By: Lisa Guggisberg
The bench press is arguably the most technical lift for a powerlifter. It’s this very reason I have grown to respect and love the bench. The constant reinforcement of proper technic and form with the pursuit of perfection keeps my interest attempting to master the lift. Technic and form are king when it comes to a big bench and it all starts with the set up. If you want to maximize your bench, you need to learn how to properly set up. In this article, I’ll discuss step-by-step how to dial in the perfect set up for a big bench.
A good bench set up will allow the lifter to effectively use their entire body. Yes, the bench press, just like the squat and deadlift is a full body movement. Benching is simply not just laying on your back, lowering the bar and then pressing it. Throw out the idea that the bench press is just a chest movement.
Step 1: Visualize
Set up begins with focusing on each muscle group. Take a moment to visualize each muscle group working together in perfection before you begin. When you’re ready it’s time to get under the bar.
Step 2: Grip
The first thing I do after visualizing is I set my grip. I use the same process every time. Where you set your hands will depend on your body type i.e. long or short arms. As a general guide start with your hands at a medium grip, a natural push-up position is ideal and then tweak as needed by going wider or closer. Short arms typically start with a narrow grip, longer arms with a wider grip. There are outliers to this and you can experiment with what works best for you. I have shorter arms but feel best with a wider grip. A wider grip will allow for more pec, delt and lat engagement. Most people will fall between the extremes of a super wide grip and a very narrow grip. When you do grab the bar think “white knuckles” and squeeze the bar. The bar should be placed in the thickest part of the fat pad of your hand. Your thumb should ALWAYS be wrapped around the bar. Use your forearm muscles that connect with your fingers to squeeze the bar. Wrist should not be bent and locked, thing of trying to “bend the bar”.
Step 3: Set Your Back
After I have achieved my grip I start getting into my proper upper back position. This starts with driving my shoulder, lats and traps into the bench pad. Think of squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lower your back onto the bench pad. Shoulders, lats and traps are all locked in and eyes are directly under the bar. Work your upper back into the pad keeping it tight, squeezing your shoulder blades together while you build a slight arch in your lower spine. Arch height will vary by lifter and determined based on a lifters injury history or flexibility. From here I lower my feet into position.
Team PRS team member Sabrina Schutter demonstrating “lifter’s wedge”
Step 4: Set Your Feet
Taught by the bench press legend Paul Key, I am an advocate of the wide base set up. When setting up using the wide base technic you should be rooted in like a tripod. Your feet need to be rooted into the floor, and gripping the floor like a monkey. Feet should be flat on the ground, heels should be turned slightly out, and knees should be driving out away from the bench pad. Think of driving into your heels into the ground and your back into the pad. A great cue I got from Paul Key was to “drive the traps into the pad”. At this point you should be stiff as a board, glutes and hamstrings engaged, upper back tight, everything tight from your toes all the way up to your grip should be tight. There are no rocking or movements at this point and you have anchored in without collapsing flat or “staying up”. If done correctly you have created a “lifter’s wedge” that Brian Carroll describes in his 10/20/Life book.
Team PRS team member Lisa Guggisberg demonstrating foot/tripod stance.
Step 5: The Un-rack
If possible ALWAYS take a hand off. I won’t bench unless I have a hand off. It’s not because I can’t un-rack the weight, it’s because I can’t un-rack it properly without a hand off. Without a hand off you will lose some of your tightness that you worked so hard to create! As you receive the bar don’t lose your shoulders, lats or upper back, stay up! To do this, think “pushing against the bar or bending the bar” as it is being handed out. Keep driving your feet and heels into the floor. Let your hand off help place the bar in the right start position so you can focus on staying tight. Control the bar and wait for the start command.
Speaking from experience if I miss a bench, a lot of times it can be attributed back to something I did wrong on my set up. A big bench starts with the set up. Practice your set up and once you find what works for you with regard to grip placement, heel placement etc. and do it the same each and every time. For me my bench set up is a ritual. I do the same thing each time and in the same order.
Approach the bench right from the moment you approach the bar, perfect your set up and watch your bench grow.
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