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Powerlifting Bench Press Techniques
By: Carl Smith
Powerlifting comprises the three major body parts – the chest, back and legs. To achieve a well-rounded level of strength an array of exercises is used. There are primary, secondary and rehabilitative exercises which are used depending on the needs to be accomplished and the date of competition. Some exercises condition certain muscle groups, others build mass and others are used to peak muscle tension. All are incorporated to achieve certain goals. Below is a list of several exercises for different body parts. These are used as assistance exercises following the primary exercise, which is the powerlift or replacement exercise for it:
The primary exercise is a form of the squat – either free squats, box squats, box squats off a soft (foam) box or belt squats. Free squats are not performed often. Strength is built using another form of the squat by concentrating on the involved working muscles.
Incline leg press: These are done using either a somewhat narrower or wider foot spacing. The narrower stance will work the quads whereas a wider emphasises the hips and glutes. The latter is preferred for power training.
Ramp squat: You need a ramp with an approximate 20° incline. The surface must be non-slip. Take the bar out of the rack and step back onto the ramp completely using a shoulder-width stance. Squat – don’t rise completely. Stop before locking out, remaining under tension. This will isolate the quads. Be careful returning the bar to the rack. The knees may buckle!
Leg extensions/curls: Best done in a superset.
Weightlifter hack squats: Stand with the bar behind your legs with a normal stance. Grasp the bar and deadlift it. You will have to thrust your butt forward for the bar to clear it.
Calves: Done either seated, standing, or on an incline or vertical press. Do 20 reps.
Low box squats: These require proper box squatting technique. Otherwise, DO NOT do them! Unrack the bar with a high-bar position on the traps. Squat down to a 12” box. Relax only the hips by slightly rocking into an erect upper body position. Bend forward back into the starting position and stand keeping the head high. This simulates the deadlift and creates high tension.
Adductor machines are useful for lifters with weak adductors. This is often the case with squatters not using a wide stance.
The primary exercise is the bench press. This, however, is performed using three different grips closer than your competition grip. Notice how much more your pecs work using a closer grip than a wider one. Feet placement is often misunderstood. The feet should not be pulled back but rather slightly in front of the knees. Many arch their lower back by pulling their feet back, therefore eliminating any leg drive through the bar. The upper and not the lower back needs to be arched.
Bench extensions: The bar should rest on the bench behind your head. Take a shoulder-width grip, pull the elbows back and up and extend the bar. Keep resistance on the descent. Pause the bar shortly on the bench, relaxing the triceps/shoulders. Do this for each rep.
Floor extensions: These are done as above but lying on the floor. The bar will be higher due to the plates. This is comparable to deadlifting with various rack heights.
Throat extensions: These are done the same as bench ext- but lowered to the throat. (Of course, the bar is not relaxed on the throat!)
Modified bench press: These are done the same as the above ext- but the bar is lowered to the chest 2” above the nipples.
Dumbbell extensions: Lay flat on a bench and
lower the bells to the shoulders using a “hammer” position. Pull the elbows back and up. This will isolate the triceps and work them at their insertion at the elbow. These may be done on the floor by lowering the bells to the floor behind the shoulders and pausing them as in the bench extensions.
Pec deck: Can be done if you have weak pecs.
Dumbbell Flys: These can be done from negative to incline depending on which part of the chest you wish to work on. An excellent exercise is the Mentzer Superset: Do flat flys to failure and immediately superset them with close grip incline benches. This will pre-exhaust the pecs, isolating the triceps on the inclines. (Don’t be surprised at how little weight you’ll need for 6-10 reps!)
These are done on bench day. The idea of training them with pulling exercises (lats) comes from the bodybuilding camp of training related muscle groups. The biceps are, in actuality, related to benching. By training them on a different (lat) day you are overworking them. Most bicep work is done in a “hammer” position. This will also work the forearms needed for solidity on the bench.
The shoulders are involved in almost all exercises. Consider them as valuables. In other words, don’t abuse them. Every athlete should have them examined or x-rayed at some time. Bone spurs, for example, can shave the tendons like a cheese grate. When they’re gone, that’s it.
Behind the neck press: A well-known exercise. In time, the shoulder girdle becomes stiff and it is difficult to lower the bar behind the head. This makes itself noticeable in the inflexibility getting under the squat bar. At this point stretching exercises are overdue.
Bradford press: This will rotate and burn the shoulders. Take the bar out of the squat rack. Stand with one foot forward and one back. Push the bar to just over the head and lower it behind the head. Push back to the front and repeat.
Front plate raises: Done either standing or seated. Grasp a plate like a driving wheel. Raise it with extended arms to just above the head, staying in the area of tension. Resist on the negative. Do 20 reps.
There are several more good shoulder exercises not needing explanation. Caution! Moderation is important.
