Bench Press 101

By Jim Smith

No other exercise is more revered than the bench press. 

If you didn’t know that every Monday is National Bench Day, you would figure it out pretty quickly when you stepped into any gym across the country, at the beginning of each week.  The majority of lifters are typically immersed in endless sets of every bench press variation you could imagine.  While it is true that it is a great exercise, the bench press isn’t the best choice for many lifters and, unfortunately, the majority don’t know how to actually perform it correctly. 

Taking a step back and perfecting your technique can make the difference between a shoulder injury and training hard for many years to come.  If you take your time and learn how to do it right, and understand your individual limitations and weaknesses, your bench press weights and your fitness goals will sky rocket.  Lastly, understanding that there are many ways to get the job done and the bench press is only one way, will help you break the mindset that you always have to incorporate it into your workouts. 

Redefining the Bench Press

The great thing about incorporating the bench press into your workouts is that you will develop upper body strength, power, and massive amounts of muscle on your chest and triceps.  But, with most good things, if you do them too much or the wrong way, the outcome that you are hoping for, will not be what you get.

You must first realize that the bench press requires the entire body to work together.  Even though the focus is on the upper body, to get better at benching, you’ll need to learn how to ‘turn on’ your hips and legs.  This means, if you bench with your feet up, you need to stop this immediately.  This will not only make the lift unstable, but you’ll be leaving weights on the rack.  Using your legs correctly when you bench will allow you to create more tension from your feet to your shoulders, which is essential for more stability and strength.  This will allow you to push bigger weights and smash through any training plateaus. 

To create more full body tension, plant your feet firmly on the ground and actively drive them downward during the lift.  The tighter you get in the lower body, the more control you’ll have over the weight.   Once you have the lower body all set, you’ll have to carry this tightness from your legs, across your core and into your upper body.  Coordinating all of these muscle groups will teach you how to use your body as a single unit or kinetic chain

Creating tension in the upper body starts with your grip on the bar.  Two cues I throw out to my athletes are ‘white knuckles’ or try to ‘melt the bar.’  The harder you grip, the tighter your entire upper body gets; this is referred to as irradiation.

Next, instead of just relaxing and dropping the bar down to your chest, you’ll want to actively pull the weight downward with your lats; much like a seated cable row.  And, as you row the weight downward, you should be simultaneously driving your chest upward.  This will keep you tight, limit the extension of your shoulder at the bottom of the lift, and allow you to set your shoulders back and down.

Once the bar touches your chest, drive it as hard as you can back up to lockout.  Depending on how heavy the weight is, the bar may move slowly, but your intent should always be to move it as fast as you can.   

One other critical technique to get better at bench pressing is perfecting your arm angle.  This refers to the angle your upper arm or humerus makes in relation to your torso when you’re lowering and pressing the barbell.  Your arms should track at approximately 45 degrees outward from your torso.  This allows you to distribute the weight better across your shoulders, triceps and chest.  This might be the total opposite of the ‘flared out’ arm position you typically use.  Unfortunately, when you allow your elbows to flare outward and move in line the top of your shoulders, you put a ton of stress on the shoulder joint itself and you will be predisposed to rotator cuff issues.  Be warned, when you transition to this new technique, the amount of weight you can lift will probably go down.  Don’t be freaked out.  This will quickly be remedied if you continuously use the new ‘tucked elbow’ position and work on developing more tricep strength.  Another important note is that you should also begin performing your push-ups in this same manner.  This will help groove the right horizontal pressing pattern and keep you in a safer position.

Let’s break down the bench press further into a simple, step-by-step process.

How to Bench Press the Right Way

Step 1:  Grab the bar at an equal distance on each side of the knurling.  For most lifters, this is typically around shoulder width, or slightly greater than shoulder width apart.  Squeeze very tightly to create tension in your hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, back and chest.

Step 2:  Take a deep breath, driving your chest upwards and pulling your shoulder blades back and down into the bench.

Step 3:  Plant your feet and drive them downward.  Squeeze your glutes to tighten up your hips and lock them into place.

Step 4:  Unrack the weight (with the help of a spotter) and move the bar directly over your chest WITHOUT losing the tension in your upper back or allowing your chest to collapse.

