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When it comes to lifting weights, bodybuilding, or simply general exercise, the bench press, like the push-up, is likely one of the first images that come to mind. The traditional bench press is a classic exercise that remains an essential staple of most non-bodyweight-based strength training routines. And for a good reason: It is a critical component of developing upper-body muscle growth.

However, while bench pressing can contribute significantly to your gains or fitness goals, you must ensure you do it right. Without proper technique and form, bench pressing can cause problematic stress or injury to your shoulder joints, wrists, or chest (to name a few). 

I should note that technique, form, and approach to the bench press can change depending on who you ask (everyone’s got an opinion). However, in this article, I intend to use the most definitive facts I’ve found to help you improve your bench press technique, further understand the exercise’s benefits, and help you prevent injuries or pain while getting the most out of this classic exercise.

How To Bench Press

Five guidelines for a proper traditional bench press:

  1. Lie on your flat bench with the bar parallel to your eyes and feet on the floor. 
  2. Firmly take hold of the barbell with your hands placed roughly a bit more than shoulder-width apart (the wider the grip, the more your chest muscles are activated). 
  3. Breathe in and engage your core while bringing your shoulder blades together as you slowly lower the barbell off the rack to your chest (aim for near your nipple line, however this will vary from person to person).
  4. Extend your elbows without resting the bar while engaging your chest muscles to push it back upwards to its original position off the rack (above your shoulders). Make sure you exhale as you raise the bar, maintaining a consistent breathing rhythm. 
  5. Continue for desired repetitions.
woman doing bench press

Trainer Tips for Bench Press Form

Here are some helpful tips for engaging in a classic bench press correctly and safely:

Find the Right Starting and Finish Positions

For the traditional bench press, you are lowering the barbell and pressing it back upwards in a straight line that is almost in a J-shape, not perfectly vertical. Your starting and lowered positions determine this line. 

A good bench press starting (and finishing) position off the rack is to hold the barbell directly above to your shoulders or upper back. From there, slightly rotate your elbows inward, and lower the barbell till it touches your chest (lowered position). This lowered position or landing point can vary based on a person’s arm length, torso size, or general body type. However, I suggest a landing position slightly above your nipple line as a broad guideline.

force us my bench woman bench press

When returning to your starting position, push the barbell upwards and toward your face. This movement should resemble a pressing motion that moves upwards in a diagonal line rather than a vertical one (unlike guillotine presses).

Lowering the barbell in a straight vertical line may lead to your elbows flaring out, potentially compromising form and gains and leading to shoulder inflammation. In addition, pressing upwards in a diagonal rather than vertical line will help you to establish your upper back as a means of support, preventing strains in your middle or lower back and isolating pressure where it needs to be. 

The Strategic—Subtle—Arch

Another common benching mistake that can cause shoulder pain is pressing with a completely flat back. This is because your upper back acts as a source of support for your form, with your lower body stabilizing you on the bench. Therefore a subtle arch between the bench and your middle or lower back is a safer position to take on the bench.

The degree of good bench pressing arch varies based on your body type. While some demonstrate an exaggerated arch, like powerlifters, your arch is best determined by the curve in your middle or lower back resulting from your upper back and hips being firmly planted on the bench.  

Not arching your middle or lower back can lead to additional strain on your shoulders, compromised bench press technique, and uneven weight distribution along the bench.

Man placing a spotter arm on a power rack

Practice Safety

Training with a spotter is a great way to challenge yourself to experiment with heavier weights or more reps. However, a spotter is not an excuse to dive into super heavy weights you aren’t ready to handle. A spotter should provide an additional element of safety when training, not training wheels for the bench!

Notably, if you don’t have a spotter and you are training alone at home or don’t have a reliable partner at the gym, be careful when pushing yourself with heavier weights and use safety straps or pins.

When training alone, you can increase the reps of weight you are already comfortable with to focus on endurance and toning. Or a helpful trick to better establish safety when benching on your own is not to add clips to each side of the barbell, so you can dump the weight plates quickly if you can not bring the barbell back up to its resting position on the rack. This is something that requires practice!

Keep Those Shoulders Down and Back

Keep your shoulders down and back. Packing them in while you engage those upper back muscles for support should help you more safely and accurately move the barbell. On the contrary, not keeping your shoulders down could lead to your shoulders bearing too much of the barbell’s weight. This could lead to potential injuries and take away from the effects of this chest exercise. 

Prioritize Range of Motion Before Heavier Weight

When moving the barbell up and down during a bench press, the more controlled your movement is, the better it is! 

While some may be able to slightly lower and quickly raise hundreds of pounds, properly bench pressing with the correct technique and a full range of motion will help you to best experience the benefits of the bench press to the fullest (and avoid injuries in the process). 

Sam doing bench press on Force USA G20 Trainer

Common Bench Press Mistakes

As you work to master the bench press, be aware of these common mistakes:

Don’t Bounce the Bar Off Your Chest

Try to lower the bar gently onto your chest and assertively raise it with complete control. You don’t want to lower the barbell without utilizing your strength. And you definitely don’t want to rely on the bar bouncing off your chest or sternum as a way to more easily raise it back up (helloooo broken ribs!). 

This may sound crazy, but it is a common occurrence in gyms. And one that can prevent gains in muscle mass from the exercise, compromise proper form, and lead to injuries or chronic pain over time. 

