Monday, November 28, 2011

Developing your raw bench - Part 1

Sometime back I did a series on developing your raw squat.  I thought maybe it was time for another article along the same lines for developing your raw bench.

My history of benching is quite strange.  My bench climbed pretty steadily for the first 6 years of my training.  By the time I was 20 or 21 I was cheat benching 405, and once did a very bouncy 435 with some assistance of the spotter (in other words, not really).  However after some separated shoulder injuries and some issues with my pecs (my left pec minor has a nasty habit of getting very inflamed from time to time) and rotator cuffs, my bench went south and didn't seem to recover until about five years ago, when I started changing some things in my training.

My standards for what a good bench press is today pretty much wipes those old "PR's" off of my history.  I now bench close grip, and hit an easy 430 with a nice pause this year at the USPF Nationals.  If the previous attempt at 418 hadn't been so slow I would have gone to 450, which I believe I was good for.  Nevertheless, a 430 close grip bench isn't world class, but it's not complete dog shit either.  I hope to hit 460 close grip this next year in competition, but at 242.

So let's get down to some of the things I did over the past few years to get my bench moving again.

Weight Gain and how it REALLY works 

Ok I want to address the weight gain issue with benching and squatting.

The squat and bench are the two lifts most effected by weight gain.  Anyone who has put on weight know this to be very true.  Gain weight, and those lifts shoot up without much special done to move them.  The reason being is not really "leverages".  I want to put this theory to rest.

Gaining weight does not increase your leverages or decrease your ROM enough so much so that you see such big leaps in a lift.  This is "broscience" essentially.  Gain 10 pounds and your bench will shoot up almost every time.  10 pounds spread across your body isn't changing the ROM enough to allow for such dramatic increases.  If it were a ROM issue, then guys doing a 1 board press would see the same kinds of differences, but they don't.  You can basically do about as much on a 1 board press as you can full ROM.  So it is NOT a leverage or ROM factor here at play that causes the increase in strumph.

 The reason for the increase is because the weight gets distributed over a larger area of mass.  It's called distributed load.

This is one of the reasons why weight gain helps those movements so much.

The fact is, gaining 5-10 pounds probably doesn't reduce your ROM in the squat or bench at all really.  But gain 10 pounds and see if your bench doesn't shoot up like crazy.  This is very simple.  The weight you were lifting now feels like a lighter load because it is spread across more mass.

The same holds true for the squat.  Your squat ROM may not change more than an inch or so with a 20 pound weight gain, but the weight is spread across a much larger area, making the load seem lighter.

This is also the reason why weight gain doesn't effect the deadlift or overhead press as much.  Especially the deadlift.  It's pulled from the floor with no myotatic reflex.  You must simply use your strength to overcome the inertia of that weight.

Distributed load is not the only factor however.

The other factor is glycogen loading and an increase in ATP from that.  Which will also be another article as to why low carb and no carb diets are inferior for strength and mass gain to diets that are more carb heavy.  But 60 years of bodybuilding has already told us this.  And in this article I'm talking about benching.  I think.

Anyway, more ATP = more contractile power.  So a larger area to distribute the load across + more contractile power = a bigger bench.

I just wanted to get out there why weight gain works so well for increasing the bench (and squat) and put to rest this "leverages" issue.  It's a theory I accepted in the past, but after choosing to exercise my brain I decided this theory of leverages really didn't make much sense, and that it must be something else.

Just wanted to get that out of the way.  So if your bench is stuck, read the rest of the article, apply that, and if it still doesn't move, just gain some weight.

Now on to some benching bullshit.........

The Power Path -

Just as in the squatting, your benching has a power path.  A path that is more optimal to move the bar through to lift more weight.  In fact, every movement does (obviously) and this is REALLY what technique is all about.  Finding out the path of least resistance is the same as finding your power path.  I just decided to use the term "power path" because typing in "path of least resistance" means typing in twice as many words.

The power path in squatting basically runs through the middle of the body.  So long as the bar stays on that path, you will have your best advantage over the weight being lifted.  The bench is similar.  The bar should travel along a center line created by the wrist and elbow joint.  This is the path a raw bencher needs to be cognitive of.

