How to bench press

How to Bench PressHow to Bench Press with proper form: lower the bar to your mid-chest. Press it back up until your elbows are locked.

Here’s how to Bench Press with proper form:

  1. Lie on the bench with your eyes under the bar
  2. Grab the bar with a medium grip-width (thumbs around the bar!)
  3. Unrack the bar by straightening your arms
  4. Lower the bar to your mid-chest
  5. Press the bar back up until your arms are straight

Hold the weight for a second at the top, with straight arms. Breathe. Then take a big breath, hold it, and lower the bar again. Keep your butt on the bench when you press it back up. Bench sets of five reps every StrongLifts 5×5 workout A.

The Bench Press is a full body, compound exercise. It works your chest, shoulders and triceps most. It’s the most effective exercise to gain upper-body strength and muscle mass because it’s the upper-body exercise you’ll lift most weight on (more than Overhead Press). The bigger your bench, the bigger your chest.

To avoid shoulder pain, tuck your elbows 75° when you lower the bar. Don’t try to stretch your chest by flaring your elbows 90° out. You’ll impinge your shoulders if your upper-arms are perpendicular to your torso at the bottom. Tuck your elbows 75° to Bench Press pain-free.

Unlike the Squat or Deadlift, the bar doesn’t move in a vertical line when you Bench Press with proper form. It moves diagonally from your mid-chest over your shoulders. This is the safest way to Bench Press for your shoulders. It’s also the most effective way to Bench Press heavy.

This is the definitive guide to proper form on the Bench Press.

Free: download my Bench Press checklist to get the most important tips to Bench Press with proper form. Review these tips between sets and you’ll increase your Bench Press without getting hurt. Signup to my daily email tips to get instant access to the checklist. Just click here.

#1: Incomplete Range of Motion

The barbell should touch your chest on every single rep.

Failing to lower the barbell all the way down to your chest is cheating. It doesn’t count as one full rep. Not only will this fail to efficiently recruit all of your pectoral muscles (and cause less muscle growth)…

…but it can also put your shoulders at risk for a rotator cuff injury.

Note: Reduce the weight by 20% while you experiment with any form changes. Lifting with correct form may be harder at first, but you’ll make fast progress once your form is on point.

#3: Flaring Elbows

Your elbows should be slightly tucked in towards your ribcage, not flaring directly out to the sides.

Imagine that you were a football lineman, pushing an opponent with all of your force. Would you push them with your elbows flaring up to the level of your shoulders (like the red line picture above)?

Hell no! Your elbows would be closer down to your sides. Not only are you stronger in this position, but bench pressing with flaring elbows can also lead to shoulder impingement (inflammation of rotator cuff tendons).

If you’re struggling to make this adjustment, you may need to narrow your grip a little bit.

#5: Happy Feet

Your feet should be planted firmly into the ground… and they shouldn’t move during the entire set.

Just like retracting your shoulder blades, planting your feet will create more stability and allow you to bench more weight.

You should bring your feet back slightly behind your knees, and then press your feet into the floor. This will contract your quads and strengthen your base of support. However, be sure to push your feet downwards and FORWARDS, as opposed to directly downwards (see the arrows above)…

…because when your press directly downwards, your butt tends to shoot up. And this completely destroys the stable base that you’re trying to create here.

#7: Incorrect Bar Path

bench-press-bar-path

The bar should start directly above your shoulders, drop down to your lower chest, and then return to exactly where you started.

You can find the proper starting position by holding the bar above your shoulders with straight arms. Next, move it forwards and backwards until you find the point where it feels “weight-less”.

From here, drop it down to your chest, so that it lands at about nipple level (or a little bit lower). This should naturally happen if you’re making sure to keep your elbows slightly tucked as your lower the weight (see #3).

Now here’s the most important part: be sure to push the bar back to where you started… NOT just up directly upwards in a straight line. If you push it straight up from your chest, you’ll be following an inefficient bar path, sacrificing strength, and ultimately sabotaging your muscle gains.

#9: Poor Chest Activation

You should “feel” you chest contracting at the top of each rep.

