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February 29, 2020 10 min read

Unless you are entirely new to the world of fitness, you have probably heard about "the big three" compound barbell lifts.

  • Bench Press
  • Squat 
  • Deadlift

They are efficient, practical, and building a simple yet effective program around them is easy.

These three lifts all belong to the halls of honor in bodybuilding and powerlifting due to their ability to build insane amounts of muscle and strength.

And although technology advances and new machines appear on a daily basis,  barbell lifts remain the most effective way to overload the muscles and stimulate hypertrophy. 

They work perfectly together and support each other

The bench press works the upper body, deadlifts strengthen your legs, hips and back to pick up heavy weight, and squats build massive legs. These three exercises and all of their variations are so effective that your whole workout program could be based around them and you would never get bored, and many people do.

But Today We Are Discussing The Bench Press

In terms of developing incredible pressing strength, you need strong triceps, chest, and shoulders, and no lift develops triceps, shoulders, and the chest at one time like the flat bench press does.

Check out this list of the bench press benefits:

  • Increased upper body strength
  • Bigger Pec Major
  • Stronger Pec Minor
  • Shredded Serratus Anterior
  • Stronger and better-shaped delts
  • Stronger Triceps
  • Improved Bone Health 
  • and much more

These are just a few reasons why this classic exercise is a staple of any program focused on strength development.

But the human body adapts to stress quickly

Which means if you perform the bench press using the same weight and reps, you will reach a plateau. This is why adding variations to your routine is one of the best ways to continue improving your strength and protect yourself from injuries.

Enter Eric Spoto and the Spoto Press

The Spoto press is named after a former world-record holder and one of the best benchers of all time. He held the raw bench press record with 722lbs, which still stands as one of the best results in the world. 

Videos of Eric Spoto repping out over 600lbs were popular even before he broke the record. He was already established as the Las Vegas arm wrestling champion.

While not the first person to use this method, he was recognized in the world of powerlifting for lowering the barbell to the point where it was almost touching his chest, pausing there, and then pressing the barbell.

The slow and controlled descent and the brief pause above your chest keeps tension on the muscles throughout the entire lift. This creates a huge amount of demand on the CNS and requires you to produce an insane amount of force to get the bar moving in the other direction, which is to say, off of your chest!

Some took a critical attitude while others recognized the benefits of training in this manner. 

After he broke the raw bench press record, his style grew in popularity by the name of The Spoto Press. Nowadays, it's a staple in many bodybuilding training programs.

A woman doing a bench press in the gym.

Spoto Press vs Board Press

The Spoto press is sometimes called "the invisible board press."

Indeed, it is like a board press without the board. The board press is excellent for improving lockout strength by itself. But if we remove the board the weight will continue to move downward. That will force the fight back against the resistance and stabilize the weight so that you can effectively press it back up.

Then you do a short pause. That is the most interesting moment of the lift. Because the weight is levitating over your chest and you have to stay tight to maximize muscular tension and keep control of the barbell.

By controlling the descent of the barbell on the way down, you are accumulating kinetic energy. The moment of pause is the base for exploding all that energy into one mighty, spring-like push.

What are the Spoto press advantages over the board press?

Much like a box squat creates two movements out of the squat, the board press does the same for the bench press. However, the Spoto press forces more time under tension while teaching you how to maintain tension through the movement within the same range of motion. It hammers the triceps, especially when you do it in a close-grip fashion.

You have to recruit more strength from your triceps and front deltoids. The overall time under tension causes your muscles and nervous system must adapt to these new stimuli. This results in incredible strength an hypertrophy gains, meaning you become bigger and stronger

How to Press Like Spoto

The Position: It is essential to position your body in a way that will not only maximize your strength but also minimize the chance of an injury. Your shoulder blades should be pulled down and back as if they are trying to touch each other. Your chest must be kept as high as possible. Your back needs to form an arc over the bench. Create some space between the bench and your lower back. The glutes should be in constant contact with the bench.

Foot Position and Leg Drive: Foot position is considered the crucial factor for successful performance. It affects both your leg drive and arc. Proper positioning will provide more safety, but also help to lift more weight. You'll always get a tighter arc with your feet dug in. Leg drive should initiate force back toward the bar, not up toward the ceiling. 

Your feet can be positioned either in front or in the back. Both have their good sides, as well as disadvantages, so try both positions and see what fits you better.

Feet in front is the most common foot placement, and it brings two advantages:

1. This position helps you generate the maximum amount of leg drive. The wide base helps with keeping a steady balance during the lift. Your knees are bent, close to the right angle. You should feel like your toes want to go through the front of your shoe without moving the foot.

2. The force you generate from leg drive while maintaining the back-arc is the power that shifts your body strength into the lift. 

Feet in the back requires some practice and flexibility.

It provides less of the leg drive force and balance support. What it does bring is the possibility for a more aggressive arc. A bigger arc shortens your range of motion, which brings diversity in the muscle impact of the exercise.

The Importance of the Grip: No single grip is better than another. Each has its benefits so experiment with different grip variations until you find what works best for you. 

The standard grip will have your chest muscles doing most of the work. This is important for powerlifters who must press from the chest. The proper technique will ensure you get the benefits that will transfer over to the competition bench.

A closer grip will increase the range of motion and give you better strength through the bottom. This grip brings the focus to the triceps. Your chest and shoulders will remain involved, but this grip is known as one of the best ways to target your triceps.

A wider grip brings a lot of pressure to your chest, but for a good reason. It is considered as one of the most effective ways to enforce muscle activity in the pecs major, as it shortens your range of motion. 

