Want a Bigger Bench Press? Fix Your Set-up.


If there’s one thing in the gym that every guy does, it’s be bench press. Every Monday in the gym is International Bench Press Day. Every third question asked in the topic of weight training is “how much ya bench?”. Every guy has that embarrassing “I had to have some random guy pull the bar off my chest” story. I know because I’m that random guy that pulls the bar off of some fool’s chest at least once per week.

I’m going to be right up front with you and say that I don’t love the bench press, either personally or professionally. I think that there are superior exercises for both performance (push-up variations, overhead pressing, and throws) and building a big chest (dumbbell variations). However, the good old barbell bench press has its place and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. With that in mind, since you’re going to bench anyway I might as well teach you the best way to both get the most out of it possible AND have a bigger bench press.

If you spend a few minutes looking around the gym on a Monday (International Bench Press Day, remember?) it’s obvious where most guys tend to mess up the bench. They never get set up properly in the first place.

Most guys walk up to a bench, plop down, fall back, rip the bar off of the J-Hooks, and start flailing around. No wonder they don’t get anywhere. If you’re all loose and floppy on the bench, then you have a very weak platform from which to press. On the other hand, if you can stay tight and locked into the bench, then your launch pad is much more solid to bench from. Here’s how you make that happen:

Perfecting the Bench Press Set-up

1. Sit about two-thirds of the way down the bench with your heels directly below your knees. Where you sit exactly will depend on your height and limb length. Play with that until you find your comfortable place. For most people the goal is to have their eyes or forehead either directly below the bar after Step 4.

2. Keep your feet where they are, but shift your hips forward until it’s hard to keep your heels down. What you’re doing here is establishing tightness in your lower body. This will help keep you tight all over and transfer power from your lower body into the bar, without pushing your ass off the bench.

3. Keep your hips and feet locked in and lean back to lie down on the bench.
The temptation will be for your feet to kick out. Don’t let that happen or you’ll have undone your first two steps.

4. With an underhand grip on the bar (like a chin-up), which is still in the racks, push yourself down and arch your back until you feel tight. Your hips should not move. Really screw your upper back and neck into the bench as hard as you can. You don’t need a huge powerlifting-style arch, but your lower back should not be flat. You need the security of a slightly arched back and to get your upper back tight into the bench.

5. Rotate your hands over to whatever grip you want on the bar. Your grip width is up to you, just make sure that you don’t lose the arch and upper back tightness that you got in Step 4.

6. Pull the bar off the J-Hooks, not up and off. This is also where a lot of guys screw things up. They pop the bar up and out of the hooks and what happens? They lose their arch and tightness. Instead of lifting it up and out, focus on just applying enough tension to the bar so it’ll just clear the hooks, THEN pull it out horizontally. That’ll allow you to stay tight. Before you even start lifting, grip the shit out of the bar. The tighter you can make your grip the more you’ll activate your forearms, triceps, delts, and lats. That’ll translate to a tighter position, bigger bench press, and more muscle growth.

7. Wait a second before pressing to allow the bar to sink you into the bench.
Another area where guys mess up the bench is after pulling the bar out of the hooks they immediately drop it onto their chest. Instead, take the bar out, roll your lats down and in, get it into position, and let it sit for a second. You’ll notice the bar drops about an inch and you’ll be much tighter and more secure.

8. Press! Now lower the bar to your upper abs with your elbows slightly tucked. To begin the press imagine driving yourself back through the bench as opposed to driving the bar up in the air. This will help you activate your lats and increase the power in your bench press. Slightly beyond the midpoint of the press flare your elbows to further activate your triceps and slam the bar to the lockout.

This set-up is not perfect for most competitive powerlifters, but it is a good, relatively easy to master set-up for the guy who’s trying to move some weight in the gym and build a big chest without tearing up his shoulders. The bottom line is that the bench press is the most common “guy” lift in the gym. While, as I said above, I don’t particularly feel that it’s the best lift for most people chances are that you’re going to do it. So if you’re going to do it, you might as well be good at it.

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