One misconception about the bench press which I continually come across is that the bench press is a chest exercise. While it is true, the chest is the region of the body which is home to a prime mover muscle group of the bench press movement (the pectorals), I would argue that the bench press when performed optimally is a total body exercise. As you will see, when the lifter is aware of the entire body’s usefulness and engagement throughout the bench press movement - every muscle from the tips of the toes, to the neck extensors will be used to create tension, tightness and stability, in turn enabling the lifter to effectively build higher levels of strength through the bench press movement.
In this short article we will discuss only the lower body technical nuances, specifically foot placement and floor drive, and their role in creating the optimal platform for a BIG bench. The upper body technical nuances will be discussed in a later article, so stay tuned.
Since we are dealing specifically with fight athletes here at The Unknown, we must make a couple of distinctions when we are talking about bench pressing for fighters. Firstly, we are not training the fighters to be powerlifters! We have learned a great deal over the years from the powerlifting community about developing maximal strength, optimal technique for piling more weight on the bar, creating tension throughout the body to enable stability and maximum high threshold motor unit recruitment, and periodisation strategies to stimulate the CNS for optimal performance without ‘flying too close to the sun’ and dealing with overtraining symptoms.
With that said, the foundations of strength development perfected by the powerlifting community are some of the most effective for developing these qualities in fighters. The foundations of powerlifting provide the perfect base or platform on which to build the more specific athletic qualities demanded by the combat sports - these more specific qualities are built and developed later on in the fight athletes’ strength training journey.
Secondly, when discussing the specificity of the bench press movement for fight athletes, it has been shown by many of the top thinkers in the S&C community that the incline barbell bench press movement has the highest degree of carry-over to the punching sequence of movement. For strikers, the incline bench press should be the backbone of the pressing movement variations in their training year, while for pure grapplers I am suggesting that the flat bench press (or the floor press) has the highest degree of carry-over to their sport. The techniques and principles discussed in this article apply to both the flat bench press and the incline bench press, however not so for the floor press.
Foot placement and floor drive
Over the years I have witnessed some uber-strong dudes benching sub-optimally and displaying a lot of instability through the lower body through their bench press movement - every single time I saw this I thought to myself, “imagine how much this dude could bench if he made a couple of small tweaks to his technique”. So for all of these guys in retrospect, here is the first thing I would address to help them get the most out of their bench.. Set your feet in a position where you can drive your feet down into the ground with the most force.
For some people with certain structural anomalies and hip abnormalities, this will be a very wide hip/foot position. But for most people this will be feet slightly wider than their hips, with feet turned outward slightly (approx 15-20°). Next thing to consider is how far back towards the “belly-button line” the lifter can bring the feet. The general rule of thumb here is to create a vertical shin angle, but if the lifter has the mobility to go beyond vertical and position the feet closer to the belly-button line they will generally be able to create more downward force of the feet driving into the ground, and thus create more tension, tightness and stability throughout the entire body. For athletes with very tight hip flexors/rectus femoris this will be a very small amount of travel for the feet toward the “belly-button line”. For athletes with great hip mobility, the feet will sit directly under the glutes and even further toward the belly-button line - this will enable a great arch in the back which is optimal for creating the most amount of tension and tightness in most cases, however an over extended arch is not necessary in the context we are working for fight athletes.
Once the lifter has found the optimal foot position for their individual orthopaedic profile, floor drive is the next thing to discuss. Floor drive is essentially the force with which the lifter can concurrently drive their feet down into the ground, and their knees outward. The whole point of floor drive is to create the highest amount of tension and tightness throughout the entire body, which creates both the greatest amount of stability from the floor up, and enables the lifter to lift the most amount of weight.
The concept which needs to be mastered here is that the bench press causes opposing forces to meet at the level of the lumbar spine, driving the feet into the ground/knees outward coupled with driving the shoulder blades back into the bench and expressing the forces up through the shoulders and arms into the bar. Note: since this is not training for powerlifting competition, the hips can come up off the bench during the lift, but this is not optimal - keep the hips and glutes locked in place, fully engaged, and in contact with the bench as much as is possible.
The coaching cues I have found most effective for novice lifters are:
* Take a big, deep breath at the top of the rep and hold it as you lower the bar.
* Brace hard through the midsection, create as much internal pressure as possible.
* Drive your feet down into the ground, try and push your feet through the floorboards.
* Drive your knees outward as hard as possible (expect cramping until accustomed to this)
* Squeeze and contract your glutes as hard as possible.
* Exhale forcefully as your drive the bar back up to the top position.
This technique will not take a long time to get used to, but once the lifter has got the hang of it you can expect an immediate increase in the amount of weight they can lift. As mentioned above, the novice lifter should expect to feel some degree of cramping through the glutes/hips/lumbar spine - this is normal, with some basic mobilisation through these areas they will feel back to normal, and the degree of cramping will decrease as the lifter gets more used to this technique.
For fight athletes of all disciplines, upper body pushing needs to be a cornerstone of your strength training strategy. This technique will enable you to engage more of your upper body pushing musculature, lift more weight in the pressing movements, and create a broader foundation of general upper body strength on which you can build the more specific strength/athletic qualities for higher degrees of transfer into combat sports performance.
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