Proper Bench Press form starts lying on a Bench with your feet on the floor. Unrack the bar with straight arms. Lower it to your mid-chest. Press it back up until you’ve locked your elbows. Keep your butt on the bench. Bench Press sets of five reps every StrongLifts 5×5 workout A.
The Bench Press is a full body, compound exercise. It works your chest, shoulders and triceps most. It’s the most effective exercise to gain upper-body strength and muscle mass because it’s the upper-body exercise you’ll lift most weight on (more than Overhead Press). The bigger your bench, the bigger your chest.
To avoid shoulder pain, tuck your elbows 75° when you lower the bar. Don’t try to stretch your chest by flaring your elbows 90° out. You’ll impinge your shoulders if your upper-arms are perpendicular to your torso at the bottom. Tuck your elbows 75° to Bench Press pain-free.
Unlike the Squat or Deadlift, the bar doesn’t move in a vertical line when you Bench Press with proper form. It moves diagonally from your mid-chest over your shoulders. This is the safest way to Bench Press for your shoulders. It’s also the most effective way to Bench Press heavy.
This is the definitive guide to proper form on the Bench Press.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Safety
- 3 Bench Press Technique
- 4 Equipment Setup
- 5 Bench Press Variations
- 6 See Also
How to Bench Press
Bench Press in the Power Rack for maximum safety. Set the safety pins at the proper height so they catch the weight if you fail to lift it. You don’t need a spotter if you Bench Press inside the Power Rack as I do. If you don’t have a Power Rack, ask someone in the gym to spot you when you Bench Press. Then follow these five simple steps to Bench Press with proper form.
- Setup. Lie on the flat bench with your eyes under the bar. Lift your chest and squeeze your shoulder-blades. Feet flat on the floor.
- Grab the bar. Put your pinky on the ring marks of your bar. Hold the bar in the base of your palm with a full grip and straight wrists.
- Unrack. Take a big breath and unrack the bar by straightening your arms. Move the bar over your shoulders with your elbows locked.
- Lower the bar. Lower it to your mid-chest while tucking your elbows 75°. Keep your forearms vertical. Hold your breath at the bottom.
- Press. Press the bar from your mid-chest to above your shoulders. Keep your butt on the bench. Lock your elbows at the top. Breathe.
Rack the weight once you’ve Bench Pressed five reps on StrongLIfts 5×5. Finish your last rep first by pressing the weight away from your chest until you’ve locked your elbows. Then move the bar horizontally from above your shoulders to your Power Rack. Don’t aim for the uprights or you could miss them. Aim for the vertical parts of your Power Rack. Once you’ve hit them, bend your elbows to lower the bar in the uprights.
Bench Press Setup
Set your equipment first. Put the safety pins of your Power Rack at the proper height so they can catch failed weight. Center your Bench. Then set yourself before unracking the weight. Your wrists will bend if you grip the bar wrong. Your shoulders will move if your shoulder-blades aren’t tight. And you can’t fix it mid-set when heavy weight is crushing you. Setup properly to improve your form and increase your Bench Press
- Lie Down. Sit at the end of your flat bench first. Then lie down by lowering yourself back on the bench. Put your eyes under the bar.
- Squeeze Your Shoulder-blades. Raise your chest and tighten your upper-back. Put your shoulder-blades back and down. Squeeze them.
- Grab The Bar. Pinky inside the ring marks. Hold the bar low, close to your wrist. Squeeze the bar using the full grip so it can’t move.
- Set Your Feet. Feet flat on the floor using a shoulder-width stance. Set your one foot under your knee first, then set the other one.
- Unrack. Straighten your arms to lift the bar out of the uprights. Move it horizontally until it’s balanced over your shoulders. Done.
Setup the same way on every Bench Press set. The more consistent your Bench Press setup is, the more consistent your technique will be once you start to Bench Press the weight. Better technique increases effectiveness. It increases how much you Bench Press. Don’t setup with zero respect for the weight because it’s light. Setup the same way whether you’re Bench Pressing warmup weight or heavy weight.
Bench Press Form 101
Your build determines how your Bench Press form will look like maximum effectiveness. The wider your shoulders are, the wider your grip should be. The longer your upper-arms, the closer your elbows will be to your torso at the bottom. Don’t copy someone’s Bench Press form unless you have the same build. Follow these general Bench Press guidelines instead, and tweak your form as you gain experience.
- Grip. Hold the bar in the base of your palm, close to your wrist. Squeeze the bar.
- Grip Width. Hands inside the ring marks of the bar. Vertical forearms at the bottom.
- Thumbs. Wrap your thumbs around the bar. Don’t Bench Press with a thumbless grip.
- Wrists. Straight line bar to wrist to elbow. Don’t Bench with bent wrists or they’ll hurt.
- Elbows. About 75° out at the bottom. They shouldn’t touch your torso or flare out 90°.
- Forearms. Vertical to the floor from every angle: from the side as well as from the front.
- Shoulders. Keep them back, on the bench. Don’t shrug your shoulders forward at the top.
- Upper-back. Squeeze your shoulder-blades together to increase stability when you Bench.
- Chest. Raise it to the ceiling. Reach to the bar while you lower it. But keep your butt on bench.
- Head. Setup with your eyes under the bar. Keep your head neutral. Don’t push it into your bench.
- Lower Back. Natural arch. I should be able to slide my flat hand between the bench and your back.
- Butt. Keep your butt on your bench when you bench. Don’t cheat by raising your butt off the bench.
- Feet. Flat on the floor, not in the air. Feet under knees. Use a shoulder-width stance like on Squats.
- Unracking. Unrack the weight by straightening your arms. Move the bar above your shoulder joint.
- Way Down. Lower the bar to your mid-chest. Tuck your elbows in 75° while you lower the weight.
- Bottom. Straight wrists, vertical forearms. Elbows in but not against your torso. Bar on mid-chest.
