Throughout every gym on Earth, everybody has heard of the bench press. The bench press is the ultimate test of a man’s strength and potential.
It is the bench press that is used as a strength test for the NFL, police and prison gangs. The bench press is the ultimate test of your upper body strength.
Here’s how to perform the bench press:
- Lie face up on the bench with your eyes slightly in front of the bar.
- Grip the bar with the hands just slightly outside of your shoulders.
- Keep your feet down and un-rack the bar so it is over your chest/sternum.
- Lower the bar until it touches your chest.
- Press the weight back up.
Make sure you exhale only when the weight is locked out and then take another big breath before starting the next rep.
Do not bounce the reps off of your chest. Lower each rep under control and then explode the rep up as fast as possible. The higher the speed, the more likely you will complete the rep.
Keep your elbows tucked the entire time at a 45 degree angle. Do NOT let your elbows flare out to the sides. This is the sure way to get a shoulder injury.
Also make sure that you keep your shoulder blades pinched back as hard as you can. This helps to stabilize your upper back and create a solid platform to bench.
If done correctly the bar will travel in a straight line relative to your position on the bench. You don’t want to bench in a curved line. Just like the squat and deadlift, there is a balance point over the chest/sternum. This bar path is the path of least resistance.
Don’t worry if you have more questions, we are going to get into that soon. This article is the supreme guide to the bench press. We are going to cover everything from the ground up, literally.
Without further adieu, let’s get started.
**Note** This is a very long guide that covers many topics. If there is something in particular that you are looking for feel free to skip around by using the table of contents below. If you have any trouble, feel free to give me a shout out and I’ll get back to you. Enjoy!
Bench Press Basics
How did the bench press become so popular and so recognized worldwide? It all has to do with bodybuilding.
In the early strongman days, the bench press was first performed on the floor by rolling the bar over ones face and then pressing it up as dead weight.
After much experimentation, this new exercise really helped to increase the strength of the overhead press. Which, at the time was a contested exercise.
As the years went by, the sport of bodybuilding was beginning to make the scene in the 1940’s. So lifters needed an exercise that would build up their pectorals. Enter the bench press.
This was the first time that an actual bench was used for the exercise so as to work the pectorals better.
As time went on, the bench press became a contested exercise, dethroning the overhead press. Since you can bench more weight than you can overhead press.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Bench Press Setup
Before you actually move any weight, you want to get yourself set up properly first.
Most problems and roadblocks that lifters have with the bench press is from poor technique and setup.
Here is the proper setup:
1. Lie down face up and line your eyes up with the bar. But have your eyes just slightly in front of the bar. This helps prevent you from hitting the j-hooks when pressing.
2. Grip the bar just outside shoulder width. Make sure that your wrists are neutral and your thumb is wrapped around the bar squeezing the bar as hard as you.
3. Pinch your shoulder blades together as hard as you possibly can and push your upper back into the bench as hard as possible with the help of the feet.
4. Set your feet down on the ground about shoulder width apart. Keep the knee angle below 90 degrees if possible. And push forward through your toes. This helps to create tension and a stable base.
5. Take in a big breath of air into your belly and un-rack the bar bringing it over your lower chest/sternum. Hold the air into your belly and push it into the sides to activate the obliques. Do NOT exhale until after the rep is completed.
Once the setup is completed, you can begin to actually press the reps.
The setup is the MOST important part of the bench press. As I will discuss later, the bench press is not a natural movement pattern. It is an open kinetic chain exercise. Therefore, our body has a hard time naturally stabilizing itself with this exercise.
Most of the failures on the bench press occur due to poor technique. Most of the time this is due to a poor setup.
After training people for over 8 years, I have been able, on day 1, to add anywhere from 25-50 lbs onto somebody’s 1 rep max just from having a better setup.
Don’t ever get lazy and neglect the setup. The setup is very important if you want to bench heavy weight.
Pressing The Weight
Now the fun part. Pressing the weight.
With a solid setup, you can now begin to press. So let’s walk through this:
Un-rack the bar by keeping the elbows locked out and the shoulder blades pinched. Drive your upper back into the bench and use your lats to move the bar into the starting position.
Squeeze the bar as hard as possible and keep your wrists neutral.
Lower the bar in a straight line until it touches either your chest, sternum or upper abs.
Immediately after it touches, press the weight back up as fast as you possibly can. Don’t lose tension in your upper back! Keep those shoulders pinched.
Make sure you fully lock out each rep at the top. No partial reps!
Perform this procedure for each and every rep. No exceptions!
The biggest error is from losing stability during the lift. This occurs in two places during the press. The un-racking of the bar and pressing the weight out from the bottom position.
If you fail to keep your shoulder blades pinched in the upper back, then the entire movement becomes unstable. This will warp the bar path as your upper back will flatten onto the bench.
When this happens, the elbows usually flare out to the sides. All the weight from the bar is now resting on the rotator cuff and not the upper back. This can be extremely dangerous with heavy weights.
Bench Press Form Checklist
To simplify all of this information, you can use the checklist below to run through the procedure. Do this for every set and rep you perform.
- Line up the eyes just in front of the bar.
- Grip the bar just outside of shoulder width. Wrists neutral!
- Pinch the shoulder blades together as hard as you possibly can.
- Set your feet down on the ground shoulder width apart with the knee angle less than 90 degrees.
- Take in a big breath of air into your belly.
Pressing The Weight
- Un-rack the bar with straight arms.
- Squeeze the bar as hard as you can. Wrists neutral!
- Lower until touching. Lower in a straight line!
- Push the weight back up. Keep shoulders pinched!
Bench Press Technique
For the full setup of the bench press, let’s go through each of the steps listed above in more detail.
As you know, the devil is always hiding in the details. And the more information you have at your disposal, the clearer the picture you will have for a better bench press.
Lining Up The Eyes
There is a lot of commotion online as to where you should line up your eyes during the bench press.
And truth be told, a lot of these arguments hold a lot of merit. But at the end of the day, it all falls back to YOU and what equipment you are using.
If you are using a power rack, then you may be able to get away with lining your eyes directly under the bar.
But I designed the checklist above for those of you who are using commercial gyms. Most commercial gyms have bench presses with hooks that stick out very far.
From my own experience, and from those of my clientele, the bar can sometimes hit the hooks when pressing weight. With light weight, this is not the end of the world, but with heavy weight, that bar can come crashing down on you.
Some elite benches out there actually have hooks that move forward for you to assist un-racking. If you have access to one of those gyms, lucky you.
But for most of you, lining the eyes up just slightly in front of the bar will do the trick.
Moving too far behind is not advisable either. The bar will be too far in front of you and can place too much stress on the shoulders.
Grip The Bar Just Outside Of Shoulder Width
In order to get the most leverage over the bar, you want to have your hands positioned just outside of shoulder width. Both of your hands should remain within the rings of the bar.
If your hands are too narrow, then the elbows will be forced to flare out to the sides. Otherwise they will collide with your body on the way down.
Most lifters think this grip width is ok and often call it a close grip bench press. There is an assistance exercise called close grip bench presses (more on that later). But the close grip is not as close as you think. During a close grip bench, your grip is exactly shoulder width apart. This allows for proper tracking of the elbows while overloading the triceps.
If your grip is too wide, outside the rings, then you will have less help from your triceps. Therefore, you will not be able to lift as much weight.
Elite powerlifters use a wide grip when benching because they are wearing bench shirts, which have super elastic material that helps them lift the bar.
Since you are probably not wearing supportive material, this is not the best option for you.
Using the proper bench press grip will allow you to use the most muscle groups, lift the most weight and stay safe.
Keep the Wrists Neutral
The wrists need to stay neutral the entire time you perform the lift. If the wrists bend backward at all, then your wrists will start getting painful.
The wrists need to be kept straight for the safety of your elbows. Plus this also helps to keep the bar in line with the elbows as well.
Keeping the wrists neutral also allows you to fully activate your triceps as well. If the wrists bend, then the bar is closer to your fingers. If the wrists are neutral, then the bar is closer to the heel of your palms.
There are nerve receptors in the heels of your palms that will activate the triceps at the slightest amount of pressure. Therefore is is wise to keep the bar over the heels of the palm.
Keep The Bar In Line With The Elbows
As mentioned in the last section, having neutral wrists allows you to keep the weight of the bar over the elbows.
This is important for a number of reasons. First, it helps the bar stay over the balance point of the lift and move in a straight line. Second, it allows for maximal activation of the triceps and takes pressure off the shoulders.
When the elbows are in front of the bar, then most of the weight will be thrown onto the shoulders. Whenever the shoulders take over, the elbows will start to flare out to the sides.
The shoulders are not in an advantageous position to lift heavy weight in the bench press. But the chest is. So your elbows will begin to flare out in order for the chest to help the shoulders lift all of the weight.
The chest and shoulders are NOT the main source of power in the bench press, the triceps are.
Pinch The Shoulder Blades Together
The upper back is your base of support for the upper body during the bench press. You need to make sure that you stabilize the upper back, otherwise the bar will deviate from the proper bar path.
The right way to pinch is to pretend you are pinching a quarter between your shoulder blades. When done correctly, the chest will have a puffed out appearance.
Gymnasts are naturally good at this because of their training. All of those extreme upper body exercises they do (e.g. levers) require really strong and stable shoulders to prevent injury.
The key to pinching is to pinch your shoulder blades back and down.
