Out of all the compounds you can do, the one that gets the most attention tends to be the bench. Everyone I know wants a bigger bench, male or female. The bench is also the most infuriating SOB to increase once it plateaus. I know what that feels like quite well as I was stuck on 125kg for around a year and had tried everything to move the damn thing. I read every critical bench article, bought every bench book, did a smolov junior training cycle and tried Greg Nuckols bench program. In about 9 months worth of hauling arse it moved just a little (5kg). I certainly put some mass on my upper body with all the volume but my 1rm really didn’t want to move. Considering how great some of the programs I was running my bench just didn't want to move.
As with every sad story there comes a silver lining. I had learned a lot in my 12 months of failing. I had promised myself to bench 180kg in a year (which is a big ask in itself) and that certainly didn't happen; in fact I had hardly made any progress at all. My clients weren't just catching up to me, but overtaking me. They say a mark of a good coach is training people to get stronger than them; In that case colour me flattered — and pissed off. The thing that makes me a good coach is that i’m a critical bastard with descent lateral thinking skills most of the time; and I care about everyone I train - all of the time. I analyse, collect data, self educate and try to find root cause problems so I can make everyone that comes to me better, stronger and faster. There are general guidelines that I follow but there is no specific one size fits all model when I coach. So in 12 months worth of failing I had logs upon logs of personalised training information and what I gleaned from it lead me to certain conclusions that were hinting at a solution to unsticking my bench. It isn't just my own personal journey but people I coached and tried things on; the great results and the not so great. Strap yourself in; I have some anecdotes, some practical application, some scientific research and a good direction for anyone willing to listen to increase that bastard bench that just won’t move.
A Lesson From The Greats of The Past
From Bill Kazmier, Jennifer Thompson (Possibly the GOAT bench presser), Mike McDonald, Lamar Gant, Vince Anello, Joe Bradley and to not so great bench pressers like John Kuc there were patterns that emerged. This is the short list of what the best bench pressers tended to do:
- All emphasised quality of repetitions (Bar speed especially)
- All emphasised tricep and shoulder development (whether it was overhead press, close grip or dips)
- All emphasised upper back tightness and lat strength for stability
- All had small arches and never focused specifically on the arch to cut range
- Most trained bench twice per week
- Most had a heavier day and a lighter day (lighter; NOT light)
- Many trained heavy frequently and some did blocks of training leading up to heavy sets
- Many did heavy lockouts or partial lockout reps
Off course there were some minor differences too. Bill Kazmier preferred a more structured block periodised approach where he went from doing sets of 10 for four weeks to eventually doing sets of three over the course of around 12 weeks. Mike McDonald, Jim Williams and John Kuc preferred pyramid style workouts with back off sets; working up to a heavy single, double or triple and then adding more volume with back off sets (Mike McDonald did his back offs as a pause with a cambered bar). Pat Casey trained heavy all year round and did heavy partials, although he has been noted as saying that if he had to do it again he would have block periodised his training. Despite slightly different programming structures they all emphasised the above points. All the aforementioned typically trained twice per week (except Jim Williams who trained 5), all emphasised quality of reps, had small arches and placed great emphasis on tricep, shoulder and back development.
The reason I mention individuals like Lamar Gant, Vince Anello and John Kuc although none of them were amazing benchers (except for Lamar who had a world record bench before he had a world record deadlift) they all had great benches despite having long arms and were better known for their deadlifts. Typically people will look to the greatest bench/squat/deadlifter to see how they did it, but I think it serves to look at people who were still great at something despite their situation. Most world record benchers were amazing at that lift before they put much effort into it; that’s why they are labelled freaks, but the ones who really had to haul arse were the ones that didn’t have the genetics to make it an easy lift. So by cross referencing what worked in the gifted and the destitute we can ascertain a better idea of what likely works best. You may be saying to yourself “But anecdotes are useless and the science of lifting is where it is at” but you would only be half right. Only a fool dismisses anecdotes; after all, where do you think studies come from? Someone does it first and thinks something works then science will take it and test that hypothesis. Learn from the past rather than relying on the future.