- Way Up. Don’t pause at the bottom. Press the bar back to above your shoulders. Lock your elbows.
- Lockout. Lock the bar over your shoulder joint. Lock your elbows at the top. Don’t bend them back.
- Racking. Lockout with straight elbows. Move the bar back against the rack. Lower it in the uprights.
- Bar Path. Diagonal line from your mid-chest to shoulders. Not vertical over shoulders, neck or chest.
- Breathing. Big breath at the top, hold it on the way down, hold it at the bottom, exhale at the top.
Bench Press Videos
Here’s a video where you can see me Bench Press with proper form as part of the StrongLifts 5×5 Workout A. You can also hear me answer common questions about the Bench Press at the same time. Watch from 13:24 for the Bench Press tips.
Here’s my friend and world champion Mike Tuchscherer Bench Pressing over 200kg/440lb. He Benches all alone, without spotter, in his home gym as I do. The weights could kill him if he fails. But he’s safe because he Bench Presses inside the Power Rack with the safety pins set.
You’ll never get stuck under the weight if you Bench Press in the Power Rack. Power Racks have horizontal safety pins to catch the bar if you fail. Set these pins slightly lower than the bottom position when you Bench Press. The bar can’t touch the pins on good reps. If you fail to bench the weight, lower the bar to your mid-chest. Then flatten your torso to lower the bar on the safety pins. This is the safest way to Bench Press.
Bench Pressing without Power Rack or spotter is dangerous. If you get stuck with the bar, the only way out is the “Roll of Shame”. Lower the bar to your mid-chest, roll it to your stomach and then Deadlift it up. This won’t feel pleasant though because heavy weights will bruise your stomach. The alternative is to Bench without collars so you can tilt the bar to one side. But the gym will hate you for dropping weight. Get a Power Rack.
Benching with dumbbells looks safer but isn’t. You can’t get stuck, true. But if you fail to bench heavy Dumbbells, they can drop on your face and injure you. Or you have to throw the dumbbells on the floor and piss off the gym manager. Bench Pressing in the Power Rack is safer because the safety pins catch the bar if you get stuck. The weight can’t drop on your face or on the floor. It can when failing with heavy dumbbells.
Fear of injury on the Bench Press is normal. People die each year from Bench Press accidents. Don’t use the thumbless grip. Use the full grip so the bar can’t slip out of your hands and kill you. Don’t Bench Press heavy without Power Rack – the bar will crush you if you fail. Start light and focus on form before going heavy. Proper form will boost your confidence which overcomes fear. Set the safety pins even if you think you can bench it.
You don’t need a spotter if you Bench Press in the Power Rack. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years in my home gym, usually without spotter and never got hurt. World Champion Mike Tuchscherer Bench Presses amost 500lb and also lifts in his home gym without spotter. He could get killed if he gets stuck with that much weight. Yet he’s always been safe by Benching in the Power Rack with the pins ready to catch a failed rep.
Even if you have a spotter, you should Bench Press in the Power Rack. Most people don’t know how to spot. They’ll look around while you Bench and react too slow. Or they’ll grab the bar out of your hands mid-rep, miss the uprights and drop it on your face. Don’t assume you’re safe because you have a spotter. He might be clueless. Bench Press in the Power Rack. Set the safety pins so they can catch any failed rep.
The main purpose of a spotter is to give you a hand off. To help you unrack the bar to you shoulders. This keeps your shoulders back on the bench and your chest tight. It saves strength for Bench Pressing the weight. But again, most people don’t know how to spot. They can unrack the bar with too much force and pull your shoulders out of position. Their hand off can do more damage than good. You’re often better off Benching alone.
No Thumbless Grip
Don’t Bench Press with the thumbless grip. The bar can slip out of your hands, drop on your face and kill you. Wrap your thumbs around the bar using the full grip. The bar can’t slip out of your hands if your thumbs are there to secure it. If your wrists hurt with the full grip, it’s usually because they’re bent when you Bench Press. Straighten your wrists by gripping the bar lower in your hands. Use the Bulldog Grip as explained below.
Bad Bench Press form causes shoulder pain and injuries. Don’t Bench bodybuilding-style with your elbows flared 90°. Don’t lower the bar guillotine-style to your neck. You’ll get a bigger chest stretch if your elbows are perpendicular to your torso at the bottom. But you’ll impinge your shoulders. The top of your upper-arm will squeeze your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joint. The tissues will inflame and hurt.
Proper Bench Press form is elbows about 75° in at the bottom. The exact angle depends on your build. But your elbows shouldn’t be perpendicular to your torso because that’s unsafe. They shouldn’t touch your torso either because that’s ineffective. Lower the bar with your elbows in about 75° while keeping your forearms vertical from every angle. Videotape yourself when you bench press to check your elbows.
Don’t Bench Press in the smith machine. It forces a vertical bar path because the bar is attached to rails. But the bar path isn’t vertical on the Bench Press. The bar can’t move in a vertical line over your shoulders because that impinges them. It can’t move vertically over your chest either because that’s ineffective. The bar must move diagonally from your shoulders to your mid-chest. You need free weights to do this.
Bench Press Technique
Full Grip. Wrap your thumbs around the bar. This is the safest and most effective way to Bench Press heavy. Squeeze the bar so it can’t move in your hands. Your arms, shoulders and chest muscles will contract harder which increases your Bench Press (hyper radiation). Don’t relax or open your hands while you Bench Press or the bar will move around. Keep your hands closed and squeeze the bar as hard as you can.
No Thumbless Grip! The bar can slip out of your hands if you grip it without thumbs. If it slips, no spotter will be fast enough to catch the bar. It will crush your face, throat or chest. You’ll be injured, or worse, die. Wrap your thumbs around the bar to secure it. Squeeze the bar so it can’t move. This will increase your Bench Press at the same time. If your wrists hurt, grip the bar lower to stop your wrists from bending.
