The bench press gives us the best way to work all of the upper body pushing muscles.
The bench press focuses on the chest, the front half of the shoulder, and the back of the arms. These areas include the major muscles of the sternal and clavicular portions of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps brachii. Although not mentioned in most sources, the front half of the middle deltoid receives intense work as well. Major joint motions include arm extension, shoulder flexion, horizontal arm adduction, and scapula abduction. Numerous muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and torso stabilize.
This guide focuses on the raw barbell bench press.
You will need a flat bench, barbell, weight plates, uprights with saddles, and a safety mechanism. This safety could come through a spotter or a stopping point at the bottom. A power rack provides the best option with its safety bars, though a half rack or similar setup would work well too.
The bench press inside a power rack allows you to perform the exercise safely alone. Place the two safety bars so that the barbell barely fails to be low enough to touch them when resting on the lower chest. When you fail to complete a rep, move the barbell toward your collar bone to end the exercise since the portion is lower. You can also place the safety bars higher if this allows too much range of motion or feels awkward for you. Make sure the elbows at least pass the plane of the shoulders (a bit more than 90° at the elbow) at the bottom.
For some trainees, dumbbells may have some advantages but also have the problems associated with unilateral exercises. Dumbbells can allow easier self-spotting and greater movement variation. They also feel harder to control and allow overstretching too. Due to these issues, I recommend using a barbell for most trainees focus only on the barbell option here.
A lot of advice on the bench press comes from powerlifting. This is one of their three core lifts for the sport. Lifting more weight does not always mean their methods work most effectively and safely though. They also give advice that makes sense only when applying special equipment and rules. This includes using an elastic shirt or pausing at the bottom. Their tips have entered general fitness without differentiating for the typical raw, natural lifter. Many can actually harm you and ignore that good form is balanced.
Bench press variations present no advantages beyond the basic flat option. Although anatomy shows that the upper and lower chest have some separate functions, pressing from a flat position with enough effort involves both portions intensely. Most bench pressing injuries come from poor form, too much range of motion, or using these variations. An incline or decline bench press can place immense strain on the shoulders. Avoid training your muscles at awkward angles.
A flat bench, medium grip bench press works best and safely for all the involved muscles.
- Lie face up on the bench.
- Plant the feet flat with the heels on the floor. Those with shorter legs may need to elevate their feet. Use stable objects such as blocks or weight plates.
- The shins should align vertically with about 90° at the knees. Avoid placing your feet underneath your torso in an attempt to drive with the legs. Bridging occurs when the hips rise off from the bench. This is more likely to occur with the legs underneath. This decreases the range of motion at the expense of safety in the lower back and destroys stability.
- Keep the head, upper back, and hips in contact with the bench.
- Make sure the bench pad feels wide enough. 12 inches works best for most and 8-10 inches may make it tough to feel stable depending on the trainee. Make sure the fabric of the bench has some friction so that you stay firm against it.
- Make sure the posts that fix the bench to the floor stay in place. Some may slip across carpet. If needed, place a rubber mat between the floor and the posts to prevent movement.
- The shoulder blades should remain on the bench. Some powerlifters recommend placing the upper traps on the bench instead. This can harm the shoulders and reduce their contribution as well. Powerlifters do this to hyperextend their lower backs to decrease the range of motion required to touch the chest. This also places the body in a decline which can harm the shoulders.
- Keep the chest up and pull the shoulder blades back just enough so they rest completely on the bench. Do not overdo this tip. Pull the shoulders blades straight back and not down as well. They do not remain pinched during the movement and the tension created by fixing them against the bench should keep them firm.
- Relax the head and neck. Stare at a point on the ceiling where the barbell finishes at the top or at the barbell itself. This depends on personal preference.
- The eyes should line up with the barbell or beyond it slightly toward the lower face and neck before you unrack the barbell. Too far away from this position either direction will make the liftoff weak. You also risk you hitting the saddles on the way back up.
- Unracking the barbell should require only a slight bend at the elbow. You should feel very close to the lockout when you unrack. You should never feel as if you have to reach for it as this hampers the chest up position that creates stability for handling heavy weights.
- Keep a slight bend in the elbows at the top. A complete lockout can irritate the wrists.
- Do not activate the upper back muscles beyond what comes naturally. They serve as antagonists to the chest. They need to be relaxed to perform a powerful bench press.
- Use a pronated (overhand) grip and not a false grip. There is a risk of the bar falling out of the hands without the thumb wrapped around the bar more. A false grip also prevents the squeezing that facilitates strength.
- The wrists should roughly align with the elbows at the bottom of the movement. You want to go neither too wide nor too narrow. Everyone will be different. Use the smooth rings on the barbell as a reference to maintain your proper setup once you establish it.
- Extend the wrist as feels natural to achieve the best grip. Some trainees make the mistake of holding the bar too close to the palm of your hand than the fingers. You need to strike a balance, but overdoing either way will reduce your grip strength or make the transfer of force less efficient.
- Rest the barbell in the palm of the hand, not near the fingers. To do this, relax your hand enough to let the barbell settle, then squeeze the bar.
Lowering (Negative) Phase:
- Begin the bench press by bending your elbows and extending the shoulders.
- Descend at whatever speed allows you to feel in control.
- Lower the bar, for most, to about the lower chest just below the nipple. This is only the level though, and this may be too much range of motion. Placing a pad around the barbell can give you a standard without having you compromise the range of motion as the exercises grows tougher.
- Reaching anywhere between the upper ribcage and lower chest can work though. This may require a slight J-curve, in which the bar path does not travel in a straight line, traveling very slightly toward your feet as you descend. What really seems to happen though is that your perception will make you feel as if you move in a straight line when actually going toward your face. Make sure your forearms would be close to perpendicular to the ground when viewed from the side. If you just let the barbell drop under control, it should reach this area naturally.
- Make sure as you lower the bar that you allow your shoulder blades to retract as you move the the glenohumeral joint. The powerlifting advice to retract the shoulder blades as far as possible throughout the whole motion is unnatural and harmful.
- Make sure the elbows at least slightly pass the plane of the shoulders (a bit more than 90° at the elbow). If the chest feels like too much range of motion, then wrap a towel or pad around the bar to decrease the range of motion yet give you a reference point for consistency.
- Avoid flaring or tucking the elbows. The arms should place at about a 45° relative to the body. This depends mostly on the initial grip.
- Make sure to actively allow your shoulder blades to pull back, even when facing resistance from the bench. This maintains the natural rhythm between the scapula and the glenohumeral joint.
- You can hold your breath during the descent. The helps with stability and protects the lower back. Inhaling slowly may work as well.
Lifting (Positive) Phase:
- Once you reach your reference point, stay tight and push your body back up to the starting position.
Fail the motion by placing the barbell on the safety bars or using your spotter to protect you at the bottom. It is probably safer to fail at the bottom anyway, since fatigue, a lack of concentration, and reliance on the deep stabilizer muscles can make it difficult to return the bar to the saddles of the power rack safely.
The Bench Press
The raw barbell bench press is among the best push if performed properly. Powerlifting technique, while suitable for the goals of that sport, can harm the joints and reduce the stimulus to the muscles. Bench press with a barbell using a medium grip and adhere to these tips to establish good form.