Bench Pressing 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. The top and bottom positions of this style are shown with the top and bottom graphics respectively.

Bodybuilder bench top

Top position of the pectacular bench press

Bodybuilder bench botom

Bottom position of the pectacular bench press

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. The top and bottom position of the movements are shown below. While the top position looks superficially like the top of the bodybuilder bench, the bar position starts a bit lower and the grip is narrower (to accommodate the tuck at the bottom).

Generic power top

Generic power bench top position

Generic power bottom

Generic power bench bottom position.

Geared shirted bench press /close grip bench press

Note: What I wrote below isn’t exactly consistent with modern shirted benching, serves me right for trying to write outside of my personal experience. In Shirted Benching – A Guest Article by Dan Montague, I’ll let someone who knows his stuff explain what I got wrong.

Finally is a heavy shirted power bench press, as used by competition powerlifters, I’d note that the bottom position is pretty much identical to a close grip bench press although the tuck may not be quite as extreme. I don’t claim to have tons of experience teaching or using this, I have only worked with one shirted PL and she was only using a light Inzer shirt; she still used a tuck and flare bench style.

In any case, the bar is typically brought lower on the chest (some federations allow benching to the belly) and there is often a pronounced elbow flare as the bar comes up, you’ll note that a much narrower grip is used here. Some (Metal Militia) are proponents of using an S-curve and pushing the bar back; others (Louie Simmons) advocate pushing straight up. At least he used to.

Clearly some very strong men have made both work. Again, only use this if you’re doing shirted bench pressing and, if that’s the case, get yourself a good coach who knows what he’s doing and can teach you how to use the shirt.

I’d note that the geared power bench is not the best movement for training the pecs in the first place, it’s simply the best technique for maximizing the shirt and moving the most weight. Shirts do most of the work out of the bottom so pecs just aren’t that crucial here. And while they contribute a bit to the start, the tucked elbow position serves to basically remove the pecs from the movement. Top and bottom positions appear below.

Geared bench top

Geared bench top

Geared bench bottom

Geared bench bottom (essentially)

Summing up

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.