Many lifters pinch their shoulder blades back, but they forget to pinch down. This does help take the weight of the bar off the rotator cuff. But it dumps it on the upper traps instead of the lower traps.
For the bench press, we want to load the lower traps to gain as much pressing power as possible.
Why Are The Lower Traps So Important?
The lower traps help to not only stabilize the shoulders, but they also allow for a complete range of motion as well.
When the upper traps are overactive, the shoulder will run into movement problems. The most common problem you will find is a shoulder impingement.
The head of the humerus ends up being jammed into the upper front of the glena-humeral socket. So when you go to lift your arm overhead, you will feel a clunk, or pinch in the front of your shoulders.
Chances are you are not properly using your lower traps.
The good news is the lower traps are relatively easy to reactivate. Here’s what you need to do:
- Stretch The Upper Traps
- Activate & Strengthen The Lower Traps
To stretch the lower traps, sit on a bench with one hand on your head and another hand behind you grabbing the bench.
Now lean away from the hand grabbing the bench and GENTLY pull your head in the direction of the stretch. Hold this position for at least 2 minutes.
To activate the lower traps, use the standing Y exercise. You commonly see this one being performed in physical therapy offices for people with shoulder problems.
We are going to do this with a little more kick to it.
First, find a band, or cable machine, and adjust to a light resistance. Grab the handles with the palms facing down.
Keep your arms straight, pinch your shoulder blades back and down, and lift your arms overhead until they are in the shape of a Y. Lower them slowly and under control. Repeat for 15-20 reps.
Setting The Feet
The feet don’t get the respect they deserve in the bench press. Believe it or not, the bench press, when done correctly is a full body exercise. It not only works your upper body, but it also gets some help from the lower body.
Since you already know more muscles equal more weight, it only makes sense for you to capitalize on this.
To set the feet, place them on the ground directly under your knees. Depending on your mobility, you may be up on your toes, or have flat feet. Either one is fine.
Now try to move your feet back towards your head as far as possible while keeping your back and butt on the bench. This is where you want your feet to be.
Ideally the angle between the feet, knee and hip should form an acute angle (below 90 degrees).
Once you have the feet here your legs will have a huge amount of tension traveling from the feet all the way up into the abs. To maximize this tension, push through you toes and push away from the bench.
This will help you to drive your upper back into the bench as much as possible. You will notice your back will have an arch in it.
Is Arching My Back Safe?
Arching the back is the inevitable result of the proper setup. With the back arched, it is in it’s strongest position.
For the bench press, the back acts as a conduit between the feet and the hands. Pushing the toes into the ground allows for power to come from the lower body. But none of that power can really help out unless you keep the back arched.
When the back is flat, all of that tension from the lower body leaks out through the spine. Therefore, you get little to no help from your legs. This means you cannot lift as much weight.
But don’t take this too far. Just because a little arching is good, doesn’t mean a lot is better. Elite powerlifters use an extreme arch in their bench press because it gives them a mechanical advantage.
An extreme arch literally shortens the distance the bar has to travel significantly. Less distance allows for less time under tension, which makes the lift easier.
When it’s a competition, you need to use every advantage possible to win. But I assume most of you are not competing. Avoid using the extreme arch.
Inhale Into Your Belly
Breathing is very important not just for the bench press, but for the squat and deadlift as well.
Breathing helps to stabilize the core and the spine and thus stabilize the movement of the bar itself. Although it is not seen as significant for the bench press, it still is very important.
You want to take in a big breath of air and push the air down to your belly as far as it can go. Preferably into your groin.
Once the air is in the belly, keep it there and push the air against the sides of your abdomen. This activates the obliques to stabilize the spine.
But breathing into your belly also serves another purpose, it also allows you to activate more muscle groups throughout your body.
Pressing The Weight
Un-Racking The Bar
Un-racking the bar is probably one of the toughest parts of the bench press. For most, it is the bane of their weightlifting existence.
There is a technique you can use to un-rack the bar. But the technique will depend on which piece of equipment you are using.
If you are using a traditional flat bench itself, then you can use the pull apart technique. To perform this, first grip the bar, and pull the bar apart as hard as you can.
Then, flare out your lats and literally push the bar with straight arms over your chest. Make sure the bar is OFF the hooks before you start pulling. Otherwise the hooks may still be holding some of the weight.
The other alternative is to use the hips up technique.
Perform the full bench press setup, but once completed, push your hips off the bench as high as you can.
Keep your feet on the ground in the correct position the entire time. The lower portion of your upper back will actually start to lift off the bench. This allows your arms to gain better leverage over the bar.
Now use your lats and push the bar up until it is off the j-hooks. Then lower your hips back down to the bench while simultaneously bringing the bar over your chest.
The final option is to make a quick friend and have them give you a liftoff. This is perfectly fine if you routinely have a gym buddy that you work out with. But don’t become dependent on it.
Learn one of the previous two techniques so you will at least have a backup plan.
Squeeze The Bar As Hard As Possible
When the bar is in your hands, you shouldn’t have your hands just passively holding the bar. They should be squeezing the bar as hard as humanly possible. Almost like you are going to leave a handprint in the bar.
This goes back to the law of irradiation. To demonstrate this, make a white knuckle fist as hard as you can while trying to keep your other hand open. You will notice that your other hand wants to close and make a fist as well. This is the law of irradiation.
The brain has more sensory receptors for your hands than for any other area of your body. So when you squeeze your hands as hard as possible, your nervous system sends out an impulse to contract more muscle groups.
Great news for us lifters!
Plus, squeezing the bar also helps to create a natural wrist support. This will help the wrists remain neutral.
But when the weight gets heavy, squeezing may not be enough wrist support. In this case, you should consider getting yourself a pair of wrist wraps. These will help add support.
Lower In A Straight Line
There are some schools of thought out there that tell you to bench press in a curved line. That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
It doesn’t even make logical sense. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If you pressed in a curved manner, you are literally creating more work for yourself.
You are also moving the bar away from the balance point. Which greatly increases your chances for missing a rep and possibly getting injured.
So when you bench, you need to lower the bar in a straight line until it touches your body.
Depending on the shape and structure of your body, the bar could land in any one of the three locations:
- Lower Chest/Sternum
- Upper Abs
It is different for everybody and it will probably vary for all of you as well. But generally speaking, with a solid setup and a strong arch, most of you will have the bar touching the lower chest/sternum.
Pushing The Weight Back Up
Here comes the tricky part for a lot of lifters, pushing the weight back up. When you bench, you want to explode the weight off of your chest as fast as possible to blow through your sticking points.
But you will often find yourself exploding fast and uncontrollably. The mindset here is “get this thing off of me”.
Exploding is what we want, but what we want even more is control of the bar. It is one thing to explode, it a another thing to explode under control.
When you don’t maintain control, the shoulder blades start to lose tension, which makes the shoulders and upper back unstable.
Since you have lost your base of support, the upper back will flatten on the bench. The bar path will increase because the chest will be lower and your triceps will be at a mechanical disadvantage as well.
The shoulders and pecs will try to do the work of the triceps instead. Since less muscle groups are doing more work, what happens? Early fatigue. You will not be able to either lift as much weight, or perform as many reps.
Make sure you explode under control and keep the shoulder blades pinched the entire time your press the bar up.
Use The Pull Apart Technique To Help Maintain Stability
What is the pull apart technique? It is when you squeeze the bar and pull the bar apart as hard as you can while bench pressing.
I touched upon this briefly in the un-racking section. It is the same procedure, except this time you are going to keep pulling the bar apart throughout the entire lift.
This forces the rear deltoids and the upper back to maintain continual tension throughout the movement.
Plus it also allows for better tricep activation.
Unknown to most bench pressers, the triceps are the prime movers. Not the chest. The triceps are the most underutilized muscles in the body. This is no exception on the bench press.
When the weight is lowered, the pecs are mainly meant to stabilize the shoulders along with the upper back.
If the pecs get too overactive, the shoulders will start to round. This will place more strain on the rotator cuff since the upper back will lose tension.
Plus, the pecs will become overworked, which could result in a tear.
The lockout is the part of the lift from halfway off the chest until the elbows are straight. Don’t get lazy here. A lot of lifters miss the lift during the lockout.
In the bottom position, the upper back and pecs act like a sling shot to bounce the weight up. This creates an elastic response that helps you blow past your sticking points.
But once the bar is midway off the chest, the triceps take over almost all of the weight of the bar. The momentum from the bounce starts to wear off. This is where your strength truly comes to the test.
Keep pulling the bar apart, make sure the wrists are neutral and drive that bar up like your life depends on it.
If you don’t pull the bar apart, the triceps will lose engagement and the elbows will start to flare out. Elite powerlifters sometimes do this to assist the lockout. But that is a special technique that takes additional practice and training.
For the non-elite lifter, the chest and shoulders will try to take over. At the top of the lift, they are in a disadvantageous position. Therefore, the shoulders will have to round off the bench to assist.
If your lockout is weak, then you will need to do additional tricep work with assistance exercises to build special strength (more on that later).
Racking The Bar
Re-racking the bar can be dangerous if you do it incorrectly.
Before you even attempt to un-rack the bar, your elbows should be fully locked out and the bar should be over the starting position.
Then once in the proper lockout position, move the bar up with straight arms until it goes back over the hooks. Once there, lower it until the rack is holding the bar.
