by Tyler Valencia, PhD(c) & Tom Delong, MS, CSCS*D
- Be able to explain the “7 points of contact” when preparing to bench press
- Describe the set-up for the bench press and how retracting and depressing your scapula sets up your lift
- Describe why not to perform external rotation in the scapula
- Describe the reasoning behind stabilizing your lower extremities during a bench press
Before we get into the tips such as why upper body stabilization is key, we must first ask ourselves what the goal of the movement is? Your goal or movement dictates the movement as referenced by the specificity of training. If you are an athlete or just a recreational lifter, your load, sets, reps and movement will most likely vary. Depending on the athlete and their sport, the sets and reps will drastically vary. For example, a collegiate thrower will most likely have lower repetitions to work on strength or power, compared to a basketball player who might be doing bench press to increase upper body endurance strength. The take away message is to have a plan.
1.7-Points of Contact
Why: For either fitness, bodybuilding, or performance, each person will have 7-points of contact with the bench: two feet, head, two scapula and two glutes. These contact points will ensure that you are creating a stable environment, which will help prevent injury and increase the chances of a successful lift. Someone looking to do bench press will often be wanting to increase upper body strength. When a lifter lifts his/her feet off the ground, he/she is increasing their chance for injury with a load that is over their head, neck and torso.
Fix: Before you get lift-off, go through your pre-performance set-up to ensure you have established your 7 points of contacts (two feet, head, two scapula and two glutes). This ensures safety, but also effectiveness.
2. Individualized Set-up
Why? Every lifter has their own ritual to assume an optimal mechanical position to perform the bench press. Nevertheless, there are stark differences between fitness/bodybuilding bench positions versus high-performance powerlifting bench press starting positions. Each has its own protocols to achieve the goal for each category.
Fix for Fitness/bodybuilding: The goals for these two are strength and hypertrophy. To obtain these goals, each lifter/trainee must first align themselves correctly on the bench. This starts by aligning the eyes with the bar. This facilitates one’s position to clear the uprights holding the bar when performing this movement. Next – follow the first protocol to have seven (7) points of contact on the bench with the spine having a normal lordotic curve. Once these two points are met, the lifter/trainee can proceed with the movement. Please note the seven (7) points of contact must remain in contact with the bench during each repetition.
Fix for Maximum Performance: The major point for this set-up is to raise the chest as high as possible. Having the chest high requires one to assume a decline-like angle of the chest with a very large arch in the spine. Most lifters start with their head off the front of the bench, grab the bar, and pull themselves downward on the bench while arching their back to achieve the decline-like position. This arched position also includes maintaining the seven (7) points of contact while performing the movement. Please note the glutes must maintain contact with the bench during the entire movement or it is considered a “no lift” during a competition.
3. Arch or No Arch
Why? Much controversy exists pertaining to arching the lower back to improve bench performance. The industry standard is to maintain a normal lordotic arch while performing the bench press. Please note there is a substantial difference in fitness/bodybuilding bench press versus powerlifting bench press. The former is for muscle development with the latter for maximum strength performance testing.
Many times trainees will lift their hips off the bench press in an attempt to push the bar upward when the weight stalls. This arching causes the following: 1) puts the upper body into a declined position which enhances one’s ability to lift more weight (note: lifters most often can lift more weight in a decline position than a flat or inclined position. This is due to more sternal fiber usage in the pectoralis major), and 2) excessive arching (glutes off the bench) can cause excessive compression forces on the lower vertebrae which may lead to injury.
Fix: Determine your overall goal, whether fitness, bodybuilding, or maximum strength performance. Once you determine what your overall or long-term goal, begin with the fitness/bodybuilding bench technique (normal lordotic curve) to learn and control the movement followed by loading the motion/movement. Once a strength foundation has been established, determine if you truly need the performance technique utilized by powerlifters.
4. Retracting and Depressing Your Scapula
Why: Performing this movement has many components to be in place before starting the eccentric phase of your lift. The scapula should not be in a protracted position. Depressing and retracting your shoulder blades decreases the range of motion of the lift i.e. less distance to move the bar. Decreasing the range of motion/distance to move the bar facilitates and optimizes the pecs, anterior deltoids, and tricep fibers recruited which, in turn, creates a bigger bench. It also helps align the hand and elbow with the external line of force.
Fix: Once you are set up properly, retract and depress your shoulder blades while keeping contact with the bench.
5. Not Creating Excessive Torque in the Glenohumeral Joint
Why: A healthy shoulder will have a degree of laxity that can be decreased by generating external rotation. This example focuses on the closed packed position in the shoulder joint; however, by creating external rotation while bench pressing, you are increasing distress on your shoulder joint since the hands and elbows are not in-line with the external force of the bar. This will decrease the capacity to generate more force into the bar with the additional torque at the shoulder joint. Powerlifters “tuck” the elbows as they bring the bar down to the chest but, as previously stated, increases undue torque at the shoulder as well as increases the risk of injury.
Fix: Once you have fixated your hands on the bar and bring it to the starting position over the chest, ensure the hands and elbows are aligned to directly oppose the external line of force by depressing and retracting the scapula without externally rotating the arm or tucking the elbows.
6. Getting a Lift Off
Why: Ideally when you start the decent (eccentric) phase of the lift your scapula are retracted and depressed, but if you are bench pressing on your own, you will most likely go into a protracted position in order to get the bar into the air. Then to attempt to set your shoulders in a depressed retracted position with a load could create a not optimal starting position.
Fix: Have a friend or fellow gym goer give you a lift off each time. This ensures that you are not dropping the depressed and retracted position of the scapula.
7. Stabilizing Your Lower Extremities
Why: This is one of the most underutilized and probably most abused bench-press cue. Today we see people lifting their feet in the air while they bench press to strengthen their “core” but is that really safe and effective? Debate is welcome, but a classic bench press should be utilized for strength or power improvement with your feet on the ground. When you press your feet into the ground you can stabilize your lower extremities, thus creating a better platform to exert more force through the bar.
Fix: Extend the legs movement into the ground. Your quads extend the lower leg; however, if the feet are fixed the body will attempt to move backwards but it acts more as a stabilizer since the weight is pushing you into the bench. The force goes back into the bar – Newton’s 3rd law (action-reaction).
Tyler Valencia is the President of KIPS. While working for a Southern California online education company he started his first business, Time 2 Train Fitness which specialized in bootcamp and personal training. Time 2 Train Fitness went on to receive the distinction of 3X Best Bootcamp and 2X Best Personal Trainer with the Long Beach Press Telegram. Before founding KIPS, Tyler was the Vice President of the National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) & Smart Fitness.
Tom Delong is the Director of Education for the United States Powerlifting Association(USPA). He holds a Master of Art in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
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