Step 5:  Reset your air by taking another big breath.  Hold your breath and tighten up.    

Step 6:  With your entire body as tight as possible, row the weight downward under control until it reaches your chest.  Ensure that your wrists and elbows stay in alignment.  This will give you the best leverage and keep the weight centered. 

Step 7:  Without allowing your chest to collapse or losing any tension, coordinate your leg drive with driving the bar powerfully back to lockout. 

Step 8:  Reset your breath and repeat for the next repetition.

Important considerations

Whenever possible, always use a spotter to help you unrack and rerack the bar.  This is often times when an injury can occur. 

Let’s discuss some of the most common questions.

Question 1:  I can’t get good leg drive, what do I do?

If your hips are too tight to allow you to drive your feet downward with great intent, work on improving the mobility at your hips.  Mobility is a fancy way of saying you can move unrestricted at your hips for any lower body movement that you want to perform.  Bench pressing requires hip hyperextension, which is typically a problem for most people who sit in the car or at work all day.  Exercises like rear foot elevated hip flexor stretch variations, seated glute stretches, and foam rolling around your hips, will help you improve your position and lower body setup.  In the interim, you can place 45 lb plates, smooth side up, on the ground under your feet, which will elevate your feet to accommodate your individual restrictions.

Question 2:  I have shoulder or elbow pain when I bench?

The first thing I would tell you is to go see your doctor.  You should not be in pain.  If you are in pain when you bench, then you shouldn’t bench.  Period.  Find out how significant the injury is and when you can and should return to the gym.  Listen to your doctor!

If your doctor gives you the ok and you return to the gym, start by warming up consistently.  Most lifters are too much in a hurry to get to the weights.  If you take the first 10 minutes of every workout to warm-up before you hit the weights, you won’t have to struggle through the first 3 sets of benching where your shoulders and elbows feel terrible.  Simply by foam rolling your pecs and upper back, performing some shoulder and chest stretches and then some light push-up variations and face pulls, you will be setting yourself up for an amazing workout.  Not only that, this simple warm-up can help you recovery better if you hit it between workouts.

Next you should incorporate more push-ups.  Push-ups will help you to re-establish good technique and lay the foundation for heavier benching later on.  You can really get creative with push-ups, so start trying out new variations, once you have your conventional technique dialed in.  Push-ups with your feet elevated on the bench or band-resisted push-ups are two great options. But be sure to stay in a pain-free range of motion.   If you have pain at the bottom of the push-up, place a foam roller under your chest and only lower down to a point where your chest makes contact with it.   

Finally, to be really honest, the bench press is NOT the only exercise that will build a big chest.  There are literally hundreds of pressing variations that can be substituted for barbell bench pressing, including pressing with specialty bars, dumbbell bench variations, floor pressing variations, cable machine exercises, bodyweight training, and many others.  You should always keep your options open because the other truth is that standard benching is not really a great option for many people.  Poor posture, limited shoulder mobility and a tight upper back are common issues for most people.  These restrictions can cause poor technique and potentially lead to injury.  Finding the right exercises that work for you and don’t leave you in pain, is the recipe for long-term success.

Returning to the basics and starting from scratch with your bench press technique might be the solution to your ongoing shoulder and elbow problems.  But, it also might not be.  Make it a goal to find the right exercises that work for you and start incorporating more fundamental exercises like the push-up.  This will be the key to you training smarter and getting better results.  When you start making decisions in your workout based on your individual needs, you will immediately improve your ability to move bigger weights and build muscle safely.

I hope you enjoyed this starter article for the bench.  Let’s us know in the comments if you’d like to see more advanced benching techniques and also articles devoted to squatting and deadlifting.


Additional References

How to Bench Press – A complete guide

How to Perform Push-ups

How to Bench Press – Video Instruction


Jim is a proud Dad, strength coach, and fitness entrepreneur.  Co-author of the best selling Athletic Development Training system, Jim has been recognized as one of the ‘most innovative coaches’ in the fitness industry.  Jim is regularly featured in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness.

Jim's website: www.dieselsc.com

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