How To Bench Press For Powerlifting

WRITTEN BY Martijn Koevoets

The greatest bench pressers of all time spend lots of time honing their bench pressing skills. Maybe you should too…

The bench press is the 2nd exercise after the squat in powerlifting competitions, but nr. 1 in popularity.

There’s no question that the bench press is the most popular exercise on this planet. There are even separate bench only competitions.

In the 50’s Canadian Doug Hepburn became the first man to bench 400, 450, and 500 pounds in nothing more than a t shirt.

In 1967 Pat Casey was the first lifter that pressed 600lbs.

All of these were done without a bench press shirt.

Then in 1985 Ted Arcidi benched over 700 for the first time in 1985 in a crappy bench shirt prototype. Arcidi’s shirt was 50% polyester and 50% regular cotton. It was  nothing like the bench press shirts of today.

Here’s a 10 second video that classic bench press record. Just see how easy it looks.

It wasn’t until 1996 that this record was broken by James Henderson by bench in a t shirt.. Today’s biggest RAW bench press of all time is on the name of Eric Spoto.

In 2013 he benched 722 lbs. Check it out.

Every great lifter needs to spend a lot of time honing their bench press technique skills. They know how to get into the correct position and make the barbell move in the most efficient path possible.

The further you edge off from the perfect bench press technique, the more strength you’ll lose.  And the higher your risk of a torn pec or shoulder injury.

So let’s first take a look at how to bench press for powerlifting. After that we will take a look at fixing weak points.

The Right Way To Bench Press for Powerlifting

Bodybuilders bench press for to grow their pecs. Powerlifters bench press to move the most amount of weight.

That’s why bench pressing for powerlifting is a bit different than bench pressing for bodybuilding.

To bench press for powerlifting you should take the following 5 steps – we’ll dive deeper into each step in a minute.

  1. Lie down on the bench so that the bar is directly underneath your eyes. Put your feet on the ground. This is as important as any other part of your set-up.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades back and grab the bar. Try to bend or break the bar to tighten your upper back and create  a stable position for your shoulders. Squeeze your glutes, push the knees out and try to ‘screw’ your feet into the ground.
  3. Now lift the bar out of the rack. Place it directly  over your shoulders. Make sure you have the correct grip before you lift the weight out of the rack.
  4. Keep your shoulders blades back. Keep your upper back tight and lower the bar under control. But still as fast as possible. Try to lead with your elbows.
  5. You can extend your arms when the bar touches your chest.  Again leading with your elbows and lock out the weight.

Congratulations. You just completed a 3 white lights bench press.

If you make a mistake in any of the 5 steps above then your bench is cursed from the start.

Let’s dive into these steps in more detail. To make sure you’re getting everything right next time you step into the gym.

But before we do that there is one thing that we need to talk about first. Even before you even get on the bench.

Perfect Rack Height

If you’re in a commercial gym with a crappy bench and you can’t set the rack height just right for you… then you know how important rack height is.

If it’s too high then your shoulders need to come of the bench and you lose tightness and stability. And that’s no good if you want to bench heavy. It’s hard to keep heavy weights under control.

If the rack heights are too low then you need to put in too much effort even before you get to benching.

You need to set the rack height to a height so it allows for a slight bend in your arms. Something like Mark Rippetoe is showing us below.

With this position all you need to do is to extend the arms a bit and press the weight out of the pins.  Make sure to keep your shoulders firmly on the bench.

With that out of the way, lets start looking at your set-up. Let’s start with your position on the bench.

Where To Look While Bench Pressing

Sit down on the bench and lie down. When you’re on the bench your eyes directly beneath the bar or just past the bar when looking straight ahead. I prefer directly  underneath.

Any other position will make it harder to unrack the bar.

Tight Upper Back For Benching

When you’re on the bench,you need to have a tight upper back and it needs to be firmly planted on the bench.

One way to make it easier to keep more stable and a firm position on the bench is to create a tight upper back.

This will also help you to keep up your chest during bench pressing. You will have a slightly less range of motion in this way.

Less range of motion = more weight you can press. WIN!

Most people find it hard to keep their upper back tight and their shoulders retracted. Understandable, there’s a lot going on when you are trying to break your bench record.

Just to make sure, you will want to look like the picture on the right below when you’re lying on the bench.

Here’s a tip that will teach you how to keep that position.

I am sure you’re familiar with “standing to attention”. Like in the army.  Part of that “drill” is to stand upright with your chin up, chest out and shoulders back.

