Bench press or its variation is a must for every serious lifter.
In this article I will show you how to bench press safely and effectively.
Since it’s my favorite exercise, a lot of information here is based on the experience I gained in my home gym.
Obviously, science has always an important place in my training, so it will speak as well.
Let’s get started.
The bench press is one of the most popular and effective exercises for building strength and muscle mass in the upper body.
Research has shown that performing the bench press with proper form can improve not only your strength and muscle size, but also your bone density.
As a compound movement, the bench press targets multiple muscle groups at once, which effectively increases your metabolism and testosterone levels.
As one of the strongest moves your body can perform, it is advisable to do it early in your workout. You will still have more energy and focus.
The bench press is also known as the king of push exercises. It allows you to lift more weight than any other upper body exercise, such as the overhead press. And as we all know compound, bilateral and heavy load moves give you the best chance for muscle hypertrophy.
However, before you add more weight to the bar, make sure that you master the correct form. This will prevent you from injuries and ensure optimal results.
Now, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of the bench press.
Grips, Wrists and Elbows
You should keep your elbows and wrists directly under the barbell at all times
To achieve this, rest the bar on the lowest part of your hand, close to your wrist. Then try to point your knuckles up. If it’s tricky for you, try to slightly rotate your palm inwards. It will position your hand diagonally to the bar.
This will keep your wrists straight and allow a good transfer of power from your arms to the bar.
If you have trouble keeping your wrists straight, you may want to use some wrist wraps for extra support.
You should also avoid using a thumbless grip or a “suicide grip”. This is very risky and can cause the bar to slip out of your hands.
Instead, wrap your thumbs around the bar for a secure grip.
The width of your grip will affect the activation of different muscle groups.
A narrower grip will emphasize your shoulders and triceps more. A wider grip will work your chest more.
Generally, you will be the strongest with a wider grip. However, you should not go too wide or too narrow, as this can compromise your form and increase the risk of injury.
The ideal grip width will vary depending on your individual anatomy and preferences.
Try to experiment but aim for having your forearms vertical to the floor at the bottom of the lift. This will ensure a balanced and effective bench press form.
Create an arch in your upper back but avoid arching your lower back too much. Keep your lumbar spine in a neutral position.
This will help you lift your chest up a bit and create a stable base for your shoulders.
You should keep your scapula pinched and tight throughout the lift. This will protect your shoulder blades from injuries and increase your power.
However, try not to overarch your upper back. This can cause some excessive stress on your spine and reduce the range of motion of the lift.
Squeeze your glutes to stabilize your hips and pelvis.
Your head, glutes and shoulder blades should touch the bench at all times. Avoid lifting them off the bench or moving them around during the exercise.
You should also make sure that your shoulder blades stay connected to the bench even at the lockout phase. Don’t push them up or forward.
This will prevent you from losing crucial tension and stability in your upper body.
Range of Motion
You should use the full range of motion on each rep. Obviously, this will maximize the stimulation of your muscles and joints.
Touch your chest with the bar at the bottom of the lift, and extend your arms fully at the top of the lift.
However, you should not bounce the bar off your chest or lock out your elbows too hard. This can cause injury or reduce tension.
Also, the bar should not travel in a straight vertical line, but rather in a slight diagonal line from your sternum area to your shoulder line. This is naturally the strongest path for your muscles.
You will also need to adjust the angle of your elbows during the lift. When lowering the bar, try to keep your elbows away from your torso at around 45-70 degrees to your sides, depending on your grip width and comfort.
This will protect your shoulders from excessive stress and increase your leverage.
However, you should not tuck your elbows too close to your body or flare them too wide, as this can compromise your form and power.
At the bottom of the lift, your forearms should be vertical to the floor. This will ensure a balanced and stable position.
When pressing the bar up, you can gradually flare your elbows out to 90 degrees. Generally it will help you move the bar away from your sternum line to your shoulder line.
