This is an excerpt from Massive, Muscular Arms by David Barr.
It would be pretty hard to write about arm training without discussing the bench press. It fits nicely in our wheelhouse, because in contrast to traditional thinking, it’s more of a triceps exercise than a pectoralis exercise. Despite its ubiquity and the fact that an entire day of the week is devoted to its performance (i.e., Monday = international bench press day), the bench press is actually an advanced, very technical movement. Failure to appreciate this has contributed to the decimation of shoulders common to gyms everywhere.
It’s important to note that the length of this description does not suggest that this exercise is more important or effective (whatever that would mean). Instead, it reflects the frequent overuse of this advanced movement and subsequent potential for chronic injury. We’ll mitigate this to some extent with the Rusin three-way shoulder warm-up, but developing a high level of technical proficiency is still necessary.
We’ll detail several components of this exercise, but it’s important that you don’t try to execute everything at once. Start by picking a couple of cues and practice. If this seems excessively laborious to you, remember that this is a process; even the biggest benchers on the planet are always working on their technique!
You’ve seen novices flop around on a bench as they try to move a too heavy of a load—maybe a leg comes up or the bar starts to rotate, until, hopefully, they rack the thing. I’ve done this myself, but other than the obvious potential for injury risk, it means that we’re also leaving a lot of strength potential on the table. One of the biggest game changers for your bench will occur when you develop the skill of maximizing body stability.
The most impactful way to increase stability is through leg drive, which is exactly what it sounds like; you push with your legs to drive your upper back into the bench (figure 4.2). This was my first experience with targeted stability, and although it takes practice, once you nail it, you’ll have another oh, my goodness (OMG) moment. You can replicate some of the feel for this by putting your feet up on the bench and performing a glute bridge, trying to force your upper back into the bench. Now work on replicating this with your feet on the ground. I have new clients perform the glute bridge before each set as a tactile cue—a reminder of the feel that they’re looking for. When they can replicate this with their feet on the ground, they know that they’ve achieved full-body stability.
It shouldn’t matter if your feet are flat on the ground as long as they are bilaterally symmetrical (i.e., between right and left) and can maximize tension. Also, your legs need a tight core through which they can transmit this powerful stabilizing force, so bracing should be a no-brainer here. Squeezing your shoulder blades and then your lats together will provide upper body stability throughout the entire range of motion (ROM).
Grip the bar and wrap your thumbs. Squeeze the bar hard, try to externally rotate at the shoulder, and pull the bar apart. The cue for this is that you are trying to bend the bar (table 4.1).
Once you’ve just put the effort into creating a stable surface to push through, you don’t want to lose it with a traditional lift off of the bar. You want to pull the bar out of the rack toward your navel using your lats, rather than lifting it off with a push. This will ensure that you maintain a tight back and body stability. The best option here is to have a spotter or two set the bar directly over your starting position.