There are fewer things more hotly debated in the strength world than how to bench and the pathway the bar takes during the movement. And every lifter worth their salt has an opinion on what has worked best for them either has a raw or equipped lifter.
The for the last 25 years I have had a well-formed opinion on how best to bench press after benching 535 pounds for reps at age 25. I benched 500 when I was 22 years old playing football at CAL and thought I knew how to bench. After all, the strongest guy usually knows the most and has it all figured out.
I had the rare luxury of teaching thousands of coaches and athletes how to bench press during my tenure teaching the CrossFit Football Seminars from 2009 to 2017. The problem we ran into is few CF gyms had adequate benches for me to teach the movement. Early on, one of my pre-requisites was a minimum of 5 benches. Problem was people would tell us they had 5 benches only to show up with a count of zero. Therefore, I transitioned to teaching the floor press. It was a natural transition and ended up being one of the forced changes that led to great advancements.
Base of Support
I learned the ground gave a better tactile feedback for the position the shoulder blades need to be to create the proper angles. The pad can be forgiving which can lead to less awareness of shoulder position for novice benchers. By having the attendees floor press with their legs straight, it took away any chance of driving the hips off the bench for “athletic” or “kipping” bench press. It also let us coach the bench press at the bottom of the movement and remove any chance of bouncing the bar off the chest.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That is the approach I had always taken with the bench press. At the top of the bench the bar would be in the most stable place – directly over the shoulders. The bar is eccentrically loaded in a descent to a point on the chest that when the bar touches the chest the forearms are vertical. That means the bar is stacked over the wrist and elbow with a vertical forearm. The place where the bar touches on the chest will be dictated by the grip width and the length of the humorous head. The wider the grip, the higher on the touch spot – around the nipple line. The narrower the grip the lower the bar will touch towards the bottom of the sternum, above the xiphoid process.
Break the Bar
Always remember to keep the elbows tucked tight towards the lats, which should be engaged in the lift. To engage the lats in the bench you do your damndest to bend the bar in half. When you are locked out under the bar as it comes off the rack is when you start to create torque on the bar by trying to bend it. Focus on this as you lower the bar, and you’ll be able to leverage your triceps and lats to explosively drive the bar up off your chest.
Bill Kazmaier gave a great analogy when he talk about descending the bar, he would tuck his elbows and drag the triceps against the side of his body and lats, like loading a cylinder full of fluid. When he hit the bottom and the pressure was at maximum PSI, he would explode the bar back up. Kaz had a raw bench of 661.4 pounds.
The chest is the natural reversal point on a barbell bench, once you make contact the concentric portion begins by driving the bar back up. I always believed a straight line up was ideal. This allowed me to drive the bar straight up putting most of the focus on the triceps and making me less vulnerable to pectoral, shoulder and deltoid injuries.
Driving the bar in a straight line required an athlete to crank his/her scapula hard in retraction and depression. We’d have them walk the shoulder blades from side to side pinning them against the bench press pad and forcing them into the position. This would shorten the range of motion considerably and allow for a more vertical bar path. Add an arch in the low back and you create a slight decline position that allows for a more vertical bar path to be achieved.
This technique allowed me to bench press 500+ plus pounds on many occasions but I think contributed to shoulder issues from my day job.
Dave Tate outlined the same approach with bench press in his T-Nation article, “Bench Press 600 Pounds”. He barks in the article his 12-step program for benching 600 pounds (I know Dave and whenever I read anything he has written I imagine him screaming the words with spit and donuts flying everywhere).
Number 3 – Forget any “J-shape” BS you’ve been taught. Push the bar straight up.
In 2017, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Fred Hatfield before he passed away. The “Talk To Me Johnnie” segment we recorded in Houston was Dr. Squat’s final interview, and is linked below. During one of our talks Fred spoke about machines and implements he had invented to help athletes train at a higher level. One of which was a bench he designed that would allow the scapula move freely and float during a bench press. He felt the “nailing” of the scapula into the bench and locking it down where it could not move was a great contributor to shoulder injury and prevented athletes from longevity in heavy bench pressing.