Grip Low Palm. Hold the bar in the base of your palm, close to your wrists. Don’t hold it close to your fingers like on the Deadlift or your wrists will bend back. Bent wrists hurt. Bent wrists also make the weight harder to bench because the bar is further from your wrists. This is bad leverage and bad power transfer. Grip the bar low palm so it rests over your wrists and elbows. You’ll bench more weight without wrist pain.
Bulldog Grip. The easiest way to grip the bar low palm is using the Bulldog Grip. Imagine how a Bulldog plants his paws. Grip the bar by rotating your hands in before closing them. Then squeeze the bar so it can’t move. The Bulldog Grip will feel weird and less secure. But it isn’t less secure because your thumbs keep the bar from slipping out of your hands. Try it for a few workouts, you’ll get used to it.
Bench Grip Width
Medium Grip. Grip the bar with your pinky inside the ring marks of your bar. Your forearms must be vertical to the floor when the bar touches your chest. Your build determines the grip width you need for this but medium usually works. Wider grips are tough on most people’s shoulders. Narrower grips are ineffective to bench heavy because it puts your forearms incline. It emphasizes your triceps. Go medium grip.
Vertical Forearms. Your forearms must be vertical to the floor when the bar touches your chest. Check this by videotaping your Bench Press. If your elbows are outside your wrists at the bottom, the weight is harder to bench (it’s like doing a triceps extension). If your elbows are inside your wrists, the weight is harder on your shoulder joints. Bench Press with vertical forearms at the bottom by adjusting you grip width.
Straight Wrists. The safest and most effective way to Bench Press is with straight wrists. Vertical line bar-wrist-elbow when the bar touches your chest at the bottom. Don’t Bench Press with bent wrists or they’ll hurt. Wrist wraps isn’t the solution to that, proper form is. Straighten your wrists by gripping the bar lower and closer to your wrist. This will improve power transfer at the same time and increase your Bench Press.
Grip Low Palm. Don’t grip the bar mid palm or close to your fingers like on the Deadlift. Gravity will pull the bar down when you Bench Press. It will bend your wrists and hurt them unless you grip the bar low palm. Setup for the Bench Press by gripping the bar low and close to your wrists. Use the Bulldog Grip to rotate your hands in before you close your hands. Then squeeze the bar so it can’t move and bend your wrists.
Tuck Your Elbows. Lower the bar while moving your elbows in. Your build determines how much your elbows should tuck. Your upper-arms can’t be perpendicular to your torso at the bottom. But your elbows can’t touch your torso either. The safest and most effective way to Bench Press is with vertical forearms at the bottom. Straight line bar to wrist to elbow. An upper-arm angle of about 75° usually works.
Don’t Touch Your Torso. Touching your torso with your elbows puts them inside your wrists. The weight becomes harder to bench and harder on your joints. Geared Powerlifters who use compression shirts do this. But we Bench raw without bench shirt to help us lift the bar off our chest. Our elbows and wrists must be inilne because that’s the most effective way to Bench Press. Don’t overtuck your elbows at the bottom.
Don’t Flare Your Elbows. Don’t lower the bar with elbows out 90°. Don’t Bench Press bodybuilding-style with your elbows perpendicular to your torso at the bottom. You’ll impinge your shoulders trying to get a bigger chest stretch. The top of your upper-arms will smash your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joint on every rep. Your shoulders will inflame and hurt. Tuck your elbows 75° in at the bottom.
Flare On The Way Up Only. The way up must be a mirror of the way down. You must flare your elbows to bench the bar back over your shoulders. If you don’t, your elbows will end in front of the bar. Or you’ll bench in a vertical line over your mid-chest. Both are ineffective for Bench Pressing heavy weights. Press the bar away from your mid-chest over your shoulder joints by flaring your elbows on the way up.
Vertical Forearms. The most effective way to Bench Press is with vertical forearms when the bar touches your chest. Straight line bar to wrist to elbow is better leverage, more power transfer and no wrist pain. If your elbows are too far back or forward, grip the bar low palm and adjust your grip width. If your elbows are still wrong, you’re touching your chest too high/low. Videotape your Bench to get your forearms vertical.
Lock At The Top. Unrack the weight with locked elbows. Lock them again at the top of every rep and when racking the weight. Don’t Bench Press with unlocked elbows at the top. One, the rep doesn’t count. Two, you could lose the bar and injure yourself. Three, locking is safe if you don’t go past the normal range of motion of your elbow joint. Lock your elbows at the top of every rep, but don’t hyper-extend.
Vertical From The Side. Your forearms must be vertical to the floor when the bar touches your chest. From the sideview, straight line from bar to wrist to elbow. This is the safest and most effective way to Bench Press. If your wrists bend back, grip the bar low palm using the Bulldog Grip. If your elbows are too far back or forward, tuck more/less or touch your chest higher/lower. Videotape yourself and adjust your form.
Vertical From The Front. Your forearms must also be vertical with the floor when looking from the front or back. Incline forearms are ineffective. Benching with a close grip and your elbows outside your wrists is like doing a triceps extension. Benching with a wide grip and your elbows inside your wrists is rough on your shoulders. Videotape yourself and adjust your grip to Bench Press with vertical forearms.
Eyes Under Bar. Lie on the bench with your eyes under the bar. This shortens the distance between the Power Rack and your shoulders. It makes the weight easier to unrack. Don’t lie low on the bench or the bar will have to move further when you unrack it. This wastes strength and it’s unsafe. The bar should be over your eyes when you lie on the bench and look up. If you hit the uprights on the way up, you’re too close.
Don’t Push With Your Head. Your neck will hurt if you push your head into the bench when you press. Tighten your neck muscles without pushing your head into the bench. The simplest way to do this is by keeping your head off the bench. Touch your flat bench with your hair only. Your neck muscles will be tight if your head is off the bench. Your neck won’t hurt because you can’t push your head into the bench.