If you struggle to “feel” your chest working, then perform a few VERY LIGHT sets of chest flies right before you bench. Focus on feeling your chest muscles contract with each rep. After doing this, it should be easier to replicate the process, and contract your chest muscles at the top of each bench press rep.

Stretch (Yes, Stretch)

This will come as the biggest surprise to some, but performing a few stretches can, in fact, boost your bench. Forget all the arguments about whether static stretching is good or bad. This is more about fixing weak links in your pressing motion.

Your muscles need to be able to move through a full range of motion for optimal growth. If your muscles are inflexible and get locked up, it will limit your bench. The two areas that hold most people back are the back and hips.

If you want to increase your bench max, not only should you add thickness to your back, you also need to stretch your lats.

Tight lats can mean that your shoulders won’t work right. And if your shoulders aren’t working, your bench is at risk. Here are two movements that can help your back mobility.

Pec Stretch

  • Loop a resistance band around a stable object over your head and grab both ends with one hand.
  • Your arm should be at about a 45-degree angle.
  • Step out and away from the band so there is tension with a straight arm. 
  • Push your chest up and out and slowly turn your body away from your hand.
  • You should feel a stretch across your pec and into your front deltoid (front of your shoulder). 
  • Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Lat Stretch

  • Use the same band setup as the Pec Stretch, but this time face the band.
  • Grab it with one hand, step back away from the band, and with a straight arm and neutral spine, pull your hips away and lower your chest toward the floor.
  • You should feel a stretch from your triceps through your armpit to your lats.
  • Hold for 30 seconds each arm.
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Perhaps more surprising is how your hips can limit your upper body. Creating full-body tension is essential for a good bench press, and as you might guess, the term “full body” includes your hips and core.

You want your feet locked down and pressed forcefully into the ground to create more force and stability. If you’re one of those people who places his feet on top of the bench or up in the air, you’re blowing the lift.

If you feel discomfort or a lack of tension in your body when your feet are on the ground, the issue might be your hip mobility. Tight hip flexors prevent hyperextension, which is part of properbench press technique. Use this hip flexor stretch to help fix the problem.

Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Kneel down on your left knee with your right foot on the floor and your right knee bent 90 degrees.
  • Reach up with your right hand as high as you can.
  • Bend your torso to your right.
  • Rotate your torso to the right as you reach with your right hand as far behind you as you can.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  • Kneel on your right knee, switch arms and repeat.

Add to Your Arms

In addition to a powerful chest, guys love arms that fill out their shirt sleeves, which should make this last area of focus an easy sell.

You need strong triceps to press more weight. The muscles in the back of your arms are doing most of the work in the latter phase of a bench press rep, when you’re trying to “lock it out.”

That’s why any good bench prep routine should include heavy extensions, dips and close-grip presses on an incline press.

But if you really want to fry your triceps in a way that will improve your bench, try the “JM Press,” named after JM Blakely, a man who has pressed more than 700 pounds.

The JM Press

  • Position yourself on a flat bench and grab a barbell with a narrow grip.
  • Lower the bar in a straight line down toward the upper part up your chest, just below your neck.
  • Rock the weight back by pushing your elbows up and above your chest. The weight should be in front of your face as if you were doing a lying triceps extension (a.k.a Skullcrusher).
  • DO NOT go too heavy with this lift.
  • Perform a Triceps Extension back to the starting position and repeat.

The movement might feel a little awkward at first. Think of it as a close-grip bench press/triceps extension hybrid, and you’ll start seeing improvement from your triceps and, eventually, in your bench performance.

A version of this article originally appeared on stack.com.

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The Right Way to Bench

To bench correctly, you must take the following 5 steps:

  1. You need to lie down on the bench so that the bar is directly underneath your eyes. Put your feet in the correct position.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades back and grab the bar. Try to bend or break the bar to tighten your upper back and create a stable position for your shoulders. Squeeze your glutes, push the knees out and try to create ‘sticky feet’.
  3. You can now lift the bar out of the rack, over your shoulders. Make sure you have the correct grip before you lift the weight out of the rack.
  4. Keep your shoulders blades back, your upper back tight, and lower the weight under tight control but as fast as possible. Lead with your elbows.
  5. When the bar touches your chest, you can extend your arms (leading with the elbows) and lock out the weight.

