I used to think the bench press lockout was something raw lifters didn’t need to train. If you lifted raw and you missed at lockout, it was because you messed up something in your setup. Or so I thought.
While the geared lifters of the late 90’s and early 2000’s were preaching nothing but triceps to build the bench, I was convinced of the opposite: strong pecs and shoulders plus a hefty dose of leg drive was all you needed for a big raw bench. Triceps were just an afterthought for flexing after you hit a new PR.
I started to change my mind when I started seeing accomplished raw lifters missing at lockout. And the better I got at the bottom and midrange of my bench, the more lifts started to get challenging at lockout. Sticking points tend to migrate over time as your strengths and weaknesses change, so I had to focus on something I thought I’d never do in a million years: train my bench press lockout.
Here are six things that have helped me and my lifters improve that last pesky bit of the bench press:
1. FLARE YOUR ELBOWS ON THE WAY UP
Every powerlifter “unlearns” the bodybuilding-style bench by learning to tuck their elbows on the way down. But if you keep your elbows tucked on the way up too, you’re cheating yourself. Learn to flare your elbows out at the right time on the way up to demolish your sticking points.
I coach most lifters to tuck the elbows in at about 45 degrees on the way down. This varies from lifter to lifter; what really matters is that the elbows stay under the bar when the bar hits your chest, sternum or belly. Longer-armed lifters need to tuck more, shorter-armed lifters (like me) can tuck less. On the way up, keep the elbows tucked til you’re about a third of the way up, then starting flaring your elbows out to get the bar moving back over your shoulders. Some cues I like for this:
- Throw the bar back at your spotter
- Pull the bar apart (more on this later)
- Pinkies out
2. PULL THE BAR APART
I’ve often used the cues “bend the bar in half” or “pull the bar apart” on the way down as a way to tighten the upper back, but turns out this is a kickass cue on the way UP too. You see, the triceps extend the elbows (i.e. straighten your arms), and “pulling the bar apart” gets the elbows straighter faster. It kicks your triceps into overdrive to help plow through to lockout.
I had this revelation at a Greg Nuckols seminar where he drew a nifty whiteboard chart to explain the physics, but his lovely wife Lyndsey created this even better graphic:
So if you’re stalling at lockout, try “pulling the bar apart” to keep things moving.
3. FALL AWAY FROM THE BAR
I spent a good portion of my coaching career telling lifters to keep their chest up to the bar. I shouted “go up and get it!” til I was blue in the face, trying desperately to prevent lifters from collapsing their arch as they pressed. This was well intentioned, but turns out one of the fastest ways to improve your bench press lockout is to actually fall away from the bar.
You mean you’ll actually bench BETTER is you lose your arch and let your shoulder blades come untucked? You mean do the exact OPPOSITE of what you recommended in your latest Technique Tuesday? Yup, if you do it right.
Once again, I learned this from Greg Nuckols. If you’re stalling at lockout, rather than trying to stay arched and press UP, just let your arch collapse and your shoulder blades protract. You’ll magically glide to lockout by moving yourself AWAY from the bar instead of moving the bar away from YOU. I didn’t believe it at first, but couldn’t believe how well it worked once I tried it. Watch me implement this exact technique when I stalled at lockout with this 400 pound press:
WARNING: only use this technique if:
- You’re VERY close to lockout (otherwise you risk hurting your shoulders)
- You don’t have any more reps to do (because you’ll be in a terrible position for the next rep)
4. OVERLOAD THE LOCKOUT INTELLIGENTLY
It makes sense to overload the bench press lockout with heavier weights to strengthen the triceps. But most people take it too far and only stroke the ego with ridiculously small ranges of motion. Sure, increasing your five-board press or 2-inch pin press might build stronger triceps, but it likely won’t carry over to your full range bench press.
In terms of direct lockout training, I’m a fan of movements that still involve a full range of motion, but unload the bottom portion of the press. That way, you can handle more weight at lockout but still practice the same technique and bar path as your competition bench. I’m talking stuff like:
- Reverse band bench
- SlingShot bench
- Bench vs. chains
All these movements still require you to touch your chest, but the load is significantly heavier at the top of the movement. And while they’re still effective, I’m less of a fan of:
- Floor presses
- Board presses
- Pin presses
The higher the boards and the pins, the less carryover they have.
5. DO MORE DIPS
Dips can be rough on your shoulders if you use lousy form, but if you’ve got the mobility/stability to do them, let ’em rip. Greg Robins and I have both reintroduced dips into our programs over the past few months and both our benches are trending upward.
The key for shoulder-friendly dips is to lean forward while still maintaining a “chest up” position. This will prevent your scaps from tilting forward and your shoulders from going into anterior glide (i.e. the same thing that happens when you pull your elbows too far behind your body during rows or push-ups). The more upright you are, the further your elbows go past your body and the more likely you are to piss off your shoulders.
Here’s Bonvec Strength athlete Noah cranking out some textbook dips (with a killer ‘stache to boot):
6. DO ELBOWS-OUT TRICEPS EXTENSIONS
Most people train triceps extensions with an elbows-tucked position. But much like the “pull the bar apart” cue mentioned earlier, a strong bench press lockout needs a strong elbow flare. You must train your triceps to do exactly that.
My favorite variation is the Tate Press. Doing these on an incline bench seems to be a bit more elbow friendly, but you can do them on a flat bench too:
You can also do cable and band pushdowns with the elbows out for a low-impact variation to get the blood pumping. Either way, dedicate some volume to elbows-out extensions for more complete triceps development.
BLAST YOUR BENCH PRESS LOCKOUT
Implement these six tips to make sure your bench press lockout is never an issue. If you enjoyed this info, make sure you check out the newest product from Cressey Sports Performance, CSP Innovations. It’s a collaboration of 11 webinars, including mine, “10 Things I’ve Learned About the Bench Press.” It’s on sale for $50 off until Sunday at midnight, so grab yours before the sale is over!
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