I use the term “back” instead of lats because there are different areas of the back to address. The primary exercise is the deadlift or a replacement exercise for it.
Rack deadlifts: Place the bar at various rack heights to work on specific areas. This creates a “dead” lift from those heights. The term “dead” means if you have 200 kgs on the bar you will have to create more than 200 kgs of force before the bar will move. This is an excellent approach to building muscle tension.
Block deadlifts are done the same but you stand on various height boards. This will build the hips and initial drive more than rack lifts.
Low box squats: See under “Legs”. This replicates the deadlift. It takes the arms out of the lift and forces form. If you don’t keep your back stiff you’ll notice it fast. If your hips drive hard and the back isn’t kept proportional, you’ll end up doing a good-morning. This is seen a lot in both the competition squat and deadlift. This can result in pulling your back or ripping a glute insertion.
Reverse hyperextensions: These are best done off a specific reverse hyper- machine. Some gym equipment companies sell them. Louie Simmons sells an excellent one. This takes the back out of the hyperextension. It will work the hams to the back extensors, especially the glutes. Do 10 reps for strength, 20 for conditioning. The legs must remain extended for optimal results. Tip: wear soccer shin guards. If you’re explosive enough the plates will hit your shins, which is not pleasant. By the way: use the guards also when deadlifting. This prevents scraping and bleeding which can lead to serious infections or diseases.
Lat pulls: There are various pulls not needing explanation. Parallel close grip pulls are good for the bench. These pulls are also done on a low pully. Pulls to the forehead are excellent for trap work and can really help the bench. These are best done on a low pully.
Bent-over rows: If these are done heavy (and they should), the bar can be rested for a short pause between reps. Or you can work up to a max single. Use lat straps.
Reverse incline dumbbell flys and rows: Use a bench and lay your chest against the back. The degree of incline can be varied for working different areas. A 45° angle will work the rhomboids which are often overlooked. Good deadlifters have worked them.
Shrugs: Use straps and get a full pull. The shoulders do not need to be rotated as often described in magazines. An excellent variation is doing them seated on the end of a bench. To get a full pull use a camber bar if one is available. These can be done either erect or bent forward for rhomboid work.
Good mornings: Done either wide-stance, which will force the hips, or shoulder-width. May also be done sitting on a bench or on the floor. Your hams will get a good stretch if you extend your legs on the floor. An excellent pre-competition tension builder is Rack good mornings. Put the bar to just above where your upper body is parallel to the floor. Take a big breath and push the bar up with chest out and head elevated. Be careful not to go forward with the knees, creating a squat. The hams/glutes will get hit, as well as the back extensors. Work up to a max single.
The abs are also very important. If you want a flat ab wall you’ll need to work on the obliques. They will hold the gut back which can get a blast from the good-mornings. Leg raises and lat pully crunches are great. Laying backwards on the pully bench, using a tricep rope and doing sit-ups are a killer. They can also be held statically for 6 seconds x 5 reps. You’ll need someone to sit on your knees (not extended) to hold you in place.
The hips are worked with the deadlifts, whereas the lower back is worked with the squat.
Zercher squats: Put the bar in the rack at just below the elbows. Put a tube of pipe foam insulation on the bar. Hook the elbows under the bar. You may need help from the sides when this gets heavy. Step back and take a wide stance. Squat down and lower your elbows between your legs. This will give great hip strength as well as teach proper squatting form. Work up to a heavy triple or max single. These can also be done off a low rack. Use a wide stance, bend down, hook your elbows under the bar and lift it. This will teach good deadlifting drive for sumo lifters. It will also force the back to remain proportional to the hips in the ascent for both the squat and deadlift. Zercher squats are excellent ab strength builders.
Knee squats: These are done either free or on a Smith machine. Kneel under the bar. You’ll need good foam rubber or tilers knee pads. Extend your feet back. Sit back on your heels and rise again thrusting your hips forward. Always use a spotter. Especially when free squatting. These will build the hip extensors. People in the gym will wonder what you're doing! This reminds me of a story about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Someone once asked him what the best exercise for legs is. He replied: “Stiff-legged squats”!
The neck is an important stabilising muscle. It is needed for all three powerlifts. Head straps/belts are available. Be careful! You don’t want to strain your neck or worse yet, kill yourself!
I have found using four assistance exercises following the primary exercise covers all needed areas for that training group. My suggestion is to follow Louie Simmon’s “Training By Percents” for the primary exercise. This is followed by the assistance exercises (many of which come from Louie) using Mike Mentzer’s “Heavy Duty” method. See article: “Louie Simmons meets Mike Mentzer”. I train:
Wednesday Bench Press
Saturday Bench assistance (4 exercises)
This method is always challenging and motivating. Push yourself (within reason).