Keep Your Head Neutral. Don’t turn your head to look at the uprights or you’ll tweak your neck. Don’t raise your head to check if the bar touched your chest. Look at the ceiling and keep your head neutral. Rack the bar without turning your head. Lockout the bar over your shoulders and move it back against the vertical parts of your Power Pack. When it touches, bend your arms to lower the bar in the uprights. No need to look.
Shoulders Back. Keep your shoulders on the bench. Don’t shrug them forward when you bench the weight. If you shoulders come forward, your hands will be higher. The higher your hands, the longer the bar path and the harder to bench the weight. Setup with your shoulders back against the bench. Unrack the bar with straight arms. Let the weight sink your shoulders in the bench before you lower the bar.
Don’t Press, Push. The best way to keep you shoulders back on the bench is to think of pushing, not pressing. Push yourself away from the bar instead of pressing the bar away from your chest. Imagine you’re doing a Pushup and are pushing yourself away from the floor instead of pushing the floor away. Bench Press by pushing yourself away from the bar into the bench. Your shoulders will stay back.
Get a Hand Off. Your shoulders can come forward when you unrack the bar. Some Power Racks lack enough hole spacing which puts the uprights too high or low. Too low causes strength loss because you have to straighten your arms more to unrack. Too high causes your shoulders to come off the bench to unrack. Ask a spotter to help you unrack the bar so your shoulders stay back. You’ll have more strength.
Squeeze Your Shoulder-blades. Lie on the bench with your upper-back tight. Imagine holding a pen between your shoulder-blades by squeezing them together. This flattens your upper-back and increases stability when you lie on the bench. You can push your upper-back harder against the bench which increases your Bench Press. Don’t just lie on the bench. Squeeze your shoulder-blades before you unrack the weight.
Stay Tight. Don’t shrug your shoulders forward. You’ll lose upper-back tightness, your chest will collapse and your hands will be higher. This makes the bar path longer and the weight harder to bench. Keep you back tight, chest up and shoulders back. Squeeze your shoulder-blades before you unrack the weight. Ask for a hand off so you don’t lose tightness. Keep your upper-back tight by pushing yourself in the bench on each rep.
Lift Your Chest. Setup with your shoulder-blades squeezed together. Raise your chest towards the ceiling. Do this by arching your lower back and rotating your ribcage up. Keep your butt on the bench. Squeeze your lats to lock your chest in position. The weight will be easier to Bench because you’ll touch your chest higher. This shortens the bar path and decreases horizontal bar movement to press it back over your shoulders.
No Flat Chest! Benching with a flat chest forces you to touch your torso lower. The further the bar from your shoulders, the harder to bench it and the harder it is on your shoulders. Your shoulders can actually roll forward and get hurt if you bench with a flat chest. You’re not cheating the range of motion by raising your chest when you Bench Press. You’re making the exercise safer and more effective.
Arch Your Back. Bench Press with your lower back arched. Lie on the bench with a natural arch in your lower back. The same arch your lower back shows when you stand. I should be able to slide my flat hand between the bench and your lower back. Arching your lower back helps keeping your chest up. It increases effectiveness when you Bench Press. Keep your butt on the bench while you arch your lower back.
Don’t Overarch. You don’t have to arch your back like a horseshoe. Some powerlifters do this to Bench Press heavier weights. But it stresses your back. Overarching compresses your spinal discs. It can cause back pain. Some also consider overarching cheating because it decreases the range of motion too much. Arch your lower back to keep your chest up. Natural arch like when you stand. No overarching.
No Flat Back. The goal isn’t to decrease the range of motion. The goal is to Bench with your chest up. This is safer for your shoulders and more effective for benching heavy weights. Your chest won’t stay up and your shoulder blades won’t stay squeezed if you Bench with a flat back. Arch your lower back to stay tight. If your back hurts, stop overarching. Bench with a natural arch like when you stand, no horseshoe back.
Keep Your Butt Down. Bench Press with your butt on the bench. Your lower back can come off the bench to keep you chest up. But your butt can’t or it’s a failed rep. If it does, check if your bench is 45cm/18″ high. If it’s lower, get a better bench or raise yours by putting plates flat under it. Then bench by pushing your feet into the floor, and your upper-back and glutes into the bench. Don’t just push from your feet.
No Butt Off Bench! Benching with your butt off the bench is cheating. It’s like turning your Squats into a half Squats. It makes the weight easier to bench by decreasing the range of motion. Raising your butt off the bench gets you three red lights in powerlifting competitions. It can hurt your lower back if you hyper-extend your spine. If your butt comes off the bench on StrongLifts 5×5, it’s a failed rep. Repeat the weight next time.
Feet On The Floor. Bench Press with your feet on the floor. Don’t put your feet on the bench or in the air to feel your muscles better. It’s unstable and ineffective for Benching heavy weights because you can’t use your legs. Feet on the floor increases stability, balance and strength. It improves your form by helping your keep your chest up and lower back arched. Bench Press with your feet flat on the floor.
Heels On The Floor. Bench with your whole foot flat on the floor. Don’t raise your heels. Raised heels are less stable for the same reason standing on your toes is less stable than on your whole foot. More foot surface against the floor is better. Some powerlifters Bench Press with raised heels. But the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) doesn’t allow it. Keep your heels down when you Bench Press.
Squat Stance. Bench Press with your heels about shoulder-width apart. Use the same stance you use on Squats. Don’t Bench Press with a narrow stance, it’s less stable. You have better balance on the bench with a wider stance. If your hips hurt or cramp when you Bench Press, your stance is too wide (or you’re tight). Narrow your stance to shoulder-width apart from heel to heel. Turn your feet out 30° so they align with your thighs.
