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Bench Press Progression – Part 2 in a Series on Exercise Progressions

bench press progressionPause Bench Press Progression – In the last installment of this article series, we talked about the importance of exercise progressions and the front squat progression we utilize with our middle school and high school athletes.  It can be found at https://iyca.org/front-squat-progression.  In this installment we will be discussing the importance of the Pause Bench Press progression.  We will also give you the progression plan we implement with our athletes and our recommendations for athletes in  7th and 8th grade and high school.  In the last portion of this article, we will discuss some problems or issues that may occur when prescribing this exercise and the reasoning behind our use of this particular exercise for our program.  

When most people talk about strength training, weightlifting, powerlifting, or bodybuilding, the bench press is probably most commonly mentioned exercise, and probably the most commonly performed exercise.  Go to any gym, health club, fitness center, box, or whatever the facility is, and there will be a place to bench press there.  That can be a good thing and bad thing because many people believe that anyone can do it without a plan for progression when learning the movement.  Skipping over the basics in anything is usually detrimental, but in lifting it can cause long term issues that are hard to overcome.  Age appropriate progressions are the key, so let’s go through our Pause Bench Press progression one step at a time.

Bench Push-Up

This is our starting point for our pause bench press progression. We begin with both hands on the bench  performing a push-up with our chest touching the bench in each repetition. Body posture and proper execution is the focus when performing this exercise.  If a kid needs to, they can put their knees on the ground as a regression. We will not progress an athlete if they cannot perform 10 perfect reps of the exercise.  

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 1 – 6 x 6 WK 1 – 6 x 8 WK 1 – 6 x 10

WK 2 – 6 x 8 WK 2 – 6 x 12

WK 3 – 6 x 10



For the next exercise in our pause bench press progression, we increase the difficulty and volume of exercise from the previous movement.  Just as with the focus of the previous movement, body posture and proper execution of the exercise is critical for maximum benefit to the athlete.  When performing this movement, we tell the athletes to squeeze the elbows into the body, not allowing them to flare outward. Just as with the Bench Push-Up, if needed they can have their knees on the ground. We will not progress an athlete if they cannot perform 10 perfect reps of the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 4 – 6 x 6 WK 3 – 6 x 8 WK 2 – 6 x 12

WK 5 – 6 x 8 WK 4 – 6 x 12

WK 6 – 6 x 10

When beginning to use weight while performing a bench pressing variation, whether it is barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell… safety is important.  We use a back spotter, who can provide either a lift off or a spot for safety purposes. We avoid using side spotters due to the possibility of one spotter grabbing the barbell and tipping it when trying to assist. We teach our spotters to have their hands in an over & under grip close to the barbell without touching it. We want to see that space/gap to ensure that the lifter is doing the work, while giving the spotter the ability to assist if needed. When spotting the dumbbells, we have the spotter spot near the lifter’s wrist. This way the spotter can assist the lifter appropriately during the exercise.  

 The next crucial thing we teach is the proper set-up on the bench.  We utilize a consistent barbell to eye relationship by having the athlete lie down directly under the barbell in a straight line upward.  The next thing to teach is pulling the shoulder blades together and digging into the bench when laying the back down. We have an advantage for athletes performing this movement because of our specialized type of upholstery designed to allow the lifter to grip into the bench more easily when lifting.

Body position is the next thing we teach our athletes when it comes to our Bench Press progressions.  First, we want the shoulder blades in the bench.  Second, we want the hips to stay in constant contact with the bench for the entire time throughout the movement. Lastly, we want the feet flat and pressed into the floor. This allows for the lifter to use the lower body by pressing through the floor during the bench pressing exercises.

The grip on the barbell is the next part of the exercise execution. We have tape on our barbells to better assist our athletes in knowing where to put their hands. Our blue tape is on the outer ring of the power barbell, while the red tape is on the smooth part of the power barbell and knurling ends towards the middle of the barbell.  We allow for comfort purposes that our athletes go no wider than pinky fingers on the blue tape.  

Barbell path is something most people usually don’t pay much attention to, but it’s something we coach about constantly.  We teach a straight-line path for the weight to travel. In my opinion, doing this is the safest and most efficient way to press.  Straight-line pressing also allows the lifter to better find their groove when pressing.  Each of the previous components are coached each time we perform a bench press variation.

Once we begin to utilize weight in our progressions, we use barbell to dumbbell type of progressions.  Using the barbell first allows for proper development of a lifting path while using the dumbbells. It adds a stabilization effect and increases the execution difficulty as we advance in our progression plan.  Another thing you will notice in our progression plan is the initial use of partial range of motion, followed by full range of motion movements.   

