A classic and one of the most popular exercises for every level of weightlifter, the bench press is a compound movement that requires activating the upper body – chest, shoulders, and triceps – to perform.
If you’re focused on strength training and being able to push some serious plates, the bench press is the go-to upper body exercise.
Despite its popularity, it also has a reputation for being an exercise that is performed incorrectly by most people (maybe even you!).
Performing the bench press with improper form can put undue stress on your joints, ligaments, and tendons, which can lead to serious injuries, such as strained muscles, torn ligaments, and even fractures.
Using proper bench press form doesn’t just keep you safe; it also allows for better muscle activation. A higher level of muscle activation means faster gains in strength and muscle size.
Let’s walk through the proper bench press form as well as techniques to help you get the most out of your workout.
Understanding the Bench Press Setup
Before you even begin lifting the barbell in your workout class or during your upper body workout, it's important to set up the bench press correctly to ensure that you're using proper form and technique.
The first step in the bench press setup is to position your body correctly on the bench.
Lie flat on the bench with your head, shoulders, and hips all in contact with the bench. Your feet should be flat on the ground and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
Maintain a natural arch in your lower back throughout the exercise, as this will help you maintain correct bench press form and avoid injury.
The barbell should be positioned directly above your eyes, with your eyes looking up at the bar. If someone were to look directly below at you, the barbell should be literally covering your eyes from their view.
Your hands will be in an overhand grip placed just outside of shoulder-width.
Your thumbs should be wrapped around the bar, but not under it, as this can cause the bar to roll forward and potentially cause injury.
I always tell clients to roll their hands from under to over to ensure they have a straight wrist when gripping the barbell.
When you're ready to lift the bar, your elbows shouldn’t be tucked in close to your body, and they shouldn’t be flared out to the sides.
Instead, find the middle path in between this. A 45-degree angle works best for most people.
This helps to protect your shoulders and maintain proper form throughout the exercise.
The Bench Press Arch
The bench press arch is a technique used by many lifters to improve their bench press form and technique. However, it's also a technique that's often debated within the lifting community, with some arguing that it can lead to injury if not done properly.
What is the Bench Press Arch?
The bench press arch is a technique where you arch your back during the lift, which can help you generate more power and lift heavier weights. When executed properly, the bench press arch can help you maintain proper form, reduce stress on your shoulders, and prevent injury.
How to Perform the Bench Press Arch
To perform the bench press arch, start by positioning yourself on the bench with your feet flat on the ground and your hips and shoulders in contact with the bench.
Arch your back slightly, pushing your chest out and your shoulder blades together. This creates a small arch in your lower back, which can help you generate more power during the lift.
When to Use the Bench Press Arch
The bench press arch is most effective for lifters who have a larger range of motion in their shoulders and/or who are looking to lift heavier weights.
However, it's important to note that the bench press arch is not appropriate for everyone.
If you have a history of back pain or spinal injuries, or if you're just starting out with the bench press, it's best to avoid the bench press arch until you've developed proper form and technique.
The Bench Press Grip
The grip you use during the bench press can have a significant impact on your performance and safety.
The overhand grip is the most common grip used during the bench press. The most natural grip for you to use, the overhand grip has your palms facing away from the body.
Don’t forget to completely hook and lock your thumb around your hand. This grip will help you generate more power during the lift and can help you lift heavier weights.
A wider grip can help you target your chest muscles, but going too wide can shift the focus away from the chest and on to the shoulders.
On the other hand, a narrower grip can target your triceps more effectively.
It's important to use a grip width that's comfortable for you and allows you to maintain proper form throughout the lift.
With that said, the majority of people will benefit from the standard grip width of just outside of shoulder width.
The Bench Press Execution
Now that you understand the proper setup and grip for the bench press, it's time to focus on the actual execution of the lift.
Lowering the Bar
To begin the bench press, unrack the bar and hold it with your arms fully extended.
Slowly lower the bar. As you descend in a controlled manner, aim towards your chest in a way that the barbell will line up with your nipples.
Remember to keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body.
The eccentric or lowering part of the move is the most important as it requires a greater degree of effort from the muscle so take your time here and focus on the muscle activation.
The bar should touch your chest or come close to it.
It’ll be tempting but do NOT bounce the bar off your chest to help you return to the starting position. Most would consider this a cheat rep. What’s more, bouncing a heavy barbell on your chest can lead to injury.
Pressing the Bar Up
Once the bar has reached your chest, press it back up in a controlled manner, focusing the contraction on the chest muscle.
