The barbell bench press is one of, if not the most popular barbell exercises in existence.I’m sure you know how to bench press to some extent. The bench is one of the first fundamental lifts you learn after stepping foot inside a gym. However, very few athletes outside of elite powerlifters will understand all the variables and intricacies involved in a proper bench press.
When training for muscle and/or strength it is extremely important to have your bench press form dialed in. Any form breakdown will quickly show up as excessive soreness, poor performance, or even injury.
The fact is, the bench can be a very safe lift if done correctly. But like anything else, if done incorrectly the bench press can be problematic. Incorrect form on the bench press has probably caused more shoulder injuries than any other exercise.
I find breaking the bench press up into three steps makes the learning process easier to digest.
Let’s get into it!
Step #1: The Set Up
If the first thing you think about when starting a bench press is grabbing the bar, you have already started down the wrong path.
Despite what the bodybuilding magazines will tell you, the bench press is a full body lift. The pectorals are the main muscle group engaged in the movement (that is why they tend to get the most sore) however, if you want to maximize power you need to get the lower body involved.
When setting up on the bench, the first thing you need to do is get your feet set. Your feet can either be flat on the floor or tucked underneath you. The key is finding what is most comfortable and allows you to create the most tension. Note — some powerlifting federations (USAPL) require a flat foot.
In my opinion, your foot placement should resemble a squat stance –a little wider than shoulder width and toes pointing slightly out.
The second point to consider during the setup process is scapular retraction (pinching your shoulder blades together). To accomplish scapular retraction, you will need to arch your back while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Think about trying to hold a pencil in your upper back. This is not only the most effective way to bench press the most weight, it is also the safest.
The “arched” bench press puts the shoulder joint in a more favorable and healthy position as well as shortens the range of motion.
Get your shoulders retracted and KEEP them in that position throughout the entire movement. Your shoulder location on the bench should place the bar directly over your eyes while in the rack.
Next, we need to look at grip position. Where you grip the bar is going to largely depend on personal preference and limb length.
Longer arms will require a wider grip. Generally speaking, you want to find a grip position that allows your forearms to remain vertical throughout the entire lift.
It’s never a good idea to use a thumbless or “suicide” grip. It’s dangerous and does not allow you to effectively create tension on the bar. Always wrap your thumb around the bar and squeeze. A tight grip on the bar helps create tension. Some people use the cue, “break the bar” or “pull the bar apart” to help emphasize gripping the bar tight.
Step #2: The Lift Off
Most people pay no attention to this part of the lift. That is a big mistake. A well executed hand off can make or break the entire lift.
Most people tend to lose shoulder retraction during the lift off, before the actual exercise even takes place!
The key is to get into position (shoulders retracted) and then have a partner give you a good lift so you don’t need to extend your arms and lose the upper back tightness.
In order for this to work, you need to pull the bar off the rack, not lift the bar off the rack.
A good lift off requires the bar to be pushed straight off the rack into your starting bench position. There is an art to giving a good lift.
I actually recommend practicing self lift offs and save using a partner’s assistance for maximal attempts.
Once you get the bar off the rack you want to bring it into position so the bar is directly above the forearm bone. The arm should be completely straight in the starting position.
Step #3: The Bench Press
Once the bar is in the starting position you are ready to go.
The first thing you should do is make sure tension is still on the bar. Remember those cues I mentioned earlier, “break the bar” or “pull the bar apart”.
Before you start the downward motion it is important to take in a huge breath of air. Just like when squatting, the Valsalva Maneuver is used to create intra abdominal pressure.
Elbow position is a BIG aspect of the bench press where people often need some work. A “bodybuilding bench press” involves flaring the elbows throughout the range of motion. Keeping your elbows out wide may provide the greatest stimulus to the chest but it’s not the best or safest way to bench the most amount of weight.
On the negative (eccentric) you want to tuck your elbows in and then about halfway up (concentric) flare the elbows out to finish the lift. If this seems like a strange concept go on YouTube and watch the elbow position of strong benchers. This way of benching is also a lot safer for the shoulders.
Where the bar touches the chest will largely be determined by grip width, the degree of elbow tuck and arch. For most people this will be somewhere just underneath the nipple line.
Lower the bar as fast as you can maintain control. This will be a different speed for everyone. The key is to maintain control of the bar at all times. If you lower the bar too fast and “dive bomb” it, you will be susceptible to losing tightness off the chest.
To pause or not to pause
There is a debate in the powerlifting community whether or not powerlifters should pause their bench press reps in training.
If you are not aware, the competition bench press requires a deliberate pause on the chest before reversing back to the starting position.
I have recently changed my stance on this matter. I used to think it was unnecessary to pause in training. My line of thinking was as long as you practice staying tight all the time, the pause was not really needed.
However, staying tight at the bottom during a pause is a skill in itself. The touch and go bench press takes advantage of the stretch reflex, whereas the paused bench press does not, at least not to the same degree.
I recently came to the conclusion that there really is no benefit for competitive powerlifters to use touch and go more than paused in training.
So, if you are a competitive powerlifter I recommend pausing all your reps. Practice how you play. Just remember to base your numbers off of a paused max not a touch and go max.
With all that being said, if you are not a competitive powerlifter feel free to use the touch and go method for all of your reps.
Assistance Exercises to Build the Bench
The movements that have the most carry over to the bench press are going to be the ones that look the most like the bench press.
As with all lifts, specificity is very important.
Here are my go to bench press assistance movements. I like to program these in after I do my main bench press work for the day. Don’t be afraid to use the barbell for assistance work. Somewhere down the line people got the impression that assistance work was supposed to be done exclusively with dumbbells and machines. That is not necessarily the case.
My Top Bench Builders
Close Grip Bench Press
Barbell Incline/Decline Bench Press
One Arm Dumbbell Press
I love the bench press. It’s a great exercise for developing upper body size and strength. However, I hate seeing it performed incorrectly. Most of the negative talk around the bench has to do with poor execution.
The bench is like anything else, before going heavy you need to make sure your form is dialed in. Once your form is there you can start emphasizing the weight.
At the end of the day, nothing builds gym cred like having a huge bench. So get in there and push some weight!