Three Steps to Improve Your Setup and Instantly Increase Your Bench Press

The bench press is by far the most popular movement in any gym. It is also an exercise with which have many lifters, casual and competitive alike, have trouble mastering. Though most trainees tend to just plop down on the bench and press away, there is a huge technical aspect to the bench press that many people find greater and more challenging than with the squat, deadlift, or other lifts. If you want to increase your bench press, it is imperative that you work just as much, if not more on your technique as you do your muscular strength.

The first and most important thing you must do to improve your bench press technique is to get a solid setup on the bench. Lifters that take a day to make big changes to their setup can sometimes add 20, 30, or even 40 pounds to their bench in just that one session. Before you have even taken the bar out of the rack, you need to put yourself in a position that is as advantageous for your unique structure and leverages as possible. Here are a few steps that can help you get into this position:

1. Beginning the Setup

Most lifters find it best to start the setup phase of the bench press in one of two ways. One of these ways is to lie down on the bench and push yourself back until your head hangs off the edge of the bench. How far off you hang your head will depend on the placement of the j-hooks (where the bar rests) in relation to the bench, so you'll need to experiment if you choose this method.

The other common way in which people start the setup phase is to actually sit up behind the bar, facing outwards toward their feet and the other edge of the bench. Benches are different everywhere, but most of them will allow you to get into this position without anything getting in the way.

Neither of these methods is better than the other. If you have been following the most common method of just lying straight down on the bench and pressing, it may seem strange that either of them is helpful or beneficial to a big bench press. You should experiment with both and find out which one helps you get into position more easily. The method that allows you get the best foot placement and best body position in relation to the resting barbell is the one you should choose. Don't worry if this is still confusing; the rest of the article will make clear what these starting methods have to do with getting a good setup.


2. Getting Your Feet in Position for Strong Leg Drive and Stability

One of the most critical aspects of bench setup is foot placement. To understand why this is, you must first understand that the bench press is a total body movement. The pecs, delts, and triceps are your main movers, but your entire musculature must be tense, tight, and in proper position if you want to increase your bench press. The most important element of this total body coordination in the bench press is the use of leg drive. If you have ever done any kind of floor press, or benched with your feet elevated, you can appreciate the strong, stable base your feet can give you for the bench press.

No matter what foot placement you choose to use, it must satisfy a few important criteria. First, your feet must be positioned relative to your torso in such a way that you are stable (not wobbling from side to side) even when handling weights that are at or above your max bench press. Second, you need to position your feet so that you can drive through your heals when you press. This does not mean that your heals need to be in contact with the floor, but that you can deliberately push them downward. Finally, you must position your feet in a way that does not place too much strain on your hips. You may or may not use a super-wide foot placement, but you must make sure your hips can handle using this setup set after set, week after week, without getting too hurt to squat or train legs.

Though you must experiment with your own foot placement to find out how to best satisfy these three criteria, here are a few "either / or" aspects of foot placement that can help get you started.

Feet in front of the knees vs. feet behind the knees: 
Once you begin to experiment with your setup, this one becomes a no-brainer. Unless you are very big or very inflexible, you should almost certainly be putting your feet behind your knees. If you are having trouble visualizing this position, it means that there will be less than a ninety-degree angle between your hamstring and calf, and that your knees will stick out farther towards the foot-end of the bench than your heels. Most people find that this is the best position for getting strong leg drive and maintaining a stable and tight position throughout the entire movement.

On your toes vs. flat feet 
If you are benching with your heels behind your knees, you are probably also going to want to be on your toes only. There is not necessarily a specific leverage or technical advantage to this, but it is far easier than trying to keep your feet flat when your knees are sharply bent. That requires a great deal of ankle flexibility and is an unnecessary strain for most people. Again, bigger trainees might need to go with the less flexible option of feet flat.

Feet wide vs. feet narrow 
Obviously wide and narrow are relative terms, but narrow generally means shoulder width or less. Anything significantly wider than that can be considered a wide foot placement. In general, you want to place your feet as wide as possible without compromising your hip safety. A wider foot placement means a wider, more stable base from which to press. Assuming you have chosen to keep your feet behind the knees and to stay up on your toes, you should be able to get your feet out very wide, even wider than your hands are placed.

To apply these foot placement techniques, it is best to begin in one of the two starting positions mentioned previously. Taking an underhand grip on the bar (opposite the normal grip with which you will bench), set your feet and get ready to arch your way into position.

3. Arching your Back to Decrease Range of Motion and Increase Stability

If you have ever seen a competitive lifter bench press, you might have noticed that he kept both his lower and upper back tightly arched. More than anything else, this arch is key to an extremely stable setup on the bench. Furthermore, an arch will drastically decrease the distance the bar must travel from your chest to lockout. Flexibility and ideal foot placement will influence the degree to which you can arch, but you should be constantly striving to increase your arch and drive your chest towards the bar to increase your stability and cut down your range of motion.

To begin arching, get into the position described at the end of the foot placement section. You are either sitting up behind the bar, or you are lying down with your head off the bench. You have placed your feet in the ideal location, and you have an underhand grip on the bar. Now, keeping that underhand grip, slide your body towards the foot-end of the bench. While you do this, tightly arch your lower back. Also, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down as tightly as possible. Think the opposite of a shrug. With your lower and upper back in this tensed position, keep sliding down the bench until your knees are at the desired location relative to your heels (the foot placement you chose). If you end up with your head way in front of the bar, start over with your body situated further back. Your head can't be too far in front of the bar, or even a spotter will not be able to hand off the bar to you.

This position should not be comfortable. You should not be causing yourself serious joint pain, but if you are not straining to keep this super-tight position on the bench, you are doing it wrong. Remember, your goal is to increase your bench press and eventually press big weights. You essentially need to be compressing your body to get a tight, stable position and decrease your range of motion as much as possible.

Putting it all together

At this point in the setup you should ready to set your hands in position and bench. You should have a solid arch in your lower back, your shoulder blades should be pulled back and down towards your feet, and your feet should be in the position that is most advantageous for you. If you have so far found it difficult to increase your bench press, then you will need to spend a great deal of time working on your setup and putting these tips to use. However, that time and energy you spend on your setup will have great rewards. Like most lifters, you will probably come to a point where everything "clicks," and you find that sweet setup that is just right for you to lift big weights and increase your bench press.

John F. Graham (August 2000). "Dumbbell bench press". Strength and Conditioning Journal.

"How to Bench Press like a Pro: A deep look at Bench Press Form". LIFT.

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