Bench press is in pretty much every programme ever written it’s definitely my favourite upper body pressing exercise nothing really involves the whole upper body or allows you to push such high force outputs the way that bench press does. The bench press takes no prisoners however it allows for great progress and physical gains but if you perform the bench press with poor technique or don’t pay attention to how you train it you could live to regret it.
At heart it is a very simple concept lie down flat on the bench press grab the barbell, bring it to your chest and bring it back up. Can’t be that hard? Well to be honest it isn’t a difficult exercise to perform correctly which makes it even more bewildering how many people miss the mark so completely.
In this article I will show you how to perform a good bench press set with safe, efficient and repeatable technique what I will not be showing you how to do in this article.
- How to bench press correctly in a bench shirt.
- How to arch up like a contortionist to limit the range.
- How to feel maximum chest involvement and get a sick pump.
Stage 1 – Getting your bench press environment correct.
Out of the three powerlifts the bench press is probably the most open to being screwed up by your surroundings the difference between two bench presses can be significant a simple thing such as how high the bench is can completely destroy some people’s setup. Here is what you should be looking for from your bench press and barbell and how to address it if you can’t get this ideal set up.
Your Bench should
- Have a non slippery cover that ideally depresses slightly when you lie down on it. If you have a slippery bench press than you can lay some resistance bands across the length of the bench to make it much more grippy.
- Be low enough that you should be able to put your whole foot on the floor with ease. If it is too high you can put your foot on something solid like a plate or a block to make up the difference.
- Have enough settings to allow you to set the barbell just slightly below the level of your wrist at full arm’s length. If your bench press doesn’t have this then you can buy a new bench press or move dumbbell bench into a rack.
- Have a solid rack and low profile J hooks.
- Be a uniform shape the whole way tapered bench presses can be very annoying.
- Be solidly built and not move when you apply lower body pressure into the floor most stand alone bench presses will be fine but this can be a major problem with dumbbell benches. Having your spotter stop it with their foot or putting some plates behind the bench under the wheels can help.
- Have a small raised platform to allow your spotter a good leverage from which they can hand out the barbell.
- Room for a spotter!
Your barbell should
- Be straight
- Have barbell markings to allow you to take a symmetrical grip.
- Have a good deep knurling
- Be reasonably stiff but well manufactured.
- Have a sleeve that allows you to secure a clip or lock onto the bar.
- Ideally you want to use a power bar and not a weightlifting bar (unless the weightlifters in your gym are annoying in which case definitely use their competition Elikeo barbell).
- Have a spotter if you’re going heavy or lifting to fatigue
- Have wrist wraps if you want to use them.
- Probably not bench press in a bro gym on Monday since it is international chest day.
- Have a cotton T-Shirt or top that is unlikely to slide on leather.
Stage 2 – Lying down on the bench press
This can be made extremely complicated if you are setting up a powerlifting arch luckily for you this is a complete waste of time unless you want to get the maximum out of your bench press for powerlifting competition. To set up your bench press you need to have achieved the following from your set up.
- Have the barbell at eye level when you’re lying down.
- Have your upper back (traps) and bum flat on the bench, you should have a small arch in your back and be able to feel 60-70% of your bodyweight on your traps/upper back.
- Have your feet flat on the floor and close to your knee this will allow you to be well connected/stable and allow you to utalise some leg drive with your press.
Good solid set up weight spread well along torso, legs slightly behind the knee allowing good drive off the chest and a stable base.
Competition specific set up only for power lifters who want to maximise leverages and bench more in competition.
Reasonable set up with the upper body shoulder is good safe position but feet are too far away from bench/knees meaning the lifter in not as stable as they could be. Slightly bigger arch in the lower back and changing the foot position would improve this set up instantly.
Stage 3 – Grabbing the barbell.
- The grip width you take should allow you to have your forearms vertical in relation to the floor when the barbell is at your chest. Commonly explained as having your arms at 12 oclock. Easiest way to discover this width is to take the barbell down to your chest and change your grip until you hit one that lets you have your forearms in the vertical position. Use the land markings on the barbell to remember where this grip is i.e. pinky on the middle barbell ring.
- The barbell should sit on the shelf of your hand/wrist basically as close to sitting on your wrist as you can see in the diagramme below the correct position is marked as a green line and the incorrect position is marked with a red line.
- When you take the barbell out keep your knuckles to the ceiling if your grip is correct than the barbell should be directly over your wrist, elbow and shoulder at the beginning of the lift.
