It’s the most ego-boosting exercise in the gym. If you’re good at it, that is. If you’re not, you’ve probably lied and told people you are. For some reason, the bench press is arguably the most glamorized exercise in all of training — sort of like the 100 meter dash in the Olympics — and it’s the reason men are lined up at the gym on Mondays like a cattle call.
The unfortunate truth is that it may be the most popular lift, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most necessary. In fact, the bench press is far from the most necessary lift. But this fact isn’t going to stop you guys from doing it, so we might as well learn to do it right.
Your lifting will go nowhere if you don’t have a proper starting position. For a lift so large, it’s not as simple as jumping under the bar and making sure it touches your chest in the same place every time. Tightness is the key when it comes to the bench press and doing it well. Slide under the bar until your eyebrows are positioned directly below it when it’s on the rack. Next, pull your shoulders back as much as you can and pin them to the bench in that position. This immobility of the shoulder blades is your saving grace when it comes to executing the movement injury-free. It’s the only way to press without risking damage to your shoulders. For other movements, however, such as the overhead press, pushups and even pullups, having proper mobility and active movement of the shoulder blade promotes a healthy joint capsule and function.
Having the shoulder blades pulled back during the bench press means you’ll create an arch in your back. If your back is completely flat against the bench from top to bottom, you’re not set up properly.
How you position your feet is also vital. Having your feet off the ground or way out in front of your body is a far-too-common practice. Both foot positions sacrifice plenty of strength. Keep your feet tucked in so that your knees are at an angle of 90 degrees or less. This way, you have a strong, firm base of support from which to drive — yes, pressing hard through the feet will help your bench press!
How about your hands? My first piece of advice would be to squeeze the life out of the bar, regardless of your grip. You want your force to transfer itself from your target muscles right into your forearms and hands. This will help keep your wrists from rolling and encourage a strong, stable lift. Choose a grip that’s comfortable for you, but going too wide with the hands will make your shoulders more vulnerable. I recommend a hand width that creates a 90-degree elbow angle when the bar’s on your chest. Make sure you lower the weight to the same point of contact — around the nipple line — every time.
Pushing the bar off your chest takes a combination of accuracy and timing. As mentioned earlier, remember to drive the feet hard into the floor. Press the bar until it finishes directly above your shoulders — not your chest! This is important, as you’ll be in the most supported finishing position when you do so.
One More Thing
As you lower the bar, feel free to slightly tuck your elbows in toward your body. This position will also help your shoulders, and it’s even more helpful for people with a history of injuries.
Putting it all together — as I always do — here’s a video that breaks down the form for a good bench in less than 5 minutes.
Frequently Asked Questions
The grip you’re using in your video is wrong – isn’t it?
No. It’s just a slightly advanced lifting method. It’s not the greatest to use in a video covering the basics; I am just used to it. However, the benefit of a grip like the one in the video is that it allows for more triceps activation due to the increased amount of squeeze you can get out of the fifth finger on each hand. Also, the bar is positioned directly above the wrist and forearm, making for less chance of wrist roll. However, I’ll be first to agree that this grip isn’t for beginners. To start, stick with a standard, thumbs-over grip.
I see elite powerlifters going into extremely pronounced back arches when they bench press. This can’t be good for you, can it?
Remember, powerlifting brings weight training to a sport. Just like any other sport, the end result is what’s most important (in this case, lifting that heavy weight at all costs). With that in mind, powerlifters take different measures to make that process less difficult. One is by overarching the back. This creates a higher chest position and lowers the amount of space the bar has to travel. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “right” or even safe for a lifter who’s doing the bench press for exercise and not for sport. A mild back arch is OK and even natural, but excessive back arch can create problems. Just to get my point across, here’s a video of a flexible child powerlifter who brings this idea to the extreme.
No matter what I do, my shoulders hurt when I bench press. What can I do to fix this?
Do more pulling exercises. All pressing exercises depend on the stability of your shoulders, which get trained through exercises that work on the upper back. Rows, pullups, reverse flyes and pull-downs are all good bets to minimize your shoulder pain. These exercises, coupled with focusing on a perfect setup under the bar when bench pressing, will set you on a path to fewer injury problems in your shoulders.