The squat and the bench press are at the top of the pecking order when people discuss powerlifting and strength training. But what role do they play in bodybuilding?
A plain title for an important issue, not just regarding squats and bench pressing in bodybuilding, but this training paradigm I’m writing about all the time as a whole. What kind of disturbs me is that people who train like I do seem to be on an unfavorable middle ground. On one side, you have the mainstream bodybuilding, whose goals generally equal to our own, both in terms of physique-oriented long-term goals and striving for balance, symmetry and aesthetics. Unfortunately, they train in a way that has been developed in response to growing fitness industry, and consequentially shaped by its goals and agendas. This is where the diverging begins, as our training is generally more frequent and intensity-oriented, as well as much more free-weight and compound-centric.
All of that makes it much closer to the realm of strength training and, to a lesser extent, powerlifting. And now we have problems – using the same exercises doesn’t imply utilizing them in the same manner, both form and routine programming-wise. Observing these differences and pointing out more favorable alternatives for bodybuilders on two exercises, the squat and the bench press, will present the core of this article.
The reason behind all this confusion is the simple fact that people who strength train and powerlift have completely different goals in mind. Don’t get me wrong, I like being strong and getting stronger, but I’d never resort to such an exercise form that would halve my ROM or decide to throw on a couple of pounds of fat just to get my poundages up. Strength is great, but for me, it’s more of the means than the end.
The question we’re asking ourselves here is, should you squat if your goals are bodybuilding oriented, and, if yes, in which form, how often and in which set-rep bracket.
The answer to the first part is an obvious yes, and I won’t waste time explaining why is that so. Suffice it to say, squats is a true bang-for-buck exercise which every injury- and pain-free trainee should have in his lower body day.
Next, what type of squat to use? First of all, what squats to we have in the first place? Let’s focus on the back squats part alone for now, and classify possible forms as Olympic high-bar, regular high-bar, regular low-bar and geared low-bar. The debate is usually between the middle two, with the strength training community strong favoring the low-bar squat as the only proper way of squatting (and safest, and most powerful, and a couple of other things they like to throw in). In my honest opinion, low-bar squat for bodybuilding purposes sucks, for the simple reason that you can’t hold the bar on your back long enough to get properly in the moderate rep range, let alone explore the (much needed) effects of high-rep squatting.
Due to this, it is my opinion that the a bodybuilding trainee should firstly be taught how to do high-bar squats. I’m mentioning this because every time someone asks for form guidelines on particular exercises, they tend to be told to read Starting Strength and watch Coach Rippetoe’s videos. Starting Strength is a terrific book which I have read more than a few times, but the squat Rippetoe advocates is the low-bar squat. He has his reasons for it, and they’re good ones – in the context of strength training transferring onto sports performance, including Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.
Training needs variety. In bodybuilding, this reflects as a variety of stances, tempo variances (e.g, adding pauses at the bottom of the lift, employing very slow negatives, continuous tension reps, etc.) and rep ranges, including, as mentioned, very high ones (not done in rest-paused style). And these don’t necessarily revolve around light weights – a strong bodybuilder squats well over 300 pounds for a set of 20. As far as I know, most people wouldn’t be able to hold the weight on their back long enough if such a set were attempted low-bar.
The other thing regarding low-bar squats is increased involvement of posterior chain. This is, of course, a consequence of having the bar lower on the back, but it also means that it’s possible to get a more powerful drive at the bottom of the lift, coming mostly from glutes. For one, this reduces quad involvement in the exercise. I’m not saying that squats should be a quad exercise, but it should at least be a proper quad-dominant one. Some people might not find this to be an issue, but if you’re hamstring-dominant as I am, you’ll need a lot of focus and practice to make your quads take their portion in the back squat, and low-bar squats make this nigh impossible.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that low-bar cuts depth. This is, again, a normal thing, since you literally can’t go as deep with the bar held lower on your back (unless you want to see how the bastard child of squat and good morning looks like). This isn’t so bad per se, as low-bar still allows you to break parallel with ease, but it still doesn’t allow you to go as deep as you might want to in some specific training applications (e.g, strengthening the VMO by emphasizing the deep, “out of the hole” portion of the squat).
Let’s just return briefly to our initial list and say a few words about the other two contenders, the Olympic high-bar and the geared low-bar squat. The thing you’ll see in videos of weightlifters doing Oly high-bar is that their torso stays upright, probably much more than yours can, regardless of how high you place the bar on your back. What prevents you from doing the same is flexibility, most likely that at the ankle (calves being too tight), but that’s only half the story. Weightlifters do these in weightlifting shoes, which have an elevated heel (around an inch, 3/4″ to 1-1/4″ in general). This, of course, reduces the necessary dorsiflexion, making it much easier to hit a deep squat while staying extremely upright. A similar effect can be attained by placing smaller weight plates under the heel. I, however, advise against this practice. Weightlifters do this because it reflects well onto their training, both from the fact that almost all of it is done in weightlifting shoes, and the depth and torso angle used this way resemble those necessary to perform the Olympic lifts. There is no need, in my opinion, for a regular trainee to risk his stability, form (shifting weight from the heel closer to the ball of the foot) and knee health. Regular high bar squat should satisfy both your need for depth and anterior chain dominance of the exercise while keeping everything as safe as possible.
Lastly, the geared low-bar squat is, like its name says, used by powerlifters who compete in federations that permit usage of assistance gear. This, in no way whatsoever, corresponds with goals and practice of a bodybuilding trainee. A powerlifter using this technique approaches a monolift, takes an extremely wide stance, puts the weight of a smaller personal vehicle on his back, and then goes only as deep as his federation deems necessary for the lift to be called good. In this entire process, the supportive gear generates tons of tension that can’t be replicated while lifting raw.