Start of the bench....not a lot of explanation needed

Bar in line with wrist - wrist in line with elbow -

Bar in the correct position....and yes my forearms are ridiculous 

In the pic above, my wrist is in line with my elbow.  It may not look like it because I use a thumbless grip and my knuckles are behind the bar, but my wrist is in fact in line with my elbow.  This is more apparent if you think of a line drawn down the bar to my elbow.  This is where I am strongest from the bottom position.

Bar and wrist behind the elbow -

not in the power is too high

Here the bar and wrist are above the elbow.  Basically what happens is your triceps must now lever the weight out of the hole as the primary movers.  This puts you at a disadvantage from a leverage standpoint.

Bar and Wrist below the elbow -

not in the power is too low

Here, as you can see, the elbow is behind the wrist.  Some guys actually do bench well this way, trying to turn it more into a decline press, but this does not work well for me.

So to drive this home, what you are looking for is to get all of your leverage points lined up with each other, to work in unison along the same angle and path.  This will, for the majority of lifters, be the strongest path they push out of.

Elbows - Like Buffalo Bill, this is all about the tuck

For years now, geared benchers have talked about tucking.  As far as I know, they weren't talking about it Buffalo Bill style, but in regards to elbows.  

Tucking the elbows is valid.  It's the DEGREE to which you tuck that you're going to have to play with.

When I first started practicing bringing the elbows in it felt odd and I felt weak pressing like this, of course.  But eventually this was one of the things that enabled my bench to start moving pain free again.  Flaring your elbows when you bench, which is what I did when I started benching, is asking for trouble.  If you are in the market for lots of cuff and pec injuries by all means keep flaring those elbows out, like this dumb shit right here.......

wrong and wrong and wrong
The best place to start with this is with the dumbbell bench press, palms facing each other.  This will allow you to move your elbows a little more freely until you kind of find that groove that feels right to you.

I will tell you this, raw benching does not require the same degree of tuckage that geared benching does.  Flaring the elbows within reason is ok.  Tucking too heavily doesn't seem to have a lot of merit for the raw bencher either from my own experience.

So you're going to have to play with this a bit to find a spot that feels comfortable AND strong for you.

Getting into position -

This is an incredibly important part of benching.  Being able to get into the same position over and over again, one that puts you in the greatest position to generate power, is paramount.  

Instead of trying to write this shit out, and having 10000000000000000000 questions, I made a god damn video.  

I hope you like my shirt.........

Here it is in action.  Take note of the fact that my elbows move in the same place for every rep.  If your elbows are moving all over the place you are shifting in and out of the power path, and are not as strong as you could be.

Here is basically what I do in this video and the outline of what I am talking about...........

  • When I lay down, I want the bar to be in line with my eyes.  
  • I grip the bar and I scoot back down towards the foot of the bench a few inches
  • I then walk my feet back and I use my toes to drive my upperback into the bench and retract my shoulders, to get as tight as possible on the bench.  You will see my body slide back towards the bar.  Keep this in mind.
  • If my setup is perfect, my eyes will be right back under the bar, my upperback will be tight into the bench.  I pretty much unrack the bar as soon as I hit this position because once the weight comes off the racks, it further stabilizes that position.  If you find that you get tight, then lose position/tightness a lot, it's probably because you're spending too much time psyching up and bullshit AFTER you are in position.  You aren't going to hold that position for a long time, so get tight as hell and unrack the weight.  If you need to mentally prepare, do it BEFORE that.    
  • From there, my legs will be in a tight position allowing me to initiate leg drive when I start the press.
  • I lower the bar, pause, then push with my legs to create the initial drive off the chest.  This is basically the same motion that I use when I setup to get under the bar.  You are drive to drive yourself back and down into the bench.  Thing about pushing your body through the bench, not just pressing the bar away from you.
This is another area where you may need to play with, to get your upperback tight into the bench and feel stable.  Learning how to initiate with leg drive is also something that will take some time.  I don't always get it right everytime either but when I do, I can ALWAYS tell because the weight flies right off the bottom.  

