The Bench Press is undoubtedly the most well known barbell exercise, and has become the standard test in upper body strength. This compound movement allows the lifter to move heavy weights through a range of motion, and is arguably the best upper body strength and size building exercise one can do. The Bench Press is used in competition at Powerlifting meets along with the Squat and Deadlift.
How to Bench Press
After approaching the bench, here is the step by step process that will take you through a proper Bench Press. When performed correctly, strength is increased, and risk of injury is decreased. Practice these steps deliberately, even on warm ups.
- Lay on the bench with the barbell around eye level and feet resting on the bench
- Grip the bar wider than shoulder width apart, inside of the barbell’s marked rings
- Puff the chest up allowing the back to create an arch
- Pinch the shoulder blades together into a strong static contraction
- Place the feet flat on the floor in a stable position, pulling them back toward the head slightly to increase tightness.
- Take a deep breath (and hold)
- Lift the bar out of the rack, being mindful as to not untuck the pinched shoulder blades or lose the tight solid foundation created in the setup.
- Once settled, slowly bring the bar all the way down to the lower chest, letting the elbows have a slight natural tuck inward towards the body.
- Reverse the weight once it has lightly touched your chest in an explosive manner to lockout, but without untucking the pinched shoulder blades or losing tightness.
- Release breath, or hold it for consecutive repetitions using own discretion.
This setup is essential to creating a strong foundation for safe Bench Pressing. The overall body tightness created during the setup phase is strenuous and difficult in the beginning, but necessary to reduce risk of injury, and improve performance.
The deep breath during the repetition phase is also necessary to maintain this tightness so it does not become undone at any point during the set. The grip width and elbow motion on the descent can be explained as if trying to shove a person away.
Lastly, the lockout stops once elbow joint is extended. Be careful not to “over press” the lockout allowing your shoulders to push forward, and tightness to be lost. Remember, we want the shoulders back and pinched together throughout the movement.
Common Bench Press Form Problems
- Lack of tightness: Arch the back, apply constant pressure with the legs, and pinch the shoulder blades together tightly. Holding a deep breath also helps.
- Extreme elbow flaring or tucking: In most cases, using what feels natural is best. “Shoving” is a good mental queue to understand natural elbow positioning.
- “Over pressing” with shoulders: Stop pressing once elbows lock out. Do not allow the shoulders to roll forward, keep the chest high and shoulders pinned back.
- Wrists bent too far backwards: Grab the bar toward the bottom of the hand instead of in the fingers. Wrist wraps my also help. Slight bend in the wrists is normal, but should not cause discomfort.
- Partial range of motion: Pull the bar all the way down to touch the chest, and press until the elbows lock out.
- Butt lifting off the bench: Try tucking the feet back towards the head more, and remember to push away with the legs, not pushing the butt up. Taller benches may also help.
- Bouncing off the chest: Practice touching the chest lightly as possible, then reversing the weight quickly. Lighter weights may be required in the beginning. Paused Benching (described below) also helps to eliminate the bounce.
Specialization and Styles
Two main specializations exist for the Bench Press. One is to maximize strength, and the other is to maximize chest stimulation.
Powerlifting Style Bench Press (Maximal Strength)
The technique tweaks typically used for this style of Bench Pressing include:
- Larger Back Arch. Butt stays on the bench, but the chest is raised to decrease the distance the barbell must travel from lockout to the chest.
- Leg Drive. While the legs should remain tense throughout the movement, leg drive is also applied to help press the bar off the chest. The motion is subtle in appearance, and should feel as if you are trying to force your body up the bench by pressing strongly with the legs. Successful leg drive is dependent on a very tight setup and timing. Some powerlifters use a belt to better transmit the leg drive force to the chest and barbell.
- Wider Grip. Not always the case, but usually powerlifters use a wider grip to shorten the range of motion.
Bodybuilding Style Bench Press (Maximal Chest Stimulation)
While this method can be used for more chest stimulation, it can carry a higher risk of injury. Heavy weights are not recommended with this style. Here’s some common tweaks:
- More Elbow Flare. Instead of the elbows tucked inward toward the torso, they are flared out to the sides.
- Partial Reps. Stopping before lockout, and above the chest allows the tension to remain mostly on the chest instead of other muscles.
Variations of the Bench Press
There are several Bench Press variations that affect the muscles differently, shifting emphasis from some, and away from others. Unless otherwise mentioned, the same setup and form is used from the standard Bench Press.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip, or narrow grip, typically refers to a grip on the barbell that is only about shoulder width apart. This closer grip moves much more emphasis onto the triceps, and away from the chest, making it a good exercise for improving the lockout strength on the Bench Press.
