Bench Press Do’s and Don’ts for Athletes

Today's guest post comes from the co-owner of The Strength House and former Cressey Sports Performance coach Tony Bonvechio. Tony is THE guy when it comes to anything bench pressing related and today you'll see why. Enjoy! - Mama Nance

The barbell bench press may be the most popular exercise in most gyms, but it gets a bad rap among many strength and conditioning coaches. They say it’s not “functional” and has no carryover to sports. I respectfully disagree for the most part, and believe that the bench press can help many athletes get stronger, faster and more powerful.

Nancy wrote an awesome article last week about why softball players should avoid the bench press and I agree with it 100 percent. Throwing athletes like baseball and softball players should stick with non-barbell bench press variations. But it got me thinking about which athletes SHOULD bench press and what mistakes they make while performing the exercise.

For athletes who play sports like football, hockey, rugby, basketball, etc., here are some do’s and don’ts to make sure you get the most out of the bench press.

Do: Bench Like a Powerlifter

Don’t: Bench Like a Bodybuilder

Ever hear the old cliché, “There’s no right or wrong way to do it”? In this case, there’s definitely a right and wrong way to bench press if athletic performance is the goal. Athletes should adopt a powerlifting-style bench press, which means:

  •  Upper back arched
  •  Shoulder blades retracted and pulled down and back
  • Elbows tucked tight to the sides
  • Legs in a position to contribute to the lift
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This is how powerlifters bench in order to move maximal weight, but it’s also the safest position for the shoulders because it keeps the “ball” in the “socket” to limit strain on the pecs and biceps tendons. Plus, this turns the bench into a full-body lift, which has more carryover to sport-specific situations such as blocking or pushing away an opponent while standing or running.

Some coaching cues that I love for learning how to bench like this:

  • Put your shoulder blades in your back pockets
  • Squeeze the bar like you’re trying to melt it in your hands
  • How would you try to push a broken-down car? Elbows in or elbows out?

The typical bodybuilding bench press (elbows flared, no leg drive) puts more strain on the shoulders and doesn’t do much to enhance any sport-specific situation.

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Notice how far away the elbows are from my sides in this picture. Could I block a blitzing linebacker in this position? Could I throw a good chest pass this way? The answer is clear and I’m much better off benching like a powerlifter if I want to train for strength that carries over to the field.

Do: Focus on bar speed

Don’t: Grind all the time

 Speed kills when it comes to sports. Very few things happen slowly on the field, and if you don’t want to get left in the dust, you’d better learn to move the bar quickly in the weight room.

Don’t make the mistake of doing too many “grinder” sets where the bar moves slowly. Bar speed slows down either because the weight is too heavy (i.e. going for a 1-rep max) or the muscles are too fatigued (i.e. doing “burnout” sets).

That said, most of your sets should be done with a weight that you can move quickly and a low enough number of reps that the last rep looks just like the first rep. Some good rules to follow:

  • Use 50-80 percent of your 1RM
  • Do sets of 2-5 reps
  • Keep rest periods long enough that you’re fully recovered
  • Always move the bar as fast as possible

That last point is crucial. Imagine trying to throw the bar through the ceiling every time you press it. Slow and controlled reps won’t get you anywhere when an opponent is trying to knock you on your butt.

Beginner athletes show practice this with “straight weight” (just the bar and plates), but as athletes get stronger, they can add chains or bands to the bar to help learn to move the bar quickly. Usually, bench press reps are harder as you first press off the chest and get easier toward lockout, but bands and chains reverse this because they de-load at the bottom and get heavier at the top. This teaches athletes to accelerate through the entire movement.

 
 

 

Do: Pick the right variation for your sport/body

Don’t: Rely on the barbell all the time

As mentioned, barbell benching isn’t the best choice for throwing athletes. And even athletes who can benefit from the barbell (football, rugby, etc.) should mix in other pressing exercises from time to time to stay balanced and prevent overuse injuries. Finally, some body types and injury histories just don’t match up with the barbell bench press.

Here are some quick tips for picking the right pressing exercises for your sport and body type:

Tip 1. Pick the right bar

The type of bar you use will determine the stress on your shoulders. A straight barbell places the most stress, while a neutral grip bar (palms facing each other) is less stressful, and dumbbells are even more shoulder-friendly.

Tip 2. Pick the right angle

 You don’t always have to press on a regular flat bench. Adjusting the angle, whether it’s incline, decline or a floor press, can make for a better fit for some athletes. For example, the floor press limits the range of motion, making it easier on the shoulders while still keeping most of the strength-building benefits.

 
 

 

Tip 3. Mix in “reaching” presses

 The barbell bench press locks your shoulder blades in place, which is great for getting really strong. But shoulder blades are meant to move, especially when throwing or rotating. Make sure to include plenty of pressing movements that let the shoulder blades “reach”, such as push-ups and landmine presses.

 
 

 

Tip 4. If it hurts, don’t do it

 If you perform an exercise with perfect technique and it hurts or doesn’t feel right, skip it and do a different exercise. No single movement is so important for any sport that you MUST do it no matter what.

Hot Off the Press

 For more bench press tips like this, check out my new book, Bench Like A Beast. It includes a 10-week training program and over 70 in-depth exercise tutorials. Pick up your copy at benchlikeabeast.com.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio is the co-owner of The Strength House in Worcester, MA. Previously, he served as a coach at Cressey Sports Performance and a personal trainer in Providence, RI. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in exercise science at Adelphi University. You can read more from at Bonvecstrength.com