Bench Press for the Tactical Athlete


By Mike Sanders, O2X Strength and Conditioning Specialist, MAEd, CSCS

I’ve worked in athletic and tactical weight rooms for a large part of my life.  As you can imagine, I’ve been around a lot of people, and with that, have had countless conversations with people as they train.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve had someone ask me, “How much do you bench?”  I’d be a millionaire. 

Ah, the bench press…it’s hard to know exactly why, but it seems that the bench press is the sacred exercise that somehow separates the lions from the lambs, and is a measuring stick of the worthiness of all who live and train within the iron kingdom.  The truth is, bench press is a great exercise, but it’s not the end all be all of human strength prowess.  So, does it have a place in training tactical athletes?  Well, yes and no, and it depends.  Let me explain.  

Preparing to Operate in your Environment

Before we get too far, I’d like to explain how I approach human performance.  I believe that a tactical human performance (HP) specialist (and a strength and conditioning coach) has a responsibility to create programming that is focused on preparing individuals to be able to move effectively, efficiently, and safely in their work environment.  In other words, all tactical athletes prepare to operate well within their area of responsibility.  For example, firefighters do firefighting things, and those things are specific to firefighting.  When firefighters do their job, they are moving.  Therefore, an HP specialist working with firefighters should be preparing them for the environment of saving lives and property, and with that, an exercise is incorporated into their training program only if it’s going to help them move effectively, efficiently, and safely.  

What does that have to do with bench press?  Let’s begin peeling back this onion by discussing the muscles that are targeted.  The bench press is considered a pushing exercise in which the individual is lying in a horizontal position and pressing in a vertical trajectory.  Generally speaking, this stresses and trains the pectoral muscles in the chest, the deltoid muscles in the shoulder, and the triceps muscle on the back of the arm.  Of course, it should be noted that the angle of the bench and the grip an individual uses always changes how that stress is distributed through those structures, but that’s for a different time.  For now, just know that the aforementioned structures are the prime movers that are stressed during the bench press.  Other supporting muscles include the muscles of your back, your forearms, rotator cuff, and even your hamstrings and glutes.    

Generally speaking, the muscles in the human body are constantly doing one of two things: they are either yielding to outside force, usually referred to as the eccentric or negative phase, or overcoming force, also known as the concentric or positive phase.  In order to do so, a healthy, optimized body will know how to produce the correct amount of force and in the right direction that is optimal for completing the lift.  And that gets back to the point I made about movement.  If the environment you are preparing to work in requires pushing movements, then an exercise that trains those muscles to do that work is something you should be doing.  And that is where the bench press fits in.  All tactical athletes need to possess the ability to (overcome) and absorb (yield) to forces through pushing.  A couple examples include pushing a ladder against a building (overcoming) and catching yourself when you fall forward during a misstep (absorbing).  Hopefully that helps you understand a little about why you might bench press.  Now, let’s talk a bit about how to bench press.     

Steps to a Proper Bench Press

The proper form of a bench press is as follows:
  1. Line up the bench and the stand/rack so that you are able to safely retrieve and replace the bar to and from the stand/rack.
    1. Make sure you’re positioned to get the bar off the rack without too much effort (save your energy for where it counts, lifting the weight).  
    2. Also be sure to have enough room to allow the bar to descend and ascend without hitting the pins on the stand/rack.  
    3. A good rule of thumb is to line your body at eye level or forehead level to ensure the best placement.
  2. Lie down in a supine position on a bench that is designed for physical training.
    1. Keep your feet flat on the floor.  That means toes and heels are digging into the ground for stability and added ability to create force.
    2. Keep your back tight and slightly arched.
  3. Place your hands on the bar with thumbs securely around the bar.  The width that you choose will dictate how the stress is distributed across your musculoskeletal structures.  Nevertheless, generally speaking, place your hands around or inside the rings on the bar.  
    1. Grip the bar tightly and with the intention of crushing it.  
    2. Keep your wrists locked and straight to enable more force getting transferred into the bar.
  4. Move the bar off the stand/rack by slightly elevating your shoulders by pushing your scapula into the bench.
  5. Take a deep breath and brace.  Think of the trapped air in your thoracic cavity as the air trapped in the tire of a fire engine.  It’s extremely strong and able to hold up the weight of the truck because the air is trapped in the tire.  In other words, trap air inside your core by drinking in air and pushing it against your abdominal wall and spine.
  6. Hold that air as you descend.
  7. Keep your elbows tucked in during the descent so that they are at about a 45 degree angle from your torso.
  8. Descend so that the bar hits you at about nipple level.  Do not bounce the bar off your chest.
  9. Once the bar touches your chest, drive it back up to the extended position.  The bar trajectory should move up and back slightly.  Think about following an upside down “J” as the trajectory.
  10. As you drive up, make sure to keep your feet flat on the ground, butt on the bench, and back slightly arched.
  11. Be sure to let some of your air out as you get past the sticking point (hardest part of the upward phase).
  12. If you have more reps, repeat.  If not, lift your shoulders slightly by pushing your scapula into the bench and rack it.  

Now you have the why and the how. That leaves one more topic I’d like to cover about the bench press.  There are plenty of other exercises that you can use to develop the ability to push.  The standing overhead press, push press, push-ups, DB press, etc. are just a few examples.  

Personally, I like exercises like the standing overhead press and push press for tactical athletes because the movements closer mimic what you do in the environment you’re working in.  These lifts are performed on your feet, and for the most part, that is where you work and fight from.  Pretty much everything a tactical athlete does includes pushing force into the ground.  Standing overhead presses and push press creates the ability to push force into the ground effectively, efficiently, and safely.  Yes, the trajectory and angle you use changes slightly between them and the bench press, but we’re not body builders, we’re tactical athletes and we’re training to increase our physical potential in the work environment. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prescribe bench press for a tactical athlete, but if I had to choose in order of importance, I’m going with the standing overhead press or push press because I believe they are more functionally important.   

Does the bench press really deserve its iconic popularity in the iron kingdom?  Probably not, but I hope this article helps shed a little light on the bench press and why and how to use it.  So now, get to work and prepare yourself to move effectively, efficiently, and safely in your work environment.  

Thanks for all you do.  Happy training.