Your PR is doomed from the start if you make a mistake in any of the first steps.

Now, there is something we need to address before you even lie down on the bench. Along with your bench setup, and the reason that is so important, we need to discuss rack height.

bench press

Your PR is doomed from the start if you make a mistake in any of the first steps. Image courtesy of The Swole.

What Are You Looking At?

Start by sitting down on the bench, then lie on your back. When lying on the bench your eyes should be looking at the bar, or just past it, when looking straight ahead. I prefer to be directly underneath in a way that I am looking right at the bar.

Any other position will increase the difficulty of unracking the bar. Try out different positions if you don’t believe me.

bench press

When lying on the bench your eyes should be looking at the bar, or just past it, when looking straight ahead. Image courtesy of Muscle and Brawn.

Bench Like A Soldier

When you lie down on the bench, make sure your upper back is tight, and is planted firmly on the bench. Having a tight upper back will actually make it easier to maintain stability and keep a firm position on the bench. This position will also keep your chest up during bench pressing, giving you an advantage. Your range of motion will be slightly decreased.

Most people find it difficult to keep their upper back tight while keeping their shoulders retracted. Understandable, there’s a lot going on when you are trying to break your bench record. Here’s a tip that will teach you how to keep that position.

“Ten-hut!”

I am sure you can “stand at attention” like they do in the army.  Part of that “drill” is to stand upright, with the chin up, chest out, and shoulders back. This is the same position you should emulate on the bench. Try to assume this position while lying on the bench and do a few reps. Put the bar back and reestablish your correct position every time you feel you’ve slipped.

During the press movement itself, your shoulders and upper back should move as little as possible. One way to keep tight, and in the correct position, is by pushing the bar with your elbow. That is the only part of the body that should move.

During sets of 8 or 10, you will notice that after a few reps you will feel a bit looser. It will become more pronounced with each rep. Just try to keep as tight as possible, for as long as possible. Over time you will be able to maintain it throughout a complete set.

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bench press

I am sure you can “stand at attention” like they do in the army. Part of that “drill” is to stand upright, with the chin up, chest out, and shoulders back. This is the same position you should emulate on the bench. Try to assume this position while lying on the bench and do a few reps. Put the bar back and reestablish your correct position every time you feel you’ve slipped. Image courtesy of http://usarmy.vo.llnwd.net/

The Importance Of Feet

Your stance is just as important as any other part of your set-up. Most people don’t pay much attention to it, and because of that, they don’t press as much as they could. A proper stance will allow for a stable position on the bench while pressing massive weights.

There are two things you need to be aware of. These are foot placement, and stance width. Stance width is almost always a matter of personal preference. The only thing you should keep in mind is that a narrower stance makes it easier to raise your butt off the bench. This is unacceptable.

Foot placement is something you will need to pay a bit more attention to. Your feet need to be placed so your shins are nearly vertical. In this position, you will be able to generate most force in your legs, and you will be able to generate a good amount of tension in your upper body. This will help to stabilize your trunk when benching.

When you place your feet too far back under the hips, it will also make it easier for you to raise your butt off the bench. Still unacceptable. You can avoid this by placing your feet extremely far behind, all the way back so you need to stand on your toes. If you do this though, you will be less stable.

Honestly, you will see a lot of lifters in this position with shaky legs. This creates loss of energy. That energy should be used to remain rigid on the bench. A less common problem is the fact your feet are placed too far in front of your knees. It’s mostly a newbie mistake. But if this is something you have a habit of doing, just place your feet under your knees and practice driving the heels into the floor when pressing.

bench press

This is not a good position for your feet.

How To Grab The Bar

You should grab the bar evenly. Duh. Use the rings on the bar to do this. Make sure you use a grip that allows you to keep your elbows at a 30 to 45 degree angle from your body,while maintaining a vertical forearm. Ideal grip width is something that will absolutely vary from person to person because it’s dependant on the width of your shoulder girdle.

The best way to make sure your grip is perfect is by using the rings on the bar as a reference point. Just keep in mind that when the bar touches your chest that your forearms should be vertical. You also want to keep the bar in the heel of your palm, with your hands in line with your wrists. This way the weight of the bar is distributed across the bones of the forearm and not the wrists.