You will better activate your chest and allow yourself to lift more weight.
However, remember not to flare your elbows too much too soon.
You should keep your feet flat on the floor throughout the lift, with a shoulder-width stance.
This will provide you with a solid base and stability for your upper body.
Try to push up from your legs while lifting the bar. You will generate more power and force transfer from your lower body to your upper body.
Make sure you keep your knees over your ankles. Your hips and pelvis will stay in the proper alignment.
In the classic bench press avoid placing your feet on the bench. It will decrease your stability and change the mechanics of the lift. We will talk about that a bit later in this article.
Having your feet glued to the floor will help your spine stay in a neutral position, with natural arches and a lifted chest.
Breathing is very individual.
Try to take a deep inhale at the lockout position, with fully extended elbows.
Then, hold your breath and lower the bar to your chest. Touch your sternum.
Still holding your breath, press the bar up and exhale fully. This is one cycle.
In general, holding your breath throughout the lift will help you stay tight and maintain tension in your upper body.
It will also keep your chest up and prevent your ribcage from collapsing.
Make sure you do not hold your breath for too long or too hard, as this can cause dizziness or fainting.
- Lie flat on the bench under the rack, with your eyes under the bar. This will shorten the distance that the bar has to travel from the rack to your shoulder line. Try to focus on a spot on the ceiling throughout the lift. This will help you keep your head stable and avoid looking at the bar.
- Position your hands just outside of your shoulder width. Then grab the bar with an overhand grip. Pinch your shoulder blades together and glue them to the bench. This will create a solid base for your upper body and prevent your shoulders from rounding forward.
- Unrack the bar by straightening your elbows. Do not shrug. Think about transferring the weight directly to your skeleton. You will save your energy then. Now the bar should be balanced directly over your shoulders. Your arms should be fully extended but not locked out.
- Lower the bar diagonally from your shoulder line to your sternum. Touch your chest slightly but don’t bounce off it. Bouncing off your chest can cause bruises and injuries. You will also reduce the effectiveness of the lift by using momentum instead of muscle power. Don’t pause at the bottom of the lift either. This can make it harder to press up and doesn’t add any benefit for muscle growth. Just touch and go.
- Press the bar back up by extending your elbows. Push your feet into the floor and squeeze your chest, shoulders and triceps. Think about pushing yourself away from the bar rather than pushing the bar away from you. This will prevent your shoulders from rounding forward. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
- Rack the bar by pushing it back until you find the rack behind you, keeping your elbows straight. Then lower the bar on the uprights by bending your elbows. Be careful not to hit the rack too hard or drop the bar on yourself.
- If you want to activate your shoulders more, you can think about pulling the bar apart while moving it up and down. This will create more tension in your shoulder muscles.
Bench press is a great functional move that can benefit athletes who primarily use pulling movements, such as swimmers or climbers.
However, bench press is also a demanding exercise that requires adequate recovery and rest. A day or two to recover would be ideal. So don’t go beyond three bench press sessions per week. Also avoid doing bench presses on two consecutive days.
Generally, if your goal is hypertrophy or muscle strength, try to focus on fewer reps with more weight.
If your goal is muscular endurance, focus on more reps with lighter weight.
Pectoralis major muscles are the primary movers in the bench press. This is the largest muscle group in your chest. It consists of two heads:
- The clavicular head, which originates from the middle part of your collarbone.
- The sternocostal head, which originates from your breastbone and upper ribs.
Both heads insert into your upper arm bone, or your humerus.
Your chest muscles work the most during the lowering phase of the bench press.
Triceps and Delts
As per the research, your triceps will grow half as much as your pecs while bench pressing.
Triceps and delts muscles get strong activation and stimulation during the exercise. They will also grow in size and strength.
Let’s take a closer look at the anatomy and function of these muscles.
The triceps are located on the outside of your upper arm. They make up up to 70% of your arm mass.
They have three main heads: medial, lateral and long, hence the prefix “tri”.
