Don’t Skip Leg Drive
“Bench is all upper body bro,” said literally every brodude lifter at your commercial gym. Of course, any powerlifter worth their salt knows that’s not true.
A properly executed bench press involves total body tension that aids in the lift. While the triceps and chest are still the primary movers, they’re nothing without the back and legs stabilizing your base. And the key component to bringing it all together?
Leg Drive: Explained
Leg drive in the bench press is the act of using your legs to push your back into the bench itself. This allows for maximal tension to be applied across your body which in turn results in maximal weight being lifted.
How does good leg drive help your bench press? Leg drive in the bench press will help push your traps back and onto the bench. This allows for greater stability when handling heavy weights as well as helping keep thoracic extension on the bench press. A thoracic extension isn’t directly created through the leg drive, but it is accentuated through it.
As you pinch your shoulder blades back and down you’ll realize that without using your legs to help push you back into the bench, it is really hard to keep your shoulders down. If the shoulders rise up (as in a shrugging motion) you’ll end up in an internally rotated position, which is not only inefficient but can be dangerous under heavy load.
The other benefit of having shoulder retraction and depression (keeping your shoulders pinched back and down) is that it allows your pecs to be optimally loaded in the most efficient position against the barbell. All of this is greatly accentuated by proper leg drive.
Setting up the Bench
Proper leg drive will help reinforce a proper bench set-up. In order to get the most out of your leg drive, you first need to have a proper bench set up.
A proper bench set up is one that has the shoulder blades pinched together and down (as mentioned earlier), a bench grip that allows the wrist and elbows to be stacked on top of each other at the bottom (this grip width is highly individualized), and extension of the upper/mid-back (thoracic extension).
Once you have all of these components down you’ll be able to get the most out of your leg drive. You’ll set up your leg drive by setting your feet slightly outside of hip width, knees and ankles as stacked on top of each other as possible and flat feet on the ground.
Now push through your big toe and drive your feet into the ground, as if trying to do a leg extension. Doing this while pushing yourself back and into the bench helps reinforce the proper setup mentioned above. Note that ideally, you want to maintain the same amount of tension from beginning to end of the rep. Your foot position can stay wherever you have the most leverage, as long as they stay flat on the ground.
How to not Mess it up
The most common mistake I see on leg drive is lifters tucking their feet way behind their knees. This foot placement forces a ton of lower back extension which can lead to lower back cramps during a hard rep. This could also lead to inefficient leg drive in which the hips shoot up off the bench. The latter will give you automatic red lights in every federation disqualifying your bench press attempt.
The second most common mistake I see powerlifters make is trying to explode with your leg drive from the bottom instead of keeping constant tension. This can lead to the hips shooting up or not allowing for maximal tension on the descent. This will make every rep harder to replicate and therefore harder to perfect in training. For a very efficient bench press, you want a replicable set up that can be practiced.
Now Make it a Habit
Now that you have an idea of what proper leg drive looks like and how it can benefit your bench press you’ll have to replicate it in training until it becomes muscle memory. I would suggest recording your bench sets from multiple angles and following the guidelines described above. Through lots of methodical repetition and adjustments, you’ll be able to master the leg drive on the bench press.