There are many squatting variations out there, with most of them being valuable in a bodybuilder’s training arsenal, but their form and performance are rarely subject to this much discussion as it is with the back squat – an example would be the front squat. Terrific exercise, where most of the form differences between bodybuilders and everyone else who does them come down to crossed vs. clean grip, which is hardly as relevant is the issue of low- vs. high-bar in back squats (I, personally, opt for the clean grip for a multitude of reasons, out of which I’d like to point out stronger, more stabile bar rack, especially when the exercise is done outside the low rep range).
Nobody doubts that a bodybuilder should bench press. People occasionally argue on whether or not the BP is overrated, in terms of risk/reward ratio (too many injuries occur, but that can be related to overwhelming popularity of the exercise), how natural and healthy prone pressing with scapulae pinched against a bench really is, to more philosophical (but not less worthy) discussions on how a bodybuilder aspiring to attain classical proportion should focus on building wide, powerful shoulders instead of breast-like pecs.
Yet again this middle ground problem of ours manifests itself in the simple question of how to bench press for bodybuilding purposes? Similarly as with squats, it’s dumb to say that bench press should be a chest exercise, just like overhead press isn’t just a shoulder exercise and chins can’t be a lat exercise. However, it would be equally wrong to say that you should bench for the sake of benching. Simply put, view the bench press as a major pressing compound, whose particular merit is the possibility to focus more on the chest than it is usually possible with other presses (this, of course, is a generalization – your chest development might thrive on bench press, but you might also find dips to be tons more effective and comfortable).
The difference in form is usually made between bodybuilding and powerlifting style of bench pressing. The former is more vague, and sometimes involves dubious practices such as putting feet off the floor or benching with your hips off the bench. On the other hand, powerlifting style bench pressing is more structured and varies less in practice.
The style I lean more onto is the powerlifting style, for the sole reason of being more injury-proof, easier on the shoulders and allowing overall better performance, both by enabling you to push more weight, as well as remain stabile and tight for reducing shoulder involvement in more bodybuilding oriented applications (wow, who would’ve guessed such sentences could be written on a fitness theme…).
That being said, powerlifting style is not perfectly suited due to the usual goal discrepancy. For one, powerlifting bench is here to deliver maximum weight, and because of this, they resort to a number of form modifications. The first and foremost is shortening the bar path as much as possible. There are several practices here that I don’t like for bodybuilding purposes. The first is the often exaggerated arch in the lower back. You should have an arch in your lower back while bench pressing; this is a normal consequence of your feet being placed firmly on the ground and your upper back tight on the bench, but this arch should be slight – if someone decides to limbo under you, he most definitely shouldn’t be able to pass, unless he’s a midget of some sort. You might think I’m joking, but there are lots of examples on YouTube of people arching so much that only the top of their scapulae and the bottom of their glutes are on the bench. This is a dangerous practice, stay away from it.
On the other hand, the bodybuilding side has a practice that is even more dangerous (and, truth be told, plainly stupid). In an attempt to isolate their pecs more, they put their feet on the bench. The idea is probably that decreased leg drive (or, in this case, the total lack of it) means that all the work has to be done by your upper body. The effect you get tends to be quite opposite. The single prerequisite for bench pressing is being stabile on the bench. Without it, all you can attempt to do are light weights that somehow won’t trip you over, and these will most likely be done with poor form since maintaining upper back tightness is difficult if it is your only firm spot on the bench.
Next important thing here is the bar pathway, which is closely associated with the grip you take on the bar, which again relates to the angle your upper arms make with your torso. Not all bodybuilders bench this way, but a lot of instructional videos show them with upper arms almost perpendicular to their torso. This means that the bar comes down higher on the chest, well above the nipple. If you’re going to go as deep as you most likely should be going (more on that in the next section), this angle is dangerous, since having your upper arms abducted as much greatly increases the stress on the shoulder once it goes into hyperextension (i.e, when you break parallel).
On the other hand, powerlifters press with elbows tucked in, indicating an angle equal to or lesser than 45° between the humerus and the torso. This option is definitely much safer on the shoulders, but it tends to shift the emphasis of the lift from the chest onto triceps (as it approaches the form of close-grip bench press), which definitely suits the powerlifters who compete geared (the shirt helps to drive the bar off the chest and through the mid-point, leaving the bulk of the lifter’s job for the lockout part).
Before we give our final opinion on proper bodybuilding bench press form, let’s discuss the last interesting part of it, and that’s benching depth. Should you bench to your chest? Generally, yes. Presuming you’re using proper grip width and lower the bar sufficiently low on the chest, your shoulders should be safe in this mild hyperextension since they won’t be nowhere near extreme abduction we talked about earlier. This bottom part is also the one at which your chest stretches the most, meaning it’s also the part where it gets the most work. This is very important to consider if you’re shoulder/triceps dominant as I am. However, there are instances where chest level might be too deep, and those where it might not be deep enough. In these cases, it’s perfectly fine to stop at a point which you feel most comfortable at (mostly with incline BP-ing), or resort to dumbbells to get extra stretch (with hip presses).
So, the final verdict on benching form for bodybuilders goes like this: be tight on the bench, plant your feet firmly on the floor, vary leg drive depending on the rep range you’re working in (more if higher 1RM percentage is used), grip the bar in such a way that your upper arms form a 45° angle with the torso, and lower the bar to the chest somewhere around nipple line (this varies greatly depending on your arm length and the shape of your torso). This should keep your safe and stable on the bench, while allowing your to play around with grips and intensities, which is, again necessary for finding the sweet spot which works the best for you.