The medial and the lateral heads originate from the back of the humerus (the bone of your upper arm). The long head originates from the scapula (the shoulder blade).
The three heads converge at the olecranon process (the bony projection at the elbow). They are responsible for extending or straightening the elbow joint.
The deltoid muscles are located on your shoulder joints. They have a triangular shape.
They consist of three parts: anterior (front), middle and posterior (rear).
The middle deltoid is the one that works the most in bench press. It connects the clavicle (the collarbone) with the outside of the humerus.
The bench press will hit the following stabilizers: the posterior deltoids, the rotator cuff, the serratus anterior and the latissimus dorsi (also known as lats).
Lats will typically help you move the bar away from your chest and provide a base for supporting the lift.
The core muscles (transverse abdominis, the obliques, the multifidus, the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum) will help you maintain a proper posture and alignment during the exercise.
The bench press is not suitable for everyone, as some people may have injuries, limitations, or preferences that prevent them from doing the classic version.
That’s why I will show you some variations that target slightly different parts of the muscles and offer more challenge, variety, and fun.
Incline Bench Press
In this variation the angle of the bench would typically be 45-60 degrees upwards.
This way, your chest will be higher than your pelvis, which shifts the focus to the upper parts of your chest.
The more upwards your incline bench press is the more it works on the front deltoids.
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
It’s a great way to add a unilateral aspect to your bench press.
This variation will also target your upper chest, as well as the core and the stabilizer muscles.
Working with two separate dumbbells can also help you identify and correct any strength imbalances between your left and right sides.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Using dumbbells gives you more freedom and control over your hand position and grip.
This can be beneficial for your wrists and shoulders. You can adjust the angle and rotation of the dumbbells to suit your comfort and avoid injury.
The dumbbell bench press also works more on your shoulder stability, as you have to keep the dumbbells balanced and aligned throughout the movement.
Because you can lower the dumbbells deeper than the barbell, you will increase the range of motion of your lift.
However, the downside of the dumbbell bench press is that you may not be able to lift as much weight as with the barbell bench press
The dumbbells are harder to stabilize and require more coordination.
Also, with the dumbbells, you may have less options for increasing the weight gradually. Typically, the smallest increment will be usually around 5lbs, whereas with a barbell, you can use as small increments on each side as 1.25lbs.
Decline Bench Press
The angle of the bench of 15 degrees downwards should work perfectly.
This way, your chest will be lower than your pelvis.
In this variation you will work on the lower parts of your pecs.
Dumbbell Decline Bench Press
Same as above, the dumbbell decline bench press will build your lower chest muscles.
It will work the pectoralis major, the deltoids, the triceps, and the core.
It can be a great addition to your chest workout or a standalone routine.
The push-up is the most common bodyweight exercise that targets your upper body, especially your chest or pecs.
You can do it as a separate exercise or as a small break between your bench press sets.
It has a strong potential to build bigger chest muscles. Especially if you add some extra load from a weighted vest, a backpack, or a resistance band.
Some studies have shown that push-ups with additional load can engage the chest in a similar way as bench presses.
However, they will target your core muscles to a much greater extent than bench press.
Bench Press with Feet Up
In the classic sense this variation is a mistake, but it actually has some benefits.
You will keep your feet up in the air or on the bench. This will force you to keep your spine flat on the bench.
It will increase the range of motion, as the bar will have to go down deeper than when with the chest up.
It may have a potential to create more strength and muscle mass in your pecs, since they will work harder to move the weight.
Also, there is a core activation element here, as you will need to fight with your torso against the lack of stability.
This has its downside though because you will have to limit the amount of weight you can use.
Reverse Grip Bench Press
In this variation you would hold the bar with your palms facing you instead of away from you.
You can use a wide or a narrow grip, depending on your preference and comfort.
You can also do it on an incline or a flat bench.
When done on a flat bench, the reverse grip bench press will activate more of your upper chest.