Floor Press

This is the first exercise in which we add external resistance in our bench press progression. We begin with a 25lbs barbell and then work up from that point.  Have the lifter lie on the ground under the barbell, have them lower the barbell straight down tucking the elbows in at a 45-degree angle. Then they should lower the barbell until the elbows come to rest on the ground. Once the barbell is completely at rest, the lifter should press the barbell upward fully locking out the arms to complete the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 7 – 6 x 6 WK 5 – 6 x 12 WK 3 – 6 x 10

WK 8 – 6 x 8 WK 6 – 6 x 10

WK 9 – 6 x 10


DB Floor Press

This is the same movement, but instead of using the barbell, use of dumbbells is introduced. When performing this movement, we have the palms facing towards each other which makes it a little easier to keep the elbows in the proper position.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 10 – 6 x 8 WK 7 – 6 x 12 WK 4 – 6 x 10

WK 11 – 6 x 10 WK 8 – 6 x 10

WK 12 – 6 x 12


Board Press

This exercise is another “partial range of motion” movement, but with greater motion than the Floor Press.  We start by placing a shoulder saver from elitefts on the barbell in the middle of the bar.  This lift is begun by having the lifter lower the barbell the same way as in the Floor Press, stopping when the shoulder saver comes to rest on the chest.  Once the barbell is on the chest, the lifter presses the barbell upward locking the arms out to complete the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 13 – 6 x 12 WK 9 – 6 x 10 WK 5 – 6 x 8

WK 14 – 6 x 10 WK 10 – 6 x 8

WK 15 – 6 x 8

DB Bench Press

This is the first full range of motion exercise we use in our bench press progression. We use the same palms-facing-forward hand position as the DB Floor Press.  Have the athlete get set-up on the bench, then extend the dumbbells with the arms to get started performing the exercise.  Lower the dumbbells down until they touch the chest, then press them upward until the arms are locked out at the top.  Focus must be on paying attention to not bouncing the weight off the chest with momentum. The lifter must control the weight the entire time while performing the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 16 – 6 x 12 WK 11 – 6 x 10 WK 6 – 6 x 10

WK 17 – 6 x 10 WK 12 – 6 x 8

WK 18 – 6 x 8


Close Grip Bench Press

This is another full range of motion movement in our bench press progression and is very close to our final movement. The biggest thing with this movement is the lifter’s grip of the barbell. We have our athletes place their middle finger on the red tape on the barbell to start.  To initiate the exercise, the lifter lowers the barbell down under control until it touches the chest, then the lifter presses the barbell upward completing the exercise by locking out the arms at the top.  Focus must be on paying attention to not bouncing the weight off the chest, as the lifter must control the weight the entire time while performing this exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 19 – 6 x 12 WK 13 – 6 x 10 WK 7 – 6 x 8

WK 20 – 6 x 10 WK 14 – 6 x 8

WK 21 – 6 x 8


DB Incline Press

This is really the only exception to our rule of barbell first, dumbbell second, in our bench press progression. When performing this movement, which is very similar to the DB Bench Press, the angle of the bench is in an inclined position.  Remember that we want to utilize the same hand position as all other dumbbell pressing exercises. Again, attention must be paid to not bouncing the weight off the chest, as the lifter must control the weight the entire time while performing the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 22 – 6 x 12 WK 15 – 6 x 10 WK 8 – 6 x 8

WK 23 – 6 x 10 WK 16 – 6 x 8

WK 24 – 6 x 8


Pause Bench Press

This is the final movement in our pause bench press progression and it is the primary upper body pressing exercise in our program. When performing this exercise, the lifter lowers the barbell as before until the barbell rests on the chest. The lifter remains tight and pauses for 3 seconds, then explosively presses the barbell upward, completing the movement by locking the arms at the top of the exercise.  Controlling the barbell throughout the entire exercise is vital to the successful performance of the exercise.

7th Grade 8th Grade High School

WK 25 – 6 x 12 WK 17 – 6 x 10 WK 9+ – 6 x 8

WK 26 – 6 x 10 WK 18+ – 6 x 8

WK 27+ – 6 x 8


The most common issue that arises when following a bench press progression is doing things too fast and too soon.  As I mentioned earlier, everyone thinks they can bench press, but performing the exercise, and performing the exercise correctly/safely are two different things.  One of the reasons we utilize the pause in our bench press movement is to teach proper control of the exercise instead of bouncing the barbell.  Another reason we have embraced the pause is that it helps keep the hips on the bench while pressing the barbell. Yes, adding the pause will decrease the total weight a lifter can press. However, we believe this is the most efficient way for an athlete to press with the upper body.  Adding the pause reveals a lifter’s true upper body strength levels.

