Strengthen Upper Body with Free Weights

The bench press on a pin-loaded or hydraulic machine is a good exercise for the pectoral muscles. It is suitable for a wide range of people – people inexperienced in resistance training, people working by themselves, people doing circuits, those recovering from injuries, or people in a hurry to get through a workout.

Machines are inherently safe, as long as the user is trained and follows basic safety principles. Most bench press machines have some way of varying the resistance you push against as you perform the exercise.

Some have a long lever, some have a curved cam and some use the principles of liquid or gas flowing through an opening. The common characteristic of all machine bench-press stations is that you are fixed into position, and your range and direction of movement are fixed.

The consequence of this is that your body will quickly adapt to the exercise, and no matter how many bench presses you do or how heavy you push the weights, you’ll notice a diminishing rate of increase in strength, endurance, and muscle size.

This is called the principle of specificity. Your body reorganizes itself (gets fitter) to meet the specific demands placed on it, and no more. For example we’ve noticed that if we do lots of bench press on one machine, and then use another machine, it takes me several sessions to get used to the new machine.

This is a problem if you are exercising for general strength. You may want to keep your upper body strength up so you can help a mate put up the frame to their pergola without disgracing or damaging yourself. Or you may decide to move the furniture around and you want to be able to push that sofa into its new position.

If you’ve been using a machine bench press, you may find that that’s all you’re good at – pushing the weights around. Keep in mind that circuit training and working with machines are targeting general healthy fitness, not fitness for performance.

If you want more general strength gains, then you need to move over to the free weights area of your gym.

There are a few extra rules you must follow when using free weights:

  • Never work out alone – get a mate there to “spot” you.
  • Always put collars on the bar after you put the weights on the bar, so the weights won’t slide around, unbalance you, and cause strain.
  • Don’t lift more weight than the connective tissues of your body can support. Your muscles can quickly learn to exert lots of force, but your tendons and ligaments take time to toughen up. If you are sore after a workout, then you’ve pushed too hard too soon and you’ve created microscopic tears inside your muscles.
  • Make sure you and your spotter understand exactly what you’re going to do during the exercise, so you don’t disrupt each other or take each other by surprise.
  • Get the gym supervisor to go through the exercise with you and your spotter before you try it.

Start by setting up the bar on the stands with the correct amount of weight and the collars. Sit on the far end of the bench with your back to the bar. Your spotter stands facing the bar about 150mm from the top of the bench, at the center of the racks holding the bar.

Lie back and then position yourself so your eyes are level with the front of the racks supporting the bar. This means that when you press the bar to and from your chest it will move up and down in front of the racks without hitting the racks.

Position your hands on the bar so they are evenly spaced from the center of the bar, and shoulder-width or wider. A wide grip emphasizes the pectoral muscles across your chest, and a narrow grip emphasizes the tricep muscles on the back of your upper arms.

Your spotter should take a grip on the bar near the center of the bar, and on the command “OK”, help you lift the bar up and off the racks. The spotter lets go and remains ready to help you if you need it.

Keep your body in firm contact with the bench all the time, being especially careful not to let your back arch or your head lift off the bench.

Do this exercise slowly. You’re not in a circuit trying to get your heart rate up or “burn out” your muscles. Slow and steady will minimize the errors in technique and maximize the fitness gains.

After your last repetition (“rep”), signal to your spotter that you are going to “hook the bar back” on to the racks. Your spotter should then help you guide the bar back safely on to the racks (called “racking the bar”). Don’t let go of the bar until your spotter tells you that the bar is safely racked.

Keep the weights really light for the first 5 to 10 goes at the free weights bench press, no matter how many thousands of machine bench presses you’ve done. It will take you a little time to get the feel for the balance and coordination involved in working with free weights.

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