Thursday, April 18, 2013

The importance of stability in the bench press

Yesterday I threw up a quick blurb on the LRB FB page about some things to do, to help your bench.  Here are the points.........

Need to improve your bench?

1. Be patient. I found that the bench tends to move a lot slower than the squat and pull. It's a "maturity" lift. Unless you're built for big pressing, you will just need to slave away at it for a long time.

2. Gain weight. The bench loves weight gain. If you've been stuck at a certain weight for a long time, you might want to think about eating more and moving the pounds on the scale up.

3. Stop maxing out. If you look across the spectrum of all the greatest benchers, they used a LOT of reps, and a lot of volume. Don't expect to build a big bench without getting in a lot of work sets of 5, 8, 10, and even 15+.

4. Do lots of paused benches. The stronger you get off of your chest, the more you're going to press. It's that simple.

5. Strengthen your shoulders and pecs. Use the overhead press, incline, and lots of dumbbell bench and incline work to improve the musculature and strength of these areas. Use various grip widths to also boost these areas. So close grip bench, medium grip, and wide grip. Use all the tools at your disposal.

6. Get bigger arms. Totally anecdotal but I've never seen a big bencher that had shit arms. Ever. Your biceps stabilize the shoulder and elbow joint during benching, and of course the triceps are a prime mover for the bench. If you want to bench more, get more jacked arms.

7. Bench. I know this one seems obvious but you have to actually train the lift. Benching itself, in competition style and not a variation of it, should be the bread and butter of what you are doing. Not floor presses, not reverse banded this or that, and not board humpers. Fucking bench press.

Eventually, someone asked about lat involvement in the bench and as usual my response is that they aren't that important.  

This of course caused a stir, and then later a discussion on my person facebook page.  

I want top clarify that statement, and then add some points to the above.  

The lats are important in the bench.  However I think their importance is somewhat overstated by certain people or in certain circles of powerlifting.  

I want to reference this article from 70'sbig, and just grab some highlights from it........

There is a misconception that the latissimus dorsi — commonly referred to as “the lats” — aid in the upward movement of the bar when benching. This has bothered me for a long time, so I have broken this down anatomically to explain why it isn’t the case.

Since the lat is a shoulder extensor and medial abductor (pulling the humerus away from the mid-line — like a row), it obviously cannot flex the shoulder or medially adduct

In a mechanically efficient bench, the shoulders are pinched, the thoracic spine is extended to lift the chest, a big breath of air helps lift the chest even more, and the elbows are kept in external rotation while the forearms are vertical. This entire set up facilitates tightness — the shoulder girdle requires tension and tightness to perform optimally since it’s a joint that doesn’t have a lot of stability. This kind of set up allows the feet to drive the pinched upper back into the bench to solidify the articulation between the body and the bench. The more solid the body is on the bench AND the tighter the tension around the shoulder joint, then more force can be applied to the bar. If there was less tightness or stability, some arbitrary amount of force application would be lost due to instability (the same reason you can’t squat your 1RM on a Bosu ball or water bed).

To put it more simply, the lats don’t help apply force to the bar to make it go up, yet they are incredibly important for maintaining tensile force to make the shoulder joint stronger. Strong lats are required in good benches and will augment the ability to do all of this (which is why rowing and weighted pull-ups can help the bench).

So let's break this down so it's easy for everyone to understand, and base what REALLY happens on what the muscles do mechanically.  In other words, factually.  

  • As the article states, the stronger the "base" on the bench, the more you will be able to press.  Or let's clarify, the more STABLE the base, then more you will be able to press.  What is the "base" in regards to the bench?  It's your upperback on the bench.  
  • The more pressure you apply to your upperback into the bench, the more stable your pressing foundation becomes.  The stability of that base comes from your setup.  Shoulders down and into the bench, feet tucked up and under you and then applying "upwards" pressure to create even more pressure.  
  • When you drive your feet like that and lower back arches, your lats will contract statically to hold that position.  Throughout the entire press, this should never change.  I will give you a real life example of what happens when it does........
    • If you have ever had your lats cramp when you bench  a heavy or near max single, it's because some of that "base" was lost.  Your lats fire hard in order to try and make up for the loss of "base".  
    • This is no different than when you have a break down in form on the squat or pull, and the body "shifts" the load to a different musculature in order to make up for the "power loss" or stability loss.  
Once your setup is tight and the lats are contracted to keep you in position, it is their job to help hold that position, but they work hand in hand with your legs and lower back.  Your feet and arch are key components in helping you to maintain that base and position.  If you don't think so, let me pull your feet out from under you and see what happens to your "base".  You can't maintain it because the lats don't stay contracted.  The lats also cannot fully contract without a fully arched back.  So once we remove the initial starting point for the "chain" we lose the base, and the foundation from which to bench off of.  

If your lats are strong enough to hold that static position, then that's as strong as they need to be.  They rest comes back to the prime movers, which are the pecs, triceps, shoulders, etc.  NOT the back.  The back works as the foundation which to press from, however it's the manner in which you use it (your technique) that matters most.  Once you figure out how to load the upperback into the bench, you're good to go.  The more you can maintain that position into the bench, the stronger you will be able to press.  

So are the lats important in the press?  Well hell yes.  Are they sometimes overstated in their importance?  I think so.  As long as they are strong enough to hold your position in your setup, you're good to go.  It doesn't take a lot of strength by the lats to do this.  More than their strength, it's all about you learning how to push with your feet to drive the upperback down and into the bench, along with scapular retraction.  

So you want your BASE to be strong to press from.  What is the base?  The actual part of you CONTACTING the bench.  The lats help maintain the base, however your technique determines how strong and stable the base is.  

Train your lats, make sure they are strong enough to maintain your posture in your pressing position.  But don't think that they are the missing link in big pressing.  Make the whole back strong, and perfect your bench setup.  Stop over thinking these things.  


  1. I remember that 70s big article. As to your points on pressing big, they've helped tremendously. Still quite a few months out from just how much, but my bench seems to love big volume.

    I've heard the thing about using lats to get the bench initiated, but to tell the truth it just sounded like black magic to me. It didn't make sense, and then I read that article and that did make sense.

  2. Right on the money with all of the above. No. 3 is particularly important and (unfortunately) the hardest one to drill into people's heads.

    There was one guy who bench pressed huge weights with thin upper arms - Mike MacDonald. 570+ @ 220, held world bench press records in 4 weight classes. For everyone else, big arms = big bench.

  3. I use my lats to pull the bar down to my chest.


    1. Why? Gravity will do the work for you? You should be concentrating on loading the part of the back that is actually contacting the bench. You know, the upperback?

    2. Sorry, the winking smiley was intended to point out the joke, as I've heard you rail against this type of statement before.

      I actually tried that, once, and didn't understand what these guys are talking about.

      As you said, let gravity work and keep the bar on the correct path.

    3. Sometimes internet humor is lost on me for some reason.

      I've never understood how it is you use the lats to press anymore than I would understand using the pecs to row.

    4. "Pecs to row"...That's a head scratcher.