The most common mistake you see are lifters who press the bar up diagonally toward the hooks during the last rep.
Never, never, never press the bar up diagonally under any circumstances. Whenever that bar deviates from it’s balancing point, the potential for missing the lift goes up dramatically.
Plus, since it is the last rep, your muscles will already be fatigued. God forbid if you happen to lose control at this point. It would probably not be a pretty picture.
Make sure your spotter knows this too. The spotter should keep his hands off the bar until you lockout the last rep. Then they can guide the bar back to the hooks.
Bench Press Safety
The bench press is a very effective and fun exercise. But it is also one of the most dangerous. Out of all the barbell lifts, the bench press is the only one to cause fatalities.
Every year, 11 people die from bench pressing. This also doesn’t include the thousands more who injure themselves from bench pressing as well.
With all of that said, your safety should be your number one concern when you get under the bar. You need to make sure that have all your bases covered.
Missing Reps Safely
If you are by yourself and lifting solo, how can you safely, and successfully, miss a rep?
Well the safest way to miss a rep, on a flat bench press, it to grab a spotter.
I can’t believe how many people are too afraid to ask for assistance. If you are questioning your abilities, you better grab an extra pair of hands before you start lifting. Otherwise it might be to late when the bar is burying you.
But what if you are the only person in your facility when you bench?
In this case you have two options:
- Use The Tipping Technique
- Use A Power Rack
The Tipping Technique
To perform the tipping technique, load the bar as you would normally. Except, don’t use any clips on the bar. Leave the weights on the bar as they are.
This is to be performed on a flat bench. When the weight falls down onto your chest, you just push more on one side so the bar tips.
Since the weight is not clipped, one side of the weights will slide right off the bar. Then gravity will “assist” you in removing the other side.
I have used this technique several times and it has saved my life more than once. But there is one problem with it.
Once the weights slide off of one side, the bar will want to violently jerk in the other direction. So you will have to keep a firm grip on the bar when using this technique. Otherwise the bar can go flying right off.
It’s not perfect, but it is better than the embarrassing roll off.
The roll off is when you don’t tip the bar and instead push the bar down towards your legs and hips. It is very painful and the bruises the next morning will be proof of that.
Use A Power Rack
The most practical way to bench press by yourself is inside a power rack.
A power rack is a metal cage for performing the three big lifts and an assortment of other exercises. Each rack has adjustable j-hooks and safety pins.
The safety pins are what make a power rack so great for bench pressing. With safety pins, you can safely fail a rep and the bars will catch the weight for you.
Then with the weight resting on the safety pins, you just slide yourself out from underneath.
Besides having a spotter, this is the best option to choose from. The tipping technique works, but unless you are by yourself, you can potentially clobber somebody with the weights.
Plus, you can also bench with confidence knowing you have a steel guardian angel watching out for you.
Another alternative to the regular bench press is the dumbbell bench press. The dumbbells are easier to bail out from, but they are not necessarily safer.
Some lifters use the dumbbells because they are afraid to bench by themselves and/or getting injured. What they don’t realize is that dumbbells are just as dangerous as the regular bench.
I personally know many lifters who had their shoulders pop right out of the socket from using the dumbbells. Plus the dumbbells are not as forgiving with bad form as the barbell can be.
Check out this video of a man tearing his pec while trying to bench with 150 lb. dumbbells:
The dumbbells are more unstable than the regular bench press, therefore they have a slightly different technique (we will go over that later).
Due to the increased instability, you do not want to use heavy weight with low reps. Stick with 6 reps and up when using the dumbbells.
The dumbbell bench press is a fantastic assistance exercise for the bench press, but it is NOT a good replacement.
Choosing A Good Spotter
Unfortunately, there is no way to spot a good spotter. If there were this world would be a better place. So unless you know somebody, you are going to have to experiment a little bit with random gym folks.
Ideally what you want from a spotter is somebody to just watch you to make sure you don’t drop the bar on your chest or face.
That means, until you start to fail the rep, hands off the bar! Make sure your spotter is doing his job and not giving himself a free bicep workout.
Also make sure your spotter is focused on YOU! I know that sounds ridiculous, but you cannot believe how many spotters are not paying attention just because a pretty girl walks by.
On your end, make sure you communicate with your spotter before you start lifting. Let your spotter know if you need a liftoff and tell them how many reps you are going for.
When you grip the bar, make sure that you are wrapping your thumb all the way around the bar. This is the correct way to grip the bar.
Sometimes you will see lifters try bench pressing using a thumbless grip. This is called a false grip.
The false grip is used mostly by experienced/elite lifters to give their bench press a slight edge. When your competing with the best, every advantage counts.
The false grip allows the bar to sit lower on your palm, which allows your hands to be turned slightly out. It is just a slight movement but it makes a huge difference on your shoulders.
When you wrap your thumb around the bar, your hands are slightly turned in. This is internal rotation. Internal rotation places more stress on the shoulders and less on the triceps.
So using a false grip does help you lift more weight. But I would NOT recommend you use it.
The false grip is very dangerous for inexperienced lifters. The bar can fall right out of your hands and potentially kill you. No exercise is worth that.
Leave the false grip to the pros and stick with the normal grip. Use the pull apart technique in the previous section to force the shoulders into external rotation.
Believe it or not, the bench press causes more shoulder injuries than any other exercise in the gym.
Not surprisingly, almost every injury is from bad form. But there are a couple of things you should know. Such as, why do shoulder injuries happen in the first place? The answer has to do with your elbows.
Earlier I mentioned that the elbows need to be tucked in at least 45 degrees. This allows for the best balance of chest, tricep and shoulder involvement in the exercise.
If the elbows flare out, then the chest and shoulders are doing most of the work. Plus, the weight of the bar is resting on the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is made of only 4 little muscles. These muscles usually cannot handle the enormous weight of the heavy barbell.
Over time, the rotator cuff gets overworked and a shoulder injury occurs. If the elbows stay tucked, this could all be avoided.
Let us also not forget to pinch the shoulder blades. Pinching serves two main purposes.
First, it allows the upper back to both stabilize and hold all of the weight of the barbell. Thus the rotator cuff is spared.
Second, it helps puff the chest up and out, which shortens the distance of the exercise. This is more important than you think.
Since the movement is shortened with the chest puffed up, the elbows do not go as low. The lower your elbows go, the more strain is placed on your shoulders.
When the elbows go below 90 degrees, the shoulders are stressed the most.
If you look at a bencher with a flat back, you can see how easy it is for the elbows to go too low.
On the other hand, when the upper back is arched properly, you can clearly see how much distance is cut off the movement.
By cutting the distance down, the elbows cannot go as low. This can only be done with an arch.
Make sure that you grip the bar with your hands just outside your shoulders. Your hands should be inside of the rings.
Gripping the bar too wide will place more of the stress on the shoulders an pecs. This is not the best option if you have shoulder problems. But the wide grip bench press can serve as a good assistance exercise.
If the bar grip is too narrow, then the elbows will have to flare out in order to lower the bar onto your chest.
This is not to be confused with the close grip bench press which has a completely different grip.
As stated above, you want to grip the bar closer towards the heel of your palm with your thumb wrapped around the bar. This is the normal, and correct, grip.
Don’t use the false grip! It is very dangerous and is not for amateurs. If the bar falls out of your hands, it can cause serious injury or death.
To make your grip even better, make sure you squeeze the bar as hard as you can while trying to pull the bar apart. This will help activate the upper back and triceps better.
Also twist the bar apart like you are trying to break it in half. This is an old gymnast technique to help generate external rotation in the shoulders.
The more external rotation you can generate, the safer your shoulders will be and the more weight you can lift.
Elbows, Forearms & Wrists
Keep the elbows directly under the bar the entire time you press. This means the forearms need to remain vertical.
If the elbows tip too far forward, or too far backward, you can place a large amount of stress on your elbows and/or miss the lift.
Most of this can be controlled quite easily with a solid upper back with pinched shoulders. And straight neutral wrists.
If the wrists bend backwards, then the bar will not be directly over the heel of your hand, or the elbow. So your tricep activation will be limited. Thus, you will not be able to bench as much.
If this continues to be a problem, perform grip exercises, such as farmers carries and/or buy yourself a pair of wrist wraps. Wrist wraps will not solve all of your problems, but they can provide some serious assistance when you need it.
Shoulders & Upper Back
Keep the shoulder blades pinched together and tuck the shoulders down into your armpits.
You can practice this standing up. Hold both of your arms straight up in front of you with your thumbs up.
Now pinch your shoulder blades together as hard as you can.
Next, push your shoulders down into your armpits. Think of moving your shoulders as far away from your ears as possible.
This is the correct position you want when benching. It provides the most stable surface possible for bench pressing heavy weight.
But when benching, you need to maintain this position, which is very tough. The best way to maintain this position is to arch your upper back.
The force from the bar will try to flatten your upper back on the bench, so you have to fight against it as much as possible.
Arching the upper back will also help to keep your shoulders stable and maintain tension in your shoulder blades.
Also if the upper back is arched, then the chest will be puffed up off the bench. When the chest is puffed up, it actually shortens the distance the bar needs to travel. Which can make a huge difference in how much weight you can lift.
When the upper back flattens, the chest automatically flattens with it. So make sure you keep the back arched the entire time.
Now here is where things get a little confusing. Most of the talk online is telling you to arch your lower back.