It can cause serious wrist injury over time if you have your wrists in front of the bar, and your wrists folded back. If your wrists are behind the bar it can cause the bar to slip out of your hands. You don’t need me to tell you why this is bad.

Right, that covers it for the set up. Let’s take a look at the actual lifts, in which part of the movement you are failing, and why.

bench press

It can cause serious wrist injury over time if you have your wrists in front of the bar, and your wrists folded back. If your wrists are behind the bar it can cause the bar to slip out of your hands. You don’t need me to tell you why this is bad. Image courtesy of StrongLifts.

The Bench Press Is A Full Body Lift

As you might have figured out by now, the bench press can be considered a full body lift. The whole body needs to be in sync in order to perform maximally. If you can bench press with perfect form, the only reason you are failing a lift is because of a weak muscle group.

First, if you want want to know what your weakest muscle group is in the bench press, need to know how all the muscles work during a bench press. Your chest and shoulder muscles enable you to get the weight off your chest. Your triceps are the muscles that make sure you can lock the bar out.

The muscles on the back of your body are also involved. They help to stabilize you during a bench press. The trapezius and rhomboids keep your shoulder blades firmly planted on the bench. Your lats keep your elbows from moving out or towards your head when pressing the bar. This helps ensure the angle between your torso and upper arms doesn’t change in the bottom part of the movement. You can generate maximal force this way.

Even your legs play a part when you are benching maximal weights. They make sure you lay firmly on the bench. Also, if you use your legs properly, you can generate some decent leg drive to help get the bar of your chest in that first inch or so.

So yeah, the bench press is a full body lift, much like the squat and deadlift.

bench press

The bench press is a full body lift, much like the squat and deadlift.

Fixing Weak Links

When you are benching, several things can go wrong:

  •       The bar comes down too fast
  •       The bar doesn’t come off your chest
  •       The bar drifts towards your face
  •       The bar moves to one side
  •       The bar gets stuck in the middle
  •       The bar gets stuck at the top

Knowing how every muscle functions during the bench press helps to analyze and solve all of these problems.

Let’s take a look–

The bar comes down too fast

There’s no way to sugar coat it- If you can’t control the bar on the way down, then the weight is just too heavy for you.

It’s time to check your ego and lower the weight.

The bar doesn’t come off your chest

Maybe you have no problem lowering the weight, but you can’t get it off your chest.

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That might be because of 1 of the next 2 problems:

  1. The weight is too heavy for you to press
  2. Your chest is too weak.

I know they sound the same, but they’re not. Everybody is stronger in the negative portion of the lift. This means you can always lower more weight under control than you can lift. That’s why it’s possible the weight is just too heavy. This is when the bar just won’t budge.

But if you manage to get it off your chest just a few millimeters to even a few inches, it’s probably because of a weak chest.

If this is the case, you should focus on:

  • Bench pressing with a pause
  • Extra wide grip bench presses
  • Dumbbell presses

Exercises like flyes are not effective to increase your strength, so they are of no use in this situation.

The bar drifts towards your face

Another problem is when the bar drifts towards your face when pressing. This turns the bench press in an impossibly heavy triceps extension. You need to work on your tricep strength in this case.

The best exercises to solve this problem are:

  • Rolling extensions
  • Floor extensions
  • JM Presses

The bar moves to the left or right

This problem is a lot less common. If one of your elbows is flaring to the outside, it is because of weak lats. In this case, the weight will transfer to your shoulder. But your shoulders are a small and relatively weak muscle group, so the bar will start drifting toward one side. Soon after this happens, your shoulders won’t be able to support the heavy weight anymore, and the bar will come down.

You need to strengthen your lats, so work in some of the following exercises:

  • Barbell rows
  • DB Rows
  • Seated Rows
  • Cable Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Chin ups
  • Pull ups

The bar gets stuck in the middle

Another possibility is that both your elbows will flare out. When this happens, the bar won’t drift to the right or left, it will get stuck in the middle of the movement. It could be your lats are too weak, but more likely, it is because of weak shoulders.