The Path Of Least Resistance
If you haven't read Greg Nuckols article on bench then I suggest you give it a read as it is the most thorough breakdown that iv’e personally read. He breaks down technique very well, which is not what i’m focusing on here. I’ll touch on something he cited though; an old study that still hasn't been replicated since about bar path in champion bench pressers.
If you can’t fathom a 30 minute read the main take away is when pressing the bar off your chest you need to push immediately back then up; not the other way around. As illustrated by the diagram below. (The entire study can be found here (http://ditillo2.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/bench-press-part-one.html))
The eccentric and concentric phases differ quite a lot and; very notably the concentric phase (way up) for a high level competitive bench presser is very different to that of a novice (Novice lifters in this study were still strong with a 140kg bench). We owe a great deal to the researchers of this study as they truly were pioneers. To my knowledge no study like this has been replicated.
Although the bar path was very specific (as per the barbell); the actual press itself and how to cue it can be a little more tricky. Initially I thought just pushing the bar back towards my shoulders would fix any bar path issues I may have had. In reality the barbell path doesn’t capture the full story. What I noticed from studying heavy bench presses is although the initial push is back you need to then immediately flare your elbows and push down. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. To highlight what I mean here is a video of Bill Kazmier pressing a world record at the time from an arial view, followed by a side view.
Let’s take a look at Kaz’s press from transition to transition. Kaz was the best example I could find of this as he has quite a close grip, which exaggerates what I'm trying to highlight and was a world record holder in the bench that was actually used in the aforementioned original study.
The narrow grip brings the bar slightly lower than usual.
After immediately pushing back off his chest we see here Kaz snapping his elbows under the bar and starting to push down.
Finishing in a locked position.
From the side
Elbows are slightly behind the barbellInitial drive back
Elbows flare so that they get under the bar
Coming to lockout as he fights for position
Finished position. Full Lockout.
By looking at the bar path from the study I mentioned prior and the way Kaz presses you can see that the bar path itself can sometimes be misleading in regards to where the elbows end up and how to potentially cue the press itself. Kaz was also in the aforementioned study so I am using an example that was tested by the researchers themselves. If you still have doubts you can see a similar (although grainy and choppy) transition here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIFP3QoqIb0) of Mike McDonald from the 1975 senior nationals.
Take away point:
- Push back immediately off the chest
- As the bar hits half way snap the elbows under the bar
- Start pushing down immediately after the elbows get under the bar (which ends up straightening the bar path)
- Narrow grip could be cued as push down, wide grip could be better cued as push outwards
Shoulders, Triceps, Pecs In That Order
When most people think bench press they think pecs; I mean international bench day is even referred to as chest day. So why would I be prioritising the shoulders and triceps over the pectoral muscles? At first it was anecdotal; I noticed that although weightlifters typically didn't prioritise bench a vast majority at a high level seemed to have really strong benches. Their primary work, obviously was overhead pressing, jerking, snatching, push pressing and pretty much any type of barbell overhead variation you can think of, with very little horizontal pressing in comparison.
The other thing I noticed is that other than a few weightlifters; most weightlifters have narrow bench grips. Despite this they seem to out-bench the majority of athletes and even powerlifters who train the pause bench press as a competitive lift. Obviously the weightlifters shown train the bench press as their position and coordination shows, but training prioritisation isn't on bench but overhead movements despite this their benches are strong.
