Bench press is the first exercise that many people do when they begin strength training, but there’s more to it than you may initially think. If you do it right, it’s an efficient training that strengthens many muscle groups other than the chest (1).
Bench press is an exercise that can improve leg drive (fig.1), total body tension and stabilize the shoulder girdle to avoid shoulder injuries, if it’s performed correctly. On the other hand, if you do it wrong, it can cause serious muscle imbalances that can lead to chronic shoulder pain. Poor form and more weight than you can handle won’t get you lifting more in the long run.
(fig.1) Contracting your legs will create a force going upwards/to your head that will help you lift your weights
What are the steps to bench press in a correct way?
Getting under the bar: When you lie on the bench, make sure that your head, upper back and butt are all in contact with the bench. Your back should be arched so that your lower back is completely off the bench. Your eyes should be directly under the bar and your neck should be in a neutral position looking straight up to avoid injuries.
Back arch: You should arch your back because this will make your exercise safer and you’ll avoid back, shoulder and neck injuries. Arching your back will also make you use your chest muscles more, resulting in a more efficient exercise.
Hand position and grip on the bar: Keep your wrists in a neutral position to allow you to lift more and decrease the risk of injuries. Your forearms should be as close to vertical at the bottom of the rep as possible. You can adjust your hand position based on that.
Foot position: Your feet should be firmly on the floor. In ABSOLUTELY NO OCCASION keep your feet up in the air or on the bench. If your feet are not on the ground you will be less stable and this means you will not be able to produce the tension and force that you will need to lift. Not keeping your feet firmly on the ground will make it harder for you to keep your back with a good arch, and the resulting lifting angle will put you at risk for shoulder injuries.
Get tight: In preparation for the lift, pull your shoulder blades together and contract your core, glutes and quads. This will prevent injuries by stabilizing your shoulders. If you disengage those muscles you’ll be weaker and more exposed to injuries (fig.2). You need to keep your lats, back muscles, core, glutes and quads contracted throughout the whole exercise.
(fig.2) If the upper back muscles are not engaged the weight will be on your neck and back exposing you to injuries. Instead, with engaged upper back muscles the weight will be ditributed to your chest and arms.
- Lift the bar off the rack: Lift the bar off the rack using your back muscles and lats to keep your shoulders back and your shoulder blades together.
- Proper breathing: Start by taking a deep breath and hold it in your chest area while contracting your core to create abdominal/thoracic pressure that protects your spine. You can choose if you want to do it before you take the bar from the rack or right after you do, but always before you start to lower the bar to your chest. You can either exhale by taking a full breath at the very top of each rep when the bar is stable, or slowly exhale as you press the bar up.
- Lower the bar to your chest: Lower the bar with a controlled movement to a point at the bottom of your sternum.
- Lift the bar up: Lift the bar back up as it touches your chest. You should tense your quads, glutes and core to give you more force as you press. Remember to keep your shoulder blades tucked behind you.
How can you improve your bench press results?
- Maintain a good position: If you maintain a good position you will have a strong and safe bench press. DON’T keep your back flat on the bench, DON’T keep the knees at 90°, DON’T follow a short range of movement.
- Use leg drive: If you drive your feet into the floor you will have a stronger lift. Remember to NOT raise your hips. Your butt should stay on the bench throughout the lift.
- Progression: Remember the importance of progression in your training sessions. To keep your progress under control, you can write down your sets, reps and weights for each training.
- Spotter: If possible, always have someone to spot you.
- Resting time: Remember to rest enough between sets. This can vary depending on your lifting goal: if you are training for hypertrophy you should have a shorter break (2 or 3 minutes) (2) than if you want to increase your max strength (4 or 5 minutes).
- Find your ideal grip: THERE IS NO STANDARD GRIP WIDTH that suits everyone, but the angle of your elbows should not exceed 90° while lifting.
- Keep the bar balanced: If you struggle with keeping the bar balanced it could be because your grip is not ideal (i.e. you are not grabbing the bar at an equal distance on both sides), or because you’re lifting too much.
- Make sure both arms roughly equal in strength: This can help you overcome periods of plateau in your progression. Having one arm stronger than the other puts you at risk of poor form during your exercise and will also put too much pressure one the stronger arm. To achieve this you can add extra sets of complementary exercises to your bench training.
- Train all the muscles involved in bench press:
o Triceps: Work on dips and overhead cable extensions.
o Upper back: To strengthen your upper back you can use barbell or cable rows.
o Chest: There are several exercises that can help you, including pushups, dumbbell flyes, cable extensions and dumbbell chest press.
Do you usually bench press? Which are the problems that you have encountered with this exercise? Leave your comments below!