Everything You Need to Know to Master the Bench Press Safely
For many lifters, the bench press is the “gold standard” for developing upper body strength, but its reputation calls for a lot of selfish ignorance about how to do it with good, safe technique. Its deceptive simplicity is where many beginner (and even veteran) lifters run into problems, so let’s talk about how you can bench press better and safer.
For clarity, we’re talking about the bench press (excluding the balloons from the GIF above). When you watch someone bench, it seems like this exercise is all about arms, chest and occasional loud, unpleasant hums, but in reality it is a complex movement that also includes the shoulders, traps, triceps, upper back. , body, hips and even legs. in some ways.
Why the bench press is cool (but also dangerous)
Without a doubt, the bench press is a great exercise for improving your “pressing” strength, such as when throwing and pushing a heavy shopping cart or lawn mower. It strengthens your shoulders, develops your sexy chest muscles ( as for you ladies ), and improves your core strength. In fact, the bench press is a sure indicator of your pure upper body strength and power, and for better or worse, it tends to cloud your judgment in the gym.
I’ve seen overconfident athletes strapped to the bench because they couldn’t lift the barbell off their chest or on racks. Just the other day, a friend of mine told a horrifying story about a guy who refused to ask for help, overestimated his abilities and almost made it to the hospital. Moreover, I have heard many stories of people who repeatedly bench with poor technique in general and with a lot of weight and ended up blowing up their shoulder.
In short, the bench press punishes arrogance, but unfortunately his current reputation encourages him. If you’re not careful, the bench press can overwhelm both your ego and your body.
Find an observer or learn how to escape
Safety first. You must have a spotter . Ideally, your place is a partner who knows you and your limits. You can ask someone else at the gym, but the problem with getting help from a stranger is that you can’t be sure of his ability to identify correctly .
However, if your only option is a dude, then very, very clear communication is key: say what you are going to do (for example, a new maximum for one rep), negotiate signals when you really need help. , and synchronize the countdown until you and your observer remove the barbell from the rack and pass it to you (called a gear).
If no one is around, another option is to find out how to “escape” from a bad elevator. The video above from CanditoTrainingHQ shows how to do this. One specific technique is the no-weight bench press. So if you get stuck, you can tilt the bar to the side, lose weight and free yourself. It’s not fancy, but it gets the job done.
In addition, Omar Isuf , a Toronto-based strength coach, suggestsdoing strength stance exercises . Of course, you have to make sure the power frame is empty, pull the bench up to it, and sustain a few judgmental glances. But this is all good, because if you are “pinned”, you can put the barbell on the safety pins in the power frame, and not, you know, on the chest.
I always say that safety and form training should be prioritized in every weightlifting exercise, but I put an extra parenting guide on the bench press: it’s much more technical than it shows, and opens up many more ways to literally hurt the uninitiated. … than other exercises. Basically, don’t be silent.
Good bench press starts before you even lift the weight.
Bench press preparation is more than just lying on a bench. You need to be in your best position to give the bar a steep climb without wasting too much energy on disassembly and loss of concentration.
For starters, this video from Isuf will help you find the right bench press by going through a few very important points to do and not to do. Here’s some more:
- Healthy Shoulder Movements: While the bench press is a great upper body exercise, it is also an easy way to energize your shoulders. This is especially true if you have a history of shoulder injuries. Dean Somerset , an Edmonton-based physiologist, told me that if you have a full range of motion in your shoulders (you can scratch your shoulder blades or raise both arms above your head, biceps touching your ears), and in general you can press without pain, then you are golden. … Otherwise, you should really work on increasing your range of motion. The Fit For Real Life article is a good start to improving shoulder health.
- Barbell Height : The position of the barbell on the rack depends on your arm length. Typically, you want the bar to be able to easily remove the stands when your arms are fully extended. If you need to lift your shoulders forward to reach up, then it is too high. If your elbows are bent in the starting position with a barbell without a rack, it is too low.
- Head position: The head position helps to position the back on the bench. Most people put their foreheads under the bar. In general, you want to be far enough away that you can move the bar up and down so that the bar does not snag on any piece of equipment, but also be close enough to remove or pass the bar to you if you have a partner. …
- Feet placement : Place your feet firmly on the ground and point. A little known thing about the bench press is that a lot of power comes from “driving your legs” into the ground as you push the weight up. You may have seen people shake their legs in the air, but they also lose a lot of stability and strength. Somerset says that raising your foot in the air can mostly benefit people who have a history of lower back pain and just feel more comfortable with the pressure.
- Grip: Grip the bar firmly, holding your grip securely (with your thumbs around the bar) and a neutral wrist. This means that you need to hold the bar so that your wrist does not bend back.
