For most people who are not involved in powerlifting, the bench press is just your main bodybuilding exercise that you start with every Monday at the gym, and probably do a quick pumping set before hitting the club on Saturday night (along with some crunches, biceps curls and some hamstring curls to get the tush to feel hard and tight).
As such, the bench press is seen as a “chest, shoulders and triceps” exercise, and aside from varying angles (flat, incline or decline bench press) and tools (dumbbells, barbells, cables), not much is done in terms of developing better technique. Even most “increase your bench press by 50lb.” programs tend to revolve around sets, reps and recovery times more than around technique.
Those who dedicate themselves to powerlifting, or seek education, will know that the bench press can be a full-body recruitment exercise.
Without going too deeply into the anatomy of agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles, know that muscles work in pairs, generally, with some help from other muscles to keep things balanced. For every action, there is a reaction.
Getting stronger at the bench press by improving your technique should be the first step, before you even attempt to load more plates on the barbell. As the saying goes, you don’t want to “stack fitness on top of dysfunction”, and load a poor movement pattern.
As the bar is being lowered towards the chest, keeping your elbows in line with the bar you are using your supraspinatus, infraspinatus, terms minor and major and rear deltoids. If you choose a narrow grip, elbows pointing down, you will use more triceps and lats. regardless, the back muscles work! It’s not just “chest, shoulders and tri’s”.
To power through the “press” or “upward” portion of the bench, you also need a strong set of legs. Nevermind the folks who lift their legs off the ground like they’re doing crunches, and I can rant, argue or debate the purpose of that exercise, though I have never seen a serious powerlifter do that. You need strongly anchored legs, a solid lumbar spine and great quads to drive that barbell up, not just a strong upper body! Otherwise, you’re just a rock from the chest up and a slinky from the ribs down!
One trick you can do is take an unloaded 45lb barbell and imagine you are pulling it apart on the way down until you reach the chest. It’s way more efficient that using elastic tubing and to date, unless you load up a few bands, there isn’t enough resistance to feel the adequate amount of recruitment of the antagonist muscles.
One caveat is that it is difficult to get "feedback" from the bar, as it is solid, immovable. It doesn’t change shape. You can use a ProBar for the same benefit, working your way down slowly. The resistance of the inner springs will get exponentially harder as you add more repetitions, as the “Time Under Tension” will quickly give you a nice burn in the muscles we are trying to dial into.
Additionally, the ProBar itself will provide instant visual feedback because you will see how far you are pulling it apart with the contrast of the chrome telescopic sliding mechanism. And what matters here is not how far you are pulling it apart, it’s that you are pulling it apart, as that’s where the activation and skill development occurs.
Keeping it open keeps you also accountable, whereas with the bar, you can distort your face to make it look like you’re working. But you wouldn’t do that, wouldn’t you. Your training buddies or your clients, however, I don’t know…
A great way to dial into those "assist muscles" is the ProBar the Standing Row in its long configuration (see photos). You can do this lying down on a bench, of course, but I like the element of standing because you add gravity into the equation: supine (on your back), you benefit from gravity as you lower the bar. Standing, while you are still abducting the chest (pushing away from), you are also dealing with gravity wanting to push the bar down, and that adds an element of inefficient leverage that makes the exercise harder. It’s safe, you can stop at any time because you’re not carrying a heavy load, but the burn may make you want to do that!
Add a 500g slug to each handle of the ProBar and you just made that drill harder!
Through an improvement in your technique, you will notice an instant improvement in your bench press. We’ve tried this countless times and received instant positive feedback from anyone in the gym that was willing to submit themselves to this bench press quick tip! Try this one and let us know how it helped you!