The logic is a large arch will create additional tension and shorten the distance even more. It is true. But it is also dangerous for your spine. In order to maintain this position SAFELY, you need to make sure you are properly breathing and contracting your abs.
For a true maximum attempt, it might be ok. But for your regular training, not so much.
It is a tough position to get into, but it is an even tougher position to maintain. So for the purposes of your training, don’t arch the lower back. Just arch the upper back.
The lower back should remain neutral throughout the lift. At the same time the abs should be contracted.
Your abs are very important in your bench press. The not only stabilize the spine, but they also allow you to lift more weight via hydraulic amplification. (If you don’t know what that is, please scroll up and read the Breathing Into Your Belly section).
With the added tension from your abs, Your central nervous system will pump more neural stimuli into the muscles to help you lift more weight.
Plus, with the abs stabilizing the lower torso, the tension from your lower body will have an easier time traveling up from your feet to your arms. A loss of tension will result in what Dr. Stuart McGill calls “leaks”.
Leaks are a break somewhere in the kinetic chain that disrupt the flow of force. The more leaks you have, the less weight you can lift.
One of the easiest ways to eliminate any leaks in the bench press is to develop a solid and strong core.
It seems as if the glutes are involved in every single exercise. The bench press is no exception to this phenomenon.
In order for the lower back to remain fully neutral and not anteriorly tilt, you need to squeeze your glutes when benching.
How hard do you squeeze? It all depends on how much weight you are lifting. The more weight, the harder you squeeze.
Aside from the lower back, your glutes also help the lower abdominal muscles, by the pelvis, contract. The infamous “V” shape that many fitness aficionados aspire to achieve.
With this area contracting, another tension leak is plugged up and now tension from the quads can freely travel up the torso.
How do the hamstrings help you bench more weight? Short answer: They keep you glued down to the bench.
I’m sure you have seen lifters placing a long jump-stretch band around a bench to prevent themselves from sliding. This is all due to the force from the quads.
When the quads contract, they actually push the body away from the feet. So if you are on a slippery bench, you will actually slide back when benching, arch or no arch.
So the hamstrings actually help to keep you down on the bench. It is a subtle motion, but with the glutes contracted, focus on performing an isometric hamstring curl to keep you from moving on the bench. Very important for lifting heavier weight.
The quads are engaged from pushing the toes into the ground. This helps activate the rectus femoris, which helps transfer tension from the legs up to the arms.
Why do you push through the toes? Because for most of you, the toes are going to be the only part of your foot touching the ground.
Depending on your hip mobility, you may even be able to get your whole foot flat on the ground.
If you can’t then you can wear Olympic lifting shoes with a 0.75 inch heel. The extra height of the heel will help your heels push into the floor which will give you a stronger push.
It is not completely necessary though. You can get by with just your toes.
When you push, make sure you push down and away from the body. This will give you the best quad activation. The quads are responsible for leg extension, so performing an isometric leg extension during the push of the bench press will give you more power.
Your feet should be directly under your knees at the minimum. Ideally, you should aim to get your feet behind your knees.
If you look from the side, it will look as if the angle between your feet, knees and hips form an acute angle.
This provides an additional stretch in the quads, which gives you even more tension.
Don’t let your feet go in front of the knees. When the feet go too far forward, you lose the ability to generate optimal tension in the bottom position.
Also don’t be that guy who is tap-dancing during his sets. Again this provides almost no support from the lower body.
Another mistake is putting your feet on the bench. A lot of lifters with back problems do this to avoid back pain, which is understandable. But benching this way is very dangerous.
Not only are you not getting any support from the lower body, but you are also not as stable in this position.
Also don’t bring the feet back too far. This will cause your lower back to over-arch. The feet should just be slightly behind your knees.
Bench Press Mistakes
Since the bench press is the most dangerous of all the barbel lifts, extra caution should be applied.
Every year 11 people die from bench pressing. The cause vary with most of them but every fatality can be avoided if you are cautious and know what to look for.
Here are the most common mistakes you will see lifters make when bench pressing.
When you grip the deadlift incorrectly, the worst thing that can happen is the bar will fall on the floor and make a loud bang. Aside from the pissed off gym manager, everybody will be alright.
On the other hand, if you drop the bar when bench pressing, the bar is going to fall on YOU and I’m not sure you will be ok.
Before you actually start pressing make sure you have a very solid grip on the bar. This means no false grip.
The false grip is very dangerous because the bar can fall right out of your hands during the middle of a set. Powerlifters use this grip to get sightly more leverage over the bar when they lift.
Since most of you are probably not trying to break 600+ lb. world records, leave the false grip to the pros and stick to a normal grip.
Make sure that you wrap your thump around the bar fully for every rep. No excuses.
Use the pull apart technique mentioned in the technique section above to set your shoulders into external rotation.
Elbows Flaring Out
When the elbows flare out to your sides, you lose most of the help from your triceps and upper back.
Instead, the weight of the bar is now dumped onto the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is made of four little muscles. They are not anywhere near as strong as the upper back.
As time goes on, the weight of the bar will actually start wearing out the rotator cuff. Not surprisingly, a shoulder injury will sneak right up on you.
All of this is preventable. The elbows need to stay tucked in at a 45 degree angle.
This helps to protect the shoulders by keeping them in external rotation. Plus, it also allows your body to get the most help from the triceps and lats.
Exhaling To Quickly In The Bottom
Your core needs to stay tight throughout the entire lift. This is all done through your breathing.
When you take in a big breath of air, push the air down into your belly all the way to your pelvic floor. Keep the air down there and push it out towards the sides of your core. This will force the obliques to contract.
The obliques stabilize the spine and the torso. If the air stays in your belly, then your body will maintain peak stability. But if you blow the air out too quickly, you will lose stability instantly.
This is very bad if you exhale in the bottom position with heavy weight.
Most of the help from the lower body will dissipate and you may never get the bar back up to lockout.
The only time you can exhale is when the bar is completely locked out. In the lockout position, your body has the most mechanical leverage over the bar, so it is not as dangerous. But in the bottom position, you have the least amount of mechanical leverage. So that bar will come down very quickly.
During a maximal attempt, you do not want to exhale at all. Inhale at the top and hold it in all the way until that bar is racked again.
Pushing The Bar Diagonally
There are some lifters who push the bar diagonally when they bench. This means they are pushing the bar up towards their face when coming out of the bottom.
It happens sometimes when a lifter is executing the last rep of the bench press. Instead of returning the bar to the lockout position and holding it, they try to push the bar back into the hooks.
Pushing the bar diagonally is very dangerous. The curvature of the bar path will require much more stabilization than a straight bar path. Thus your muscles will fatigue quicker.
When looking from the side of a good bench presser it appears as if the bar is being pressed diagonally. The truth is, it is actually being pressed in a straight line.
It just appears to look slanted when viewed from the side. Remember, the upper back is arched, so the straight line is always going to be relative to the you and your body position.
Bad Grip Width
When gripping the bar, your hands should be in between the rings and just outside your shoulders. This is the standard/normal grip.
When your hands are too narrow, your elbows will have to flare out to the sides in order to get the bar down to your chest.
The narrow grip can place an enormous amount of pressure on your elbows and cause tendonitis.
Likewise a wide grip can be problematic for novices and/or those of you with shoulder problems.
When the grip gets wider, it becomes harder and harder to pinch your shoulder blades together and stabilize your upper back. You have to really work hard to pull the bar apart.
Poor Foot Position
The feet and legs play a major role in the bench press. Although your arms are lifting the bar, your feet still add a punch to the bar in a way you might not expect.
When setting yourself up, the feet should be either directly under your knees or slightly behind them. The further back your feet are, the greater the tension will be in the legs.
At the same time, you want to push your feet into the ground and push away from your body. This contracts the quads and helps transfer force from the feet to the hands.
When the feet are not in a good position, you lose support from the lower body. So you will not be able to lift as much.
But the worst part is the loss of stability. The feet help to stabilize the torso along with the core. The core cannot do it by itself. It needs to be grounded.
Since you are lying down on a bench, you are elevated and the only contact you have with the ground is your feet. If you lose your feet, you lose your grounding and thus lose stability.
But your feet can also still be on the ground and still give you no support. When you see other lifters dancing their feet while lifting, they are getting no support from their lower body.
Keep the feet down on the ground and drive them into the floor.
Using The Chest More Than The Triceps
Does the bench press work the chest? Yes, of course it does. But it also works other muscle groups as well.
You have to understand that although the bench press does work the chest, it is not primarily a chest exercise. It is primarily a tricep exercise.
The chest works with the upper back to help stabilize the shoulders. Remember, the bench press is NOT a natural movement. It is an open kinetic chain exercise. Whereas the pushup, a closed kinetic chain exercise, is a natural movement.
Therefore stabilization is the most important function of the torso in the bench press. With that said, the triceps are the primary source of power for the bench press. They bring the bar to a lockout.
The shoulders and chest DO help the triceps, but they are NOT the main movers.
If you mistakenly believe that the chest and shoulders should be moving the bar, you will be severely limited in your bench potential.
If the pecs take over the exercise, the upper back will round and the shoulders will fall into internal rotation. Thus, they will become unstable.
It is a pec dominant bench press that destroys shoulders, not a proper bench press.
You can experiment with this yourself to test this out. Try using your pecs while trying to keep your upper back flat and your elbows tucked in. You will find out very quickly that you cant do it.