The fix is to strengthen your shoulders with

  • Standing Overhead presses, with barbells and dumbbells
  • Seated Overhead presses, with barbells and dumbbells

Exercises like side laterals will not help you with this. Much like chest isolation exercises, they are useless for strength development.

The bar gets stuck at the top

Your triceps are too weak if you can’t lockout the bar completely. If you’re having this problem, it’s probably the lower tricep head near the inside your elbow thats too weak. The medial head.

You need to strengthen the whole triceps. But preferably with exercises that will focus more on the medial head. So try the next exercises to do that.

  • Small grip 4-board and 5-board presses
  • Rolling triceps extensions
  • Elbows out dumbbell extension

Wrapping it up

That should cover it for your perfect bench, from head to toe.

You now know how to set yourself up for a max attempt on the bench press. You also now know what muscles you need to focus on, and what exercises will make them work better.

Martijn KoevoetsMartijn Koevoets is a powerlifting coach with Shredded By Science, competitor and author of the no. 1 Kindle bestseller “High Frequency Powerlifting”. As a blogger, he has been featured on websites like EliteFTS, JTSStrength, Lift The Bar and more. He is also founder of Powerlifting University where he brings together the science and practise of powerlifting.

How to Set Up the Bench Press

A Beginner's Guide to the Bench Press

  1. Grab the bar shoulder width to just outside. Close grip and wide grip are good exercises to use in addition to a standard bench press, but shoulder width to just outside will put you in a strong position. This position will help to protect your shoulders, pecs, and bicep tendons.
  2. Squeeze the bar as tight as you can.
  3. Position your eyes just underneath the bar.
  4. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, or “put them in your back pockets.” Imagine you are trying to pinch the bench between your shoulder blades. This will protect your shoulders and lock in your technique (making you stronger).
  5. Arch your back. No, it is not bad for your back. Your spine has a natural curve in it. Keep it that way and use it to connect your legs to your upper body.
  6. Either tuck your legs or leave them out in front of you. But the goal is to get your hips higher than your knees so you can transfer leg drive into the bar to help you bench more weight.
  7. Take a big breath, filling your belly just like the squat, squeeze the bar and unrack it WITH THE HELP OF A SPOTTER. Have you ever dropped 100lbs on your throat or your face? Don’t be a dummy. The best lifters in the world use spotters.
  8. Let the bar settle. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed tightly. Flex your lats like you’re doing a pull up. Begin the eccentric (downward) movement with your elbows at 45 degrees. Touch the bar just below your nipple line (or on the bottom of your sports bra ladies). Reverse the bar keeping your elbows in the same 45 degree position.

Again, there a lot of more technical aspects that I’ll get into in later articles, but these are the basics. If you can do this, you’re better than 90% of America’s gym-goers.

How do I program for the bench press? Well, you can actually follow the same rep scheme I laid out for the squat. But I’ll give you a few more examples that might pique your interest.

Beginner Bench Press Program

Sets x Reps % of 1 rep max Ex. 200# Bencher
Week 1 3×15 65-70-80 120-140-160
Week 2 3×3 65-75-85 130-150-170
Week 3 3×1 75-85-95 150-170-190
Week 4 3×10 50 100
Week 5 3×5 65-75-85 130-150-170
Week 6 3×3 70-80-90 140-160-180
Week 7 3×1 90-95-100 180-190-200+
Week 8 3×10 50 100
  • A very simple and effective program for beginners.

Advanced Bench Press Program

Sets x Reps % of 1 rep max Ex. 400# Bencher
Week 1 5×5 65 260
Week 2 4X4 70 280
Week 3 5×1 50 200
Week 4 5×5 70 280
Week 5 4×4 75 300
Week 6 5×1 50 200
Week 7 5×3 65-70-75-80-85 260-280-300-320-340
Week 8 5×2 60-70-80-90-95 240-280-320-360-380
Week 9 5×1 50 200
Week 10 3×1 90-95-100 360-380-400+
  • Similar program numbers wise, but the key difference is the incorporated deloads (weeks 3, 6 and 9). This is beneficial for a more advanced bencher who is moving heavier weights. The body needs more time to recover from the heavier loads, so the rest weeks are essential.

Photography By: Ken Hicks and Elite FTS.

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