Since it mimics the movement of an incline press, it’s a good variation if you don’t have an incline bench.
You can do this variation with a barbell or dumbbells.
It’s a great option if you don’t have a bench.
The floor press is an excellent way of creating a partial range of motion, as you would only lower the weight until your elbows touch the floor.
This reduces the stress on your shoulders so if you have some discomfort in this region, you may try this variation.
Keeping the Rack Too Far Behind Your Head
Avoid moving the bar across your head and neck after unracking it.
This is simply dangerous.
Instead, you should keep the bar in a straight line over your shoulders. Make sure to lock your elbows before lowering it to your chest.
Pushing Your Head into the Bench
Remember to keep your head, shoulders and glutes on the bench at all times.
However, you should not push your head hard into the bench as you lift the bar up.
Instead, try to tighten your neck muscles and push through your legs to generate more force and power.
Incorrect Grip Width
The optimal grip width for the bench press may vary depending on the length of your arms and your personal preference.
However, a good rule of thumb is to grip the bar in a way that your elbows and forearms are perpendicular to the floor when the bar touches your chest.
On the other hand, make sure that your elbows are not too wide. You may put too much stress on your shoulder joints and increase the risk of injury.
Locking the Elbows Forcefully
When you reach the top of the bench press, do lock your elbows.
However, do not hyperextend them. You should also avoid locking your elbows suddenly or forcefully. You may lose balance and stability if you do so.
Improper Thumb Position
Always remember to place your thumb below the bar and across your fingers.
You should not use a thumbless grip. Its called a suicide grip for a reason. It offers no added value and it’s risky.
Reducing the Range Of Motion
Unless it’s a floor press, try to touch your chest with the bar on each rep.
You will use the full range of motion of your chest and shoulders. It’s much more beneficial for optimal muscle activation and growth.
Lifting Your Glutes
Some people may try to imitate the powerlifting bench press, which allows a slight lift of the buttocks.
However, this is not recommended for most lifters.
If your bench is too low, simply increase its height by putting plates under it.
If your butt comes off the bench, you are risking injury to your spine. Avoid it!
Not Applying Safety Measures
Typically, there are three ways to escape if you fail a rep.
- If you want to bench press heavy weights without a spotter, it’s a good idea to use a power rack. It has safety pins that can stop the bar from crushing you if you have nothing left in the tank. You should set the safety pins a bit lower than the bottom position of your bench press, so that they don’t interfere with your range of motion. If you fail a rep, you can lower the bar to your chest and then flatten your torso to put the bar on the safety pins.
- If you don’t have a spotter or a power rack, you can try to roll the bar towards your pelvis and then deadlift it up and down.
- Finally, you can press without the collars. Then you just tilt the bar and let the weights fall off. This may damage your floor and equipment but save you from bruises.
How to Proceed?
Are you looking for alternative ways of working your chest muscles? Check out our latest article on the dumbbell bench press.
Would You Recommend Using “Suicide” Grip?
No. Generally, thumbless grip will give you no added value and it’s simply dangerous.
I would recommend using the classic grip with the thumb over the bar.
Should I Arch My Spine in the Bench Press?
Just a bit but only the in the thoracic region. Besides that, all your spine should be kept in the neutral position, with all the other slight curves respected.
Should I hold My Breath while Bench Pressing?
Yes, you can. This will give you more strength.
Generally, exhaling is associated with relaxing so it’s best to breath out in the lockout position when the skeleton of your arms is holding the weight.
Is it Necessary to Include the Decline Press in My Training?
No, it’s not necessary. Classic bench press will do the job.
Can I do Push-Ups Instead of Bench Press?
Yes, definitely. However, in a standard push-up around 60-65% of your body weight will be shifted towards your arms.
If your body weight is around 176 lbs., you will work with 114-115 lbs. while doing push-ups. When you want to start adding more load, you will need to add some form of a bench press.