Exhale as you press the bar up and focus on pushing the bar straight up in a straight line. Avoid flaring your elbows out to the sides, as this can place stress on your shoulders.
Inhale as you lower the bar towards your chest, and exhale as you press the bar back up. This will help you maintain proper form and generate more power during the lift.
The tempo of your bench press should be based on your fitness goals.
Generally, a slower tempo such as 2-to-3 seconds on the lowering phase and 1-to-2 seconds on the lifting phase can be more effective for building strength and muscle mass.
A faster tempo can be more effective for improving power and explosiveness.
Common Bench Press Mistakes to Avoid
Even experienced lifters can make mistakes when it comes to the bench press. Here are some of the most common mistakes that lifters make during the bench press and how to avoid them.
Overarching the Back
One of the biggest mistakes lifters make when using the bench press arch is over-arching their back, which can lead to hyperextension and potential injury. It's important to maintain a natural arch in your lower back throughout the lift, rather than forcing your back into an exaggerated position.
Flaring Your Elbows
Flaring the elbows out to the sides can place stress on your shoulders and increase your risk of injury. To avoid this mistake, keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle throughout the lift.
Bouncing the Bar Off Your Chest
Bouncing the bar off your chest to help lift the weight can lead to injury. It also reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. Instead, lower the bar in a controlled manner and pause briefly at the bottom before pressing the bar back up.
Failing to Use Proper Breathing Technique
Don’t forget to breathe! Take a deep inhale as you lower the bar towards your chest and perform a powerful exhale as you press the bar back up.
Lifting Your Head Off the Bench
Lifting your head off the bench can cause your back to arch and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. Instead, keep your head and shoulders in contact with the bench throughout the lift.
Not Using a Spotter
Using a spotter is important for ensuring your safety during the bench press. A spotter can help you lift heavier weights safely and can also assist you in the event that you're unable to complete a rep.
Having a spotter also allows you to train to failure or perform negative sets.
Lifting Too Much Weight
It's important to use a weight that's challenging but still allows you to maintain proper form and technique throughout the lift. Otherwise, you risk injury and not moving through a full range of motion.
Bench Press Accessories
In addition to proper form and technique, there are several accessories that can help you maximize your bench press performance and reduce your risk of injury.
It should be noted that most of these are going to be relevant once you start to lift heavier weight.
Lifting straps are designed to help you grip the bar more securely during the bench press. This can be especially helpful if you have difficulty maintaining a secure grip while lifting heavier weights.
Wrist wraps can help you support your wrists during the bench press, reducing the risk of injury and allowing you to lift heavier weights safely. They can also be helpful if you have existing wrist pain or weakness.
Chains can be used to add variable resistance to the bench press, making the lift more challenging at the top of the movement. This can help you build explosive power and improve your overall bench press performance.
Resistance bands are another form of variable resistance that can be used to add resistance to the bench press and improve your strength and muscle gains. They can also be helpful for warming up your muscles before the bench press and improving your range of motion.
A foam roller can be used to massage and release tension in your muscles before and after the bench press. This can help you prevent injury and improve your recovery time.
Bench Press Variations
While the traditional bench press is a highly effective exercise for building upper body strength and muscle mass, there are several variations of the exercise that can target different muscle groups and add variety to your workout routine.
Incline Bench Press
As the name suggests, the incline bench press is performed on an incline bench angled at around 30-45 degrees. This variation hits the upper chest muscle fibers more effectively than the traditional barbell bench press.
Decline Bench Press
We go to the other side of an adjustable bench with the decline bench press, which is angled downward, usually at an angle of 30-to-45 degrees. You’ll feel this one more in the lower muscle fibers of the chest.
Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press involves using a narrower grip on the barbell, with your hands placed shoulder-width apart or closer. This is a great exercise for targeting your triceps.
The floor press involves performing the bench press while lying on the floor, rather than on a bench. This variation is usually performed with dumbbells. It can help you build upper body strength and improve your bench press form by limiting your range of motion.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press can help you target each side of your body independently and also allows for a greater range of motion.
Reverse-Grip Bench Press
The reverse-grip bench press involves using an underhand grip on the barbell to target the triceps muscles.
Graduate From Bench Press Academy
If you're looking for a gym that can help you master the proper bench press form and achieve your fitness goals, you’ve found it with Fit Results in Chicago with locations in South Loop and Logan Square.
Our experienced trainers and state-of-the-art equipment can help you improve your bench press form and technique, as well as your overall fitness and health.