We all love the classic exercise known as the bench press. Throughout history, the bench press has literally become the measure of the man. Everyone wants to know how much you bench, so it is no wonder that everyone wants to know the secrets to drive up their bench. To start your own assessment of your bench press and ask yourself if you perform any of these common mistakes while you bench press?
- Bounce the bar off your chest?
- Lift your butt off the bench and into the air?
- Tend to be as “loose as a goose” throughout the exercise (e.g., your feet are constantly moving around and never in one place)?
- Raise your feet up off the floor, with your knees bent and feet crossed?
- Hold the bar narrowly, with your elbows pointing inward?
If so, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Though the barbell bench press is one of the most widely performed exercises in the gym, unfortunately, most of the people lying there bench pressing away are also performing the exercise incorrectly! Now, we may not be able to fully explain why so many people fail to use proper form and technique, but we can give you some tips on the way the bench should be performed, so you can get the most out of your bench press workout—to increase your muscular size and strength in your chest, and feel safer while doing so.
Here are 10 steps you can take to overcome any past mistakes you may have been making and reach a newfound level of strength and muscle mass, all while safely performing one of the most popular exercises in the gym…THE BENCH PRESS!
1. Bench position — align your eyes with the bar
When you assume the bench position, you wouldn’t think it would be too difficult, but it turns out a lot of people start off wrong. Often, the mistake is to lie back with your head too close to the top of the bench. If you happen to be too close, you’ll know immediately because you’ll hit the uprights with the weight and knock yourself out of rhythm. This isn’t something you want to have happen when you’re pressing 300 lbs, or you’ll find yourself yelling for someone to help you get the weight off your chest.
You also don’t want to be too close to the foot of the bench because this means you’ll most likely have an awkward liftoff and you’ll expend a lot of energy as you try to unrack the weight and move it to the starting position. This could initially knock you off balance. This can be very detrimental to the mental aspect of training: i.e., you could be psyched up to break your previous bench record, and then boom, you’re off balance, and your thought immediately shifts from “breaking bench record” to “uh-oh!”
The correct position has you in the supine position (lying on your back) with the bar directly over your eyes. This will provide you with a powerful lift-off, helping you keep your balance.
2. Foot placement — firmly on the floor
Here is another mistake we see all too often when it comes to the bench press. More and more people bench with their feet on the bench. Why? You may have been told, “This is a great way to isolate the chest muscles.” But is it? Honestly, if you want to isolate your pecs, there are many other better exercise choices. The bench press is classified as a strength and mass builder; therefore, it’s best used with a moderate to heavy workload. When you put your feet on the bench, you lose your ability to go heavier, limiting the effectiveness of the exercise.
The correct placement has your feet firmly planted on the floor slightly wider than shoulder width apart. If you’ve got your feet planted firmly on the floor, you will be able to generate power by pushing from that base when you hit the dreaded sticking point. Having your feet on the floor also helps maintain the arch in your back, which we’ll explain in the next section.
3. Shoulder, back, and torso placement
The next step to perfecting the bench press lies in the shoulders: you need to keep your shoulder blades tight by retracting or pulling them back. Think of doing bent-over rows; when you have pulled the weight up under your chest in a fully contracted position, that’s what it feels like when your shoulders are retracted. When you put your shoulders in this position when bench pressing, you’ll have more control over the weight, allowing you to push a heavier load!
Your back should have a slight arch, but be careful not to arch the back too much because this could force you to raise your hips off the bench, increasing your chances of injuring your back. However, a slight arch in your back raises your chest. This is good when benching because it reduces the distance between your chest and the bar. Thus, you’ll be able to lift more weight.
As for the torso, to aid in stability, it is important to keep the torso tight, to have a firm, solid base for power production.
4. The Grip — hand placement
There are various grips used in performing the barbell bench press, but to stay within the scope of this article, we’ll just focus on the general grip used for the standard barbell bench press. One way to find the most accurate, and most comfortable, grip to suit you is to assume the push-up position. Pay particular attention to your hand placement as you perform this exercise. This is a good indication of the position you should use when performing the bench press. The great thing about this grip is that it feels natural.
One way to find the most accurate, and most comfortable, grip to suit you is to assume the push-up position.
You may also use the o-ring on the barbell as a guide. A good solid grip using this method would have you placing your pinky fingers on top of the o-ring. Now you’re set to begin the lift!
Whichever method you choose to use, be sure the grip is slightly wider than shoulder width.
5. Squeeze that bar
Be sure when you find the hand placement that is comfortable to you that you grasp the bar firmly! Seriously, squeeze the heck out of the bar. A firm grip will give you better control over the bar, enabling you to lift more weight. As you continue to squeeze the bar, the force created in the chest, shoulders, and triceps will transmit more effectively to the bar.
You will also want to wrap your thumbs around the bar. This will prevent you from flexing your wrists too much, which would decrease the amount of power produced in the forearms. This brings us to the next topic…wrist alignment.
6. Keep the wrists rigid
When finding a grip, remember you want to keep your wrists straight. Don’t make the mistake of resting the bar too close to the base of your fingers. This will force the wrists to bend and may even break them with a heavy amount of weight. Rest the bar on your palm closer to the heel. When your wrists are straight, you can again generate much more power on the press and help prevent a wrist injury!
An analogy we’ve heard, which is a good one, is to picture yourself punching a punching bag. You want the full force of your arm behind each blow, and the only way you can do this is by keeping the wrist firm and straight.
“You want the full force of your arm behind each rep, and the only way you can do this is by keeping the wrist firm and straight.”
7. Upper arm angle… 45 degrees
The upper arm should be at a 45-degree angle to the torso when doing bench presses. Many people keep their upper arms at a 90-degree angle, which places too much stress on the shoulders. Imagine doing the side lateral raise: when you are halfway through the raise…BINGO. That is the angle you want!
8. Lower the weight slowly
The weight should be lowered in a slow, controlled manner across or slightly below nipple level. Lowering the bar to the nipple area allows you to keep your wrists in line with your elbows. Not only is this important for power, but it takes additional stress off the shoulder joints. When you reach the bottom of the movement, your upper arm and forearm should form a 90-degree angle.
9. Explode and push the weight back up
To move the weight off your chest, you’ve got to act quickly, explosively, and powerfully.
As you push the weight back to the top, remember to dig your shoulders into the bench. It stabilizes the shoulder girdle and ensures you are pushing the weight in a straight line. Keep your lower back slightly arched and your glutes in contact with the bench. Also, be sure you keep your wrists in line with your elbows. You can use your feet to help you push if you’re pushing serious weight.
10. Oh yeah, we almost forgot…BREATHE
As you are lowering the bar to your chest, begin to inhale deeply, all the way to your stomach. As the bar reaches the bottom of the movement, hold your breath as you begin to push the weight back up. Once you’ve pushed through the sticking point, begin to exhale. Once you reach the top, simply repeat.
There you have it—the bench press at its best! If you aren’t practicing these techniques, I invite you to begin to use them immediately. You’ll instantly notice an increase in your strength and you won’t miss a workout due to an injury! Until next time, keep on pressing!