In part 2 I will talk about grip and hand spacing, assistance work, and some routines to help get the bench moving.  


  1. Great article, Paul. Your explanations of the exercises are some of the best I have read.

  2. Is that a rack in your basement? If so how often do you use?

  3. Thanks for the article, this along with gaining weight (I'm only 150, 5'4'' though) will hopefully improve where I'm stuck at. Do you always use a false grip when benching?

  4. McStud,

    It's hard to spot when you are pulling your shoulder blades together. Do you do that on the 'slide' back up toward the bar, or before you set your feet?

  5. Had to crack up at comment #2 because I was also curious to know how often you train down in the basement since the majority of your vids are at a gym.

    Great article Paul..looking forward to part 2.

  6. Awesome article Paul

    With regards to the flare of the elbows when lowering the bar my elbows are at a 45 degree angle, is it recommended to flare your elbows less when pressing the bar up to generate more power? I have read a few articles that their should be a bit of internal rotation of the shoulder to develop more power espescially during the lockout, would you agree with this notion?



  7. Matty - I think as long as the tuck is comfortable and helps you feel tight and strong off the bottom, you are in good shape. Don't sweat that many details.

    Bigs - Yes. When I slide back on the bench and drive my upperback into the bench I squeeze the shoulder blades together........reference bullet #3.

  8. Great piece as usual. Have you any tips on unracking the bar and keeping tight without a spot? Sometimes with incline I'm forced to unrack and then pull my shoulder blades together which I doubt is good for me. Benching in a power rack is not an option unfortunately and although I can sometimes get a spot from bros in the gym it can be more trouble than its worth. Any suggestions much appreciated. B

  9. I unrack everything on my own. No lift offs. Just like I do in the vid.

    On incline however, I will get a lift off once I get heavy. But for the lighter stuff I just scoot up near the bar, then as I come down, I unrack it. Hard to explain but it works.

  10. Not to be Johnny Overanalyzer here, but many of the great old timers never used any elbow tuck. Mike MacDonald, Jim Williams, Pat Casey and Kazmaier are some notable examples:

    Williams told me specifically not to tuck (I used to lift with his son, Nate) and it worked for me, tucking at all seems to tweak my shoulders all to hell. I only seem to get shoulder issues when I go medium to close grip which forces me to tuck.

    I think that for the majority of guys you are right on, but different strokes for different folks, I guess?

    - Brett

  11. Well Brett I'd like for you to think of the names you just used, and ask yourself if those guys are phenoms or just averages joes?

    Kaz benched like 350 the first time he tried. MacDonald did over 600 @ 242.

    I don't use exceptions. For the MAJORITY of guys, tucking is beneficial. The degree is what will be different for everyone. But flaring the elbows is BAD for EVERYONE. Physiology will constantly back that up.

  12. Thanks for posting this! My bench consistently sucks, turns out I was doing it as shitty as possible. Looking forward to trying out some of your tips.

  13. Today was bench day and I followed your advice. I blasted through for a 15 PR, which was for 305. The $15 I paid for the Philosophy of training program was the best money I ever spent.

  14. Hell yes. That's what I like to hear.

  15. Thanks a shitload for posting this... Can't for for part 2, Was thinking about trying that raw squat routine you had laid out in your other article with the raw bench routine you post while I cut. Can't wait to gain weight and try the big15 and strong15 though.

  16. Good stuff, Paul. I could always eat my way through a plateau when young. Now, I have other considerations like health. :)

  17. Another great article Paul! Appreciate the info man. I always enjoy reading your technical articles - even if it's something I don't currently train. I had some pretty nasty bending-related shoulder injuries that have kept me from benching for years. I found that tucking my elbows (the few times I have benched since 2008) drastically reduces the pain in my shoulders though.

    Ben Edwards

  18. Awesome article Paul, I just wrote a little tidbit about benching myself. Great and thorough explanations and accompanying videos.

  19. Do you have your heels on the floor when you bench? I can also use my toes to drive my traps into the bench, but I lose that force of the traps into the bench when I move my toes forward to get my heels back on the ground.

  20. this article was very good and helpful on my way of benching thanks