Why Your Bench Sucks

By: Brian Carroll

Strength training, in general, is gaining popularity in the mainstream world, thanks to CrossFit. I know many people like to knock CrossFit, but training has some excellent aspects. I like to keep it positive, so there you have it. CrossFit is not all bad. Back to my point, CrossFit has brought the power lifts, squat, deadlift, and sometimes the bench press to the mainstream, and it’s not only just cool to press anymore, but you’re extra cool if you can bench big too. Everyone is benching, but the problem is too many people are not being coached properly, so they have no clue about main lifting cues/form, what shoes to wear, how to program for it, the mentality, and staying tight.

In this three-part series, I will help you see five prevalent mistakes in each of the three lifts starting with the squat and now onto the bench.

Main Lifting Cues

Regardless of how you set up, tucked feet, wide feet, or feet straight back, you have to have them locked in. I recently posted an article about the different set-ups and how one can be better than the other. But it just depends on you, your goals, and your build/injury history.

If you read my content and or have read the 10/20/Life book and Gift of Injury, you know that I am a form whore. There is so much you can give up, a miss, or cost poundage if you are not using the proper locked-in form.

  • Make sure your feet are locked into the ground, gripping like a monkey.
  • Your lats are pulled back, and so are your shoulder blades. This is because many people let their backs loose when they receive the handoff and get flat.
  • Stay arched on your traps, drive your hips up by your heels, and drive through the floor. This should apply regardless of your stance – you will need to drive your heels!
  • Bend the bar as you press the bar to lockout! Bend the bar, and try to squeeze the life out of it. (Gorilla grip/lobster claw). Use white knuckles.

Shoes

Shoes drive me crazy because they really don’t matter on the bench nearly as much as the squat, yet people fall for the marketing ploys of $300 weight lifting shoes with a heel is the last thing you need on the bench press. While they may offer you some leverage in the squat, they really don’t offer much on the bench unless they are really raised heels, but then you would be better off benching in something raised evenly or plates under feet. I suggest flat shoes, just like on the squat. As I outline in 10/20/Life, good ol’ fashioned Chucks will work for any lift and are not a bad-priced option. Please ensure the bottoms don’t allow you to slide; you need a good grip to drive your heels and have a firm foundation, as I speak about above.

Weak Points

Weak points are heavily addressed completely in the 10/20/Life book and how to program for them. Programming according to your individual weak points is so important. You have to plan to attack those weaknesses and make a plan accordingly to transform them into strengths. Your main movements for the bench press (bench press, incline, close grip, etc.) will be at a lower rep range of 1-5. Your flys, dips, and DB presses will be performed in a higher rep range, closer to 12 reps per set.

Great bench builders would be close grip, wide grip, paused, and board presses. Each of these movements will depend on where you struggle. There is no one size fits all. Again, bad form can not always be made up for by getting stronger.

Mentality

The mentality when approaching the bar is huge. You have to conquer the weight before you even feel it. Knowing that you own the weight before you even do it. Confidence, but not being cocky. You have to respect the weight, but you should not have an unhealthy fear. I often talk about how having a mental checklist is a good idea. Thinking about the abovementioned cues and going through them in your mind is helpful, and taking your time is the right thing to do. Controlled and explosive, but calm and methodical.

Staying Tight

Staying tight might be the most important part of a good bench and making it a full-body lift. Being loose is not good for your health or your power and drive on the squat. Locking yourself from top to bottom is key to generating power. I go over the cues above, but pushing your belly out and firm is important, as well as having the ability to generate the tightness and stiffness necessary. Finally, a stiff core is crucial. The “McGill Big 3”, rolling planks, McGill crunches, bird dogs, stir the pot, and Bottoms up bench pressing are all good to attack this weak point.

Use these cues above to stay as tight as possible. Also, don’t try to have a super loose back and hips. A little bit of a tight hip and back is a good thing. Finally, ensure to get warm before you bench—Prime the bench press. Warming up is important, but bouts of stretching are not good, IMO. Tightness is part of what helps you explode and create power. On the flip side of the coin – you may have to do some mobility work from time to time to ensure healthy pecs and shoulders. A banded fly, push-ups, and glute bridges are a great warm-up for the bench.

These are the five most common issues I see all over social media, plastered everywhere. My purpose with this is to help you become a better, stronger lifter. One little correction could make the difference between a new squat record or miss badly. With lifting big, the little things sometimes count the most. With more people lifting, more people will be doing it wrong. My job is to help in any way I can. As a powerlifter, we know these lifts best. It is our craft, and it is our job, to help as many people as we can and to try and help everyone get as strong as possible while minimizing injury as much as possible. Stay tuned for my follow-up on the bench and the deadlift. Be very careful who you listen to, and take advice from. There’s an expert around every corner.

 

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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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