Bench press is probably the first exercise that comes to mind when you hear the word “gym”.
Beloved by gym bros and strength coaches around the world, bench press is an exercise that isn’t found too often in WODs, but needs to be included in your CrossFit training if you want to get strong and master other skills.
In this article, we’ll explore why the bench press is important for CrossFit athletes and provide insights into how to incorporate it effectively into your training regimen.
Why is Bench Press Important for CrossFit
(and Why CrossFitters Should Bench More Often)
CrossFit demands functional strength, and a strong upper body is crucial for lifting, pushing, and pulling.
Bench press primarily targets the chest (pectoralis major), triceps, shoulders (deltoids), and various stabilizing muscles in the upper body.
A stronger chest and triceps can boost your performance in CrossFit workouts that involve push-ups, handstand push-ups, and muscle-ups; however, benching on a regular basis will contribute to developing overall strength and balance among all muscle groups.
Since bench press doesn’t regularly appear in many CrossFit workouts, when it does, it often catches even veteran athletes off-guard with how fatiguing it can be.
And so, If not for the potentially amazing strength gains, include bench press to your training cycle For the sake of General Physical Preparedness. A good crossfitter is always ready!
How to Bench Press
Benching can seem rather simple but like most multi-joint exercises there is a technique to it that will help you get the most bang for your buck:
- Lie flat on a bench with your back arched naturally and your feet flat on the floor. Your eyes should be directly under the barbell.
- Place your hands on the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Retract your shoulder blades and pull them back, creating a stable base for your upper body.
- Lift the bar off the rack yourself with your arms fully extended. Take a deep breath as you gently lower the bar to your chest. This helps stabilize your core and protect your spine. Protect your shoulder by keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body.
- Exhale as you push the bar back up into the starting position while continuing to maintain tension in your core and driving your feet into the floor.
When lifting heavy weights, having a spotter to assist you is crucial to ensure your safety. Don’t be shy to ask a stranger for a spot, it’s common practice in most gyms (make sure that they’re confident that they can help you first!).
If you don’t have anyone to assist you, do your bench press in a rig that has safety catches or a power rack to catch the barbell if you can’t complete a rep. You can also use dumbbells as you can just ditch them if you start to fail.
Bench Press Variations
Once you’ve mastered the basic bench press, you can explore other bench press variations to target specific muscle groups and add diversity to your training.
Incline Bench Press vs. Decline Bench Press
Incline and decline refer to the gradient of the bench used to perform the exercise, though the exercise is performed in the same way as in the conventional style. While the conventional bench press is done on a flat bench (a bench that’s parallel to the ground), the stimulus of the exercise can be changed by increasing or decreasing the degree of the bench.
The Incline variation is when the athlete’s head and shoulders are set higher than the hips. The bench should be set at a 15-45º angle, but keep in mind that the steeper the incline, the more your deltoids (rather than your upper pecs) will be recruited to take on the load. In other words, more upright means more shoulders.
Decline bench presses are usually performed on a 15-30º decline with the athlete’s head set lower than their hips and knees. This variation focuses on the lower chest and can be useful for when you want to work your chest without putting too much load on your shoulders.
Wide-Grip Bench Press vs. Close-Grip Bench Press
A wide grip decreases the range of motion of the exercise, making it feel easier but offering a greater challenge for your upper back and chest. The grip should be about twice the distance of your shoulder width, however you should still be able to unrack the bar without much difficulty.
The close grip variant is with your hands within the distance of your shoulders, but not touching each other. This increases the range of motion, making the exercise feel more difficult than the wide-grip or conventional bench press. Having a narrow grip targets the shoulders and triceps.
Changing up aspects of an exercise like the execution, speed, load, and equipment used adds versatility and diversity to your training. Here are some other ways to modify the conventional bench press:
Dumbbell Bench Press: Using dumbbells instead of a bar enhances stabilization and balance because each side must work individually. This is useful for sorting out or preventing imbalances, however it’s also great for recruiting even more muscle fibers than the conventional version because the range of motion is greater.
Tempo Bench Press: Controlling the speed of the lift is both a great way to challenge your muscles differently, and practice your technique. To try a typical 31×1 tempo, start by lowering the bar towards your chest for three seconds, keeping the bar at your chest for one second, and then explosively reversing the movement for each rep. Now you’re recruiting extra muscle fibers by maintaining a longer time under tension but you also practice control and maintaining the bar path at the same time.
