Getting Started: The Bench Press


The bench press is practically synonymous with resistance training. As you’d expect this results in a large emphasis on benching among newbie gym goers chasing a brag-worthy answer to that persistent question:

“How much can you bench?”

I’m going to tell you right now, don’t go hoping for a bigger bench overnight.  Bench pressing progresses slowly but it does so consistently if you do it right.  Build your pressing power without deficiencies and you’ll finally have a satisfying answer to the above question.

Starting with Push Ups

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Most people that I have met that are unable to perform a single push up think it makes sense to start with bench pressing light weight. The reasoning is usually that they can press a couple of dumbbells that are lighter than their entire body so it gives them a place to start. This method has some truth to it and isn’t inherently bad, however I prefer to make the push up easier and progress towards perfection with push ups before starting with external weights.

Let’s star with set up.  Push ups begin in what’s called the “high plank” position.  Your feet should be together, hands directly under your shoulders, and spine flat (neck too).  You should be able to assume this high plank position and hold it taught for at least one minute.  If you can’t hold the high plank for one solid minute then you may want to start with holding high planks for sets of 10-20 seconds until you can.

Next we have the lowering phase.  Keep your back flat and legs stiff while slowly bringing your chest towards the ground while keeping your elbows close to your sides.  Think of your body as a stiff wooden board and your arm, shoulder, and chest muscles are a jack controlling the ascent/descent of the board.

Stop lowering once your chest is within 2-3 inches of the ground.  Keeping your elbows by your sides forcefully contract your chest muscles and extend your elbows.  You should feel activation in the two prime movers of the push up: the chest muscles and the triceps.  You should return to the high plank position you began in.

To test yourself start with trying to complete 12 perfect push ups.  Don’t lie to yourself if they start to get sloppy, make them as clean as possible.  If you can complete 12 perfect push ups then you can proceed onto the bench press section.  If you cannot complete 12 perfect push ups try the following progression:

  • Take 50% of the amount of perfect push ups you could do, round down if needed.
    • Example: I could complete 9 push ups, then I use 4.
  • For 4 days complete 4-6 sets of perfect push ups of the number above, resting 3+ minutes between sets.
    • Example: I would then do 4-6 sets of 4 push ups for the next 4 workout days.
  • On your fifth workout day try to go for 12+ perfect push ups again.  If you hit 12 go onto the next section, if you don’t repeat this progression.

Approaching the Bench

Photo by Mandarina1997 – Wikimedia commons

Once you’ve established that you can accomplish at least 12 perfect push ups you are ready to get under the barbell.  Start by simple experimentation; lie on the bench and experiment with where you are comfortable unracking the bar from and do a few practice reps (2-4).  Typically people like to put their clavicles almost directly underneath the bar in the racked position but this may prove difficult for some, play around with it.

The next most important things to consider when setting up are the location of your feet, butt, and upper back.  Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground and assuming a wide stance, your butt and upper back should be making solid contact with the bench.  Don’t worry about emulating those crazy back arches you’ve seen on instagram, that’s not a beginner technique and should be developed under the supervision of an experienced trainer.

From this set up position put your arms straight out, letting your hands go past the bars (think of doing a zombie walk kind of look).  Note where your forearms line up with the bar, this tends to be a good marker for where you should put your index finger when gripping the bar.  Lower your hands to the bar and grip the bar.  Tighten your grip and shoulders before lifting the bar, you can do this by imagining that you are trying to bend the bar. Push the bar upwards to unpack it.

From this top position slowly lower the bar towards the bottom portion of your chest while keeping your elbows near your sides.  Notice that these instructions are very similar to the instructions for the lowering part of a pushup.  Let the bar make gentle contact with the bottom of your chest, don’t let it crash into your sternum! From here contract your chest muscles forcefully and extend your elbows to drive the bar upward.  You should feel the two prime movers of the bench press, the pectorals and triceps, being activated.