- Once you have unracked the barbell (if lifting heavy have a spotter help as taking the barbell out of the rack if it is heavy is a very unfriendly position for the shoulder to be in) you should take it out to the point where the barbell sits directly over your shoulders. This is the strongest position to have the bar at the start as holding it higher up or lower down puts moment arms on the shoulder which compromise the stability of these joints at lock out.
Stage 4 – Beginning the lift.
You should now be lying on the bench press in a stable position with the weight securely in your hands at arm’s length sitting in a nice secure position over your shoulders. Now you can begin the first half or eccentric portion of the lift.
- Before you take the bar down just ensure your weight is back on your upper traps and your shoulders are set down not flared up.
- Begin the lift by breaking at the elbows and guiding the bar down under control towards your sternum.
- Keep your elbows and wrists under the bar the entire time.
- Bring the bar down to your sternum or nipple line, it should come down to touch your chest.
- A common thing people get wrong during bench press is letting the barbell sink or rest on their chest you should be in constant control of the bar during the lift. Practicing some bench press where you don’t touch your chest can help with your control (“spotto” press).
- Tucking your elbows is a common bit of advice given on the internet for bench press however this is more relevant when benching in a shirt, a bench shirt has a set line which you need to actively pull into to benifit from using the shirt. When you are not benching in a shirt your bar control is important and is down to your proportions and strength alone.
Here we have a very good example of a bottom position look how the shoulders are set down tucking the scapula together, elbows have a slight tuck, chest is raised up to the bar, wrist and elbows are directly under the bar and the lifter is in complete control of the barbell.
Stage 5 – Pressing the barbell.
When pressing the bar it is important to remain in control in the initial explosion off the chest as a lack of control can lead to the elbows drifting and the shoulders being favoured instead of the stronger muscles of the chest and lats.
- Press the bar back towards the rack it is essential that when you initiate this process you drive your heels into the floor and squeeze your glutes to get as much speed from the bottom as possible the more momentum you can generate in the initial phase the better chance you will have at getting through the sticking point or making a sub maximal weight easier.
- Keep accelerating the bar as quickly as you can towards the sticking point as you start to feel the barbell slowing this when the primary movers become the triceps and your chest, shoulders and lats become less involved. A good cue to emphasis the lock out is to bring your elbows in together.
- To stop your bum coming off the bench when you utalise your leg drive from the bottom it is important to experiment with your foot position. Usually placing the feet out wider or bringing them close towards your head (putting them back) can achieve a tighter set up and let you use as much leg drive as you can muster without lifting your arse off the deck.
Common errors during the bench press and some ways to target them
Problem – Shoulders drifting up, elbows flaring in the press.
Solution – Often caused by not getting a good set up try and feel like you have more of your weight going through your upper back as discussed. Another problem that can influence this is weak lats/support muscles (more likely to be a poor set up) ensure you have a sufficient amount of vertical and horizontal pulling in your programme to make sure you are balanced.
Problem – Poor control of the bar (collapsing at the bottom/bouncing off the chest or inconsistent bar path).
Solution – partial range of motion drill that will help to encourage better bar control an example of such an exercise would be “spotto press” where the lifter doesn’t touch the chest but moves the bar through an incomplete and consistent range of motion. This is a great teaching tool for showing the lifter how to hold tension through the lift and how to better control the barbell.
Problem – Inconsistent strength gain
Solution – follow a more systematic approach to training use a 3-4 week training cycle that consistently uses the same frequency, volume and intensity cycling. Remove all assistance work and concentrate specifically on bench press. Then experiment with some different loading cycles. When you get a set x reps scheme that works for you then you can start to add in assistance work again systematically. When your training stalls it is almost always better to strip back to your basics and try to get them correct.
Problem – Constant Shoulder Pain
Solution – use a thorough warm up and make sure you have a good shoulder strengthening programme to help build up the smaller postural muscles of the shoulder joint (rotator cuffs, lower traps, lats and seratus anterior). Make sure your training is pain free if a movement such as bench press causes you acute pain then you should remove it from your training and look to seek out the cause of the pain. Involving a health care professional is an essential part of this process.
Problem – can’t keep my ass on the bench
Solution – change your set up to make it almost impossible for you to lift your ass up on the bench press if you check out the Supertraining Eric Spotto tutorial you will get some great tips. Basically adjust your feet either out or towards the rack and make sure you have most of your weight going through your upper traps. Leg drive should be a sensation you get through the whole lift not just in the press.
Hope this article helps you to trouble shoot some problems with your technique and to get a good idea of how to set up and execute a good rep.