After the overhead press lost its popularity, the weightlifting masses opted for its distant cousin the bench press. Now the test of pure upper body strength, the bench press morphed from its predecessor, the floor press, where athletes pressed the barbell from laying down on the floor.
Although it’s considered an upper body workout, the bench press engages the entire body if done properly.
Mark Rippetoe includes the bench in his Starting Strength program. Strong Lifts considers it among the core lifts. It’s a required lift for most powerlifting competitions.
Here, we cover the lift and common mobility issues.
The Bench Press
This lift is one of the most nuanced as there are many ways to bench heavy and get stronger, but many of those ways can involve poor form and risk of injury.
For the sake of this post, we’ll go with the most straightforward benching and touch on a few variations with videos from industry experts.
If you are on a fixed bench, adjust pins to the appropriate height. You should be lifting the barbell up a few inches. If you’re needing to stretch to get the bar off of the pins, your pins are too high. Likewise, if you’re pushing up six inches or more, your pins are too low.
Laying on the bench, your eyes should be under the bar in the racked position. Feet flat on the floor.
Place your hands at or just on the inside of the knurling, about even with your shoulders. Do a hook grip on the bar, wrapping your fingers around your thumb.
As you prepare to lift the bar, squeeze your butt and engage your shoulder blades, trying to get them to touch each other. Doing both of these will inevitably create an arch in your back. This is a good thing that we will come back to in a minute.
Taking a breath in, lift the bar so that it comes over your chest.
Pick a spot on the ceiling to focus on and lower the bar in a diagonal line to the bottom of your sternum (where your ribcage begins to part, just below your breasts). Forearms should be straight up and down as you do this motion.
Push the bar back in the opposite diagonal line, ending where you began. Breathe out when you reach the “sticking point,” where it gets harder to lift the bar.
Repeat for reps.
Re-rack the bar by bringing it straight back against the rack and gently lowering to the pins.
As I said earlier, the bench can be done in a variety of ways that may or may not result in injury. Here are some ways to avoid potential injury.
Many powerlifters do an extreme arch when they bench. By doing this, they reduce the distance the bar must travel, resulting in an “easier” lift. While this is perfectly acceptable in powerlifting competitions (as long as the lifter’s shoulders and butt remain on the bench), this is not something a new lifter should be focused on.
Instead, make sure you engage your muscles, and focus on a solid range of motion.
Like pushups, many people who bench let their elbows come out wide in a “chicken wing” fashion. This leaves the shoulder extremely vulnerable in both exercises.
By focusing on keeping the forearms straight up and down, those elbows should naturally come in a little closer, changing the torque on your shoulder, resulting in a much more stable and safer lift.
Most lifters have a love/hate relationship with the hook grip. It is the “strongest” grip and once you train with it, you will never go back. But it is a dogged process working through the initial discomfort the hook grip brings.
On bench, some untrained lifters (who may still be lifting really heavy) may use an open grip, or suicide grip, where the thumb does not wrap around the bar.
Should the bar slip, there isn’t much a lifter can do to protect himself or herself with the open grip (hence the alternative name).
If you find your wrists are rolling back, check your hand placement on the bar.
Feet up or down
You may see some lifters place their feet on the bench as they lift. Again, this is a sign that they haven’t had proper coaching.
Placing the feet on the bench prevents the lifter from truly engaging the shoulder and back muscles, as well as the glutes and leg muscles. No engagement, no arch.
As I reviewed in my post on gym etiquette, having a spotter for bench press is pretty key.
I get that it can be intimidating to ask someone for a spot, but it is so much more embarrassing to fail your lift and cause a commotion as folks rush to rescue you from under the bar.
Scope out the gym for someone who looks approachable and who looks like he or she knows what they are doing.
Some folks only like for their spotter to help them by guiding the bar when they are really struggling. Others want you to save them and prefer you to physically lift as much weight as you can when they start to fail.
Some lifters may want you to help them “lift off” — physically lift the bar off the J-cups or pins and then have your hands hovering under the bar as they lift.
Alternatives to bench press
I struggle with bench pressing. My right shoulder has some entrapment issues and, for whatever reason, it feels extremely vulnerable any time I bench somewhat heavy. I don’t have these issues when I strict press or do pushups.
I’m still working on some mobility and being very strict with my form at lighter weight to see if that helps, but if I continue being stagnant in the bench, I’ll opt for a few other upper body exercises.
Strict press and pushups are also a great alternative. In essence, pushups are a body weight bench press. I’ve been doing pausing at the bottom of my pushups to build some more strength.