5 Common Mistakes to Avoid for Bench Press
For long-term success, you must be mindful and practice with intention. You can reduce your risk for injury and maximize your results by avoiding these common errors:
MISTAKE #1: The Chest Bounce
This mistake usually occurs when athletes rush or lose control of the barbell’s descent in an attempt to take advantage of the rebound. Allowing the bar to bounce off your chest during the bench press is not only considered to be cheating but it’s also dangerous, potentially leading to damaging your chest, shoulders, or ribcage.
Solution: Lower the bar under control, maintaining tension in your chest and triceps, and gently touch your chest before pressing it back up. This ensures proper muscle engagement and minimizes the risk of injury.
MISTAKE #2: Overarching the Lower Back
Excessively overarching your lower back can lead to back pain and reduce power generation. This is something you may have seen when this lift is performed by powerlifters, but keep in mind that it’s a technique that is perfected progressively with experience (and often with supervision!).
Solution: Maintain a natural arch in your lower back. Your glutes and upper back should remain on the bench but it’s okay if there’s a bit of space between the bench and your low back as long as you engage your core to stabilize your spine.
MISTAKE #3: Neglecting Scapular Retraction
Even though bench press is performed while laying down, you can’t relax if you want to lift heavy. Keeping your shoulder blades together as you lift can lead to instability and reduced strength in the bench press making the exercise feel more difficult with less load.
Solution: Before lifting, retract your shoulder blades and maintain that position throughout the lift. This creates a stable base for your upper body allowing you to generate more power and also prevents shoulder issues later on.
MISTAKE #4: The Leg Flail
We’ve all seen it and if not, we’ve definitely been there; you’re reaching submaximal load and your legs instinctively start moving around as you struggle to lock-out with the bar. This is a response that occurs when you’re trying to focus all of your strength into an exercise that’s mainly executed by only a part of your body.
Solution: Total body tension is important for giving athletes a stable base to work from. Apply more tension by planting your feet and pushing with them as you lift the bar. The leg drive will help you to lift more weight and recruit more muscle fibers.
MISTAKE #5: The Ego Lifter
This one is dedicated to all of those who look around to see who’s watching as they load their bar. Constantly looking for a PR or trying to lift excessively heavy weights that you’re not prepared for can result in poor form, injury, and slow progress.
Solution: Choose weights that challenge you but allow you to complete each set with good form. Gradually increase the weight over time as your strength improves without worrying about who’s watching. If your ego does get the best of you, at least use a good spotter!
How to Include Bench Press in Weekly Training
Benching 1-2 times per week can be highly effective for CrossFit athletes. If you’re not sure how you can reap the benefits of benching regularly, here are some ways that you can incorporate this exercise into your training cycle.
Accessory work – Accessories are exercises that compliment or have positive transfer to those that are more regularly found in our training. Accessory work can be performed either at the beginning or at the end of a training session, but when choosing when to do them, consider what your goals are. Your best strength development probably is not going to happen at the end of a rigorous training session, so if that’s your main goal, it’s better to do bench as a strength part. Otherwise, avoid excessive weight or volume when you are already fatigued.
WODs – You can bench more often by doing more WODs that feature it. The benefit of this is that you can do a few sets to prepare for your workout and you also get to practice this exercise in the context of a fast pace, high intensity workout. In terms of weight, be conservative. Once the fatigue hits, muscle failure becomes an all too real possibility. Here are two of the most well-known CrossFit workouts to try:
Deadlift (1½ bodyweight)
Bench Press (bodyweight)
Clean (¾ bodyweight)
Max Unbroken Bench Press (bodyweight)
Max Unbroken Pull-Ups
In conclusion, bench press is a valuable tool in a CrossFit athlete’s arsenal. It offers a range of benefits, from improved upper body strength and balance to enhanced performance in various CrossFit movements.
By understanding the proper techniques, avoiding common mistakes, and integrating bench press into your training routine, you can take your CrossFit journey to the next level and unlock new potential in your fitness journey. So don’t underestimate the bench press; give it a try and experience the benefits for yourself.
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