Every gym has "the bad bench."
How many times have you faulted on a chest press because of these? Every gym has that one bench that’s either way too high for anyone to get out the J cups or so low that you have to do a half rep to unrack.
It’s fair to say that if you’ve been to a few gyms in your lifetime you’ve encountered this bench press before. So what makes that “bad” bench suck so much? And how do you find the right height?
The Individuality of Bench Rack Setups
The issue with these bad benches is that they are not adjustable to fit your individual anatomy. This bench press might be ideal for shorter or taller lifters, but not for you.
Why is that? The main reason is that the J cups do not move up and down to accommodate for your specific arm length. Without the ability to adjust the height of the bar, you can end up with an awkward unrackIng the worse case it can throw off your setup completely.
Proper Bench Setup
What does a proper setup look like on a bench press and how does the bench you are using affect it?
The correct bench setup is one in which your scapulas are fully retracted and depressed. This means that your shoulder blades are fully pulled back (like you’re holding a pencil in between them) and pulled down towards your feet (making your neck as long as possible). This position ensures that your shoulders are neutral throughout the entire rep instead of internally rotated at the bottom position as most flat back benchers are.
See Also: Rack Heights Explained with General Manager Alex Gaynor
Having your shoulders neutral is extremely important in being as efficient as possible when it comes to benching. Lastly, this scapular retraction and depression also places your pecs in a position in which they can optimally contract to help get that bar moving off your chest. Think about the position of your chest on cable/db flies where you are sticking your chest out. How does the bench equipment affect this set up?
The worst-case scenario is a bench press that is at a fixed height. You will either be forced to protract your scapula in an effort to unrack a bar that is too high, or waste energy unracking a bar that is too low.
The perfect rack height is one that with full scapular retraction and depression you are able to lock out your elbows to get the bar just ever so slightly off the rack. This ensures the most efficient unrack height possible. This height is highly individualized and depends on the lifter’s height and individual arm length.
How to Avoid a Bad Rack
How do you avoid this bad unrack happening to you on your next bench session? The easy answer is to go to a gym that has adjustable benches and/or combo racks (you know, like Socal Powerlifting with its 10 beautiful combo racks). This ensures a perfect bench setup every time.
But, if you don’t have access to fully adjustable benches or combo racks you can try using the power racks most commonly used to squat. Although it’s not perfect, this setup allows at least some individualization of unracking height.
A less common but equally important part of benching is the height of the bench itself.
Most commercial gym benches are too low in comparison to the regulation height of 16.5” to 17.7” for powerlifting. This does not allow for proper leg drive or set up, as it places your hips too low. To raise it closer to regulation height, place a 45lb plate under the bench (as long as it is not a fixed bench press). With proper bench height and adjustable j cups, you have the best chance of a successful lift.
Conclusion: The Key to Perfect Rack Height is Good Equipment
At the end of the day, if you are trying to maximize your bench press you need equipment that supports your goals. If possible, modifying your rack height to your individual needs can help you ensure a better lift. You can also switch to a power rack with adjustable j cups. In the most drastic cases, you can switch your commercial gym for a powerlifting gym with adjustable benches.