Bench Pressing: Don't Relax on the Bench!

There is much more to bench pressing than just lying on a bench and moving a weight up and down. If you don't care about getting stronger, or prefer to injure yourself while bench pressing, then sure, go ahead and simply lay down and start pressing. But if you would like to bench press safely and effectively, you need to learn to set up on the bench correctly. 

I come across many benchers who use too relaxed of a set up. The incorrect images in this post could be described as "casual", "lazy", or "slack". We want to have a "deliberate", "active", or "tight" set up. You may get by with a lazy set up for a while, but if you want to keep adding weight to the bar, you will need to put more effort into setting up.

It should feel like work before even un-racking the weight. You will be pushing your feet into the ground and your back into the bench. Your entire body will be tensed up. If you feel like you could stay in position for longer than the duration of your set, (usually 30-45 seconds) you aren't set very well.

Tension and Leg Drive

Most people consider the bench press to train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. While it is true that these muscles are the prime movers, there are many more muscle groups involved during the exercise. 

A good bench presser makes the bench press a full body lift. They are able to produce muscular tension throughout their entire body. This is what allows force to be transferred from the ground - through their body - and into the implement being moved. The first step to generating tension is by producing leg drive.

To create leg drive, simply push your feet into the ground and contract your glutes (as if you were going to push your hips up and off the bench). Once the hips are set, the torso can tighten, from which the arms can press off of. This must be maintained throughout the entire set. If you allow your feet to slip or lift off the ground, you have lost leg drive. This alone takes some practice and conditioning.

Think of bumper boats. When two boats collide, the force dissipates, and both objects move away from each other. When we are lifting weights, we want to be able to move a load with our body staying anchored in place. 

If you aren't tight enough, the force you are attempting to apply to the weight will dissipate throughout your slack body parts. Good leg drive is the first link in the chain to creating and maintaining total body tension.

A good indication that you aren't creating sufficient leg drive is that your feet are placed directly below or in front of your knees. They should be planted on the ground back toward your shoulders. Your knees should be bent at an angle less than 90 degrees. 

A good indication that you aren't creating sufficient leg drive is that your feet are placed directly below or in front of your knees. They should be planted on the ground back toward your shoulders. Your knees should be bent at an angle less than 90 degrees. 

The Back

The back plays a major role in any pressing movement. The back muscles will properly align the spine, set the shoulders, and help control the load eccentrically. In the case of any pressing done on a bench, the back muscles will also create a firm base to dig into the bench.

When setting up, your back shouldn't be relaxed. Pull your shoulder blades back and down (retract and depress). Arch your upper back as you do when puffing out your chest. Throughout the set you will be driving your tight back into the bench. 

Left: Chest is puffed out, shoulders are set back, and the angle of my knees suggests I am creating leg drive. Right: Chest flat, shoulders not set, no leg drive.

Left: Chest is puffed out, shoulders are set back, and the angle of my knees suggests I am creating leg drive. Right: Chest flat, shoulders not set, no leg drive.

I want you to remember what I said at the beginning of this article...a good set up should feel efforted. If you could just as easily grab your iPhone and flip through Instagram, you're not prepared to make bench pressing gains!

Why Squat Deep?

It is pretty well accepted by most that proper squat depth should be to slightly below parallel (thighs below parallel to the ground). I personally don't think it's even worth assigning this depth to the squat. I say to simply pull yourself down until your body stops you, then come back up. And if you are a well functioning human, that will set you well below parallel. 

The problem I see with aiming (for anywhere near parallel) is that the lifter will anticipate hitting only that depth so much, that they underestimate how deep they actually are. There should be no decision about wether or not you have to go deeper. Pull yourself down until you cannot go further, then you go back up. Leave no question about it. 

Now, there are certainly trainees who won't be suited to achieve the depth I describe. Certain anatomies, body geometries, and knee/hip injuries may prevent some individuals from being able to squat this deep. 

Even if you (knowingly or not) fall into one of these categories, it's not an invitation to assume that half and quarter squats are the best idea for you. In fact, your situation will introduce the need for specific adjustments. Adjustments that could render your squat to be performed more technically than the squat of a fully healthy individual.

I think it's fair to assume that many people who claim to have bad knees or hips are actually using it as an excuse to be lazy with their squat depths. If you have trouble getting into a rock bottom position, take these considerations before blaming the exercise for your troubles...

  1. Have you ever legitimately tried to squat as deep as you can possibly go?
  2. How often in your daily routines do you find your thighs arranged in the equivalent of below parallel?
  3. Are you sedentary most days of the week?

I'll take the liberty of answering these questions as the majority of the population would...

  1. No, many people have never tried to actually squat to full depth. Out of fear of injury, fear of not being able to get back up, or fear of hard work.
  2. Not often. The most range of motion most people make their legs go through on a normal day is to sit down to a chair, which most of the time puts them a little above parallel.
  3. Many people don't exercise most days of the week. That, by definition, makes them sedentary. If you only exercise 2-3 days per week, you are one of the aforementioned "many people." Being sedentary is sure to bind up your joints (specifically the hips, knees, and ankles). This makes it difficult to perform a full depth squat. 

You may ask, how necessary is it to squat to full depth? Well, if you want to be taken seriously in a gym environment, that makes it absolutely necessary. Other reasons to squat deep include...

  • more strength
  • better mobility 
  • better movement
  • better body control
  • healthier joints
  • carryover to performance in other exercises
  • better overall health

Really, there are countless reasons to squat as deep as you can. I'll detail my 3 top reasons below...

#1: Your Body is Designed to Squat Deep

In the pictures below, you will see a baby in a deep squat position, and an elderly man in a deep squat position. This should be enough said. If you are reading this, I predict you to be somewhere within the age range of these two individuals.

If humans toward the beginning and end of their live's, respectively, have this ability, shouldn't you as well? If you continually train your body to be in a position, there is no reason you should ever not be able to get into that position. The body adapts to the demands it is given...

#2: Being Athletic

If you participate in any sport or competition, it should be obvious that you need to squat deep. During competition, you are sure to find your body in nearly every form of extreme position imaginable. How much better will your performance be if you train full range of motion, strength, and stability in something as important as your legs? The answer is a much higher level of performance.

Even if you don't participate in anything athletic or competitive, look at the training of a deep squat as an insurance policy. In your everyday life, Isn't it be better to have the ability to get in and out of an extreme position and not ever need to use that ability, than it is to find yourself in a position that you don't have the ability to get out of?

#3: Overall Health 

A door hinge that opens and closes every day won't ever get rusty. The same is true of the joints that make up your body. If you use them correctly, they will stay healthy for a long time. You must put your limbs through full range of motion to maintain strength in the musculature and connective tissues that surround and attach them to the rest of your body. 

It is fantastic for hip, knee, and ankle health to squat deeply. That is, if you are squatting correctly. The instruction to squat properly is not the emphasis of this post, so I will refrain from going over that right now.

If at this point you are still unsure if you are squatting deep enough, you probably aren't. You either know you're squatting to full range of motion, or you will question yourself.

If you are going to begin training with more range of motion, remember that this will be the first time you've ever asked your body to venture into the intimidating abyss of a full squat. Don't expect it to feel normal at first. But don't give up on it.

It actually means you should do the opposite - spend a lot of time getting comfortable in a deep squat position. You have exposed a weakness in your body. Something that you need to be capable of doing. Take working on this weakness seriously, and be patient with it.