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Bench Press Variations

After my article on Benching with the Pecs, I got a follow-up question on a forum about pec activation, someone had mentioned looking for tips before and come across the old Vince Gironda bench press to the neck. This type of bench is often used by bodybuilders to ‘isolate’ the pecs. It’s also a great way to ruin your shoulders forever.

In any case, I wanted to do a brief piece on the different ‘styles’ of bench pressing that are most commonly used; my lovely assistant Sarah (who is apparently also IronMan, don’t tell anybody) will be demonstrating once again.

As it stands, the three major types of benching (I’m ignoring the method of bounce it off your chest while your partner does a deadlift and screams “It’s all you” as a type here) are

  • Bodybuilder (aka pectacular) bench pressing
  • A generic power bench
  • A geared powerlifting bench press (sort-of, I’ll explain this in Part 2)

Bodybuilder Style Bench Press

The bodybuilder style of bench pressing, as mentioned, is often used to ‘isolate’ the pecs more. It does this at the cost of rotator cuff health and, unless someone were using very light weights, I wouldn’t generally advocate it.

The key things to note is that the elbows are flared very high (essentially inline with the delts) with a fairly wide grip (the forearms should always be perpendicular to the bar) and the bar starts and finishes above the upper pec line. The original Gironda style bench was even more extreme than this, the bar was brought down to the neck. Great for pecs, awful for shoulders.

The version I’m showing is a bit more shoulder healthy but it takes excellent muscular control around the shoulder to avoid wrecking the rotator cuff. Honestly, outside of a female powerlifter I trained who was actually stronger with this style compared to generic power benching, I would be unlikely to ever teach this to someone. I’d be more inclined to use dumbbells for this style of bench as well.

Generic Power Bench Press

My default bench press style for most is the generic power bench press. This would be appropriate for raw bench pressing contests and, if you use the cues I discussed in Benching with the Pecs, hits the pecs nicely along with working the shoudlers and triceps more. It will also allow you to use more weight than the bodybuilder style which could mean more overall stress to the musculature.

You’ll note that the upper arm is roughly 45-60 degrees away from the torso (or 30-45 degrees down from the shoulders) and the grip is narrower on the bar, the bar is brought lower on the chest (about nipple level) at the bottom and is pushed back slightly so that it ends up over the upper pecs at the end (some advocate pushing the bar back over the face but this is usually a bit too extreme of a motion in my experience). There is often a bit of an elbow flare at the top to put the bar into the right position.

Geared Shirted Bench Press/Close Grip Bench Press

The following was contributed two members (Dan Montague and John Henry Brown) of my now defunct forums since what I had originally written was nonsense.

As far as the setup is concerned, JHB is right; the shoulders are pinched as tightly as they can be. We all know the support this provides for the shoulders, when dealing with a shirt pinched shoulders also tighten up the chest panel or neckline (depending on which you use to bench with) across the chest to provide more support at the start of the lift, and off of the chest.

We start with the bar over our pecs, and begin the movement by bringing the bar straight down. It will only go an inch or so, but this tightens up the neckline of the shirt and keeps it set (a lot of lifters have problems with the shirt moving during a press, this usually helps combat that). As soon as the shirt binds, we being to tuck the elbows.

Even though we all use a max-legal grip (index fingers covering the power rings), we tuck extremely hard. This is because we all use low necklines to bench with. When the neckline of a shirt is low, the bubble of support is also low. The only way to touch the bar on the stomach while keeping the elbows under it is to tuck, and to tuck violently. I will go as far as to say that a lot of the problems people have while benching in a shirt is that they don’t tuck nearly enough.

Along with tucking, as the bar is lowered towards the stomach, the “weight” in your arms gets closer to your feet and you can feel the bar want to dump. To combat this, we will roll our wrists back (a la Metal Militia). When the bar is an inch or so from touching our stomachs, we stop lowering the bar towards the feet, and just pull the elbows towards the floor and bring the bar straight down.

Again, in addition to not tucking enough, another problem shirted benchers have is that they try to keep lowering the bar towards their feet, and they end up dumping. If they would bring the bar to where the shirt really binds up and then just pull the bar straight down, they’d be fine. This goes along the same lines as trying to sit too far back when box squatting, instead of pushing back and finishing those last few inches by just squatting straight down with the knees out.

For those of us that choose to arch, bringing the bar straight down coupled with pushing the heels towards the floor and pushing the belly out makes touching fairly easy. I don’t know if it’s something in the water, but not a single lifter that has trained with us has ever had any issue with touching, or dumping. I think lifters have a tendency to make geared lifting a lot more difficult than it really is, or should be.

So, our hands are at the max width, our elbows are tucked as hard as they can be, the wrists are rolled back and the bar is somewhere around the belly-button (if you’re arching) or middle of the stomach. Here, the shirt is fully loaded around the collar and chest-plate and just needs to be released.

The problem a lot of people make here is that they want the shirt to do the work off of the chest, and when this happens it tends to cause one of two problems; 1) the bar speed is pitiful and they can’t finish the press or 2) they aren’t ready to accept the weight and they end up out of the groove or a bobble of the bar.

You want to think about scooping your elbows underneath the bar and throwing it over your chest (the same way coaches tell linemen to drive through other football players by exploding up with the elbows in).

The movement should be done as forcefully as possible, to take advantage of both the shirt and your own starting strength (assuming you have some from training without the shirt). This is also where you shove your heels or feet into the ground. Granted, leg drive is used through the entire lift, but you kind of “shove again” with the legs to get the bar going.

As the bar floats towards the chest, the elbows will flare and the wrists will straighten, and the bar will end up over the pecs, fully-locked out and the lift is completed. The shoulders are pinched the entire time and the traps are driven into the bench.

Summing Up the Bench Press Variations

As noted above, in most cases, I teach a generic power bench. It’d be a rare case that I’d teach the bodybuilder style bench (some of which is because I know how to get people to use the pecs on the generic power bench); I’d use DB’s for that style of pressing. Unless I were working with a heavy shirted powerlifter, I wouldn’t teach that style of bench although I do use close grip benches (which are similar to the shirted power bench but different enough to require a separate blog post) with a lot of people.

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7 thoughts on “Bench Press Variations

  1. When doing the generic power bench press you say to tuck your elbows at the bottom of the movement. Do you keep them tucked on the way up , or start flaring gradually until fully flared at the top

  2. Ben,

    The elbows will have to flare for the bar to end up in the right place (since I advocate a slight J curve pushing it back). IME, this tends to happen pretty automatically for most people.


  3. Didn’t know you trained Iron Man. It all makes so much sense now.

  4. Tony Stark is not Iron Man.

  5. “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.”

    -Tony Stark

  6. for the “pectacular”/gironda bench, what is the stress on the RC if you dont lower your elbows behind your body?

  7. I have done Power Bench style and do that only. However, recently I’ve hurt my right pec slightly. It wasn’t a big deal as I got back to benching 1 week later. However during the 1 week of thinking about what went wrong, and if I could even bench again with that injury…i started researching into more powerlifting style benchpress. I took note of the “external rotation” of the elbows for powerlifters like this guy

    I’ve always lowered it to my lower pec line, but then I incorporated the external rotation before I even lower the bar. I keep the external rotation of my elbows throughout the entire range of motion. I definitely felt less chest working, but I am unsure if this is even a stronger position. I heard from a few sources that raw benchers should just do the Power Bench style, and don’t worry about external rotation as long as you lower it to the lower pec line (which would put your elbows at about 45 degrees at the bottom position)

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