The bench press is one of the Big 3 (squat, bench, deadlift) or 4 if you add in the military press. These 3/4 exercises are the most scrutinized and researched because they are the most widely taught and used outside of the Olympic lifts. With that being said, with so many people coaching and trying to reinvent the wheel, you get multiple interpretations of how it should be taught and what is best technique. Like other coaches, I take the things I learn from many different sources such as previous coaches I’ve worked for or with, seminars and conferences, speaking to others within the community and come to a conclusion on what I feel is the best technique to provide safe and productive results.
My own personal way of coaching the Bench press comes from a combination of my favorite coaches, Mark Rippetoe and Dave Tate, along with my own personal experience. Mark Rippetoe is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the game. He authored and published an amazing book called Starting Strength, which covers the major lifts from bottom to top. Dave Tate is the owner of the powerlifting team and company EliteFTS. He has set numerous records along with his team and you would be a fool not to at least pay attention to someone putting up numbers like they do. There are many similarities between the coaching of the bench and the two coaches, but there are some large differences as well. I do not want to spend too much time on them because that can be used for a compare and contrast article in the future if it’s requested. My own personal experience obviously comes from seeing thousands of reps of the bench press and being able to quickly isolate problems that people are having and correct them. If the same common problem is constantly being corrected, then I can assume that most people will inevitably have that problem as well. Therefore I develop my coaching cues to eliminate the problem before it happens and make sure that those are corrected from the beginning when starting a new team or client on a program.
The bench press of old was taught with a completely flat back against the bench, flat feet at all times, and no references to abdominal tension, grip strength, or tight backs. Those days have come and gone…
I prefer to coach most of the lifts from ground up. The cues I use are simple, efficient, and can be taught verbally, visually, or through tactile cues. My goal as a coach is to use my visual perspective of the lifters movement, analyze it and be able to successfully communicate the appropriate changes necessary to fit the model of the lift that I want them to accomplish. At times this can be difficult, especially with new athletes or clients. So a good coach will be able to correct using all three cues if necessary for one quirk he or she may have. Cues also vary in if they are extrinsic or intrinsic. Simply put, the extrinsic cues are those like “widen your feet”, “Lead with your hips”, etc. Intrinsic cues are used to what the person should be feeling or focusing on internally, “think about ripping a newspaper apart with your feet”, “punch your elbows out as if you were hitting someone in the nose.” Now imagine having 30 athletes at one time! S&C coaches usually are constantly moving, talking, yelling, and doing whatever it takes to quickly process information, give corrective cues, watching to see if the cue is being implemented by the athlete, adding additional cues if not understood, and moving on to the next person while constantly checking to see if the person is reverting back to there original movement pattern.
With that being said, here are some coaching cues I use to teach and correct the bench press. There are a lot more in depth ones as well:
Feet: “Drive your feet into the ground” The constant driving and pushing feet into the ground will help activate and keep the hamstrings, quads, and glutes tight. The important piece of this is to not raise the glutes off the bench. The drive of the feet should be pushing you almost backwards and down.
Lower back: “Create a small arch in your lower back by thinking about a baseball being placed there”
This cue is extremely important and one that is a counter to the old philosophy of keeping your back flat. Arching the lower back will help keep the spine tight and help reduce the risk of injury. Also, the arch helps drive the upper back and shoulders down and into the bench to create a very solid platform that you want in this exercise. The arch in the end should be high enough to get your whole hand underneath and slide across the bench.
Abdominals: “Contract your abs by sucking your stomach into your spine or bracing as if you were about to get punched in the stomach”
The abdominal contraction is important because the tension it creates allows the body to stay rigid in the core so that there is no leakage of power through the upper body. Powerlifters have some of the strongest cores and rightfully so. They need a stable platform that has no power leakage and does not move.
Upper Back: “Imagine pulling apart a band straight out in front of you with straight arms”
This cue will help with retracing the scapula and latissimus dorsi (lats) and pre-stretching the chest so that the lowering portion of the movement creates a rubber band effect of the chest due to how tight the muscle fibers are from the pre-stretch, then stretch of lowering the weight to the chest. This also helps with the overall tension and the common theme of preventing power leakage throughout the body. For most athletes this is extremely important because outside of football, many teams do not practice the bench press enough. This helps protect the shoulders for sports that have overhead movements (baseball, softball, tennis, swimming, etc.) by eliminating excess movement of the shoulder while fighting to control the lowering portion and the explosive upward movement.
Hands: “Grip the bar and squeeze as hard as you and try to rip the bar in half”
Gripping the bar as hard as you will activate your forearms and tighten the tendons in the elbow and shoulder and has been found to be quite effective. Ripping the bar apart has the same effect as the grip, but helps tighten the shoulder muscles and even more of the upper back.
Un-racking the weight: Not much of a cue here, but I tell everyone that your not a sissy for having a spotter or getting a lift off. With heavy loads from where your position is, your more likely going to get a shoulder injury just from trying to un-rack the weight than from the movement itself that way.
Lowering Portion: “Actively pull the weight down using your lats and keep your elbows around 45 degrees”
Unless your a bodybuilder or looking to get hurt, there is no reason to have your elbows out at 90 degrees from your body. As you lower, think about pulling the weight into your body by squeezing your lats and pulling like a row. This helps stretch the chest, tighten the core and the upper back. The tighter you get, the better your rubber band effect will be when driving the weight up.
The Drive: “Stay tight, Drive the weight into the ceiling!!!!!”
No real explanation here. Keep the body tight so you eliminate any power leakage that may occur and reduce any injury possibilities.
There you have it. A couple quick, easy to understand coaching cues that you can use next time you do your bench. Try not to focus on all of them at once, but pick one or two and work on them in your setup before you un-rack the weight and I will bet you have a better and safer bench very soon. Again, there are different types of bench press techniques, from bodybuilding, powerlifting, and athletics. This is what I’ve found to have the best results for getting athletes or clients stronger and I have found it also to be the best way to create a safe technique that reduces injuries or the likelihood of injuries. In my field…that is what it’s all about.
Please comment below if you have any questions or want to spark a conversation about the bench press. Thanks everyone!