Build strength beyond your wildest dreams with Brian Carroll's best-selling training book 10/20/Life.
I’ve already told you your squats suck. Today, in the second part of this moderately offensive three-part series, I’m going to tell you why your bench press sucks, too.
As I pointed out in the squatting piece, the “big lifts”—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—are extremely popular nowadays, thanks in part to CrossFit. What’s not so popular, however, is form and technique. With so many new people doing athletic-style workouts for the first time lately—and so few truly qualified coaches—there’s a massive gap between what these lifts should look like and what we’re actually seeing in gyms across the world.
The bench press isn’t a huge part of CrossFit’s programming, but it’s still the benchmark exercise that guys in gyms everywhere use to show how strong they are. Technique and form issues, however, are just as prevalent with the bench as they are with the squat, because most guys simply haven’t been coached to perform the lift the right way. Here are the five biggest problems I’m seeing:
1. An absence of main lifting cues
If you’ve read my book, 10/20/Life, you know I’m constantly preaching about the importance of form and technique. If you don’t lock in every little form cue you can, you’re costing yourself more poundage than you probably realize.
Dig your feet into the ground, and grip the floor like a monkey. Pull your lats and shoulder blades back. If you don’t do so, you’ll go totally flat on the bench once you’ve got the bar over your chest, and that’s not what you want. Maintain an arch, digging your traps into the bench and driving your hips up by slamming your heels through the floor. Squeeze the life out of the bar with your lobster claw grip, and try to bend it as your press through to lockout.
2. Shoes, again
People’s shoe selection drives me crazy on every lift, and although proper shoes aren’t as imperative for the bench as they are for the squat, the last thing you need on the bench press is a pair of $300 lifting shoes with a raised heel. These may give you leverage elsewhere, but you’d be better off benching with a flat shoe, the same way you would with squatting. Just make sure you feet don’t slide. You need a good grip on the floor to drive into your heels and initiate your leg drive.
3. You're not analyzing your weak points
In 10/20/Life, I give heavy emphasis to addressing your weak points and creating custom programming to improve them. The secret to strength is formulating a plan to attack your weak points and turn them into strengths. Depending on where you’re struggling, the idea is to work in low-rep (1-5 reps) movements like bench pressing, incline pressing and close-grip pressing with high-rep (10-12 reps) moves like flyes, dips, and dumbbell presses.
In 10/20/Life, we combine these with great bench builders like wide-grip benching, paused benching, and board presses, depending on where you’re struggling. Remember, you can’t overcome bad form simply by getting stronger.
4. Your mentality is off
Just like with squatting, you need to conquer the weight you’re about to move before you even touch it. This entails, once again, being confident without being cocky. As with the squat, I want you to form a mental checklist using the cues I listed above. Take your time to go through them, calmly and methodically, before you unrack the bar.
5. You're not staying tight enough
To make the bench press a full-body lift where you’re taking advantage of all your leverages, it’s crucial to stay tight. Being loose takes away all your power. Lock yourself in from top to bottom, keep your core stiff, and stick to your cues. Tightness, and benching from a stiff, solid foundation is what helps you explode and create power. Again, grip the floor like a monkey, and be ready to push through your heels. Make sure your shoulder blades are retracted and tight, your lats are tight, and your traps are dug firmly into the bench. Hold the bar as tightly as you can, and make sure everything’s solid.
In the third installment of this series, we’ll address your deadlift. If you’re new to these lifts, what you need to understand is that they’re not as easy or straightforward as they look. The stronger you get, the more you’ll understand how technical they are—and how there are several subtle differences in form that can mean the difference between setting a personal record (PR) and blowing out your knee or shoulder.