- Grip Width: Where your hands grip the bar will depend on your arm length and shoulder width, but the main reason to pay attention to grip placement is to keep your forearms almost always upright (some say , which is at an angle of 90 degrees to the floor). Generally, longer arms may need a wider grip, while shorter arms may be narrower. Most of them are great for rolling the bar. The nuance here is that a wider grip will focus a little more on the pectoral muscles, and a narrower grip will work harder on the triceps.
- Wrist wraps: Special wrist wraps can help stabilize the wrist to keep it neutral and limit movement, according to Somerset. “Make sure the wrist strap is tight enough to cover your wrist so that you can’t retract your arm when it’s wrapped,” he says. Additionally: “If it’s too low, it’s just a sweat bandage.”
Remember that you are holding a lot of weight over your face, so knowing what you are doing from the beginning is much more important. Just a good setting makes everything else a little smoother.
The infamous ‘rear arch’ and why it doesn’t matter to you
The arch of the back is one of the controversial topics in lifting. Many lifters, mostly those interested in heavy bench presses, emphasize that the arch of the foot (along with proper full-body tension) is critical to protecting and stabilizing your back and increasing your movement efficiency.
Ultimately it all comes down to whether or not you plan to act as a powerlifter. In weight lifting competition, a strongly arched back shortens the distance the bar has to travel from the chest to completion (lockout) and allows you to push more weight. For the rest of us, Somerset notes:
Some people just don’t have the flexibility of the spine to do this without severe lower back pain, so this is very individual in terms of whether someone can or not. If you are comfortable and want to compete, you will definitely lift more weight. If not, there is no particular reason for this. Choose what you can control and what you like.
So if someone in the gym encourages you to arch your back a lot and you can’t or don’t want to, just tell him or her to relax.
Keys to a Strong, Consistent Bench Press
The aforementioned Art of Manliness video featuring Mark Rippeto is a long and more technical tutorial on the bench press. It touches on some of the things we discussed above (but with demos), and of course the movement itself.
It’s important to watch a good bench press in action. How well you stabilize or tighten your body forms the basis of a strong and successful bench press. With proper stability, you generate energy throughout your body to lift this weight. There are several things that help with this: deep belly inhalation , feet firmly on the ground, and, for some people, the slight (or even exaggerated) arch of the back that we mentioned above.
Other than that, you’ll still want your upper back (your main support) and glute to be in contact with the bench, as well as these other key points:
- Move the bar in the correct “path”: if you are looking at the bench press from the side, the bar does not just move straight up and down . On the descent, it goes down and bends a little. When pressed, it rises from themiddle of your chest to your face and then straight up to the end of the lift.Alan Thrall has a great video showing bar trajectory, and Strengtheory has a whole article on adjusting bar trajectory, so check them out for more information.
- Squeeze your elbows: “Protect your armpits” is a signal to remind people to tuck their elbows. Your elbows should not be so close to you as to touch your torso, and your elbows should be directly under the bar at all times.
- Keep your shoulders “tucked” all the way; you never want to lift your shoulders forward or make them slide as you lower and press a weight. Imagine that you are trying to squeeze a grape between them, constantly keeping your shoulders on the bench. Popular hints are to imagine “stretching the bar” or “ keeping your shoulders down and down, ” which will help you add adequate tension to your body and protect your shoulders.
- Rest your body on the bench: In the bench press, you will use a lot of“leg push” , so I prefer to place my feet on the ground rather than letting them dangle in the air. When you are actually pressing, imagine that you arepushing your body into the bench and not just thinking about pushing the bar away from you.
- Your whole body should be tense: imagine, if you like, that you need to try to balance the full bowl of molten lava on your chest. The tightness associated with the abs, shoulders, and buttocks keeps you steady so it won’t extend outside your body. To control this stability, it is helpful to use the breathing technique we described in our article on improving breathing for strength training . Speaking of breathing, Somerset suggests inhaling, lowering the weight, pushing with tight shoulders, and exhaling when the weight is about halfway up.
These are some of the basic things, but there are so many moving parts during the bench press that it is difficult to solve the problems that may arise in your particular case. Obviously, it’s best to have a professional educate you or criticize your form. Until then, this video from Buff Dudesexplains a fewcommon mistakes thebench press makes and is worth watching too.
For more information, check out StrongLift’s Complete Bench Press Guide and Nerd Fitness’s Article on Bench Press 101 . If you’re worried about your shoulders, Tony Gentilcore , performance coach at Cressey Performance in Massachusetts, can also offer advice on how to make the bench press more shoulder comfortable . With a little homework and a lot of practice, you will reap the benefits of a beautiful bench and do it safely every time.