Somewhere over time, the bench press became the common standard for strength. Even someone who’s never been to the gym knows enough to ask a fit person, “How much ya bench?”
Notorious for turning every Monday into “International Chest Day” at most gyms, the bench press is more than a meathead exercise. It’s arguably the best exercise around for building upper-body strength and adding muscle to your chest, shoulders, triceps and even your upper back.
Despite its simple appearance, the bench press is a complex exercise that requires pristine form and patience to master. Here, we break down proper bench technique piece by piece to help you get stronger and keep your shoulders healthy.
BENCH PRESS 101
A proper bench press setup goes far beyond just laying down on the bench. The goal of the setup is to get your body as tight as possible and into the best position to move heavy weight while protecting your shoulders. This requires you to do three things:
- Arch your back
- Pull your shoulder blades down and back
- Set your feet in the best position to use leg drive while keeping your butt on the bench
Let’s break down this process step-by-step.
When you first get on the bench, you need to set your head, upper back and feet in the right spot to ensure proper form.
First things first, get your eyes directly under the bar. Then, place your feet in one of two positions — either in front of you with a wide stance and heels on the floor (more comfortable, but slightly less powerful) or hooked under you with heels off the floor (less comfortable, but this creates a bigger arch — more on this soon).
Wherever your feet end up, you want them dug into the floor hard enough so no one could move you if they tried.
There is controversy around whether to arch your back or maintain a natural arch. For powerlifters, there are three main reasons to arch your back while benching: It puts your shoulders in a safe position (pulled down and back), creates full-body tension to help control the path of the bar and lets you use your legs to move the bar, which takes stress off the shoulders.
You might ask, “Is arching my back like that dangerous?” The short answer is possibly. Arching your back isn’t a great idea while doing exercises that load your spine, such as squats and deadlifts. But in the case of the bench press, it’s similar to performing a yoga pose like upward dog that involves arching the back. Assuming you have no existing injuries, adding an arch or simply maintaining a natural arch is OK.
Once you’ve arched your back, you’ll need to pull your shoulders into a stable position. Pinch your shoulder blades together as if you were going to crush a walnut between them. Then, tug them into your back pockets. Imagine doing the exact opposite of a shrug; your shoulders should be as far as possible from your ears at this point.
Your ideal grip on the bar depends on your arm length and what muscles you want to train. If you have shorter arms, you’ll likely do better with a wider grip. If you have longer arms, a slightly narrower grip typically works better.
Choose one of three grip options:
- Medium grip (pinkies on the rings or slightly narrower)
- Wide grip (index or middle finger on the rings)
- Narrow grip (index finger slightly wider than where the bar turns from rough to smooth)
If you use a wider grip, you won’t have to move the bar as far, which means you could potentially lift heavier. However, a narrower grip results in a faster bar speed despite increased range of motion. Experiment with different grips to see which feels best for you.
It’s finally time to move the bar! Take the bar out of the rack by pulling the bar straight toward your feet, NOT by pressing it up straight up. This ensures you keep your shoulders in the down-and-back position. Use a spotter to hand the bar to you if it’s heavy.
Next, lower the bar to your chest slowly by tucking your elbows in toward your sides. Imagine how you’d hold your arms if you were pushing a broken-down car up a hill; this will be your strongest bench press position. Don’t let your elbows flare out like a chicken flapping its wings; this position isn’t very strong nor is it safe for your shoulders.
The bar should touch your lower chest, somewhere between the nipple line and the bottom of your ribcage. This differs based on body proportions and grip width, but the ideal place to bring the bar keeps your wrists and elbows in a straight line.
It’s a good idea to pause the bar on your chest briefly before pressing it back up. Do not bounce the bar off your chest. This takes the stress off the working muscles and can be potentially dangerous if the weight is too heavy.
After touching the bar to your lower chest, press the bar back up with your arms and legs. A well-executed bench press uses every muscle from head to toe to move the weight, including the legs. This is the hardest part of the bench press to learn, so don’t fret if you don’t master it right away.
A well-executed bench press uses every muscle from head to toe to move the weight, including the legs.
Press the bar off your chest and slightly backward toward your face. The bar shouldn’t move in a straight line, but rather in an upside-down “J” shape. This allows the bigger muscles of the chest and shoulders to assist the smaller muscles of the forearms and triceps.
At the same time you press with your arms, your feet should be pushing hard through the floor to increase your pressing power. If your heels are flat on the ground, imagine pushing your toes through the front of your shoes or trying to slide your body backward off the bench. If your feet are tucked back with your heels off the ground, try to push your heels down through the floor. Both techniques give you a little extra pop off the chest to help move the weight.
Be careful not to lift your butt off the bench. If your butt comes up, that means you’re pushing with your hips and not your feet.
BUILD A BETTER BENCH PRESS
Learn to master your bench press technique and you’ll set yourself up for a long road of added strength and healthy shoulders. While these techniques may seem complex at first, a little patience and a lack of ego go a long way. Start light, focus on technique and keep pressing.
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