The Bench Press is the most dangerous of all exercises. A dozen of people die each year by dropping the bar on their face, throat or chest during the Bench Press. Tons of other people hurt their shoulders, wrists or back because they Bench Press with bad form.
Here are the top 10 Bench Press mistakes that kill and injure lifters, and how to avoid them.
Using The Thumbless Grip to Bench Press
The thumbless grip means holding the bar with your thumbs on the same side as your fingers. Some prefer to Bench Press with a thumbless grip because it feels more comfortable. Your wrists are indeed less likely to bend and hurt. The thumbless grip puts the bar lower in your hands, closer to your wrists. This also improves power transfer by putting the bar over your forearm bones. It makes the weight easier to Bench Press.
The problem with the thumbless grip is that the bar can slip out of your hands. If the bar rolls mid-set, you don’t have thumbs to stop it from falling out of your hands. The bar will drop faster than you can get away from under the weight. It will drop faster than your spotter can react (if you have one). It will drop on your face, throat or chest. The bar will kill you on the spot, or you’ll die later from internal bleeding. This could be you:
Some people Bench Press with a thumbless grip for years without accidents. But it only takes once. Benching with a full grip is safer than without thumbs around the bar. That’s why they call the thumbless grip, the “suicide grip”. It’s dangerous. Worse, Bench Pressing with a thumbless grip offers no benefits. If the full grip feels uncomfortable, you’re gripping the bar wrong. Your thumbs have nothing to do with it.
Always Bench Press using the full grip. Wrap your thumbs around the bar to secure it. Squeeze the bar hard so it can’t move in your hands. This will increase strength at the same time by contracting your arms and shoulders muscles more. If your wrists hurt, you’re holding the bar too high. Put it lower in your hands, close to your wrists. You must Bench Press with straight wrists and the bar over your forearm bones.
Flaring Your Elbows When You Bench Press
Your elbows flare when they’re 90° out at the bottom of your Bench Press. This puts your upper-arms perpendicular to your torso. It forces the bar to move in a vertical line to your neck. Vince Gironda recommended this bodybuilding-style of Bench Press decades ago. Benching the bar to your neck with your elbows out stretches your chest at the bottom. Vince Gironda believed this was the best exercise to build a bigger chest.
In truth, Bench Pressing with flared elbows is the best exercise to destroy your shoulders. Every time you lower the bar, the top of your upper-arm bone squeezes your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joint. This irritates your rotator cuff on every rep and inflames them. Your shoulders will hurt. And you can’t blame the Bench Press for that. Bad Bench Press form is what causes shoulder impingement.
Some solve it by Bench Pressing half reps. Your upper-arms can’t squeeze your rotator cuff against your AC joints if you only go half way down. You can Bench Press pain-free. And you can Bench heavier because the bar moves half the distance. But Benching half reps emphasizes your triceps. It leaves your chest out which works most at the bottom. This makes Bench Pressing half reps less effective for building a bigger chest.
Bench Press by lowering the bar all the way down to your mid-chest. Tuck your elbows 75° at the bottom to avoid shoulder impingement. The exact angle depends on your shoulder width, arm length and so on. But your upper-arms can never be perpendicular to your torso at the bottom of your Bench Press. They can’t touch your torso either. Tuck your elbows 75° and keep them under the bar so your forearms stay vertical to the floor.
Using Machines to Bench Press
It looks safer to Bench Press with machines. The bar is attached to rails on the Smith Machine. You can’t lose balance because it balances the bar for you. You can’t get stuck under the weight either. The bar has hooks to rack it if you fail. And yet Bench Pressing in the Smith Machine is less safe than people think. It will destroy your shoulders. And it’s less effective for building strength and muscle.
The Smith Machine forces the bar to move in a vertical line. But the proper bar path isn’t vertical on the Bench Press. If the bar moves vertically to your neck, your elbows will be 90° out at the bottom. This will impinge your shoulders as explained above: the top of your upper-arms will squeeze your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joints. Your shoulders will hurt if you Bench Press heavy in the Smith Machine.