A Look into the Research
So what does the research say? Quite a bit actually. Firstly let me define close grip and wide grip so we can have a point of reference to go from. In two separate studies, researchers determined narrow grip as the distance between your acromion processes (which is pretty damn narrow). They then applied this measurement to the hand spacing (distance between index fingers) on the bar. Wide grip was two times the narrow grip distance. Both groups of researchers found that grips that were 1.65 to 2 times their narrow grip were the most effective strength wise. A potential way you can determine your grip is to measure the distance between your acromion processes. Now measure the distance between your index fingers when you bench. Divide the bench distance by the acromion distance and if your number is between 1.65 and 2.00 you would be in an optimal position according to the two studies (Clemons, J. & Aaron, C, 1997; Wagner, et. al, 1992). What was particularly interesting was that no matter what grip was used in the 1997 study the triceps muscle activity was higher than the pectoral musculature on heavy sets. Both studies also showed greater activation in the deltoids and triceps with narrower grips with a decrease in wider grips. As noted in the 1992 study “The results of the statistical comparisons of bar path indicated that as grip width increased, the horizontal and vertical distance from the bar to the shoulder decreased.” Which from a biomechanics standpoint the results make a lot of sense as the further the bar travels towards the head from the sternum it requires more from the shoulders as the bar is further from the shoulder socket.
Here it is on a skeleton.
Now here is a more recent study that really piques my interest.
The infographic has some pretty ground breaking implications.
One of the most incredible things that turns up in this study is the higher the percentage of 1RM used the higher the triceps, deltoids and lats activate and the less the pectorals contribute. Let that sink in for a minute.
Somewhere around the 85% mark the triceps and pectorals are essentially the same contribution wise with the deltoids being eclipsed by the triceps. At 95% we see a decrease for the pectorals and an increase in the triceps and deltoids with the triceps overtaking the pecs by quite a margin. At 100% we see the triceps with the highest contribution with deltoids, then latissimus doors finally followed by lucky last; that’s right, last; the pecs.
Here are two more in depth graphs from the same study to show activation courtesy of (http://suppversity.blogspot.com.au/2017/02/bench-press-study-higher-weight-less-of.html)
Before we jump the gun, this doesn’t mean pecs aren't important in the bench. It may mean it isn't as important as we previously thought when considering a stronger bench. Your chest is involved in the bench press no matter what and is still important as a prime mover. What it seems to show though is that the triceps and deltoids are more important for anything above 90% 1rm strength in the bench; that is if 1RM strength is your priority. If a bigger chest is your priority, training around 80% is probably more bang for your buck.
If we apply the SAID principal (Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands) it would make a lot of sense to be training in high percentages regularly for the bench if strength is of primary focus or alternatively when performing low percentages (potentially for volume) to train a close grip variant or overhead press type movement to develop the shoulders and triceps to a greater degree before transitioning to heavier training cycles. As the two prior studies from 1992 and 1997 showed the closer grip activated the triceps and shoulders more than the wider grip counterparts; so that may also influence lower percentage training which wasn't covered in the most recent study of 2017.
What we know currently:
- Closer grips utilise more deltoids and triceps
- Heavier loads utilise more shoulders and triceps
- 1RM strength in the bench press demands the most tricep; then deltoid, lat, and pec
- Lighter loads have a higher degree of pec activation in comparison to tricep, deltoid and lat activation
After seeing the anecdotal and research based evidence I don’t think it’s a mystery as to why weightlifters would have big benches after learning how to bench for skill acquisition. There are some limitations here though, as always. Some criticisms would be:
- Horizontal bar travel may shift as the bar gets heavier; meaning bar path can change the demands of the musculature (Force vectors)
- Bar speed may potentially change the emphasis of muscles activated (although usually when the concentric speed drops all muscular activation drops with it)
- Would grip width change where the peak in activation be if a narrower grip was used in the last study? Would it have peaked earlier if a narrower grip was used? (Speculation, but I would say yes given the previous studies)
- Does anthropometry such as forearm to arm length alter the demands on the musculature?
Regardless of these limitations I think there is enough evidence to support the theory that prioritising tricep and shoulder work and potentially altering grip width would be a smart move. Choosing what type of variation (if you generally bench wider) should be incorporated is largely due to mobility constraints and shoulder structure (More info on shoulder structure here: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0102-36162014000600636). Grip width in general is dependent on individual factors and the recommendations outlined before should be taken with a pinch of salt. Just because you don’t have the exact “optimal” measurement of grip width doesn’t necessarily mean you are benching inefficiently either; comfort and stability play a role in power output and are sometimes underemphasised.
In the next issue, I will be expanding the importance of bar speed and how a big bench arch may be holding you back.
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