Knees Over Ankles. Bench Press with your knees above your ankles. This means 90° angle at your knee and ankle joints. Don’t Bench with your feet in front of your ankles. It makes it impossible to push from your legs and decreases strength. Your feet can be slightly behind your knees as long as you don’t raise your heels off the floor, your butt off the bench, or overarch. This can help you push from your legs better.
Eyes Under Bar. Lie on your bench with your eyes under the bar. This shortens the distance between your Power Rack and shoulders. It makes the weight easier and safer to unrack. If you lie lower, you’ll have to move the bar further to reach you shoulders. This wastes strength and is less safe. It’s like doing a lat pullover before you Bench Press. You could lose the bar and hurt your face. Move up so your eyes are under the bar.
Shoulders Back. Keep your shoulders back on your bench when you unrack the weight. Setup with your shoulder-blades squeezed together and your chest up. Stay tight. Don’t let your shoulders come forward. If they do, lower your uprights. Your elbows must be bent when you grab the bar. You must unrack by straightening your arms, not shrugging your shoulders. This keeps them back on the bench.
Lock Your Elbows. Lift the bar out of the uprights by locking your elbows. Keep them locked while moving the bar to your shoulders. Don’t unrack with bent elbows. You could lose the bar and hurt your face. Let your stronger skeleton carry the weight, not your muscles. Locking your elbows isn’t bad as long as you don’t hyper-extend them. If your elbows are locked before you unrack the bar, lower your uprights.
Bar to Shoulders First. Move the bar from your Power Rack to your shoulders before you lower it. Balance it over your shoulders first. Don’t lower the bar from the uprights to your chest in an incline line. You’re putting yourself in a weak position if you lower the bar from above your face. It’s like doing heavy lat pullovers. You could lose the bar on your face and die. Unrack the bar, move it to your shoulders and then lower it.
Tuck Your Elbows. Lower the bar to your mid-chest while moving your elbows in. They shouldn’t touch your torso because that’s ineffective. But they shouldn’t be 90° out and perpendicular to your torso either because that causes shoulder injuries. Your exact elbow angle when your Bench Press depends on your build. The rule of thumb is to tuck your elbows about 75° so your forearms are vertical at the bottom.
Vertical Forearms. Your forearms must be vertical to the floor when you lower the bar. Straight line from bar to wrist to elbow from every angle. If your forearms aren’t vertical when you lower the bar, you’re tucking your elbows too much/little. Or you’re touching your chest too high/low. Or your grip is too wide/narrow. Videotape yourself Bench Pressing. Look at your forearms and fix your form to get them vertical.
Under Control, Not Slow. Lower the bar under control but don’t be slow. If you lower the bar too slow, you’ll lose strength for Bench Pressing the weight up. If you lower the bar too fast, you’ll have a harder time Benching with proper form. Don’t lower the weight slowly to feel your muscles more. You’ll feel your muscles plenty when Benching heavy weight. Lower the bar under control with good form but not slow.
Touch Your Mid-Chest. Lower the bar to your mid-chest – the middle of your breastbone (sternum). The exact position depends on your build, grip and arch. Long upper-arms put your elbows further from your shoulders. The bar will touch your chest lower. Arching you back raises your chest. The bar will touch it higher. Aim for vertical forearms from every angle at the bottom and the bar will touch your chest where it should.
No Half Reps! Use a full range of motion. Lower the bar until it touches your chest. If it doesn’t, the rep doesn’t count. Half reps work less muscle, develop zero strength in the bottom and yield half the gains. They’re cheating like half Squats are cheating. Go all the way down. If you can’t, the weight is too heavy. If your shoulders hurt, fix your form. Raise your chest, squeeze your shoulder-blades and tuck your elbows 75°.
Touch and Go. Lower the bar, touch your chest and press it back up. Don’t pause at the bottom or the weight will be harder to bench. Use the stretch reflex by quickly reversing the movement. Your muscles will contract harder after the stretch on the way down. Powerlifters pause their Bench Press because that’s the competition rule. You’ll Bench Press more if you don’t pause but touch and go on StrongLifts 5×5.
No Bouncing! Touch and go isn’t bouncing. Don’t drop the bar fast against your chest. It can rebound to your feet or face instead of up. Bad bar paths make the weight harder to press and cause failed reps. If the bar slows after it touches your chest, you’re bouncing too hard. Lower the bar slower. Anticipate pressing it back up and it will decelerate. Brush your chest by touching your t-shirt with the bar.
Bench in Diagonal Line. Press the bar diagonally from your mid-chest to above your shoulders. Don’t press in a vertical line over your mid-chest. This is shorter, but ineffective. The easiest way to hold the bar at the top is over your shoulders because that’s your balance point. Holding it over your mid-chest is harder because it’s away from your balance point. It’s like doing front raises. Press the bar back towards your shoulders.
Flare Your Elbows. Press the bar away from you chest while flaring your elbows. They must stay under the bar. You’ve tucked your elbows on the way down to avoid shoulder impingement. If you don’t flare them back out on the way up, your elbows will end in front of the bar. This makes the weight harder to bench, like when doing triceps extensions. Flare your elbows while you bench in a diagonal line up with vertical forearms.
Push Yourself Away. Press the bar away from your mid-chest by driving yourself into the bench. Imagine you’re doing Pushups. You’re pushing yourself away from the floor because it can’t move. Bench Press the same way: push yourself away from the bar instead of pushing it away from you. This stops your shoulders from rolling forward. You’ll stay tight on the bench with your chest up and shoulder-blades squeezed.
Butt on Bench. Keep your butt on the bench while you bench the bar up. If your butt comes off the bench, the rep doesn’t count. Lock your butt on the bench by driving your upper-back and glutes into it while you Bench Press the weight. Don’t just push from your feet. If your butt still comes off the bench, check its height. Your bench must be 45cm/18″ high. If it’s lower, raise it by putting plates under it. Or get a better bench.