You could solve this by Bench Pressing the bar in a vertical line over your mid-chest. This allows you to tuck your elbows 75° at the bottom to avoid shoulder impingement. But it forces you to move the bar in a vertical line over your chest. Locking the bar over you chest is harder. The weight isn’t balanced over your shoulders at the top. You have to hold it in front of it, as if doing a front raise. This is ineffective for Bench pressing heavy.
The proper way to Bench Press the bar is in a diagonal line. You can’t do this with Smith Machines, that’s why they’re bad for your shoulders. Some gyms have newer “3D” Smith Machine that allow horizontal movement. They’re better for you shoulders because the bar can move diagonally. But the machine is still balancing the weight for you instead of letting you do it. This is less effective for building strength and muscle.
Bench Press with free weights so you control where the bar goes. Let your stabilizing muscles balance the weight. Avoid getting stuck under the bar by Bench Pressing in the Power Rack. Set the safety pins so they can catch the bar. If your gym doesn’t have a Power Rack, ask the manager to get one so you can Bench Press safely without destroying your shoulders. Or get your own Power Rack in your home gym like me.
Bench Pressing with Bent Wrists
Your wrists will hurt if you Bench Press with bent wrists. Gravity pulls the bar down. If you grip it wrong, the bar will push your hands back. It will stretch your wrists past their normal range of motion. The heavier the weight, the harder the stretch and the more your wrists will hurt. This has nothing to do with your wrists being weak or small. You don’t need wrist wraps either. You just need to Bench Press with straight wrist.
Bench Pressing with bent wrists also makes the weight harder to press. It puts the bar behind your forearms instead of on top of it. The force you generate with your chest, shoulders and upper-arm muscles can’t go directly into the bar. The most effective way to transfer force into the bar is when it rests directly over your forearm bones. This means the bar must be aligned vertically with your wrists and elbows.
Bench Press with straight wrists. Grip the bar lower in your hands, close to your wrists. Use the Bulldog Grip to rotate your hands in when you grip the bar. Hold the bar in the bottom of your hands, right over your forearm bones. Then squeeze the bar so it can’t move in your hands. Your wrists will stay straight when you Bench Press. The wrist pain will stop and the weight will be easier to Bench Press.
Bench Pressing Heavy without Power Rack or Spotter
The most dangerous mistake you can make is Bench Pressing heavy without Power Rack or spotter. If you fail, the bar will drop on your face, break your nose/teeth and kill you. Or it will drop on your throat and strangle you. Or it will drop on your chest, crush your ribcage and kill you that way. Millions of people Bench Press safely. But a few overly confident (or ignorant) Bench Pressers die each year after failing to lift the bar.
You can try to roll the bar to your stomach if you fail alone without Power Rack. But if the weight is too heavy, you won’t be able to get up. The bar will crush your abs, can tear a blood vessel inside and kill you. You can try to tilt the bar to one side so the plates slides off. But this only works if you didn’t put collars on. With a heavy, collared bar your only option is to yell and hope somebody helps before the bar kills you.
Always Bench Press inside the Power Rack. Set the horizontal safety pins so they can catch the bar if you fail to Bench Press the weight. They should be slightly below your chest so you don’t hit them on good reps. Set the pins even if you think you can Bench Press the weight. You never know if you end up having a bad day. If you Bench Press inside the Power Rack with the safety pins set, you don’t need a spotter.
If your gym doesn’t have a Power Rack to Bench Press, then ask someone to spot you. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you don’t ask mid-set. Wait until he has racked the bar. Then ask for a spot. Tell him what to expect: how many reps you plan to do and how many you think you’ll get. If you fail, help him racking the bar. Don’t release your hands and let him do all the work. You don’t want him to drop the bar on you.
Don’t Bench Press heavy without Power Rack or spotter. Don’t Bench weights you’re not confident you can press. Don’t Bench weights you haven’t lifted in months. And don’t attempt Bench Press PRs. Bench what you know you can Bench. Stay away from failure. This will hinder your progress on StrongLifts 5×5. But your life is more important than PRs. Get a Power Rack if you want to Bench Press heavy.
