Bench Press 101: How To Do Properly and Common Mistakes

Bench press - Fitzabout
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Updated: February 10th, 2023

The bench press is a compound exercise that primarily targets the pectoralis major muscle of the chest, secondarily targets the anterior deltoid of the shoulder and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. 1

A strong bench press starts with a strong base, and this article features how it works.

Step-by-step instruction to Bench Press

Do the bench/chest press properly, however, and you’ll keep your shoulders protected and your chest bigger.

1. Setup

Here’s how you set up the barbell bench press with proper form:

Step-1: Lie on the bench

  • Lie on the bench and “screw” the shoulder blades in toward each other and down toward your groin.
  • Create an arch in your lower back large enough to fit your fist between it and the bench.
  • The chest should be lifted as if you are going to show it to someone, and you will want to keep it “up” like this for the entire lift.

Step-2: Grip should be wider than shoulder width

  • Your grip should be a few inches wider than shoulder width, about 22 to 28-inch, depending on your build.
  • If you go too narrow, you’ll be relying too heavily on the triceps, incidentally, the close-grip bench press is a great triceps exercise.
  • If you go too wide, you’ll decrease the range of motion and the overall effectiveness of the exercise.

Step-3: A “thumbless” or “suicide” grip

  • Do not use a “thumbless” or “suicide” grip, as it is aptly called, in which the thumbs are next to the index fingers as opposed to wrapped around the bar.
  • While people give various reasons for preferring the thumbless grip, its disadvantage is clear: When you’re going heavy, it’s surprisingly easy for the barbell to slip out of the hands and fall onto the chest, or worse, the neck.

Step-4: Keep the bar in the palm of the hand

Keep the bar in the palm of your hand, not your fingers, as this causes wrist pain.

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Step-5: Grip the bar hard

Grip the bar hard, try to squash it like spaghetti, as this will give you a slight boost in strength.

Step-6: Create a stable lower body base

  • Create a stable lower body base by placing the feet directly under the knees, which should be facing out, tightening the quads and activating the glutes.
  • The upper part of the leg should be parallel to the floor.
  • The bottom part should be vertical, making a 90-degree angle.
  • This allows you to push through the heels as you climb, creating the “leg drive” you’ve probably heard of, the powerlifting style of bench press, with the heels, well, if you like it.

Step-7: Maintain throughout the lift

Once you’ve done all of the above, position yourself in the position you want to maintain throughout the lift.

2. Barbell Bench Press Movement

Step-1: Lock the elbows and open the bar

  • Unlock the bar by locking the elbows to take the bar off the hooks, and move the bar into position with your elbows.
  • Don’t try to bring the weight directly from the hook to the chest, and don’t drop the chest and slouch the shoulder blades.
  • As you release the rack, as this will cause you to push the bar off the shoulders.

Step-2: Keep the arms at an angle of about 45 degrees

  • Research has shown that keeping your hands at about a 45-degree angle relative to your torso and using a medium grip is the best way to protect your shoulders when bench pressing. 2
  • However, 45-degrees on the nose isn’t necessarily right for everyone—you’ll want to find a position between 30 and 60-degrees that’s most comfortable for you.

Step-3: Bottom-Middle-Top Position

The steepest position above is about 20-degrees and is commonly seen in powerlifting. The middle position is about 45-degrees and is what I find most comfortable. The top position is 90-degrees, which keeps the shoulders in a compromised position.

Step 4: Control while lowering the bar

  • The proper bench press movement is a controlled lowering of the bar to the bottom of your chest (above your nipples), followed by an explosive drive upward. The bar should go up and down in a straight line, not toward your face or belly button.
  • There is a never-ending debate on whether you should bring the bar to the chest.
  • A good deal of fitness “experts” claim that you shouldn’t lower the weight beyond the point where the upper arms are parallel to the floor, because going any deeper puts too much stress on the shoulders. This is nonsense.
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Step-5: Reducing the range of motion

Reducing the range of motion only reduces the effectiveness of the exercise, and with improper technique, the shoulders are only at risk of injury. By using the full range of motion with proper form, you’ll maximize muscle growth while preventing injury.

Step 6: Raise the bar one place for each rep

Don’t look at the bar while moving, as this will likely cause you to change its descent and ascent angles. Instead, pick a spot on the ceiling to look up during the exercise and watch the bar move up and down in relation to it. The goal is to get it in the same spot for each rep.

Step-7: Keep the elbows “tucked”

  • Keep your elbows “tucked” into the starting position the entire time, paying special attention during ascent.
  • This is when people usually instigate them to take advantage.
  • Increasing the angle relative to your torso makes it easier to lift the weight, but puts undue stress on the shoulders.

3. Chest press tips

  • Don’t let the chest flatten when pressing, and don’t allow the shoulders to sag or roll forward at the top of a rep.
  • Keep chest up, elbows tucked in, and retract shoulder blades by pinching them.
  • Use the feet to drive against the floor.
  • These transfers force through the hips and back, which helps maintain proper form and can increase the pushing force you generate.
  • Keep butt on the bench at all times. If the butt is lifting, the weight is probably too heavy, three points of contact that you should always maintain are:
    • Upper back (stays down on the bench), butt (ditto), and legs (stay planted on the floor).
  • Don’t jump the bar off your chest. Lower it in a controlled manner while keeping everything tight. Then let it touch the chest and move it upwards.
  • Don’t bang the back of your head on the bench, as this can cause neck strain.
  • The neck will naturally tighten as you exercise, but don’t force it down.
  • Think about the drive up to come when you’re losing weight. Imagine an explosive second half of the exercise the entire time, and you’ll find it easier to control the descent of the weight, prevent bouncing, and even prepare the muscles for the impending stress of lifting the bar.
  • By the way, this technique is good for all exercises.
  • Be sure to complete the last rep before trying to increase the weight.
  • Many people make the mistake of moving the bar towards their face during their last rep. What if they miss the rep, and it starts to come down or is off the hook? It is not beautiful.
  • Instead, press the weight straight up as usual, lock the elbows, lower the bar back to the rack until it snaps overhead, and then lower it to the hook.3
ⓘ Sources
ALSO READ:  Close-Grip Bench Press 101: How To Do Properly And Common Mistakes

  1. Sutton B. Bench press targeted muscles, grips, and movement patterns. National Association of Sports Medicine.
  2. Green, Carly M. CSCS; Comfort, Paul MSc, CSCS. The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury. Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2007 – Volume 29 – Issue 5 – p 10-14. doi: 10.1519/00126548-200710000-00001.
  3. Source: Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body. By Michael Matthews. Available here: https://amzn.to/3S7dyYD

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