This is the second of three in our series of progression articles. I love the feedback I have already received, and I look forward to the third article, which will cover how we teach the power clean in our program. Not only will we discuss the progression we implement, but we’ll share the reasoning behind why we teach the progression the way we do. I would love to hear what you think, and I can be reached at tjacobi@strong-rock.com

Tobias Jacobi

Tobias  Jacobi has been a strength & conditioning coach at Strong Rock Christian School for 4 years and spent 15 years as a college S & C coach before that.  He spent time at East Carolina University, Charleston Southern University, Kent State University, Western Carolina University, Elon University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Cumberland University.  He holds multiple certifications, has worked with thousands of athletes at every level, and has spoken at clinics all over the country.



For more information on how to train high school athletes, check out the IYCA High School Strength and Conditioning Specialist course and certification.  The HSSCS is the only certification available that focuses entirely on training high school ages athletes.  The HSSCS includes several hours of video instruction and two textbooks with contributions from 20 of the top strength & conditioning coaches from major universities, high schools, private facilities and NFL teams.  Click on the image below to learn more about the High School Strength & Conditioning Specialist credential.

Top 4 Exercises to Improve the Power Clean

In this article Coach Tobias Jacobi discusses the top 4 exercises used to improve the power clean.

The power clean is one of the most popular exercises used to improve sports performance.  The ability to externally load the triple extension of the knee, hip, and ankle is one of the main reasons the power clean is so popular.  Another reason is the coordination required to properly perform the exercise,

Improve the power clean

which leads itself to being a movement that assists in athletic development.  In my time as strength & conditioning coach at both the high school and collegiate levels, I have noticed a trend that athletes who perform the power clean the best often see great carry-over onto the playing field.

The technical aspect of the exercise must be stressed, taught, and progressed properly in an age-appropriate manner.  In our system, we teach 7th graders the hang clean over a 34-week program, 8th grader perform the power clean by the end of our 34th week, and our high school student-athletes go through a 9-week progression program.  In this article, we will discuss some of the exercises we use to help improve the power clean performance of our athletes.  The front squat, hang squat clean, overhead squat, and KB swing are all exercises that we use to help increase our performance of the power clean.

Front Squat

In my opinion, the best assistance exercise to improve the power clean is the front squat.  We recently make a change in our program when we switched our primary squat variation from the box squat to the front squat.  Making this change has already lead to significant increases in our athlete’s ability to perform the power clean.  Because it helps mimic the catch of the power clean, we place great emphasis on the rack position during the front squat.  Doing this helps athletes learn the proper position for catching the barbell at the bottom of the power clean.

Just like any exercise, we see common issues in the front squat that must be addressed.  The first issue a coach will run into is the position of the barbell in the rack position.  The bar should be resting on the natural “shelf” created by getting into the “rack position” free weight squat to improve the power cleanwhere the barbell will be placed on the deltoids near the upper clavicle.  To address this, our teaching progression includes the “free weight squat,” something I stole from Iowa’s Football Strength & Conditioning Coach, Chris Doyle.  The free weight squat is basically a front squat with the arms pointed straight ahead instead of gripping the bar.  This teaches athletes the proper barbell placement when performing the front squat.

Another issue is the hand placement during the exercise.  Because of our teaching progressions and attention to detail, we have had tremendous success using the “rack position” for the front squat.  Wrist mobility and flexibility work is included in our programs starting in the 7th grade, which has given our athletes the mobility necessary to use this position.  As a college coach, I dealt with many athletes who lacked the mobility to get into the rack position, so I often had to adjust their hand placement in the front squat.   We would often hold onto wrist straps that were strapped to the barbell. For other athletes, we would have them only perform the free weight squat, and in some of the worst cases, we would have athletes cross their arms.  I believe the carryover from the front squat to the power clean is severely diminished when you use a different grip then the rack position, so this needs to be emphasized if the goal is to improve the power clean.  Here is a properly performed front squat:

Hang Squat Clean

In my opinion, the 2nd best assistance exercise to improve the power clean is the hang squat clean.  When performing this exercise, it is important to make sure the athlete is being explosive by initiating the exercise with a jump.  A common mistake is to perform the exercise by simply dropping under the barbell instead of moving the bar upward.  While this seems to accomplish the same end result, it defeats the purpose of the exercise, which is to generate power.  The other portion of the lift that a coach must pay special attention to is catching the barbell at the bottom of the squat.  Doing this helps improve the lifters ability to catch the barbell with heavy loads.  With this exercise, you must start with lighter weights and slowly progress to heavier loads.  Once this exercise is mastered, athletes will see a significant improvement in their ability to perform the power clean.