Bar Over Shoulders. The bar is balanced when you hold it above your shoulders. Bar above chest is harder. It’s like doing a front raise. Bar over face is also harder. It’s like pullovers. Test it: lockout an empty bar over your shoulders. Move it to over your chest. Then over your face. Then back over your shoulders. Notice how bar over shoulders is easier. That’s because it’s your balance point. Lockout every rep here.
Lock Your Elbows. Finish every rep by locking your elbows. Don’t keep them bent to keep tension or feel your muscles more. You could drop the bar on your face and die. Lock your elbows so your stronger skeleton holds the weight at the top, not your muscles. Your elbows will be safe as long as you don’t hyper-extend your elbows. Lock them at the top, but don’t go past their normal range of motion.
Bar Over Shoulders First. Don’t Bench Press the bar straight into the uprights. You can miss them by pressing the bar under them. If you miss the uprights, your elbows will be bent in a pullover-like position. You’ll struggle to hold the bar, may drop it on your face and die. Always lockout the bar over you shoulders first. Don’t rush it. Then move the bar back against the Power Rack. Bend your arms to lower it in the uprights.
Lock Your Elbows. Your elbows must be locked before you move the bar back to rack it. Heavy weight is harder to hold with bent elbows. Weight that’s harder to hold is weight you can drop more easily. Dropping the bar on your face will injure or kill you. Press the bar over your shoulders and lock your elbows. Don’t hyper-extend them, lock gently. Then move the bar back to the Power Rack with straight arms.
Aim for The Power Rack. Rack the bar by moving it back against the vertical parts of your Power Rack. Then lower it into the uprights by bending your arms. Don’t aim for the uprights, you could miss them. Don’t turn your head to look at the uprights, it can twist your neck. If you set yourself and the uprights properly, and the bar touches your Power Rack, it’s over the uprights. Just bend your arms to rack it.
Diagonal Line. Proper form is Bench Pressing the bar diagonally from shoulders to chest and back up. This distance is longer than with a vertical bar path. But it prevents shoulder impingement. Your elbows must tuck 75° at the bottom so your upper-arms doesn’t smash your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joint. And the bar must lockout over your shoulders (your balance point). You need a diagonal bar path for this.
Not Vertical. Unlike Squats or Deadlifts, a vertical bar path doesn’t work on the Bench Press. Moving the bar in a vertical line over your shoulders flares your elbows out 90°. This impinges your shoulders. Vertical line over chest puts the bar in front your shoulders at the top. This is harder, like doing front raises. The safest and most effective bar path is from shoulders to mid-chest. You can’t do this if the bar moves vertically.
Raise Your Chest. The bar path can’t be vertical when you Bench Press. If it is, you’re flaring your elbows or pressing over your chest. The former is bad for your shoulders, the latter ineffective. Bench the bar in a diagonal line. Then get that path more vertical by raising your chest. Lower the bar and meet it with your chest. Keep your butt on the bench. The bar will touch your chest higher and closer to your shoulders. This is more effective.
Inhale At The Top. Setup with proper form. Unrack the weight and hold it above your shoulders. Breathe in, hold it and lower the bar. Breathing at the top helps you staying tight by increasing pressure in your torso. It helps keeping your chest up, shoulder-blades squeezed and back arched. Don’t breathe while you lower the bar. You won’t be tight. Take a big breath at the top, hold it and then lower the bar.
Hold At The Bottom. Don’t exhale at the bottom. Your chest will deflate like a balloon, you’ll lose tightness and the weight will be harder to Bench Press. Hold your breath on the way down and at the bottom. Your blood pressure will increase. But it will return to normal when your set is over. And the stronger muscles you build by benching heavy will decrease your blood pressure because they put less demand on your heart.
Exhale At The Top. Exhale once you’ve locked the weight over your shoulders. But don’t empty your lungs between reps or you’ll lose tightness. Skilled Bench Pressers often do several reps with one breath to stay tight. Take a big breath before lowering the first rep. Then take short, quick breaths between reps at the top. You can slowly exhale against your closed glottis, on the way up, if the pressure is too big on the last reps.
Set the uprights so your arms are bent when you grab the bar. Lie on the bench with your eyes under the bar. Chest up, shoulder-blades squeezed and back arched. Grab the bar and press it out of the uprights by straightening your arms. If you do this correctly your shoulders will stay back on the bench. You’ll stay tight and waste less effort to unrack the weight. This increases strength to Bench Press.
Your uprights are too high if your arms are straight when you grab the bar. This forces you to unrack by shrugging your shoulders forward. Your shoulder-blades won’t stay squeezed, and you can’t re-squeeze them once you’ve unracked the weight and it’s compressing you. Loose shoulders are unstable and ineffective for Benching heavy. Lower the uprights so your arms are bent when you unrack.
Your uprights are too low if you have to do a half Bench Press to unrack the bar. Your arms should be bent when you grab it. But you shouldn’t be benching a half rep. Save your strength for benching the weight. Don’t waste strength unracking it. Lower the uprights so you have to straighten your arms as little as possible to lift the bar out of the uprights. Your shoulders must stay back on the bench.
Some Power Racks lack enough hole spacing. My uprights don’t match my arm length. They’re either too high or too low. Check if you can drill extra holes without making your Power Rack unstable. Or raise your bench a cm by putting plywood under it. If neither works, set your uprights too low rather than too high. You’ll waste some strength unracking the bar with more bent arms. But your shoulders will stay back and tight.
Set the safety pins of your Power Rack lower than the bottom of your Bench Press. The bar must touch your chest without hitting the pins. If you lower the safety pins to the level of your chest, you’ll hit them on good reps. This throws the bar off balance and into a bad bar path. It’s a stupid way to fail reps on StrongLifts 5×5. Put the safety pins lower than your chest so you never hit them on good reps.
