This article will provide six methods that will assist in developing your bottom end strength for bench press. To understand the concepts of ‘bottom-end’ strength we must first discuss how coaches analyze movement patterns and prescribe ‘fixes’ for potential issues.
In powerlifting it’s common to diagnose movement deficiencies based on specific areas within a range of motion, segmenting the lift into ‘bottom-end’, ‘mid-range’, or ‘top-end’ ranges. Segmenting the movement into these ranges is an effective way to understand movement deficiencies and improve technique. By focusing on only one portion of the lift, the movement is simplified and the issue requiring a ‘fix’ becomes exaggerated. In other words, an athlete can train understanding that the focus for the day is “X”, and his or her attention is single-mindedly on the method prescribed to fix that issue. To be clear, I believe a holistic view of the movement should be prioritized, i.e. knowing how to execute the entire movement from set-up to execution and understanding how being compromised in one aspect of the lift may affect another. However, deconstructing movements in the manner described above provides a framework to coach technical improvements.
An issue within a particular range of motion can be identified based on two primary reasons.
First, an issue may be present if a lack of force production is evident. For example, if there is a noticeable difference in bar speed that is characterized by a deceleration – typically existing within the concentric range of motion. This is called a 'sticking point'.
Second, a movement deficiency or issue can be identified under the umbrella of ‘technique breakdown’, which is the inability of an athlete to maintain optimal form and position.
The latter reason is more critical since there is risk of injury, especially over time, if a movement pattern is not corrected to represent an optimal position. In addition to the risk of injury, not maintaining optimal form and position will impact an athlete’s ability to execute the movement at top loads. Positional errors typically involve an imbalance of muscle recruitment or synchronization, i.e. a weakness or lack of coordination of one muscle over another.
Until we address these issues we are not optimizing our strength.
It’s important to recognize that there is no singular definition of what’s considered an ‘optimal movement pattern’ for all body types. Certainly, we must admit that various athletes are built with various limb lengths and joint angles, and such biological limitations will create an array of possible movement patterns – all of which may be considered ‘optimal’ within the context. A clear example of this can be recognized at the top levels of sport where two individuals at their ‘peak performance’ display two different styles of technique for the same movement.
With that said, however, we can certainly identify universal aspects around movement that have been discussed both in practice and in the literature that are common across varying body types. For example, regardless of an athlete’s limb lengths and joint angles, it’s generally believed that knees caving inward on a squat is not ideal. While athletes might still be able to lift maximally with their knees caving, evidence suggests that this sort of movement pattern increases the amount of lateral force at the level of the joint, which creates higher potential for injury.
My point here is that when you decide to diagnose an issue and implement a fix, do so by recognizing that technique exists within a context of biological limitations, but also understand that there are likely some common technical elements across all body types that are considered more effective than others. This article does not speak to the nuances of individual differences, but rather addresses how to correct movement patterns based on some of the most agreed upon principles for optimizing technique across most body types
(Of course it would be impossible to write an article that speaks solely to one’s biological limitations without knowing an athlete's direct context).
Some of the most agreed upon movement deficiencies at the bottom end of a bench press are as follows. Know that there might be other diagnostic ways to determine whether you have a bottom-end movement deficiency; however, I am only suggesting some of the most common and easily identifiable.
• Athletes who lack precision in their touch point. For example, athletes who bring the bar down and touch their chest in different spots each rep, or lack consistently as the weights get heavier or as they experience fatigue. Athletes who experience this issue will sometimes touch the bar in the right position, but then sometimes higher or lower than that position; and when asked, might not even know when they are ‘out of groove’ or touching on point.
• Athletes who get ‘crushed’ on their chest. For example, athletes who unnecessarily lose tightness or tension as the bar descends toward the chest. Most often, losing tightness or tension looks like the bar dropping rapidly toward the chest after a certain range of motion, or without intending, the bar begins to sink deep into their chest while trying to execute a competition pause. In the latter case, this might look like the athlete is ‘resting’ the bar on their chest – a passive versus active execution of the pause.
• Athletes who begin their press and are unable to replicate the eccentric trajectory of the bar. An ideal bar path is pushing the bar up in the exact trajectory as it’s brought down. What this issue typically looks like is an athlete pushing the bar too far forward off the chest and getting ‘caught over the stomach’ – in essence, not replicating the eccentric groove. At first glance, this might look like a mid range issue because an athlete who presses over their stomach typically fails in the transition from mid-range to lock-out. However, this issue is caused by not being in the right groove directly off the chest. It's also important to note this issue will more negatively effect athletes who have an angled bar path than those who have a vertical bar path. Those who have an angled bar path rely more on the groove of the bar to successfully complete the lift and have less margin of error for deviations of the bar path throughout the range of motion.
• Athletes who cannot maintain their elbow position in relation to the bar. It is a commonly held assumption that when the bar is paused on an athlete’s chest that their elbows should either be directly stacked underneath the bar or in front. Again, I’m positioning a ‘range’ for what is considered optimal based on limb lengths, grip, etc., but what is not considered optimal is having the elbows behind the bar. We must be careful of how we categorize this issue because it might be caused by a poor set-up, and not strength or technique off the chest. The distinction is as follows: if the bar descends to the chest and the elbows are already behind the bar then it is likely an issue with setting-up the bench before or during the un-racking. But, if the elbows are in an optimal position as the bar is being brought down, and only shift back behind the bar after the press is initiated, then it can likely be categorized as a bottom-end issue.
• Athletes who consistently fail top loads either on their chest or within inches of attempting to press the weight. Typically, athletes who experience this sort of issue don’t have the ability to ‘grind through’ this position. What this tends to look like in practice is an athlete who appears to have no issue pressing the weight for a particular number of reps, but then all of a sudden cannot budge the weight off their chest once they hit their fatigue limit. It might also look like an athlete who performs a certain intensity with speed for one set, and with only a micro increase in bar load, causes a failed rep that otherwise looked like it would have been doable based on the previous set.
We must pause for a moment and acknowledge that there might be an array of causes for any single movement deficiency. Most often, it is not a singular cause and we must work to implement a number of fixes over a long period of time to see progress. Already reading my points above, I can think of athletes I’ve coached that have had one of these issues due to lack of motor control, while the same issue for another athlete was due to a legitimate strength deficit. Again, “optimal technique” is hard to define, and as such so is prescribing “fixes” to allow for optimal technique to be realized. The five exercises below should be considered within your own individual context of why these issues might manifest, and at the same time, thinking about the best possible way to implement corrections to technique.