The design and attachment of the pecs force the elbows to flare out when used at max capacity.
Take dumbbell flys for example. In order to get the most work out of your chest, where do your elbows need to be? Flared out to the side as much as possible. Need I say any more.
The wrists need to be kept straight (neutral) while benching.
Neutral wrists allow for the most tricep activation and they help to prevent elbow pain. When the wrists bend, the weight of the bar is no longer over the elbow, it is over the wrist itself.
This means the small forearm muscles are now supporting most of the weight of the barbell. The forearm muscles are in a major disadvantage in this position. They will fatigue and lead to a greater breakdown in your form.
Plus with the triceps not working at full capacity, the shoulders will attempt to do more work to compensate for the triceps.
Since the shoulders are already working hard to stabilize the bar, they are going to burn out much quicker than the triceps will. Fatigue is going to sneak up on you much quicker than normal.
If you have a hard time keeping your wrists straight, your grip strength might be too weak. Perform exercises such as farmers carries and dead hangs to give your grip a boost.
You can also consider purchasing a pair of wrist wraps for a little extra support. Wrist wraps can be wrapped around your wrist like a mild cast to force your wrists to stay straight.
But just keep in mind that wrist wraps are only a temporary fix. They will not solve the problem if you become dependent on them. Work on correcting your form and you will be fine.
Lifting Your Butt Off The Bench
A mistake that will get you red flagged at a powerlifting meet, letting your butt come up off the bench.
Aside from looking rather uncomfortable, this is also very bad for your lower back. This position places your back into hyper-lordosis, which puts a lot of pressure on your discs.
When you start to get the hang of using leg drive, you are tempted to push harder and harder to generate more tension. This is all fine, but if you push too hard and don’t keep yourself down with your hamstrings, your butt will come off the bench.
But pushing really hard is just one of the reasons why your body does this. It also does this to make the lift easier. When you lift your butt off the bench, you actually reduce your range of motion for the exercise.
So you actually shave some inches off the distance. It is basically cheating.
Think of the decline bench press. Most lifters will tell you it is the easiest of all the bench press variations. Why? Because there is less range of motion on the decline bench press than the flat bench press.
So contract your hamstrings and push your upper back into the bench as hard as possible and this should help you keep your butt down.
Also make sure your bench isn’t too slippery. Wrap a jump-stretch band around the bench to help keep you from sliding.
Not Fully Locking Out
When you bench for high reps, the temptation is to shorten the distance by not locking out the elbows. This helps you save energy for the next rep, and it also give the bar a little extra bounce for free elastic energy.
This is similar to lifting your butt off the bench, it is cheating. The bar must come to a full lockout for each rep.
Failure to lockout will eventually lead you straight to an injury.
When you get into the habit of not locking out, you will involuntarily start doing this with heavy weight. If the weight gets too heavy and you don’t lock the bar out, there is nothing to stop that bar from crashing down on you when you fatigue.
Anatomy Of The Elbow Joint
The elbow is really a workhorse of a joint. It does a lot for us and it really takes a beating.
Your elbow is a hinge joint, similar to the knee. This means it only does two motions, flexion and extension.
But unlike the knee, the elbow has a little bony prominence in it called the trochlear notch, which looks like a hook on a can opener.
When your elbow is fully extended, the trochlear notch inserts into a notch on the humerus and locks the elbow into full extension.
This bone is very strong and can help you hold really heavy weights when fully extended.
But when the elbow bends, the support is gone. All of your safety depends on the strength of your muscles. If you lack the proper strength for lifting heavy, then you will not last long under the bar.
So when you don’t lock out the elbows, you are completely disregarding this all natural safety mechanism. So for your own safety, don’t cheat the reps and just lock out the bar.
Going Really Heavy With Dumbbells
Although I mainly wanted to stick with the barbell bench press, I had to briefly touch upon the dumbbell bench press.
Many lifters often chose to substitute the dumbbell bench press with the barbell bench press. The logic of most gym goers are that the dumbbells are much safer than the barbell. So if anything does go wrong, you can bail out much easier.
There is some truth to this. If you fail a rep with the dumbbells, you can just drop them on the floor and/or throw them away from you.
Besides having a pissed off gym owner and maybe a few innocent bystanders, little to no harm will be done.
But saying that the dumbbells are safer than the barbell is just a plain lie. You can still get injured just as easily with the dumbbells as you can with the barbell, if not easier.
For one thing, the dumbbells are extremely unstable compared to the barbell. This means you will have to work really hard to pinch your shoulders back and stabilize the upper back.
This is harder than it looks because you have to roll backwards with the dumbbells on your legs. So your upper back and chest will have a strong tendency to flatten on the bench.
With all of that said, the dumbbell bench press is similar to the barbell bench press, but it is not the same thing.
So you should avoid going really heavy with the dumbbells. What does that mean?
It means you shouldn’t lift anything that you can’t do for at least 6 reps. You should also be able to perform 6 reps for at least 3 sets. Anything heavier than this, stay away from.
Eventually your weight will climb up over time. But it is a slow process. Don’t try to go for a one rep max. I know it looks impressive to lift the 130 lb. dumbbells, but you won’t impress anybody when your injured.
Just like the squat and deadlift, you need to have access to good equipment if you want to put up heavy poundages and stay safe.
What you decide to get will all depend on your conditions.
If you bench alone, then you should get yourself a power rack. The adjustable safety bars on the rack will come in handy as a guardian angel. Plus, you can also train the other three lifts.
You can also consider purchasing an actual bench press platform if you prefer. However, make sure you have a spotter, or somebody close by for help. This is a better option for those of you who frequently train with a buddy.
But if you already belong to a gym, chances are you will already have access to some of this equipment.
If you join a more serious gym, they have benches that actually slide the j-hooks over you, so you have an easier time un-racking heavy weights. These are awesome, and expensive, pieces of equipment.
Most commercial gyms will not have these, due to gymtimidation. If you are serious about your bench, find a gym that takes training seriously and join it.
The most obvious and practical piece of equipment is the power rack. There are so many different kinds of things you can do with a power rack.
But a rack is excellent for the bench press because of the adjustable j-hooks and the safety bars. Let’s begin with the j-hooks.
When you adjust the j-hooks, you need to make sure you un-rack the bar with your arms almost fully unlocked.
Your elbows should just be slightly bent when attempting to un-rack the bar. You want the bar to travel the shortest possible distance when un-racking it. Too many lifters try to lower the hooks thinking they can get better leverage over the bar.
This is a mistake. Lowering the j-hooks too much will require more wasted energy to move the bar from a dead stop. Plus it increases the chances of the chest flattening due to the increased stabilization demands.
Likewise, you don’t want the hooks too high either. If they are too high, then you might have to reach up with your arms to un-rack the bar.
This will ruin your setup and possibly lead to a quick injury. It is easy from this position to quickly lose control of the bar since you are essentially jerking the bar out of the j-hooks.
For the safety pins, you want to place them just slightly below the lowest point of your bench.
This way, if you need to bail out of the bench press, just push your hands towards your legs and let the pins catch the bar.
There is more open space down by your legs versus up by your torso. So you can avoid bodily contact.
If the pins are too high, then you will cheat your range of motion. If the pins are too low, then you will have none of the safety benefits of the power rack and are at a great risk for injury.
There are a lot of great power racks that meet this criterion and some a relatively cheap. Here are some racks that I recommend:
- Fitness Reality 810XLT Super Max Power Cage — Affordable & Effective
- Titan T-2 Series Short Power Rack — Bigger, Wider & More Heavy Duty
- Rep Power Rack — For The Serious Lifter
Probably the most important piece of bench equipment, aside from the power rack. The type of barbell that you use will make all of the difference in your bench press and for your safety.
Generally speaking, you want to find a bar with a small diameter (~28mm) just like both the squat and deadlift bars. In the bench press you are going to be gripping the bar with your full palm.
If the bar is too thick, then you will have a harder time getting your hand around the bar and achieving a solid grip.
Plus, a fat bar can be dangerous. If the bar is too thick, then you might not be able to get your thumb all the way around the bar. Elite athletes may have no problem with this, but you already know how dangerous a false grip is.
The thumb should ALWAYS be wrapped around the bar when benching.
You also need to make sure that the bar is stiff and doesn’t have any spinning sleeves.
If the bar is for Olympic lifting, it might have some “whip” to it. This is designed to give free elastic energy to the clean and jerk. It’s perfectly fine for the Olympic lifts, but it is not ok for the bench.
You already know how dangerous the bench press is. Having a bar that can potentially bounce around in the bottom position can lead to a quick and sudden loss of stability.
This is extremely dangerous. If the bar wobbles around and you lose control, it is going to come crashing right down on you. Find a bar with little to no whip.
The other thing to watch out for are spinning sleeves. These are, again, usually found on Olympic lifting bars.
Spinning sleeves pose a real problem for the bench press. You want to keep your wrist neutral so you can get the most power out of your triceps.
But, with spinning sleeves, the bar can easily rotate on you during the middle of the lift. It is very hard to stop this from happening, especially if the bar had a good spin to it.
Usually your wrists will bend backwards and you will lose power from your triceps. If you have a really strong grip, you may be able to prevent the bar from spinning.
But it will usually rotate on you. It happens to me all of the time. So make sure you are benching on a bar with stiff sleeves.