As my shoulder injury got worse and worse over the years, I knew I needed to make a change. No longer could I walk my scapula back into the bench, pin them against the pad and use my body and the weight on the bar as leverage to pin them down. I had to work on a less violent, slightly active retracted shoulder that allowed my scapula to float through the movement on the bench press.
With this change, I had to change the bar path as it was harder to drive the bar in a straight line off the chest. The new position started with the bar stacked over top of my shoulders. The bar would descend to a point between the nipple line and the bottom of the sternum as I only use a “close grip” width, which is my pointer fingers just outside the smooth. I figured out long ago the wider I went with my bench the fewer heavy bench presses I had in reserve. As I stated earlier, the exact point of contact on your chest is dictated by the width of the grip and the length of your humorous – a position that allows for a vertical forearm when the bar touches the chest. I started driving the bar of my chest in more of a J curve to return the bar to where it it is most stable – directly over the shoulders with the bar, wrist, arms and shoulders all stacked in a straight line.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words so I tweaked some illustrations to help you understand how I was benching and how my bench press evolved due to injury.
The first picture shows the pathway I was working where the bar was brought down to the chest and driven back up focusing all my emphasis on the triceps in an attempt to drive the bar in a straight line. This required a violent retraction and depression of my shoulder blades against the bench to hold them in place. Thus almost creating a decline bench that allowed me a shorter range of motion and a more vertical bar path. I would load all the tension into the bottom of the bench and rocket it off my chest concentrically; always applying compensatory acceleration to the bench press.
In the picture below, (A) represents a beginner bench pressing 245 pounds. While (B) represents a stronger individual benching 463 pounds. And the final (C) is Bill Kazmaier bench pressing 605. You can see as the weight goes up and the individual becomes the stronger the J curve becomes more pronounced.
Here is a more detailed drawing of the pathway used in the A-B-C picture showing different bar paths as the numbers on the bar increase.
Here is a drawing from my good friend, Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength. He does a great job of showing the structure nature of how the bar needs to start and finish over the shoulder for stability.
I cannot put all the blame for my right shoulder issues on the “straight drive” bench press technique I used for many years. My shoulder issues started on the college football field using crappy technique that resulted in my first shoulder injury in 1997. After surgery to fix a torn labrum and rehabbing the shoulder I was able to bench 500 plus pounds with no shoulder pain the following year. Compound that with 10 years in the NFL, more damage to the right shoulder from lots of Hall of Fame pass rushers chopping my outside (RT) arm and too many 400+ and 500+ bench presses and my appearance as the largest ever CrossFit Games competitor in the 2008 CrossFit Games, I finally needed to make a change. That change required another surgery, daily rehab work, a “not-so-aggressive” shoulder position that allowed my scapula to float during any horizontal pressing movement and a more defined “J curve” when bench pressing with a straight bar.
Since my surgery in December, I have incorporated more accessory work focusing on external and internal rotation and lots of push ups. I mean a lot of push ups with various hand positions, elevations, reps and total volume. I hit as many sets of 50 push ups as I can with 2 minutes rest. Once I can’t get 50, I shoot for 40. Once I can’t get 40, I work for 30 reps. When I can only get 20 push ups, I am done for the day.
The bench press is an essential tool for all athletes looking to build overall strength for your sport, or if you ever find yourself at a rock concert, in a fight or have to push a stalled car out of traffic. Various bar paths do not exist to be in opposition with one another. The answer to the debate between which bar path is better lies deep within the SAID Principle and the principles of specificity and individuality. As a coach or an athlete, you need to know “who” is lifting and understand “why” they are benching to determine “how” they should execute the lift.
What do you think? Do you have anything else to add to the discussion? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on social @johnwelbourn.
TRAINING: Field Strong – 14 Days Risk Free
VIDEO: On The Long Road with Dr. Fred Hatfield
PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 329 – Daniel Roose & College Basketball Culture
PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 353 – Mastering the D3 Dynamic w/ Mike Caro
BLOG: Upshots of Playing NCAA Division III Athletics by Tex McQuilkin
EDU: ACL Injury Prevention – Power Athlete Academy
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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