feedback, as you’re pressing yourself away from the bar actively try to increase the pressure between the bench and your upper back.
After giving this cue I’ve seen numerous lifters’ hit new personal records within 1-2 training sessions….
4. Improve T-Spine Mobility
Thoracic mobility is frequently discussed in relation to injury prevention and its effect on shoulder health and function.
Unfortunately, phrases such as “injury prevention,” “thoracic mobility,” and “health and function” often turn lifters off as they don’t understand how they relate to a bigger Bench Press.
Adequate thoracic mobility is absolutely essential for optimal Bench Press performance as well as maintaining shoulder health and function.
However, as much as I would love to harp on about injury prevention, today I want to discuss a possible link between sufficient thoracic mobility and improved Bench Press performance.
As discussed earlier, a bigger arch is often touted as a valid means of building a bigger Bench. Assuming this is true, developing thoracic spine mobility (specifically in extension) may contribute to a more pronounced arch and thus a stronger bench.
To illustrate, let’s examine the picture above:
We can see this lifter has done a great job of retracting his scapula and forcing his shoulders down/away from his ears. This is particularly important as it protects the shoulders, recruits the lats, and reduces the total distance required to press the bar.
Less pressing distance = Less work required to lift an equal amount of weight
Pay special attention to the arch between his back and the bench. While he’s clearly in a significant amount of lumbar hyperextension he’s also utilizing a great deal of thoracic extension.
The ability to achieve sufficient thoracic extension allows the lifter to create a larger arch, thereby decreasing range of motion (ROM) and possibly improving Bench Press performance.
What drills can we use to improve thoracic mobility and, specifically, thoracic extension?
- Wall Slides
- Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion
- Yoga Pushup
- Thoracic Extension on Foam Roller (courtesy of Eric Cressey)
For the best results integrate these movements into a well designed warm-up prior to strength training.
5. Lift Zen
In the Powerlifting community it’s not uncommon to see lifters shouting, snorting ammonia, and slapping each other in the face prior to a max effort attempt.
While I identify with these lifters and understand why they want to get psyched up, I’ve found that doing so too often may be detrimental to both recovery and performance.
Rather than resort to the usual psyche-up tactics, I prefer to train in more of a “zen-like” state. Regardless of the weight being used – be it 50% 1RM or 97% 1RM – I remain as calm as possible and try to lift without emotion.
My triple bodyweight Deadlift at 132lbs – definitely not psyched up.
Interestingly, during my time spent training at Westside Barbell Louie advocated the exact same method. He strongly discouraged me from psyching myself up during training and continuously made me aware of the undue stress that it places on the nervous system.
During training try to relax and go with the flow; take deep belly breaths, feel the movement, and allow the bar to become a part of you. Don’t get pissed and try to force it where it doesn’t want to go; focus on moving yourself and simply bring the bar along for the ride.
That being said, when the time finally comes to step on the platform and compete, feel free to go nuts and snort as much ammonia as you want.
Warning: Once upon a time I snorted so much ammonia that I couldn’t see straight for 30 seconds. Don’t overdo it.
6. Improve Self Efficacy
Self efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in her/his ability to accomplish a given task.
It may seem like voodoo or some foreign strand of bro-science but a strong sense of self efficacy can contribute to building a stronger Bench Press and, truthfully, a stronger anything.
- How many times have you approached the bar wondering if you were capable of finishing the lift?
- How many times have you gotten underneath the bar and started thinking about all the things that could go wrong?
- How many times have you un-racked the bar and immediately thought…“uh oh?”
This is where building a strong sense of self efficacy comes into play.
I see way too many lifters doubting their abilities. Before they even attempt a max lift they get so deep inside their head that their only option is to fail. They question their training, injury history, diet, form/technique…everything and anything becomes a question of concern and they overload themselves with negative thoughts and emotions.
It’s like poison and it penetrates every facet of their being.
The only way to beat it is to truly believe in yourself, your training, and your capabilities. Approach the bar with a smile, a laugh, and an air of confidence that all but screams success.
How do we develop self efficacy?
- Stop missing lifts
When working up to heavy singles, doubles, and triples, many lifters make the mistake of failing too often. While pushing your limits is an important component of training, if you’re regularly missing lifts then you’re bound to engrain bad habits as well as negative thoughts associated with the lift. On the other hand, if you train smart and rarely miss a lift you’ll be far more confident in your abilities when the time comes to test your true 1RM.
- Watch the best
It’s called “social modeling” and it can be extraordinarily effective. Watch successful benchers and analyze their every move. Strange though it may seem, watching someone else succeed in a task similar to yours may actually improve your own confidence and increase self efficacy to complete that task.
- Lift Zen
Our emotions and psychological responses to various situations can drastically affect how we perceive ourselves and our ability to succeed. Unsurprisingly, large amounts of stress can negatively affect our self efficacy and likely decrease performance. During training try to lift as calm and stress-free as possible; I enjoy laughing and joking around with my training partners but if that doesn’t suit your style just avoid from getting overly hyped up.
In the process of developing the Bench Press there will be ups and downs – good times and bad. Progress will rarely be linear, thus it is of the utmost importance to assess improvement from a global perspective, not on a day-to-day basis.
The Bench Press is a beast of a lift and requires an inordinate amount of time and effort to build. Be patient, experiment, and find what works best for you.