Here are some good options:
- Body-Solid Tools Olympic Straight Bar — Very Affordable & Reliable Bar (The One Being Used For All Of My Photos)
- XMark Convict 6′ Rackable Olympic EZ Curl Bar — Great Accessory For Your Training (Especially For Targeting The Triceps)
- Buddy Capps Texas Power Bar — The Gold Standard Bench Press Bar
- Titan Multi-Grip Camber Bar — Fantastic Bar For Targeting The Triceps & Shoulders From Different Angles
Since most power racks come without any equipment, you will most likely have to buy a flat bench.
There are a couple of things to consider when buying a bench.
Benches for the most part are pretty cheap. But you get what you pay for. If you buy a cheap bench, you will get little to no support for lifting heavy.
Most of the cheap benches are very thin and narrow. Plus they have a slick coating on the material that makes you slide around on the bench. Not good at all for your form.
Instead you want to find a bench that is wider and that won’t allow you to slide around. These benches are more money, but they are so worth it. Especially when your safety and performance are on the line.
But it is a rough economy and if there is no budget for one of these benches, I totally get it.
You can still get a flat bench, but remember, the cheaper ones are going to be narrow. There is no way around this, you are going to just have to deal with it.
The sliding, however, can be fixed. All you will need is a rubber jump-stretch band to wrap around the bench.
Take one end of the band and loop it around both ends of the bench. Make sure it is not warped or tangled, but is nice and flat. This will prevent you from sliding.
Another way to wrap the band is with the X pattern. Loop the band as before, but before you loop the other side, twist the band to form an X on top of the bench. This may be sturdier than the previous variation for some of you. Give both of them a shot and choose the best one.
Here are some of the better benches:
- AmazonBasics Flat Weight Bench — Simple & Affordable
- Powerline by Body-Solid Flat Incline Decline Folding Multi-Bench — Adjustable Bench Perfect For Incline Presses
- Doeplex Flat Weight Bench — Strong, Sturdy & Safe (1,200 lb. Weight Capacity)
Bench Press Machine
Machine in this case means an actual bench press, not a power rack. Some people don’t like to use a power rack for benching. I totally understand that.
But you must make sure that you have access to help nearby in case anything goes wrong. Most of the bench presses come with a small elevated stand for a spotter to stand on.
The stand helps give the spotter more leverage over heavy loads. If you plan on benching heavy, then make sure your bench has one of these little platforms.
There are several options for you to choose from. The cheaper options will do if you just want to lift lighter weights and practice your form. The more expensive options have sturdier equipment and a wider bench. This gives you better stability when you bench.
Here are some bench presses I recommend:
- Deltech Fitness Flat Olympic Weight Bench — Sturdy & Affordable Bench Setup
- Valor Fitness BF-7 Olympic Bench with Spotter — Stronger Setup & Designe With A Spotter Stand
- Titan Bench Press Rack w/Flip Down Safeties — Serious Equipment For The Serious Bencher, Comes With Safety Pins & Weside Hole Spacing
Bench Press Variations
In addition to the flat bench press, there are a multitude of variations that will help you not only sculpt an amazing physique, but also assist your flat bench press and lift heavier weight.
Variations are best performed AFTER your main bench work. They should be done with at least 10-20% less weight and more repetitions.
The purpose of the variations will vary for each of you depending on your goals. But generally speaking, every lifter needs to include at least some variation into their bench press program.
Intermediates will need variations to mainly boost the flat bench press with adaptational changes.
Advanced athletes can substitute the flat bench press itself with one of the variations. This process is all part of the conjugate method. I won’t get into it here, but check out my Soviet Training article for more info.
The research shows that training similar movements will allow for some cross transfer of adaptations between those two exercises.
In down to Earth English, this means when you train a movement (the bench press), you can perform other movements which are similar to it (the variations), and the adaptations from the variations will transfer over to the flat bench press.
The result: A bigger stronger bench press. I highly recommend you read the works of Anatoily Bondarchuck for more info on this phenomenon.
Close Grip Bench Press
I mentioned this briefly earlier. The close grip bench press is a bench press variation that you can perform on the flat bench.
Everything is the same as the regular flat bench, except the grip. You want to bring your hands in a little more until they are about shoulder width apart. That’s it.
When the hands are more narrow, it places more stress on the arms, specifically, the triceps. Since the triceps are the prime mover of the bench press, this is great for boosting you normal flat bench.
But since the arms are holding more weight, that means there is less help from your shoulders and chest. Less muscle groups means less weight.
Plus, the close grip increases the range of motion of the exercise. With a longer distance, the time under tension increases. Not only does this make the exercise harder, but it also provides the triceps with a great amount of conditioning for the regular bench press.
One mistake that a lot of lifters make is using too narrow of a grip. Bringing the hands in past the shoulders, sometimes all the way to the smooth part of the bar.
If the hands are too close together, the elbows will have to flare out to the sides in order to allow the bar to come down to the chest.
This can place a lot of pressure on you elbows and can cause elbow pain. Wearing elbow sleeves will not solve this problem, good form will. The hands need to be no less than shoulder width apart.
Wide Grip Bench Press
Another variation that can be done on the flat bench.
The wide grip bench does the opposite of the close grip bench press. It uses less of the arms (triceps) and uses more of the torso and shoulders (chest and shoulders).
Plus, it also shortens the range of motion of the exercise. One of the reasons elite powerlifters use a wide grip during their meets, aside from a bench shirt.
The setup is exactly the sam as the normal bench, just move your grip out until your middle finger is directly on the power rings. If you go too wide, you can destabilize your shoulders.
But don’t get too excited yet, it is still a difficult variation and you will not be able to lift as much as you can in the regular bench press.
The most difficult part of the wide grip bench is keeping the upper back tight. With a wider grip it is very difficult to keep your shoulder blades pinched together. The new hand position makes your back want to flatten much easier.
The trick to avoiding this is to really concentrate on pulling the bar apart throughout the movement. Otherwise your back will want to flatten with the added chest involvement.
Incline Bench Press
The incline bench is one of the harder variations, but one of the best for building raw pressing strength.
The incline bench press was originally done by old time strongmen on a slanted piece of wood as an assistance exercise for the overhead press.
We have come a long way since slanted wood and now have adjustable benches for all kinds of variation.
If you perform this on an actual incline bench machine, you don’t have to worry about adjusting the incline. But you might need to adjust the seat.
You want to have your eyes directly in line with the bar for this exercise. Since un-racking is the hardest part of the incline press.
The setup is a little different for this one. You will not be able to generate as much tension from your lower body as before, but you can still get some tension.
Make sure your feet are on the floor and not elevated on peg handles. Then pinch your shoulder blades together as hard as you can.
Keep them pinched and un-rack the bar. Now lower the bar onto your chest and push up straight over your shoulders.
The incline press has a much greater range of motion than the regular flat bench press and flat close grip bench press. Therefore, it will challenge you much more.
Some gym gurus will tell you that the incline bench will target your “upper chest”. This is only a myth, there is no upper chest. There is only your chest.
Besides the whole purpose of the incline press is not to strengthen your upper chest. It is to strengthen your triceps for the flat bench and the overhead press. That’s why the old time strongmen used to do it in the first place.
This is one of my favorites. Simply place a board, or block, on your chest and lower the bar until it touches the block and then push the weight back up. If you don’t have boards, you can just use the Bench Blockz attachment that I am using. It has adjustments for a 2-board to a 5-board press.
The board press helps to work your sticking points. What are sticking points?
They are the parts of the bench press where you struggle the most. Most failed reps with good form usually occur around your sticking points.
There are three main areas where you will get stuck eventually.
- Immediately off the chest (2-board)
- Middle of the movement (3 or 4 board)
- Lockout (5-board)
They key to doing these correctly is not to slam or bounce the weight off your chest. You want to lower the weight under control until you touch the block. Then you pause for just a second and explode the weight up to lockout.
The pause helps to build tremendous strength around the sticking point. Slamming the bar off your chest will do nothing but boost your ego.
You perform this on a flat bench and you can either do this for reps (6+) or you can do this for heavy doubles and triples. Advanced athletes can do this for max singles.
Dead Bench Press
If you have access to a power rack, then you can perform the dead bench press.
It is similar to the board press, except this time, instead of un-racking the bar from the top, you are pressing the bar out of the bottom from a dead stop.
Position the safety pins either near, or on, your sticking point. Place the bar on top of the safety pins with weight and all. Then get yourself tight and push the bar to lockout.
This changes everything. Why?
Because the bench press, like the squat, starts out with an eccentric component. This means that the exercise gives you free elastic energy. This elastic energy actually gives you a natural boost out of the bottom position.
With the dead bench, there is no boost. You are getting no help and you have to use raw strength to overcome the dead weight, or inertia, of that bar.
Inertia creeps. A mass at rest wants to stay at rest. So you are going to have to exert an enormous amount of energy just to move that thing.
During the shuttle launches at The Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, most of the fuel that the shuttle uses is during the launch. It takes a lot of energy to propel a giant metal object into space from a dead stop. Once the shuttle is moving, it consumes much less fuel.
With that said, you are not going to want to do a lot of reps, or sets. In a given week do no more than 5 sets and no more than 10-15 reps total. A good way to add this to a workout is to do 3 sets of 3 reps.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Out of all the bench press variations, dumbbells are one of my favorites. They give you a break from the barbell and challenge you in ways the barbell can’t. Plus, they also expose hidden muscle imbalances.