Don’t Do the Same Thing Every Time

While some gym rats may suggest otherwise, mix up your bench pressing sessions and the weight and reps you do during them each time. Bench pressing can significantly help build muscle in your arms, chest, and shoulders. Still, to best achieve this, you want to allow your muscles time to recover and be consistently challenged with various training routines to prevent both strains or stagnation in muscle growth.

To do this, split up and diversify your bench pressing sessions during the week rather than doing them every day. Instead, aim for multiple days with periods of recovery between them. This almost always leads to faster strength gains for most lifters. 

RELATED: What Is Progressive Overload?

More specifically, focus each session on a different bench pressing goal, especially if you are a beginner. For example, one day focused on strength (heavy weight and fewer reps), one day focused on hypertrophy/muscle growth (moderate weight and reps), and one day focused on endurance (lower weight and higher reps with explosive force). 

This method is also known as daily undulating periodization, or DUP. It is a type of approach to strength training where weight and reps fluctuate every session to diversify muscle stimulation and prevent a fitness plateau. Notably, a 2002 study1 found that lifters engaged in a DUP approach to weight training experienced significantly more strength gains than those who did not. 

Bench Press Variations

Here are some other bench-pressing variations to experiment with:

Floor Press

When lying on the floor, slightly arch your back and bring your heels to your butt so your feet are firmly planted with your knees pointing upwards. Unrack the barbell from the bottom bracket of your rack. Bring the barbell down slowly until your rear arms touch the ground, then return it to your starting position. You can also do this with dumbbells or by putting bumper plates on a barbell and simply lifting it off the ground.

Gif of dumbbell floor chest press

Incline Bench Press

Rogue Adjustable Bench 3.0 in incline position

Angle your adjustable bench to roughly 45 to 60 degrees. From here, you will engage in the same movement pattern as a bench press. However, with the incline press, you tend to lower the barbell just under your clavicle and will feel more pressure on your upper chest area and shoulders due to the angle. 

incline bench dumbbell shoulder press

Decline Bench Press

Angle your bench downward at around 15 to 30 degrees behind your head. Stable your lower body by placing free weights or an aerobic step under your feet to ensure a stable position. 

With the decline bench press, you will feel more pressure on your lower chest muscles. Make sure, despite the positioning, to keep your shoulders down when you press to avoid shoulder inflammation or compromised technique. 

Close-Grip Bench Press

Narrow your barbell grip width so that your hands are slightly narrower than your shoulders’ distance. The narrow grip bench press more efficiently targets your triceps. However, be alert not to bring your hands too close together as this can cause you to lose balance of the barbell or experience too much stress on your wrists or forearms, leading to potential injuries. 

Woman doing close grip bench press

Useful Bench Press Equipment Accessories

Some helpful accessories for your bench press journey:

Dumbbells

Man pressing Eleiko dumbbells

Dumbbells allow you to experiment with other free-weight strength training exercises that can contribute to the advancement of your bench press. In addition, the dumbbell bench press is a non-barbell-based alternative to the traditional bench press that offers similar benefits in muscular growth in your upper arms, pecs, and shoulders. 

Kettlebells

While maybe unconventional, kettlebells can be a helpful tool in mastering your bench press form and improving your composure. 

By attaching kettlebells to your barbell with resistance bands, you can better practice balancing the barbell bench press and working muscle stabilizers. While it may seem a bit crazy, it can help you to practice stabilizing the weight and mastering your technique. This is reserved for more advanced athletes and shouldn’t be attempted unless you are very comfortable with bench press.

Gym Chalk

First and foremost, gym chalk helps absorb sweat and enhance your grip on the barbell while preventing blisters in your hands. However, less known is that in addition to this, chalk can help you to know if you are lowering your barbell where you’re supposed to.

If you have your own home gym, or your gym permits it, applying chalk to the center of your barbell to leave a mark on your shirt when landing can help ensure you are landing where you should be, and if you are doing so consistently. 

Resistance Bands

Whether lowering or raising the barbell, resistance bands can help you to experiment with pressure while perfecting your bench press form without diving immediately into heavy weights. In addition, resistance bands combined with free weights can add another element of pressure during your workout without needing to add heavier weights you may not be ready to take on. 

FAQs: How to Bench Press

What muscles does the bench press work?

The muscle groups worked when bench pressing can vary depending on the type of bench press you do. However, the classic bench primarily and efficiently works your pectoral muscles, shoulders, and triceps. 

Are bench presses effective?

The bench press’ claim to fame is its effectiveness. If done correctly, the traditional bench press is one of the most efficient workouts for building upper body strength. The traditional bench press is a provenly effective weight-based

What are the benefits of bench pressing?

In addition to contributing to muscle gains in the chest, shoulders, and triceps, the bench press can also contribute to your overall bone health. A 2014 study2 saw that weight-bearing exercises, such as the bench press, improved bone mineral density when helping those struggling with osteoporosis. 

Furthermore, bench pressing can be a gateway exercise to discover how weightlifting or strength training can help you make the full-body changes you desire. Of course, the patience and precision required to bench press correctly is not for everyone. But in learning how to bench press properly, you can better position yourself to explore the wide variety of exercises available in the world of strength training (reaping the benefits along the way). 

References

  1. Rhea MR, Ball SD, Phillips WT, Burkett LN. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):250-5. PMID: 11991778. 
  1. Shanb AA, Youssef EF. The impact of adding weight-bearing exercise versus nonweight bearing programs to the medical treatment of elderly patients with osteoporosis. J Family Community Med. 2014 Sep;21(3):176-81. doi: 10.4103/2230-8229.142972. PMID: 25374469; PMCID: PMC4214007.

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