Again, when implementing the hang squat clean, we introduce it as part of our power clean progression, so our kids will actually perform this variation before they perform the full power clean.  We have seen tremendous success using this format and it allows for the usage of multiple exercises throughout the duration of an athletes training career in our program.  Performing the movement fluidly and not achieving proper depth on the catch are two common issues coaches will see when implementing the hang squat clean.  Both issues are fixable when coached properly over time.

The fluidity of the movement is very important to the proper execution of the exercise and takes some time for athletes to understand.  Fear also prevents some athletes from catching the barbell down in the full squat position.  That is one of the reasons that we use this in our teaching progressions, so kids understand it’s not about load, it is about proper technique.  Once they understand this, they typically begin to perform the exercise properly and feel successful.  In some cases, I have had to regress athletes to a hang clean to front squat combination exercise to get the movement patterns to slowly work together.

The other issue a coach may see is the athlete not being able to achieve the full squat position when they catch the barbell.  Each situation is different.  The issue could be lack of hip flexibility, lack of ankle flexibility, or again just fear of getting under the barbell.  Kids with larger bodies also have a tendency to lock the hips when catching the barbell.  This is usually a technical motor pattern a coach must clean up or may stem from fear, where the athlete will have to develop confidence with lighter loads.  If it is a flexibility issue for the hips, the overhead squat is my favorite exercise to address the problem.  There are plenty of exercises that can be used for this, so pick what works best for your situation.  If it is and ankle mobility problem, we address that by using slant boards and band stretches to help develop the needed range of motion.

Here is a properly performed hang squat clean:

Overhead Squat

My 3rd favorite exercise to help improve the power clean is the overhead squat.  This exercise is typically associated with performing the snatch, however in my experience it is also great for building a solid power clean.  The biggest carry over from the overhead squat to the power clean is that it teaches the full range of motion when they catch the barbell in the bottom of the power clean.  Another benefit that is added from the overhead squat is the teaching of balance and weight distribution.  This is a very popular exercise for Olympic Weightlifters to use when training to improve their lifts.

When performing the overhead squat one of the most commons things a coach will see is the toes turning outward.  While there may be reasons for some kids to turn their toes out, we try to have our kids keep their feet as straight as possible when performing this exercise.  From my experience, tight ankles usually create this issue.  Again, we implement slant boards and band stretches to help improve range of motion for the ankle.

Another issue a coach will often see when prescribing the overhead squat is that some kids may have tight hips and cannot get to depth because of this.  Once we know the hips are the issue, we utilize a series of stretches to help improve mobility.  A combination of static stretching, foam rolling, and band stretching are used to help improve range of motion.  With both issues, it will take time and consistency to see results as these are not quick fixes for athletes.  However, addressing these issues usually helps many areas, so it’s worth the time and energy.

Kettlebell Swings

The last exercise we will discuss to improve the power clean is the kettlebell (KB) swing.  There are many ways to perform the KB swing and for our purposes we perform it keeping the KB as close to the body as possible and focusing on hip involvement when executing the lift.  The initial movement of the KB swing is the crucial hinge of the hips backward before violently extending the hips forward.  We want to “snap” the hips forward, and the athlete should feel this snap when performed properly.  The bell should swing up to shoulder level, while keeping the arms straight.  A common mistake is the bending of the elbows which engages the upper body.  This is something we want to avoid.  The bending of the elbows also takes emphasis away from the hips.  We typically use the double arm swing, but you can also utilize a single arm version of the exercise.  When performing the single arm exercise the one additional coaching cue is that we turn the thumb backwards when the bell goes in between the legs.  The snap of the hips and minimal arm use is the exact same as the double arm version of the KB Swing.

The ability to produce substantial amounts of force into the ground and express it externally is the reason I use the power clean so extensively.  I believe that improving power output helps lead athletes to success on the playing field.  I’ve seen this power transfer to the playing field with many athletes including Michale Spicer, Bryce Cardin, and Jack Williams.  Michale was a defensive end who played for me when I was at Western Carolina University.  He had the biggest power clean I have ever seen in person, which was 425lbs.  Spicer also played professional football for 8 years in the NFL, AFL, and UFL.  Bryce Cardin played for me while at Strong Rock Christian School.  Cardin, who was an undersized offensive lineman, posted a 320lbs power clean while in high school and earned 1st Team All-Region honors as a senior because of play on the field.  Finally, Jack Williams was a defensive back who I coached at Kent State University.  Jack was the owner of a 343lbs power clean and was an All-Conference defensive back along with being a 4th round pick of the Denver Broncos.  He also spent time with the Detroit Lions, Chicago Rush, and Las Vegas Locomotives as a defensive back.