This is how you should like when you’re getting to ready to take the bar out of the rack. And the position you should keep while lowering and pressing the bar back up.

Try a few reps like this on the bench. Put the bar back after a couple reps and get back in the correct position every time you feel you’ve slipped.

You won’t be able to keep this position with high rep sets, so try to limit it to about 5 or maybe 6 tops.

If you can do that, then try to progress to sets of 8 or 10.  You will see that after a few reps you will a bit looser.

It will get worse with each rep. Just try to keep tight as possible long as possible. In time you will be able to maintain it throughout a complete set.

During the press movement itself your shoulders and upper back should move as little as possible.

One way to keep tight and in the correct position is by pushing the bar with your elbow. Don’t try to push with your hands, but lead with your elbows.

It might sound strange, but try it next time you bench.

Bench Press Foot Placement

Where you put your feet during the bench press is just as important as any other part of your set-up.

Most lifters don’t pay  much attention to it. And don’t press as much as they could because of it.

Proper foot placement will allow for a stable position on the bench while pressing massive weights.

That is why you can’t press as much when you’re bench pressing with your feet up in the air. You lose stability and because of it you can’t bench as much weight.

There are 2 important things you need to be aware for foot placement, and that’s foot placement and stance width.

Stance width is almost alway a matter of personal preference. The only thing you should know is that a narrower stance makes it easier to raise your butt off the bench. This will give you red lights at a powerlifting meet. No bueno amigo.

Foot placement is something you will need to pay a bit more attention to. Your feet should be placed so your shins are near vertical. Like on the left. Not like the one on the right.

In this way you will be able to generate most force with your legs and you will be able to generate a good amount of tension in your upper body. This will help to stabilize your trunk when benching.

But not only that. Being able to generate good leg drive will help to get the bar of your chest.

When you place your feet too far back under the hips, it will again make it easier for you to raise your butt off the bench. Still no bueno amigo.

You can avoid this by placing your feet way, way back. All the way back so you need to stand on your toes. Just like in the picture on the right above.

But you run the risk that you will be less stable on the bench.

A less common problem is the fact your feet are placed too far in front of your knees.

This is a newbie mistake most of the time. Place your feet under your knees, or around there, and practice driving the heels in the floor when pressing.

Bench Press Hand Position

When you grab the bar, make sure  you use a grip that allows you to keep your elbows at a 30 to 45 degree angle of your body. While maintaining a vertical forearm.

The Ideal grip width is dependent on the width of your shoulder girdle. So it’s very individual.

Use the rings on the bar to make sure you grab the bar the same each and every time. Practice makes perfect.

Most importantly, keep in mind that when the bar touches your chest that your forearms should be vertical.

Bench Press Wrist Position

If you are holding the bar wrong you can get some serious wrist injuries. You’ll want to distribute the weight of the bar across the bones of the forearm. Not your wrists.

Besides, if your wrists are behind the bar the bar could slip out of your hands. You don’t need me to tell you why this is bad.

Keep the bar in the heel of your palm with your hands in line with your wrists. The bar should be directly over your forearm.

That covers it for the set up. As you can see a lot of this stuff is also important in the squat. Stuff like hand position, stance, etc.

But if you feel you need something more audiovisual to see how to bench press for powerlifting then I can highly recommend this video from Art Of Manliness.

Mark Rippetoe On The Bench Press

Mark Rippetoe gives you a very detailed overview on the bench press in this 18m34s video.

Now you know how to bench press properly, we can take a look past the setup and look at the actual bench press itself. And in which part of the bench you are failing. And why that is.

Keep in mind, I’ll be talking about how to bench press for powerlifting. So in other words: how to get a stronger bench press.

The Bench Press As A Full Body Exercise

As you see, the bench press can be considered a full body lift. The whole body needs to as one complete system if you want to press the most weight possible.

If you can bench press with perfect form with an empty bar, then you should be able to do so when  you perform that same movement under increased load.

Let me explain.

If you know how to bench, then you know how to bench. Then the only reason your technique is getting worse under heavy loads is because of a weak muscle group.

If you want to know what your weakest muscle group is in the bench press, then you need to know how all the muscle work during a bench press.

You probably know that your chest and shoulder muscles enable you to get the weight off your chest. And that your triceps are the muscles that lock out the bar.

But the muscles on your back are also involved. They help to stabilize you during a bench press. The trapezius and rhomboids make keeps your shoulder blades firmly planted on the bench.

