Bench Press Workshop, July 15, 2018 – A Recap

Coach Adam and Coach Benny from Hank’s Powerhouse hosted a bench press workshop at CrossFit 6S on July 15 from 2-5pm. We started in typical CF6S fashion with an ice breaker. We had athletes from CrossFit, Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting in attendance, so even though these were all regular attending members of 6S, some had never met each other before. After we all became friends by discussing our plan for when the apocalypse comes, Coach Adam went into the introduction for the workshop.
The introduction was geared towards a CrossFit audience. This was in an attempt to change some misconceptions or stigmas associated with bench press in the CrossFit world. There’s no need to sell powerlifters on why they should do bench press. Coach Adam explained that traditionally in CrossFit, bench press has been viewed as not “functional” and therefore is not incorporated in CrossFIt training very often. However, for the first time ever, bench press was included in the CrossFit Regionals competition this year and was arguably the separator in the event! He then walked through a definition of what “functional” means. He described functional as having 3 components:

  1. A movement that mimics a movement we would see in regular, everyday life
  2. Has carry over to other movements we use in the gym, both positional and strength
  3. A compound movement utilizing multiple joints and large muscles groups

The goal of this workshop was to teach athletes how to perform bench press efficiently and safely while also demonstrating how bench press met all of the requirements to be functional.

We started off with a general warm-up to get the shoulders primed for our pressing. This lead in to a discussion about the importance of routines when lifting and how this workshop was going to flow. Coach Adam believes that routines are invaluable in lifting. He thinks you should have a mental checklist that you go through before any lift, whether it’s with the empty bar or for a new 1RM. Practicing this set up and check-list will make it become second nature and help to ensure you won’t forget any important detail under the stress of competition or even when going for a new PR. It can also provide you with a grounding effect when nerves are running high. This workshop was going to build that mental checklist for the attendees, one cue at a time for bench press. Every cue we were going to walk through had the goal of either increasing stability or tension.

​1) Traps into the bench

A bench press at its most simplistic form is laying down on a bench, and pressing a bar up off your chest. We started by changing the mindset of what a bench press is. Instead of thinking about pushing on the bar to move it up, we want to think about pushing on the bar, to drive our upper back and traps into the bench as hard as we can. These are effectively the same thing as Newton’s 3rd law would describe them, but this change in thinking has benefits that we will talk about later on. For now, the message was to keep this idea in the forefront of our mind as we moved through the other cues: Push traps into the bench. To practice pushing away from the bar, the attendees performed a push-up drill on a bar set low in the J-hooks.

2) Shoulders back and down

The next point of investigation was what do we do with our shoulders while benching. We explored the movement and positions of our shoulders by performing some shoulders rolls and scapula push-ups. Coach Adam then explained that we want our shoulders to be back and down to be in a safe, strong position and that we want to keep them in this position for the entire movement. He then demonstrated how having loose shoulders can increase our range of motion and therefore decrease efficiency. The attendees then practiced setting their shoulders on this position on the bench without a bar. Many of them started to realize this was a very active position and that they were using muscles they’ve never used in a bench press before. This was all before even touching a bar!​
Coach Benny then broke out some anatomy knowledge bombs and explained what muscles we were using and why this is the best position for our shoulders and how being in this position increases our overall stability.
3) LEGS!, Knees out

After discussing and practicing how to push our traps into the bench and set our shoulders, we came back to a little physics. If driving our shoulders into the bench allows us to put force on the bar, what if we can drive our shoulders into the bench harder somehow and apply more force to the bar! This is accomplished with our legs. Attendees then practiced some reps while thinking about driving with their legs and pushing their knees out to push their traps into the bench harder. By doing this, they found they could apply more force to bar and found an increase in stability on the bench.

4) The controversial Back Arch

Next we moved on to the back arch in the bench press. Many people might have seen this on the gram, where a lifter will make a huge arch with their back on the bench before performing a rep. While in some cases this can be extreme, the back arch serves a purpose in the bench press. Coach Dave was called to demonstrate that by following the cues we had already walked through, he was naturally forming an arch with his back. By increasing this arch, we can find more stability and decrease our range of motion in the bench press. While this arch position may look unsafe, in the bench press we are not loading this position with any compression and therefore it is a relatively safe position. There is also no movement of the spine throughout the lift (as long as our butt stays on the bench), minimizing the chance of an injury. We then walked through 3 ways to form a bigger arch in our set-up. Coach Benny demonstrated the techniques, while Coach Adam talked through them. These were the Tail Tuck, the Swing Through and the Bench Walk. Athletes tried all 3 methods and the general consensus was that the Tail Tuck and Swing Through were the best.

This concluded the steps for a great set up in the bench press. We took a short break to let everyone’s back recover a little from all the set up before we went in to discussing the execution of the lift.

​5) Break the bar

The first details we discussed about executing the lift were the bar path of the eccentric, the grip and generating torque. On the eccentric portion of the lift, the bar starts stacked over our shoulders in a stable position. At the bottom of the lift, on our chest, we want to have vertical forearms with our elbows stacked under the bar. This will give us the strongest position to push from when we start moving the bar up. To move between these two positions, there has to be some horizontal movement to the bar, so our bar path is not straight up and down, but rather follows an arc from the top to the bottom. The width of our grip will influence the length of our levers and how much the bar needs to move horizontally.

Coach Benny then gave a chat about rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingement and how the optimal angle of our upper arm at our shoulders is around 70o. With this knowledge, attendees when back to the bars and played around with their grip widths while their partners watched for vertical forearms and 70o at the shoulder.

While lowering the bar, athletes were told to think about breaking the bar to create torque. This will help keep their joints in alignment and create stability throughout the movement. After a brief discussion about having stacked wrists and a strong grip, athletes practiced all the details we had just covered.

​6) Pull the bar down/Push chest up!

Finishing up our discussion of the eccentric portion of the lift involved an introduction to successive induction. This is just a fancy way of saying, pull the bar to your chest. To experience what this feels like, athletes performed some bench banded rows to get the back all fired up. After this, they practiced pulling the bar down to their chest rather than just resisting gravity on the way down. This does a few things; 1) allows us to control the position of the bar throughout the movement rather than having to react to it’s deviation from the optimal bar path; and 2) creates more tension at the joints, which in turn, leads to more force.

​7) Spread the bar/Push back

Finally, after 2 hours of discussion, practice and drills for the set-up of the lift, we were ready to talk about pushing the bar off your chest. The bar path on the way up is slightly different than on the way down. Here we want to push the bar back over our shoulders a little quicker than the gradual arc we had on the way down. This will load up the triceps and allow us to lock out the lift. We want to think about spreading the bar on the way up.

After a little bit of practice, we discussed how to handoff the weight and spot each other and then the athletes were let loose to work up to a 1RM. Eddie, Lou, and Cam all hit new PRs and Julia matched hers! This was huge after nearly 3 hours of fatiguing practice.

​We closed out the day with a brief discussion on how some of the principles we had covered today carry over to some of the other pressing movements we see in CrossFit such as dips, HSPU and pushups.

Some athletes left with an newfound excitement for bench press and other left with a newfound respect for the lift, but all left with a better understanding of how to execute an efficient and strong bench press.

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