While their success obviously wasn’t exclusively the result of performing the power clean, I have seen many athletes improve the power clean which has led to improved performance on the field.

The power clean is an integral part of our training program and of many strength & conditioning programs, and these four exercises will help you coach and improve the power clean in your program.  Using assistance exercises to help increase an athlete’s ability to perform the exercise is critical in the development of the exercise itself.  The front squat, hang squat clean, overhead squat, and kettlebell swing are all exercises that help in the improvement of an athlete’s ability to perform the exercise safely, efficiently, and effectively.  Utilize these exercises to help improve the power clean and watch your athletes numbers skyrocket.


Tobias JacobiTobias  Jacobi has been a strength & conditioning coach at Strong Rock Christian School for 4 years and spent 15 years as a college S & C coach before that.  He spent time at East Carolina University, Charleston Southern University, Kent State University, Western Carolina University, Elon University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Cumberland University.  He holds multiple certifications, has worked with thousands of athletes at every level, and has spoken at clinics all over the country.


Learn more about power development and strength & conditioning in the IYCA High School Strength & Conditioning Specialist certification featuring the Principles of Athletic Strength & Conditioning textbook.

High School Strength Program: Why Copying Is A Mistake

A post on High School Strength Programs by Jim Keilbaso

Strength program by Jim Keilbaso

Trying to copy some big time college strength program is common mistake made in high schools. I’ve been engaged in a series of e-mails with a coach about his situation at a high school, and I thought it was worth sharing.

He has been asked to implement a high school strength program for a football team, and the coach has started to voice some strong opinions before anything has even begun. The football coach feels like he’s under some pressure to win because the team has been average for the past three years. He has told the new strength coach that he likes Penn State’s program and wants him to implement it. He also wants to make sure that each kid is getting an individualized strength program program.

The member explained the situation to me, asked for some advice, and here is how I responded:

“First, I would explain to him that your high school strength program can’t copy a college program because you don’t have the staff, equipment or athletes to do it at the high school level. Second, seeing a 5 minute video doesn’t really give you a complete understanding of a college program. Just say that you’re taking things from several colleges and list the ones he wants to hear – Penn State, LSU, Alabama, etc. And, if he wants you to run it like Penn State, ask if he’s going to give you everything it takes to run it like Penn State?

Will he have 5 more coaches there every day?

Can you demand 100% participation from a kid or he’s kicked off the team?

high school strength program

Can you dog-cuss kids left and right if they’re not doing exactly what you say? Can you train them all in small groups instead of all at once before/after school? Will he stand behind you no matter what? Can he tell the parents not to ever talk to you so you can focus on doing your job? Can you spend $500,000 on equipment? Will there be ATCs present at every conditioning session in case kids go down?

That’s what Penn State has available. I’m guessing you don’t. You’re high school strength program just isn’t going to be a college program. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be.

What A High School Strength Program Does Include….

Tell him that you’re going to create a team-wide high school strength program, then individualize from there. There is no need to create a completely different program for every kid.

high school strength program

These are high school athletes. They need BASICS.

So, you create a “workout template” then make adjustments for any kids who need it. Most kids will be just fine with a basic high school strength program, but you have to play politics and say the right things.

Instead of doing complete individual assessments on every kid, you might want to start with some basic strength testing. You can get predicted maxes on a couple of lifts, maybe max chin ups, get numbers on vertical or broad jump, 40s, shuttles, etc. so you have baseline numbers. You want to be able to document progress, so you need to test them periodically to show that your program is working.

The reality of a high school strength program is that you have to get the biggest “bang for your buck” and hope for as much support from your coaches and parents as possible. Anyone who has coached in both college and high school should understand the differences. I hope this helps. Feel free to forward it to your football coach if you think it will help.”

high school strength program

The strength coach had a talk with his football coach, and talked him down from the ledge. It turns out the football coach is stressed because he feels like his job is on the line, and he wants to make sure the kids are getting stronger. The talk this strength coach had with him reassured the football coach that things are going to be OK and that the program is going to work.

Sometimes, we just have to talk stressed out coaches down so they understand we’re on their team, and we want to win just as badly as they do. A conversation like that can go a long way to establishing a relationship with a sport coach, and I think this high school strength coach has done just that. Once this relationship is established, everyone can work together toward the goal of helping the kids reach their true potential.

Ultimately, that’s what this is all about: Developing a High School Strength Program that really works!

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