When you fail a rep and get pinned by the weight, lower the bar to your chest first. Then lower it to your safety pins by flattening your torso. This is another reason why you should Bench Press with your chest up, shoulder-blades squeezed and back arched. It raises your torso so you can Bench Press with lower safety pins without hitting them on good reps. Just flatten your chest and back to lower the bar to the safety pins.
You don’t need a spotter if you Bench Press in the Power Rack. Even if you have a spotter, Bench Press in the Power Rack for maximum safety. The safety pins will catch the bar if your spotter reacts too slowly, or not at all. Safety overcomes fear. It boosts your confidence. You’ll go all out instead of holding reps back. Your Bench Press will increase faster as a result. Here’s some Power Racks I recommend:
- Atlas Power Rack. Cheap but no free shipping. 4.8 stars reviews on Amazon.
- PowerLine PPR200X. Handles 600lb, outside uprights, safety pins, pullup bar. But too short to Overhead Press. 4.6 stars. Free shipping.
- Body-solid Pro. Handles 1000lb, pullup bar, but costs more than PowerLine PPR200X. Similar rack to mine.
- Titan Power Rack. Handles 700lb, 28 holes, chin-up bar, less than $300.
- Rogue R3. High quality with pullup bar. But expensive and you must bolt it down.
- Short Power Rack. Fits under low 6″ ceilings.
Center your bench in your Power Rack for proper balance. Don’t put it more on one side or you’ll unrack the bar unevenly. Put your bench higher up in your Power Rack so your head rests on it when you lie with your eyes under the bar. Your bench should support your whole upper-back so you can drive yourself into the bench. It should be 30cm/12″ wide. A smaller bench is less stable and ineffective for benching heavy.
Your Bench should be 45cm/18″ high. If your Bench is shorter, your butt will come off the bench when you press the weight. This is cheating. Keep your butt on the bench by raising your bench to the proper height. Put plates flat on the floor under the legs of your bench. Your knees should be slightly lower than your hips. If you’re shorter and the bench is too high, raise your feet by putting plates under it.
Use a heavy duty bench. The limit load should be 300kg/600lb at least. Avoid cheap benches rated 140kg/300lb. It doesn’t take much weight for their legs to bend. The limit load includes your body-weight. So 140kg/300lb at 77kg/170lb BW is 63kg/130lb on the bar. You’ll Bench Press that within three months on StrongLifts 5×5. Get a strong bench so you don’t get killed. One without leg attachments. I recommend:
- Adidas Flat Bench – handles up to 600lb
- Rogue Flat Bench Press – handles up to 1000lb
- Rep Fitness Flat Bench – handles 1000lb, great price
Center your barbell in the uprights so you unrack it evenly. Pull it against the front of the uprights before you unrack it. This shortens the distance to get the bar from the uprights to your shoulders. If your bar rests against the back part of your uprights, close to the vertical parts of your Power Rack, you’ll have to move it over a greater distance. This wastes strength and is less safe. Pull the bar against the front of the uprights.
Bench Press a barbell with revolving sleeves. The plates must spin independently of the bar. If the outside of your bar doesn’t spin, the bar will want to rotate in your hands. This stresses your wrists and elbows, and it lowers grip strength. Use an Olympic Barbell with revolving sleeves. Put your pinky inside the vertical marks of the bar so your arms are vertical. Here’s some barbells I recommend:
- Rogue Power Bar. high quality, best of the best.
- Troy Texas Power Bar. Handles 1500lb, center knurling.
- Body-solid Olympic bar. If you want to go cheap, I wouldn’t buy it.
- Cap Barbell. Tested at 1500lb, black. But lacks center knurling for Squats.
Bench Press Variations
Close Grip Bench Press
The Close Grip Bench Presses is a Bench Press using a narrow grip. Setup on your flat Bench like you do for the regular Bench Press. But grip the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. They should be over your shoulders at the top and next to you torso at the bottom. This is the same grip width you use on the Overhead Press. Then lower the bar to your mid-chest and press it back up.
Bench Pressing close grip is harder than medium grip. The range of motion is longer because your arms are vertical at the top. Your triceps works harder because your forearms are incline at the bottom. And your chest works less because your elbows go less deep. The Close Grip Bench Press works the same muscles as the Bench Press. But expect to Bench about 20% less close grip than medium grip.
The Close Grip Bench Press is a good substitute for the Bench Press if you have shoulder issues. The narrow grip keeps your elbows closer to your body and doesn’t let them go as deep. If your shoulders hurt when you Bench Press, despite using proper form, try close grip. Many people who get shoulder pain on the Bench Press can do Close Grip pain-free. You’ll Bench less weight, but it’s better than not benching at all.
Don’t grip the bar too narrow when you do the Close Grip Bench Press. Your hands shouldn’t touch eachother. This puts your wrists too much out of line with your forearms. Your wrists will hurt, the bar will be hard to balance and you’ll have less strength. Grip the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Use the same grip as on the Overhead Press. And squeeze the bar hard so it can’t move in your hands.
Incline Bench Press
The Incline Bench Press is a Bench Press done on an incline Bench. Put your bench about 45° incline. Lie down with your feet on the floor and grab the bar with a medium grip. Unrack with straight arms, lower the bar to your upper-chest and press it back up over your shoulders. Keep your butt on the bench and your lower back neutral. Bench Press in the Power Rack to avoid injuries if you fail to press the weight.
Most people do the Incline Bench Press to target their “upper-chest”. But you can’t isolate one part of your chest. Your biggest chest muscle is your pectoralis major. This is a two head muscle with one part attaching to your collarbone and the other to your chestbone. You can’t contract one head without contracting the other (try it). Both heads contract whether you Bench Press flat or incline. You can’t isolate one part.
The best way to grow a bigger upper-chest is to increase your Bench and Overhead Press. The Bench Press works your upper-chest because your chest contracts as a whole. The Overhead Press targets your upper-chest (but doesn’t isolate it) because it’s like a steep Incline Bench. The stronger your main chest muscle is (your pectoralis major) the bigger it will be. The bigger it is, the more it fills up the borders of you chest.
