Holding a rifle, hiking with a heavy pack, loading a torpedo, pulling up an anchor, moving bulky equipment: these all require upper body strength. Whether you're pushing, pulling, or maintaining posture, a strong and healthy upper body is a must.
The number of people who can't raise their arms over their head due to a shoulder injury is unbelievable. Poor bench press form is often the cause of these issues.
Because we need our upper bodies to thrive in this world, it's mandatory that everyone learn how to press to build a resilient upper body.
First, bar path
The bench press is the one exception to the rule of the "straight bar path." In all other lifts, you want to have the straightest, most vertical bar path possible. This keeps the amount of energy that is stolen from the movement to a minimum.
However, in order to prevent a shoulder impingement scenario, the bar path of the bench press has to be modified. The bar starts directly over your shoulders. If you brought it straight down from there, you would over time grind apart the architecture of your shoulders.
Instead, the bar needs to be brought down to a position lower on your chest, so that the angle made by your armpit is roughly 75 degrees, instead of the 90-degree angle that would form if you were constantly impinging your shoulder.
This means the bar path will be diagonal--the bar will travel from directly over your shoulder to somewhere between your sternum and nipples, and back up on the same path.
Now for the checklist...
1. Shoulder blades together
Bring your shoulder blades together and pin them into the bench so that they are locked into place.
By having your shoulder blades locked into place, you can press them into the bench at the same time that you are pressing the bar away from your chest. This will cause maximum force. Think "press the bar up and the back down."
2. Set your feet
Set your feet deep into the ground.
Your feet are your stability. They should not move at all during the exercise.
Position them flat on the ground slightly further apart than the knees.
3. Take your grip
Grip the bar so that it rests in the heel of your palm directly over your wrist.
In order to transfer energy from you to the bar, you want the straightest connection possible.
If the bar sits higher in the palm of your hand, the wrist will bend, and the bar will be off-balance.
Your hands should be wide enough that when you touch your chest with the bar, your forearms are perfectly vertical from the front and from the side.
4. Find your balance point
Unrack the bar and find your balance/"rest" point, directly above your shoulders.
It's difficult to "feel" this position, so just like in marksmanship, you are going to use a sight picture to ensure you always bring the bar back to the proper place.
Choose a spot on the ceiling that you will look at for the entirety of the exercise, and line the bar up with that location.
The completion of every rep is denoted when you get the bar back to this position.
5. Find your touch point
Find your bottom position with the help of your spotter.
On your first warm-up set, with an empty barbell, find the point on your chest that the bar touches when your elbows make a 75-degree angle.
For all follow on sets your spotter should take their index finger and tap you on your rib cage in the position where you should bring the bar to touch on each rep.
This proprioceptive technique can eventually be trained so that you don't need the tapping reminder. In the beginning of learning the movement, it is wise to always have this mental support.
6. Inhale and execute
- You have your site picture
- You have your proprioceptive bottom position reminder
- The bar is stacked directly over your shoulders
Take a large inhale and brace so that there is no chest movement during the rep.
Bring the bar down to your chest as fast as possible while still maintaining enough control to be able to stop at any point along the way.
Touch your chest and explode back up to your starting site picture.
Inhale and repeat.
Keep your lower body and core engaged throughout the entire movement. The tighter your entire body is, the less energy you will bleed off during the movement.
Over time, you can start to perform 2 or 3 reps per breath. In the beginning, stick to 1 breath to perfect the form.
What's wrong here? 1. Eyes aren't on the site picture. 2. The bar is too high in the palm of the hand causing the wrists to bend. 3. The grip is uneven. This is a recipe for the spotter to swoop in and rescue the trainee.
(Photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)
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