Paused Bench Press
The Paused Bench Press is when the lifter lets the barbell stop and rest motionless on the chest before pressing it back up to lockout. The length of the pauses can range, but are typically around 1-3 full seconds. This exercise is great for building strength off the chest, and is sometimes recommended for new lifters that have trouble making each repetitions bar path the same. Some lifters use the paused Bench Press full time.
Wide Grip Bench Press
This variation has the user grip the bar with an abnormally wide grip, usually wider than pinky fingers on the rings. This puts more emphasis onto the chest muscles, and moves emphasis away from the triceps. While this exercise can be useful for chest development, it carries a significantly higher risk of shoulder injury, so only light weight and high repetitions are suggested.
Reverse Grip Bench Press
The reverse grip bench press refers to the lifter using an underhand grip to hold the bar. It is similar to the close grip in that it shifts emphasis onto the triceps and can help improve lockout pressing strength.
Band / Chain Bench Press
These two methods are used to create more resistance at the top of the movement to create a different training effect. Since both methods (bands or chains) make the weights feel heavier toward lockout, they are typically recommended for strengthening the lockout and triceps. Others say bands increase the lifters ability to accelerate the barbell quickly to lockout, or help the lifter get a feel for heavier weights.
Board / Pin Press
These variations are known as partial ROM (range of motion) movements. They limit the ROM by stopping the bar before it makes contact with the chest. A board press is performed with wooden boards of any height placed on the chest between the barbell and the lifter. Pin Presses are performed in a Power Rack with the safety pins set in a position that stops the bar before making contact with the chest. These can be performed from varying heights, and the height is usually chosen at or right below where the lifter fails a typical repetition on the Bench Press. The Board Press is usually recommended over the Pin Press.
The floor press is the only exercise that does not require a bench at all. The lifter performs the floor press while laying on the floor with the Barbell being held in a rack. The legs are usually kept straight out, with each repetition paused in the bottom position. This exercise is a partial range of motion and works well for moving emphasis onto the triceps and improving lockout.
Bench Press Tips & Mental Notes
- Grip the bar evenly, every time! This one might sound silly, but you would be surprised how off center some lifters end up. Double check!
- Keep control. Each rep should mirror the others and all should be smooth as if a machine.
- Explode to lockout! Speed is very important in building strength and continuing progress. Be controlled, but be fast!
- Death grip the bar. Squeeze the bar as tightly as possible to improve control over the weight.
- Pause reps for more control. For lifters having a hard time touching the same spot on the chest each and every rep, pausing can help.
- Be consistent. Different types of equipment including the bench and the barbell can be enough to affect your workouts.
- Get a spotter. The fact is, you are going to have a very, very difficult time making any progress if you are afraid to attempt a set that may end up a failure. Just ask, most people don’t mind. If you have to, Bench Press in an empty power rack with the safety pins set in place.
- Position for a strong un-rack. If you are lifting in a rack without a spotter, setup higher towards the head of the bench to lessen the distance you have to pull the bar out.
- Setup with weight through the traps. Positioning yourself so most of the weight from the barbell is transferred through the upper back and trapezius, pressing down into the bench.
- Keep the elbows under the bar. If you let the bar travel too far forward or backward in relation to the elbows, you may find yourself in a weak position locking out the bench press.
Bench Press Assistance Exercises
Beyond the above Bench Press variations, there are other exercises lifters use to help build up the Bench Press. Here are some of the most popular:
- Overhead Press (all variations)
- Triceps Extensions
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline/Decline Bench Press
- JM Press
- Front Raises
- Push Ups
- Rows (Barbell Rows, Dumbbell Rows)
- Pull-ups / Lat Pulldowns
Injury Risk and Prevention
The most common injuries are to the shoulders and pectorals. Referred to as “weight lifter’s shoulder”, the Bench Press may be one of the main culprits when performed with unsafe form.
The first and most important method of preventing shoulder and pectoral injury is to tuck the shoulder blades, and arch the back. When performed correctly, this creates far less stress on the joints in the bottom of the movement by decreasing the range of motion in the bottom portion of the lift. Narrowing the grip width can also decrease pectoral and shoulder strain. Lifters who practice these techniques have a drastically lower risk of shoulder and pectoral injury.
Another recommendation is, at minimum, balance the amount of pressing exercises performed with an equal or greater amount of pulling exercises. Rowing movements (Barbell Rows, Dumbbell Rows) especially. These exercises help balance out the shoulder joint and improve posture, both essential to long term shoulder health.
Video Demonstration: Proper Bench Press Form
The video below covers upper back tightness, foot positioning, elbow tucking, and more.