Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Staying Tight on the Bench

by Emily Socolinsky, SSC | April 02, 2019

The bench is a full-body lift and an excellent exercise to help people understand how to stabilize the shoulders. It is not just a lying-down press, although it looks like it might be – just lie down on the bench, grab the bar and start benching, right? Not when the weight gets heavy. Staying tight on the bench is not as simple as it looks, and the key is that you have to learn to use your upper back and shoulders. 

When I start with a new client, I always pull out my copy of Starting Strength and turn to page 164. Maybe you are familiar with this section of the book, the page with the picture of Santa Claus climbing up the chimney. As I start to explain the importance of the upper back, I show the picture of Santa. Because he is pushing against two opposite walls, Santa is able to stay tight while climbing up the chimney. As his back is pushing against one side of the chimney, his hands and feet are pushing against the other side. I explain that when we bench, we are sandwiched between the bar in our hands and our back against the bench – pushing against two opposing things. As we push the bar away from us, we simultaneously push ourselves down against the bench. The bar moves but the bench does not. This image of Santa chimneying and the explanation of pushing the bar and pushing the bench always gets the lifter to think more about the upper back and its role in the bench.

As my lifter is working to drive against the bench with her back, I ask her to try thinking about pinching someone’s fingers between her shoulder blades. This helps keep her chest up and her upper back even tighter on the bench. As she starts to bring the bar to her chest, I tell her to keep shoving her chest to the bar. “Bring the bar to your chest and bring your chest to the bar,” is the cue I give to my lifters to remind them to keep pushing their back hard against the bench.

Finally, as she moves through the set, the less shoulder movement, the better. If her shoulders start to move too much, she has lost tightness in her upper back and stability in the shoulders. This will lead to the bar getting farther and farther out of line, and possibly a missed rep. When teaching the bench to a new lifter, I tell her to be sure to reset her shoulder blades and push her chest up with each and every rep. Treat the reps as though they were all singles, with each rep getting its own set up. Ideally, she will not need to do this each time the more she practices the movement.

Remember that the goal is to never lose the upper back throughout your set. Just think of Santa Claus climbing up his chimney, and you won’t.

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