How I Am Improving My Bench

By: Danny Vega

Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone—and by that, I mean focus on something you aren’t very good at. Bench is my nemesis. My failures with this lift are about 50% technique, 30% mental, and 20% strength related. One of the first things Brian told me over a year ago when we first met in person was that I should be benching a lot more with my build. So I did what any idiot would do. I didn’t ask how, and continued to do what I thought would build my bench for an entire off-season and meet prep. Late into my last meet prep, I had the whole team giving me great pointers and coaching cues that I kept in mind, but chose not to try until after my meet. Now it’s the off-season and I have plenty of time to fix this car wreck. Here are my main points of focus:

LEG DRIVE

Lack of leg drive has been my main issue. I have a pretty strong squat and pull, but until recently I had yet to use this to my advantage. At Michigan Barbell; Brian, Jonathan and Jason had me move my feet out and further away from my body. You can choose to push your heels out, or your toes out. I prefer toes out. The key is to position your feet to where you can get the most leg drive. The coaching cue I found most helpful came from Jason Pegg. He told me not to drive my hips straight up, but backwards towards my head. During my set up, I am tight, but as I press I focus on extending my hips (and even quads) as much as I possibly can. Multipurpose adhesive spray is great to have to make sure your shoes have a good grip on the ground. I must be doing something right, because I have been getting some cramps in my glutes after bench sessions from driving so hard. In my case, I think this will be the difference maker.

TIGHTNESS

Another problem I had was setting up relatively tight and then losing it as soon as I took the bar. With my set-up, I now use the posts on the bench to bring my shoulder blades together as much as possible. From there, I hold them as tight as I possibly can as I bring my feet out. The key is to be as tight as possible, so I am getting used to being uncomfortable. I have also put a major focus on my lats and am training them twice a week. Being long limbed, I will benefit from having bigger lats to keep me tight and push off of at the bottom.

REPETITION

I’m not sure which will help my bench more—the fact that I can finally use my legs or the increased volume and technique work. Last year I hit a 400 bench and was stagnant for two meets. Two reasons for that were that.

  • I didn’t care to focus on my technique. I played with different foot positions, tucking under, etc for no longer than a few weeks, and then I’d just do what felt comfortable.
  • 2) I didn’t change my assistance exercises. I was obsessed with overhead pressing, thinking that was the key. However, I didn’t get anything out of the constant overhead pressing except for some shoulder pain.

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This off season, I am benching twice a week instead—a main day and a much lighter assistance/technique day. I feel much more confident in my technique after only a month and a half of this. My goal is to get my bench technique to the same level as my deadlift technique—where every rep and set looks nearly identical.

SPEED

All of these—if I am doing this right—will improve on the others. My lockout is not the strongest, but my speed off the chest isn’t great either. Staying tight and using leg drive has helped me improve my speed a lot. Although the weight isn’t heavy yet, I am getting more reps and getting enough momentum when I’m fatigued to power through the lockout. I have already spoken to Brian about some more specific speed work, but I haven’t added that in yet.

MENTALITY/STICKING TO THE PROPER RPE

The bench definitely has a big mental component. I have psyched myself out of several bench attempts. Even worse, I used to have a habit of not sticking to the right RPE and picking weights that were too heavy…consistently. The worst part is that this is my weakest lift, and I was hurting it even more by beating myself up with weights that were consistently too heavy. Nowadays, if I feel extra strong on any given day, I will perform a few extra reps instead of going too heavy. It’s still too early to tell, but I can feel the difference already.

One last thing: don’t forget soft tissue work. Finding the right ART certified massage therapist is priceless. I have begun to schedule monthly appointments with my guy, instead of waiting to call him when something hurts. It has allowed me to continue to handle the volume and loads without breaking down.

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Danny Vega

Danny Vega is a 220lb raw powerlifter with meet bests of 640 squat in wraps (610 raw), 400 bench, and 700 deadlift. A native of Miami, Florida, Vega received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 2004, where he was a member of the football team and a three-time Dean’s List recipient. Vega earned his masters of science in human performance from the University of Florida, where he worked with the national championship men’s basketball team along with women’s basketball, tennis, and golf programs. He then went on to become the Strength & Conditioning coordinator for VCU basketball. The Rams were 2007 conference champions and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
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