With a barbell you are using two hands. With dumbbells, each hand is working independently. So if one arm is weaker than the other, you are going to find out pretty damn quick.
To perform the dumbbell bench press, simply hold the dumbbells on your thighs and pinch your upper back as hard as you can.
Then lie down on the bench and roll the dumbbells from your thighs into the bottom position. Do not kick the dumbbells up to the lockout position. This is dangerous and I have personally seen several people fall of the bench with the dumbbells landing on top of them.
From the bottom position, press the dumbbells up to lockout. Make sure the upper back is arched and the feet are on the ground generating tension. All the same principles apply.
The biggest problem you will see with the dumbbell bench press is the grip. Most lifters will position the palms facing forward. This is fine if you want to work your chest.
But this position needs some caution. You need to make sure that your elbows do not go below 90 degrees in the bottom position. If the elbows go too low, you can actually tear your pec.
The other way to grip the dumbbells, and my preferred way, is to turn your palms slightly inward. This mimics the 45 degree angle of the regular bench press and it helps work the triceps more as well.
The previous variation may help you build a bigger chest, but the bottom variation will help you build a bigger bench.
Dips have been shown by EMG research to activate the pecs and triceps more than any other exercise out there. They are often called the king of upper body pressing exercises.
How many other exercises do you know like that? Not too many.
Dips provide a fantastic strength boost to all of the same muscle groups of the bench press. They will even help improve your overhead press as well.
To perform a dip, jump up to lockout on a pair of parallel bars. Now while at the top, squeeze and twist the bars outward into external rotation. This will stabilize the shoulders.
Then pinch your shoulder blades together and lower yourself down to slightly below parallel.
Finally Press yourself back up.
Keep tension in the upper back the entire time. Do not lose stability in your shoulders. If you stop turning the palms outward into external rotation and lose tension, you will inevitably hurt your shoulders.
Even though dips are vertical, they are very similar to the bench press. Most upper body variations are similar to the bench press. All pressing power needs a solid platform (upper back) to press from.
Pushups are a fantastic exercise. They are not given any of the credit they deserve.
Pushups are the bodyweight version of the bench press. In fact, the movement patterns are nearly identical. The only difference is you don’t have to worry about being crushed.
The same problems that you may have with the bench press will definitely show up in your pushups. So if you learn how to truly perfect your pushups, you will be much closer to perfecting your bench press.
Get into a plank position with your arms straight fingers facing forward. Now screw your hands into the floor and pinch your shoulder blades together. Lower yourself down until your chest touches the ground and then push yourself pack up to lockout.
Keep the core tight, no sagging hips. And keep the elbows tucked in around 45 degrees.
To make this exercise even harder, lop a jump-stretch band around your hands and upper back. This will add some resistance and help build explosive power in the triceps.
I won’t go into too much detail here, but I am just scratching the surface with pushups. There is so much more you can do once you master them.
If you want to learn more be sure to check out my Pushup Mastery Course where I take you step by step from getting your first pushup all the way to mastering the one-arm pushup.
Programing Strategies To Lift More Weight
So now that you know how to bench press and try it’s variations, the next question becomes “how do I train my bench press?”
The answer is programming.
Programming is the underlying structure, or system behind all of your workouts. Just going into the gym blind and trying to put up different weights each time is not going to get you very far if you don’t know where you’ve been.
To structure you bench press workouts, the first and most important thing is to train the bench press as the first exercise. You want to be fresh to tackle the bigger weights.
After the bench press it is best to have a bench press variation (incline, board, dumbbells) of some kind to add more bench press specific assistance work into your program.
Finally, you want to structure the rest of your workout with small exercises to target and condition the muscle groups worked in the bench press. The more conditioned and “fit” your muscle groups are, the more weight you will be able to lift in the bench press.
There is an underlying order to how you structure your assistance work. You want to have your most important muscle groups trained first, followed by the least important ones.
Here’s an appropriate order for the bench:
- Upper Back
The triceps and upper back are the most important muscle groups for a bigger bench, so you want to train those first.
The shoulder and chest should be done last because their role is more of assistance in the bench press.
Plus, most individuals already have plenty of strength in the shoulders and chest. The triceps and upper back on the other hand usually need more work. Especially the triceps.
Here is a sample bench press workout template that you can use:
The variations are your primary form of assistance for the bench press because they are the most similar to the regular bench press.
In this section, you are going to learn about the most useful small exercises for each muscle group.
These exercises should be done for multiple sets (3-5) for at least 6-15 reps each set.
Similar to the bench press, the dicks press is performed on a flat bench with a barbell.
Lie down and un-rack the bar as you would normally. Lower it to about 1 inch off of your chest.
Now keep your wrists neutral, your elbows tucked and move the bar over your face, then back over your chest.
Finally press the bar back to the starting position.
You are NOT going to be using ridiculously heavy weights here. This is just an assistance exercise and quality matter more than quantity.
You also should perform this exercise with your normal bench press grip first, then narrow your hands as your elbows allow.
Most lifters try to do this with a close grip expecting better tricep activation. The truth is it all depends on the shape and structure of your body.
Another good exercise performed on the flat bench.
The J-M press is like the lovechild of a regular flat bench press and a skull crusher. The result of this union: one badass tricep exercise.
You will need to use the close grip for this one. Un-rack the bar and lower it by first bending the elbows forward until the bar is about one inch off of your upper chest.
Then extend the shoulders and elbows at the same time and bring the bar back to lockout. The wrists stay neutral the entire time.
You need to press just as much as you extend. Many lifters often treat this exercise too much like a skull crusher. It needs to have the proper balance between pressing and extending.
Keeping the wrists neutral can be very hard in this exercise. So definitely consider getting some wrist wraps.
You can also perform this exercise on the smith machine as well. Although I am not the biggest fan of the smith machine, it is great for the J-M press.
Lying Tricep Extensions
If you want an exercise that works just about every part of your triceps, this is the one.
Grab a straight bar of any kind (preferably and E-Z curl bar) and hold it above your chest with your arms locked out.
Bend your elbows and lower the bar behind your head as low as you can go.
Then lead with your elbows and drive the weight back up over your chest to lockout.
Don’t keep your elbows stationary! This is NOT a skull crusher. The elbows have to move as well.
Hitting the triceps from a different angle, the tate press works the top part of the bench press.
Hold a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing forward. Then bend the elbows and lower the dumbbells to your chest horizontally.
Extend the dumbbells back to lockout and repeat for the number of repetitions.
When looking from the sides, it looks like the dumbbells are swinging on a hinge and coming back up.
Make sure the wrists stay neutral and the dumbbells are in line with the upper arms.
Single Arm Overhead Extensions
Single arm work is a must to root out and address and hidden muscle imbalances.
Take a single dumbbell and bring it overhead.
Bend your elbow and lower the dumbbell behind your head as low as you can go.
Finally, extend the elbow back to the starting position.
Keep your elbow right where it is. Don’t let it move!
On your weaker side, perform 1-2 extra sets.
If there were ever a fifth big lift, this would be it.
The barbell row is primarily used as an assistance exercise to boost your deadlift. But it is also fantastic for adding weight to your bench press .
Your upper back needs to be strong in order to support the weight of the barbell. What better way to do that than with a heavy horizontal row.
Each row should be performed from a dead stop on the ground. The setup is the exact same as the deadlift.
Perform a slight deadlift until your hips remove some slack from the bar. Then bend your elbows and contract your hamstrings to pull the bar up to your chest.
Lower the weight under control until your arms are locked out.
Then bring it back down to the ground before your next repetition.
Work your way up to doing your current bench press max for at least 1 repetition.
There is more detail that goes into this, stay tuned for a separate article on the barbell row.
Find a corner in your gym that will fit a barbell, or a landmine attachment that will secure a barbell.
Stand above the barbell and find some way to get a grip on the bar. Then lift the bar off the ground and row it into your chest.
Lower under control and repeat for more reps.
When the weight starts to get heavy, you may need to perform this exercise like the barbell row.
This means that you can use your hips to help you lift heavier poundages. Your back will still get a workout and it will help your bench.
No back workout is complete without pull ups.
Not only do pull ups work just about every muscle in your upper back, they also teach you how to stabilize your shoulders.
Many people are performing pull ups incorrectly and they don’t even know it. The correct way to perform a pull-up is to pinch your shoulder blades down and back (just like the bench press), then pull until your chest nearly touches the bar.
When done correctly, the pull up will look like a semi-horizontal row. The lean of the pull up shows that the shoulders and upper back are properly engaged.
It is this exact shoulder position you want to achieve in the bench press. So pull ups offer more than just strengthening the upper back.
I have already written an article on pull ups so I won’t go into further detail here.
The rear delts are one of the most under trained muscle groups in the gym. Most lifters get possessed by vanity. So they only train their mirror muscles.
But the muscles that you can’t see are the most important ones. They help support and balance the joints in the body. The rear delts are no exception.
To perform, find an adjustable bench and set it on an incline. Then stand behind it and place the top of your forehead on top of the bench.
Now pinch your shoulder blades together and raise the dumbbells directly out to your sides. Try and hold for at least one second.
Then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. This is not an ego lift so don’t try to lift a ridiculous amount of weight.
The reason you place your head against the bench is to prevent cheating. The biggest problem you see with this exercise is jerking the dumbbells up, which is cheating.