Once you have the basic movement pattern of the bench press established you’re ready to start moving some weight.  There are a lot of really good power lifting progressions for increasing your bench press but if you’re new to bench pressing (i.e. Your maximum bench press is less than 80% of your bodyweight) the best method tends to be simply increasing your exposure.  If you’re in this boat try the following protocol:

  • Bench Press 1-2 times a week with at least 1 day rest between sessions.
  • Bench Press for 2-3 warm up sets, and 3-4 working sets.
  • Working sets should have a simple progression like staying within 8-12 reps.
    • If you can do more than 12 reps, increase the weight.
    • If you can’t do at least 8 reps, decrease the weight.

Try this basic protocol and when you finally hit a wall with some heavy weight then move on to one of the more developed programs.  Such as the Brawn for Brains Big 3: Bench Press Progression.


Getting Started: The Deadlift

The deadlift is the most literal form of “lifting weight.”  You are simply taking a heavy weight from the ground, grasping it firmly, and picking it up.  Simple as that.  The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises for building raw strength, firing up your metabolism, and stimulating muscle growth. Additionally, it is one of the most effective exercises that newbies can learn to reinforce the importance of maintaining good form.

If all of this is true then why are so few beginner-intermediate lifters doing deadlifts? Well that’s because the deadlift has a bad reputation for hurting backs, but don’t worry because that reputation is undeserved.  The problem is that the deadlift is the lift that most people are able to start pulling some big weight with and, inevitably, the ego gets involved and they do more than they can safely.  It’s different with the squat and bench press, when things get too heavy you have the fear of that weight coming down on top of you to keep you in check.  The deadlift doesn’t stimulate that fear and so people are more likely to just keep pulling heavier and sacrifice good form in the process.

So with that said let’s start with what a good deadlift looks like.  For the purpose of this article we are going to focus primarily on the conventional barbell deadlift.  We will briefly go over how to change your approach for dumbbell, and kettlebell deadlifts towards the end.

Ego Warning

The deadlift is a very powerful exercise for very powerful people.  As I stated earlier, the deadlift is usually the first exercise that people can start to pull some large weight with.  As such, it can easily become an ego driven lift.

For the first few years of my deadlift practice I was infatuated with how much I was able to pull without prior training (I was able to hit 225 lbs for 6-9 reps within a month of learning how to deadlift). I wanted to push my deadlift as hard as I could.  Within a few months I was pulling 315 lbs for 3-6 reps regularly.  What amazing progress!

Unfortunately, my obsession with increasing the weight took priority over emphasizing a solid set up, and executing a good pull.  I pulled the weight with an extremely rounded back that I tried to keep in check with a weightlifting belt and attached the weight to my hands with the aid of lifting straps.  Eventually I hit a wall and couldn’t pass 315 pounds and even started to regress.  I stubborning kept pulling 315 pounds and eventually my back had had it. I was forced to spend the next few months without any heavy lifting and to be in pain any time I lifted my legs.

Needless to say, I learned my lesson and began to respect the deadlift.  I started over with a small 65 pounds and focused on pulling with solid mechanics instead of heavy weight.  I lost the weightlifting belt and the straps, making sure that I didn’t have any crutches to mask bad habits.  At the time of writing this it has been 2 years since my back injury and I recently pulled 455 pounds for 6 singles in under 10 minutes without the use of a belt or straps.  My back wasn’t even sore the following days.

Photos from the Jack Katz Memorial Strong Man Competition, Courtesy of stu_spivack

Set Up

Bar Setup

The deadlift begins with the weight resting on the floor, typically the bar is elevated by the weight plates.  If you’re not using any plates yet simply use something to elevate the bar 6-9 inches above the ground.  This can be done with yoga blocks, stacking plates up on either side to rest the bar on, some racks have low hooks for such occasions.

Foot Placement

Sink down like you’re going to go for a vertical jump but don’t jump.  Now stand up and note the position of your feet.  This is likely going to be your ideal deadlift foot arrangement.  I like this test because it allows people to discover the foot position they intuitively assume when trying to generate a large amount of power.

Approach the bar and position your feet such that half of your foot is in front of the bar and the other half behind.  Now you know your ideal foot placement and position.

Grip and Starting Position

In very general terms there are two set up techniques for getting into the starting position.