Your lats keep your elbows from moving out when pressing the bar. This is to make sure the angle between your upper body  and upper arms doesn’t change in the bottom of the bench press.This is the way you can generate maximal force.

Even your legs play a part when you are benching maximal weights. For one, they make sure you are firm on the bench and  that you are stable.

But more importantly is that with proper leg drive, you will be able to get the bar of your chest for that first inch or so.

Good leg drive can help you bust through your plateau if you are weak of your chest.

So yeah, the bench press is a full body lift. Very much so like the squat and deadlift.

Bench Press Fail

There are a few options for a bench press fail:

  • The bar comes down too fast
  • The bar doesn’t come off your chest
  • The bar drifts towards your face
  • The bar moves to one side
  • The bar gets stuck in the middle
  • The bar gets stuck at the top

Knowing how every muscle functions during the bench press helps to analyze and solve these problems.

Let’s take a look how solve these weak points.

The bar comes down too fast

When the bar comes down to fast then the weight is just too heavy for you. Im sorry, but that’s the way it is.

Sorry nothing fancy about weak lats or anything.

It’s time to check your ego at the door and lower the weight.

The bar doesn’t come off your chest

Maybe you can lower the weight under control, but you can’t get it off your chest when it’s there.

That might be because of 1 of the next 3 problems:

  1. The weight is too heavy for you to press
  2. Your chest is too weak.
  3. Poor leg drive

Problem 1 and 2 sound the same, but they’re not.

Everybody is stronger in the negative portion of the lift. This mean you can always lower more weight under control than you can lift.

When the bar just won’t budge of your chest then it’s possible the weight is just too heavy for you.

Again. Check your ego at the door and just lower the weight.

But if you manage to get it off your chest just a few millimeters to even a few inches, it could because of a weak chest.

If you think that this is the case then you should focus on:

Exercises like flyes are not effective to increase your strength.

The weights you can use on those are just too small to make any real strength gains on the bench. So they are of no use in this situation.

If there’s nothing wrong with your chest, then it could also be a lack of leg drive. Good leg drive will make the bar pop of your chest that first inch or so.

Go back and read the part about foot placement.

The bar drifts towards your face

Another problem is when the bar drifts towards your face when pressing. This turns the bench press in an impossible heavy triceps extension.

Since your triceps can’t support the weight, they will give out and this is what makes the bar drift to your face.

So you need to work on your tricep strength.

The best exercises to solve this problem are:

The bar moves to one side

This problem is a lot less common.  If 1 of your elbows is flaring out, it is probably because of weak lats.

Because your lats can’t support the weight, it will transfer to your shoulder. But your shoulders are a small and relative weak muscle group.

So the bar will start drifting towards one side. Soon after your shoulders won’t be able to support the heavy weight and the bar will come down.

Another bench press fail.

You need to strengthen your lats. So work in some of the following exercises:

The bar gets stuck in the middle

Another possibility is that both your elbows flare out. When this happens the bar won’t drift to the right or left. It will just get stuck in the middle of the bench press.

It is probably because of weak shoulders. And not because of weak lats.

To get stronger shoulders do the following exercises:

Or anything else that requires your to press heavy weights over your head.

Exercises like side laterals will not help you with this. Much like flyes, they are useless for strength development.

The weight is too small and the movement is too different.

You can’t lockout the weight

Your triceps are too weak if you can’t lockout the bar completely.

If you’re having this problem, it’s probably the lower tricep head near the inside your elbow thats too weak. The medial head.

But to be honest, you don’t want to focus just on that area.

You need to strengthen the whole triceps. So try the next exercises to do that.

How To Bench Press For Powerlifting

That should cover it for you on how to bench press for powerlifting. Head to toe.

We covered the perfect bench press setup. You know what muscles are used during the bench press and how they work.

We also covered tips and exercises to address your bench press fail.

With all this information PR’s are just waiting for you the next time you step into the gym.

(NOTE:  Want to build your own powerlifting program in just 5 simple steps? Yes… it’s really that simple! Get my personal simple 5 step formula here for free!)

Lifting is hard. We all need some opinions on our technique now and then…  And a bench press form check can help. Click here to see some of the form checks I did for visitors of Powerlifting University.

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Author: Martijn Koevoets
Martijn is head honcho of Powerlifting University, a powerlifter, author, blogger, online coach & extreme metal aficionado. He also loves a good whiskey. He has been featured on websites like EliteFTS, JTSStrength, JMAX Fitness and more.

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.



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