Wrap your thumb around the bar. Squeeze it hard. It will activate your muscles and send the signal to your body that you're about to lift, mentally preparing you to handle a heavy load. Try to maintain a neutral wrist position for a tighter grip. A tight grip with straight wrists will keep the barbell more in-line with the wrist and forearms. That provides a more balanced and efficient press. A crushing grip will enable you to activate more muscles and move more weight.

You will discover that the tighter you have your grip, the lighter the weight feels.

Once you're in an optimum start position, make sure that the bar is not set too high to unrack. That would open up your shoulder blades and take you out of the proper starting position.

The Lift and How to Do It Right

The Spoto press is not a half-press. In the Spoto press, you almost touch the bottom of your chest. If your wrists are ahead of your elbows at that moment, you are putting yourself at risk of an injury. Lower yourself slowly until you find your strongest spot, and stop there. 

The speed you use to lift is not set in stone, so do what feels safe and comfortable. But to get the most out of this lift you'll need to lower the weight slowly in a controlled manner. Your elbow and wrist should be aligned.

When you are doing everything right, you feel your back and lats activated.

As the bar goes down, you are building up kinetic energy. At the bottom, pause for a second or two to take full advantage of the muscular overload. When the bar stops at your chest, it is the moment for all that built-up energy to explode in a single move up. 

Stay tight!

Eric Spoto considers learning to bench press like a powerlifter to be his biggest bench press breakthrough. That means, keep tight elbows, shoulder pulled back, and force the leg drive as hard as possible. If you are just lowering the bar and pressing it back up, you are not doing much. Tuck your arms, retract your shoulder blades.

Engage your pecs, lats, shoulders, and triceps while using leg drive throughout the movement.

Spoto recommends keeping your elbows tucked until at least halfway through the press. Experiment and discover what works best for you. Your best option will be whatever enables you to bench the most. Just be sure that you are putting in the maximum effort.

Keep in mind that the explosion starts at the bottom, and use that momentum to your advantage. Once you get used to it, employing speed and max force off your chest will become second nature.

You will start to instinctively press right through any natural sticking points.

Be sure to use heavy enough weight to perform around 2 to 5 reps. You have to be challenged but not overwhelmed. Your goal is to gradually build up both muscle endurance and strength.

As for the frequency, you may try to use this method regularly like Eric Spoto himself does. However, many lifters include it once every week or two, interchangeable with other bench press variations. It is a useful tool to break a plateau, too.

A man doing the bench press.

Spoto Press Variations

  • Dumbbell variation: If you prefer having more range of movement, you can use dumbbells. This way, you will benefit from an additional stabilization with full-body control, as well as increase the stretch of the musculature needed on the bench. Dumbbells are also useful if you are trying to give the shoulder joint a little rest and recovery. 

When using dumbbells there is no difference in how you perform the exercise. You will stop at the bottom and pause for a second. However, when using dumbbells instead of a barbell, it can change some of the ways you work your muscle groups, without equal weight distribution. At the same time, it will help you identify imbalances or weak points on either side. When using dumbbells, be careful not to drop them down to your side after you're done. This is dangerous to your rotator cuff and to the people around you!

  • Incline press variation: The purpose of the incline press is to emphasize the upper pecs. Its main benefit is in the development of the upper portion of the pectoral muscles and delts. The incline press is quite a functional movement since the body position is more conducive to real-life activities. 

When the bench is set at an incline of 15 to 30 degrees, you activate your shoulders more (because of this active use of your delts, you don't need to work on them the next day).

Thanks to this angle, the stress on your rotator cuff is lower. That also means lower chances of injury compared to using the flat bench. In this variation, you would perform the standard incline press with the addition of a stop with a short pause. 

The Spoto Press Will Help You Break A Plateau

The Spoto press can be quite useful for overcoming the chest-oriented bench press plateaus.

It requires lifters to focus on two key factors:

1. It helps with reinforcing overall body tension during the bench press. One of the common issues people have is losing tightness right off the chest. In such cases, the barbell will start to accelerate in the bottom part of the lift. That can lead to shoulder problems and injuries.

Through fighting to keep the barbell off your chest you will learn you how to maintain complete control of it. If the upper body loses tightness, then the general press is not very useful.

2. The Spoto press brings your focus to tempo and muscle contractions. Unlike the standard bench press, the Spoto press requires you to slow down at the bottom and be sure that you are pausing correctly. In return, you may spot your weak points in standard bench press performance.

If you feel only your triceps on fire, and the upper body not engaged much, it may mean that you are not contracting and benching properly. Spend some time focused on areas where you lack stability and strength and discover where you need improvement. Correct the mistakes, and progress will return, alive and well. 

Life is Like the Bench Press, to Experience Success You Must Push Hard

When you watch videos powerlifters doing their benches, it can look like a goal impossible to reach. At least for the beginner. Don't let it push you on the wrong road, the one filled with excessive weights and excessive egos as that leads nowhere but to injuries!

Even Eric Spoto was a beginner once. His first lift was a plastic 100 Lb weight at the age of 11. It took him almost two decades of serious and dedicated work to reach record-setting levels.

Nothing happens overnight, and every success requires hard work and determination.

Patience is important, work your way smartly to the next level. Know your body and its limits and set logical thresholds. And never underestimate the power of a proper diet and adequate rest!

Recovery is an essential element in the circle of increasing strength, and that includes sleep and nutrition.

Without high-quality calories, adequate hydration, and a decent night's sleep, you will not be able to recover well and your performance will suffer.