The first is the standing set up.  Start by positioning your feet underneath the bar.  Inhale sharply while pulling your shoulders back and contract your core tightly.  This will activate your back muscles and brace your spine.  Next, hinge at your hips to bring your torso down and grasp the bar, your hands should be positioned just outside your legs.  Once you have a firm grip on the bar pull your knees forward and bring your butt down, while positioning your shoulders directly over the bar.

The second is the bottoms-up set up.  Start by positioning your feet underneath the bar.  Reach down and grasp the bar firmly, your hands should be positioned just outside your legs.  Position your shoulders directly over the bar and take a deep inhale.  As you exhale imagine you are trying to bend the bar to wrap around your ankles and pull your back flat.  Remember to keep your shoulders over the bar.

The Pull

While the set up is the most important part of the deadlift, the pull is where the magic happens.

To start, you will need to remove the ‘slack’ from the bar.  From your set up position tighten your lats (imagine bending the bar around your ankles) and pull yourself down towards the ground.  If you pause and hold this position you should feel as though every muscle in your body is tight and braced, especially your back muscles.  Next, ‘break’ the bar from the ground by pushing with your legs, think as if you are trying to push the ground away from you.  Once the bar is at or above your knees drive your hips forward by contracting your glutes forcefully, imagine someone is about to kick you in the bum.

From here you should be in the top position.  To return to the bottom position lead with pushing your hips back and lower the weight along your thighs towards your knees.  When the weight is just about to your knees you can start bending the knees to complete the lowering portion of the exercise.  Alternatively, you can just drop the weight but you do miss out on the eccentric portion of the deadlift and risk becoming “That Guy” at your gym.

During the pull it is important to keep the weight close to your body.  Typically, when people are starting out they have this tendency to hold the bar 6-8 inches away from their body.  This causes unnecessary stress on the shoulders and is incorrect.  Try to keep the bar as close to your body as comfortably possible.

Using Dumbbells and/or Kettlebells 

You may not always have access to barbells, or you may be new at deadlifts and don’t want to start with a 45 lb barbell.  In any case, do not worry! Performing deadlifts with dumbbells and kettlebells is very similar to performing them with a barbell and just requires a small change in your set up.

For Dumbbells

Set up: Grab both of your dumbbells and assume a standing braced position.  Place your hands over your hips such that when you lower your weights they track down your thighs.  Pull your shoulders back and keep your elbows locked and arms straight throughout the movement.

Lowering: Pull your hips back and begin lowering the weight along your thighs.  When the weights reach your knees push your legs forward to complete the lowering process.  The weights do not need to touch the ground, go as low as comfortable before beginning the pull.

The Pull: From the bottom position make sure your shoulders are over the weights and your shoulders pulled back.  Start by pushing the ground away with your legs.  Once the dumbbells are at you knees thrust your hips forward to complete the pull.

For Kettlebells

Set up: Start with your feet in the starting position described previously.  Place the kettlebell between your feet.  Set up using one of the protocols described for the barbell deadlift.  The only difference is that you hands are between your legs instead of outside.

The Pull: Position your shoulders directly above the kettlebell and tighten your lats by trying to bend the handle.  Push the ground away with your legs until the body of the kettlebell is level with your knees. Next, thrust your hips forward to complete the pull (Guys, don’t thrust any sensitive equipment forcefully into the kettlebell).

Getting Started

You may notice that in the Squat and Bench Press sections of the “Getting Started” section there were a lot of mobilizations and introductory exercises, and these are not in the Deadlift section. The reason for this is that most people have the prerequisite mobility to accomplish a decent deadlift and there isn’t a need for an introductory exercise.  The deadlift is easily scaled to any weight that is needed.  The more important aspect of the deadlift is to focus on a good setup, a solid pull, and practice, practice, practice.

If you’re new at the deadlift then try to train it at 1-3x per week for 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps.  Start at a weight you’re comfortable with and stay there until you can perform at least 5 sets of 6 reps while maintaining a flat back throughout all reps.  Once you have the form down you can start to increase the weight incrementally, I suggest adding 5-10 lbs every time you can successfully complete 6 perfect reps in one set.  Keep the number of reps per set low as this will enable you to maintain a flat back much easier.