The Bench Press Is a Pull: 5 Cues You Might Be Missing
by David J. Smith
When I first started training, I was taught that the best way to develop my chest muscles was with heavy weights overhead. My coaches were right; they just didn’t teach me how to do it correctly! For years, I had no idea what those “wrong” cues were. Then one day, while working out at a gym, I saw someone doing something completely different from the rest of us. His chest looked like it was being held up by ropes tied around his head and wrists!
I couldn’t believe my eyes. After all these years of lifting heavy weight overhead, I’d never seen anyone else use a similar method to build their chest muscles. So I asked him where he learned it and he told me that it came from the old Greek gods!
How did they learn such a secret? Wasn’t there some sort of magic wand or crystal ball that could have given them this information?
Well, no…but then neither was I! I quickly learned that the only magic wand he was holding was a barbell and the only crystal ball he had was in his mind! After talking to him a little longer, I could tell that there was a method to this madness and it involved techniques such as using slower tempos and lighter weights. He wasn’t “cheating” by using momentum and he wasn’t concerned with how much he could lift; he just wanted his muscles to develop a specific way.
The right way! But he explained that the secret was a heavy weight plate that had a handle welded onto it. After seeing this “special” plate that was going to help me build my chest, I almost wanted to laugh. Then he showed me how to use it.
I can’t say it was easy at first, but after weeks of using this method he had shown me, I saw a new growth in my chest muscles. It worked!
As it turned out, this guy was a professional bodybuilder in his spare time and he’d developed his own theories over the years. As luck would have it, I was about to become one of his Guinea pigs! Over the next few months, I learned many techniques from him that would help shape my own philosophies regarding how to train properly.
One of those techniques involved using a different style of pressing movement that would send my chest muscles into utter shock.
Even though I was using much lighter weight than I normally would, the “slow reps” and “plate pinning” were new techniques to me. Not to mention, I wasn’t really lifting the weight at all. As a matter of fact each rep felt more like a lowering exercise than anything else. But it worked!
So what does this have to do with deadlifting?
They were used to the motion of the barbell bench press, so when they had to adapt to a different style all together, it worked!
It’s been over twenty years since that time and many of those concepts have become basic training cues that I still use today when training others or even myself. So here they are…
1. Retract and Pinch
The first concept is about shoulder position.
Well, in short, most people approach the barbell bench press with all the wrong cues in mind. And worse than that, many will continue to use these cues even if their chest isn’t developing like they want it to!
What are some of these wrong cues?
First of all, benching with too much of an arch in your back. Second, teaching yourself to throw the weight from your chest instead of pressing it. Your shoulders should be retracted into your ears and externally rotated to the point where you can pinch your shoulders blades together.
Now I know what you’re thinking…
“But I thought you said this wasn’t a shrugging exercise!”
It isn’t, but you have to get your shoulders into the correct position before you start lowering the bar.
You wouldn’t want your shoulders to roll forward as you near the bottom of the lift, would you?
And third, flaring your shoulders out at the top of each rep to “protect your rotator cuff.”
So what is the right cue?
Simple. Just think about pinching a quarter between your shoulder blades at all times!
See, when you emphasize this position, it helps to keep you balanced, protect your shoulders, and prevent you from using extra momentum. It also trains you to stay tight.
2. Slow Down
This is a lifting motion that requires patience and a whole lot of determination to perform properly. I’m not just talking about lowering the bar slowly either. I’m talking about taking twice as long to perform the lift compared to a normal rep.
This isn’t a “push” exercise; this is a “press” exercise. Make sure to take your time and feel every aspect of each segment of the lift. In fact, I rarely have people bench pressing anymore without getting them to retract and externally rotate their shoulders. It’s one of the first things I teach now!
2. Slow Down to Speed Up
The next concept is all about bar speed.
Most people bench press with way too much momentum because it’s a lot easier than lowering the weight slowly! This is yet another reason why people struggle to touch their chest. Don’t just lower the weight, stall partway down and pause for a one-count, then press it back up.
Perform each phase of the movement deliberately whether you’re pressing or lowering the weight. If you rush through this exercise, you’ll lose some of its intended benefits.
3. Crank it Out
This is another often misunderstood concept.
Remember when I said that you should take twice as long to lower and press the bar?
They aren’t lowering the barbell slowly enough, and as a result, they are throwing their body weight onto the bench with each rep.
To fix this, I tell people to slow down their descent and speed up their ascent. This isn’t a squat or a deadlift; you aren’t trying to generate as much momentum as possible, you are trying to control the descent of the bar as it gets closer to your chest so you can accurately touch your chest to the bar. Well, what about the other part of the lift… that glorious part where the weights go down?
Shouldn’t you be taking just as long to lower the weight too?
Well you can if you use one of my favorite techniques: the slow descent.
This is when you’ll be using a lighter weight than normal and focusing on taking 5-7 seconds to lower the bar. This is another great technique that all lifters should employ from time to time as it will help you build more control.
When I first started doing this exercise, I actually built up the strength to bench press 300lbs with NO MOMENTUM WHATSOEVER!
4. Get Some Friends to Spot You
Here’s one more tip that can help you a lot when doing paused bench presses. Get a couple of your buddies to spot you and make sure that they take just as long to lift the bar as you do.
Have them count to three on each rep. Once they lift the bar, make sure they put it back down exactly where it was. With this technique, we’re getting rid of ALL of the extra body momentum and focusing ONLY on the muscles doing the work. This is a great way to perfect your form.
5. Pause at the Top
Once you’ve mastered the art of pausing at various points during the lift, you’ll be ready to implement pauses at the top. This is more difficult than you may think.
The key here is to not just pause, but to also “squeeze” at the top. Imagine that your hands are cupping a ball and that you are squeezing it as hard as you can. Do this for a one-count, then lower the bar.
By squeezing your muscles at the top of each rep, you’ll be activating more muscle fibers in the pecs and giving yourself a bit of extra size and strength. Plus, it’ll make your muscles look fuller when you’re all done!
I suggest that you use this technique ONLY after you’ve mastered all of the other techniques. However, once you incorporate it into your training, it will become your favorite.
So, now that you know how to pause your bench presses, go give it a try! (Remember, if you don’t feel the burn three days later, then you didn’t do it right!
Get to it!
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.
Sources & references used in this article:
The Accuracy of Predicting One-repetition Maximum from Submaximal Velocity in the Back Squat and Bench Press by CT Macarilla – 2020 – search.proquest.com
Taste what you’re missing: the passionate eater’s guide to why good food tastes good by B Stuckey – 2012 – books.google.com
Autonomy: a missing ingredient of a successful program? by I Halperin, G Wulf, AD Vigotsky… – Strength & …, 2018 – journals.lww.com
Your Body: The Missing Manual: The Missing Manual by C Barlow – 2008 – Basic Books