This is also how you grow your “inner and outer chest”. Both are your pectoralis major which contracts as a whole. You do have a small chest muscle on the side, the pectoralis minor. But it lies under your pectoralis major so you can’t see it. The only thing you can work with is your pectoralis major. And the best way to work it is by increasing your Bench Press. This will grow it bigger so it fills up your chest more.
Decline Bench Press
The Decline Bench Press is a Bench Press done decline. LIe on the bench with your hips higher than your head. You need a decline bench with leg attachments so you don’t slide down while you press the weight. Unrack the bar, lower it to your lower chest and press it back up. Bench in the Power Rack with a spotter so you don’t get hurt if you fail. Most people Bench Press decline to target their “lower chest”…
The Decline Bench Press is a waste of time. You can’t isolate your lower chest as explained above because your chest muscles contracts as a whole. You can target it by benching decline but the range of motion is short because your arms are incline and close to your torso. This is like doing half Squats. Just increase your Bench Press and your lower chest will grow. Worst case add Dips to target your lower chest.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The Dumbbell Bench Press is a Bench Press using two dumbbells. Put the dumbbells on the floor in front of your bench. Sit at the end, grab the dumbbells and stand up while pulling them to you thighs. Now sit again while keeping the dumbbells close to your chest and on your thighs. Lie back and press. Balance the dumbbells over your shoulders with straight arms at the top. Tuck your elbows 75° at the bottom.
Many people think Bench Pressing with dumbbells is safer. It does look like you can’t get stuck under the weight if you fail. In reality, if you fail with heavy dumbbells without spotter, you’ll have to throw them on the floor. One dumbbell can drop on your face if you can’t control it. Dumbbells are harder to control because each hand moves separately. This is their benefit but also their drawback when it comes to safety.
Plus, you can bench heavier with barbells. Benching 100kg/225lb is within reach of most guys. But try to Bench 50kg/110lb dumbbells. First you have to lift them off the floor on your chest. Then you have to get them back on the floor when done. Unless you have a spotter, you’re stuck benching light dumbbells. It doesn’t matter if they’re harder to balance, light is light. You can go heavier with barbells which is better.
Even if you have a great spotter, it’s still easier to progress with barbells. The dumbbells in gyms usually go up by 2kg/5lb. This forces you to add 4kg/10lb each workout. But the Bench Press works small muscles like your chest, shoulders and arms. They need smaller increments of 2.5kg/5lb maximum. Less is even better. But you can’t add less weight with Dumbbells. This will make you miss reps and plateau faster.
If one arm is stronger than the other when you Bench Press with a barbell, focus on pressing evenly. Don’t get your reps at all costs by letting your stronger arm do more of the work. This will only make the imbalance worse plus you can hurt yourself. Hold back with your stronger side so your less strong side catches up. Over time this will take care of the imbalance, it will even out.
The Dumbbell Bench Press is fine as an assistance exercise. But it doesn’t substitute Bench Pressing a heavy barbell. If your shoulders feel better when you use dumbbells, make sure you’re tucking your elbows 75° at the bottom when benching with a barbell. Try also the Close Grip Bench Press first to force you to keep your elbows closer. You’ll be able to bench heavier and use smaller increments than with dumbbells.
Bench Press Machines
The Chest Press is a machine where you sit on a bench and press the handles forward. Your torso is usually vertical but there are machines where you lie horizontal like on a regular Bench Press. The handles usually move together like when you press a barbell. But some move separately like dumbbells do. There’s also the Smith Machine and its 3D version where you can Bench Press a barbell that’s attached to rails.
Machines are ineffective for gaining strength and muscle, and they’re unsafe. You don’t have to balance the bar, the machine does. Less muscles work overall as a result. You’ll know this when you move to free weights later because the same weight will be harder to bench. Worse, you don’t decide how the bar or weight moves. The machine does. You can’t bench the bar in a diagonal line to keep your shoulders safe.
Benching heavy on machines puts your shoulders at risk. Don’t do it. Don’t use machines because you can’t balance the bar either. The best way to get better at balancing the bar is to practice it by benching free weights. Your stabilizing muscles can’t get stronger if you rely on a machine do that work every workout. Stay away from machines and Bench Press free weights. They’re more effective and safer for your shoulders.
The Pushup is a compound, body-weight exercise that works your chest, shoulders, arms, abs and lower back muscles. Lie with your belly on the floor. Put your hands under your shoulders and point your fingers up. Your elbows should be about 75° (not touching your torso or flaring). Push yourself off the floor by straightening your arms. Lock your elbows at the top. Keep a straight line from your shoulders to your feet.
Pushups are a great exercise but they’re not a substitute for a heavy Bench Press. Pushups work similar muscles. But it’s hard to do them heavy. You can’t use a dip belt like on Dips and Pullups. You can put a plate on your back but you need a spotter for that and it can fall off. You can wear an x-vest, put chains around your neck or use a resistance band. But it’s simpler to just Bench the bar and add 2.5kg/5lb each workout.
I did Pushups before I started to lift weights. I couldn’t do one rep the first time because I did zero sports for the first half of my life. I was so weak I had to do Pushups on my knees. But I stuck with it and eventually could do 70 Pushups in a row on my knuckles. They became easy and I realized after a while that I wasn’t getting any stronger or more muscular. I was building endurance. So I joined the gym and started lifting weights.
I rarely do Pushups anymore. I can’t do 70 reps anymore because I don’t train that (and don’t care about it). But I can do ten good pushups anytime regardless. Because I work my Pushup muscles with the Bench Press, using heavier weight than I weigh. That’s why increasing your Bench Press will also increase your Pushups. You won’t be able to do 70 reps. But you’ll be able to do more Pushups than the average guy.