Keep the weight reasonable and keep the reps very high for this exercise. 20-25 plus reps.
Remember the pull apart technique I told you about earlier? Well the rear delts are the weak link that hold it together. So you want to condition your rear delts as much as possible to avoid fatigue.
Otherwise you can loose tension in your upper back very quickly.
Another very bench specific upper back exercise. But it needs to be done correctly.
Grab a tricep pulldown rope and attach it onto an adjustable cable machine. Move the attachment to about face level.
Now grab the handles and pull the rope to your face. But make sure that your wrists are below your shoulders.
Return the cable back to the starting position and repeat.
If the wrists go higher than the shoulders, then you will be targeting the upper traps. You really want to target the middle and lower trapezius.
The middle and lower traps hep to keep the shoulder blades in a stable position throughout the bench. If the upper traps contract too much, they will pull the shoulder blades into upward rotation.
When this happens, the elbows will want to flare out and the shoulders will lose stability.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press will add some serious mass to the middle and front deltoid.
To perform, adjust a bench until the back of the bench pad is nearly vertical. Then hold the heavy dumbbells on your thighs.
Use your legs and kick up the dumbbells until you catch them by your shoulders. Then press them up into lockout. If you need help, have a spotter help push the weights up to lockout.
Now lower the weights until your elbows are 90 degrees and then press back up to lockout for the prescribed number of repetitions.
Do not go lower than 90 degrees. You can injure your shoulders.
These can also be done with your palms facing each other. This is a tougher variation, but it will target the triceps a bit more.
Hold a pair of light dumbbells by your side and bring them up until the dumbbells are in line with your shoulders.
Slowly lower the weight and repeat.
Don’t go heavy, this is an assistance exercise, it is not an ego lift. You want to do these for a fairly large amount of repetitions (20-25).
Using high reps will help condition the deltoids and make them grow bigger as well.
This is key because the shoulders primarily act as stabilizers during the bench press. Especially the middle and rear delts.
These can also be done while sitting. This makes the exercise harder to cheat.
Standing 1 Arm Dumbbell Press
After you start benching, you will start to notice that one side is generally weaker than the other. These are called muscle imbalances.
In the beginning, these imbalances are not really a big deal, but as the weight gets heavy, they can cause a missed rep.
The 1 arm standing shoulder press can help to find and address these hidden weaknesses.
Grab a heavy dumbbell and hike it up to shoulder level.
Keep your elbow pointing forward and press it overhead to lockout. Lower it back down and repeat on each side for the prescribed number of reps.
Keep your hips and shoulders as square as possible, don’t let the weight of the dumbbell bend you.
If you have to bend too much on one side, then that’s your weaker side. Grab a lighter weight and perform 1-2 extra sets on that side.
I bet you can’t guess who these are named after. The Arnold press adds a whole new dynamic to training the middle deltoid. Rotation.
Start with a pair of dumbbells in front of your face, palms facing you.
Keep the dumbbells in this position and press them overhead. While pressing, turn your palms forward and away from you. When you reach lockout, your palms should be facing completely forward.
Lower down by just reversing the movement, palms and everything.
The biggest mistake you will catch yourself doing is turning the Arnold press into a shoulder press. You do this when you flare out the elbows too much.
The shoulder press and the Arnold press train the same muscle groups, but they are completely different exercises.
One of my favorites.
The seated clean helps not only to work both the middle and rear delts, but it also works the upper back as well.
Sit down on a bench and hold two dumbbells by your side. Then hinge forward and jerk the dumbbells up into a shoulder press position. Both your arms and torso should be extending at the same time.
It looks like cheating, but it is not. It is extremely effective for building strength and endurance for all the stabilizer muscles of the bench press. Even the forearms get worked on this one.
Start light first and then slowly increase the weight. Make sure your keep your shoulder blades pinched when you are jerking the weight up.
This exercise should not be done with maximal weights. You need to use a weight you can do for at least 15-20 repetitions. You can do even more reps if you wish. I managed to hit 52 reps with 40 lb. dumbbells.
Since the chest is already overdeveloped in most individuals, we are only going to cover two exercises here.
The first exercise is the chest fly. A classic in bodybuilding.
Flys are done lying on a bench with dumbbells. Hold a pair up with your palms facing each other and keep your elbows slightly bent.
Keep the elbows bent the entire time in the same position and lower the dumbbells out to the sides until they are inline with the body.
Squeeze the chest in the bottom position and bring the dumbbells back up to the starting position. Elbows remain bent the entire time.
Don’t go below parallel with the dumbbells, it can damage your shoulders.
Flys can also be done on an incline, decline and standing with cables. Choose whichever variation you like. All the same principles apply.
These are great for working the small muscles in the ribcage and decompressing the upper back. Plus, they also help to work the pec minor to stabilize the shoulders.
Simply grab a dumbbell and lie down sideways on a flat bench. Your hips should be on the floor.
Cradle the dumbbell with both hands and lift your hips up to parallel.
Lower the dumbbell above your head until it either touches the ground, or comes pretty close to touching the ground.
Return to the starting position.
Perform this exercise with light weight, it is not an ego lift. And go slowly and under control for each and every rep.
This exercise requires a lot of flexibility, so it is wise to be cautious. Dumbbell pullovers are a great way for you to get some extra mobility work for your shoulders and upper back.
Bench Press Mobility
If you notice yourself having a lot of trouble getting into the proper position on the bench press, your shoulders and upper back might need some additional mobility work.
If that is the case, perform these exercises at the end of your workouts when your muscles are nice and warm.
Having cold muscles while stretching can tear something.
The T-4 stretch is a hidden gold nugget for thoracic and shoulder mobility. It hits both the lats and the triceps at the same time.
To begin, find a bench, or chair, and a dowel. Hold the dowel in your hands with your palms facing you and place your elbows on top of the bench. Keep your hands outside and wider than your elbows.
Keep your spine neutral and push your hips straight back behind you. Think of pushing your hips straight back toward the heels of your feet.
At the same time, curl the dowel toward you and collapse your chest and your head straight down between your shoulders. Your elbows will try to flare out on the bench. Try as hard as you can to keep them right where they are. The spine MUST stay neutral the entire time.
Hold the bottom position for a few seconds, then reverse the movement. Repeat for between 5-10 repetitions.
Overhead mobility requires much more flexibility than the bench press does. But rather than waste time with monotonous shoulder stretches, tackle the big problems with one massive attack.
Plus, it will also help with other pressing exercises, such as the overhead press.
Lying Overhead Extension
For this you will need a foam roller.
Take a foam roller and place it on the ground behind you. Lie down on top of the roller facing up towards the ceiling. Raise your hips up as high as you can and bring both of your arms overhead. Both arms should be locked out and your hands should be able to reach the ground.
Now SLOWLY lower your hips until they come down to the ground. At the same time, try to keep your hands on the ground while lowering the hips. Be careful, don’t force it. If the hands come up slightly, that’s still ok. It will take time to develop the flexibility.
Another tactic to assist the movement is using a weight of some sort. Either a kettlebell, or plate, will do.
Hold onto the weight and use it as an anchor point to hep keep your hands down. Again don’t force anything! If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.
Hold the stretch for at least two minutes.
The lying overhead extension is great because of how simple it is. Plus it is more passive than the T-4 stretch. So it will help you teach your muscles to relax better.
If you look carefully from the side, you will see that this mobilization perfectly mobilizes the thoracic spine for arching the upper back in the bench press.
Seated Trapezius Stretch
A classic stretch seen in fitness centers all over the world. I always refer to this one as the stress reliever.
Find a chair, or bench, and sit on the edge with your spine nice and straight. No slumping over!
Take one of your hands and grab the lip of the chair behind you.
Now lean away from this hand and tilt your head in the opposite direction.
Take your other free hand and place it on your head. Gently apply some pressure for a deeper stretch. Keep the spine as straight as you can and hold the stretch.
Most stretches should be held for about two minutes. But this one is a little different. Due to our lifestyle of sitting down too much, I would advise holding it for a little longer.
Instead of 2 minutes, try 3-5 minutes on each side. It will all depend on how tight you are. If your not so tight, 2-3 minutes will be fine. If your really tight, 4-5 minutes would be better.
During the bench press, you want your lower traps to be more active than your upper traps. If the upper traps are too active, they will cause the shoulders and upper back to lose stability.
But there’s a catch, the lower traps can only function properly if the upper traps are not overactive (tight).
Therefore, in order to get the upper traps working again, you first need to stretch and release the upper traps.
To sum it all up, the bench press, like any other exercise, isn’t mastered over a single training session. It is mastered over many training sessions.
It is a constant process of trial and error all the way to perfection. I know because I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the bench press.
I created this guide to help spare you most of the frustrations I went through. With this guide, you now have an evergreen reference you can bookmark and come back to whenever you need guidance.
Most research shows that we only remember about 7-10% of the things we read, if we read passively. Are you going to remember every single thing that you read in this article? Certainly not!
You will have to refer back to it when you get stuck and hit a plateau. And there will be many plateaus.
So take the time and practice everything you read in this post immediately. You don’t need to do any more research. All you need to do now is take action.
Once you do, you will be able to harness the full power of one of the greatest upper body exercises that the gods have given us.
Now stop reading and start lifting!
**P.S. If you liked this article, please feel free to share it and spread this information with other lifters so we can bring common sense back to training. Also feel free to leave a comment in the description with any questions or concerns you might have.