Racking The Bar Wrong
Don’t unrack the bar out of the uprights straight to your chest. This moves the bar over your head instead of shoulders. It makes the bar harder to hold. You have no balance with the bar behind your shoulders. It’s like doing pullovers. You could lose the bar and drop it on your face. Unrack the bar by moving it over your shoulders first. Balance it. Then lower the bar to your chest. Take your time to unrack before you Bench Press.
Same deal when you rack the bar. Don’t Bench Press it straight into the uprights when your set is over. You can miss the uprights by pressing under it. The bar can drop on your face unless you have a spotter to catch it fast. Finish your set before you rack the bar. Lock it over your shoulders first. Then move it back against your Power Rack. Bend your arms to rack the bar into the uprights. Don’t rush your Bench Press.
Keep the distance between your Power Rack and shoulders short. Lie on your bench with your eyes under the bar. Don’t lie lower or you’ll have to move the bar further to unrack it. You have no strength when the bar is over your head and behind your balance point. Move up the bench. And lower the uprights so your arms are bent when you grab the bar. Your shoulders can’t come off the bench when you unrack.
Not Locking Your Elbows At The Top
Your muscles stay tensed if you don’t lock your elbows at the top of your Bench Press. But if your muscles are tired, you can lose the bar and drop it on you chest. It’s safer to hold heavy weight with your skeleton by locking your elbows. This also gives your muscles a break and saves strength to Bench Press the next rep. Plus you can take a quick breath to stay tight. Lock your elbows and you’ll Bench Press more reps and weight.
Locking your elbows on the Bench Press isn’t bad for your joints. What’s bad is hyper-extension. Your elbows will hurt if you take them past their normal range of motion. These injuries are common with martial arts. In Jujutsu the armbar technique consists of hyper-extending the elbow of an opponent. This hurts, and it’s the usual way to win a match. But it’s not how you should lock your elbows when you Bench Press.
Finish every Bench Press rep by locking your elbows at the top. Be gentle. Stay within the normal range of motion of your elbow joint. If you do this right, your elbows won’t hurt. But the weight will feel more secure because your stronger skeleton can hold the weight. Lock your elbows when you rack the bar in and out of the uprights as well. You’re less likely to lose the bar and drop it on your face if you move it with locked elbows.
If you insist on muscle tension, add weight on the bar. The heavier the weight, the harder your muscles must work to Bench Press it against gravity. Your body must recruit more muscles to Bench Press heavier weights. It must contract them harder. More weight is also more Bench Press volume. 5×5 50kg is 1250kg. 5×5 80kg is 2000kg lifted or 40% more. Your Bench volume is more important to build muscle than tension.
Your elbows must lock at the top of every Bench Press rep or it’s a fail. The range of motion is shorter with unlocked elbows. This takes work away from your muscles. That’s why you must lock your elbows in powerlifting competitions. And that’s also why you must lock them on StrongLifts 5×5. The bar must touch your torso at the bottom. And your elbows must lock at the top of every rep. If they aren’t, the rep doesn’t count.
Bench Pressing with a Flat Chest
The flatter your chest, the lower the bar must touch your torso at the bottom to keep your forearms vertical. The lower the bar touches your torso, the further it ends from your shoulders. The further the bar from you shoulders, the harder to Bench Press the weight. Benching with a flat chest is harder on your shoulders. And if they roll forward, off the bench, at the bottom of your Bench Press, you will injure them.
Raise your chest when you Bench Press. Don’t just lie on the bench. Squeeze your shoulder-blades together. Arch your lower back so I can slide my flat hand between the bench and your body. Keep your butt on the bench. Then raise your chest to the ceiling and squeeze your lats to lock this position. You can now lower the bar higher on your chest, closer to your shoulders, with vertical forearms. This is safer and more effective.
Bench Pressing with your chest up isn’t cheating. It does shorten the range of motion. But only slightly. Because you shouldn’t bridge your back to the extreme like some powerlifters do. That shortens the range of motion way more. It also compresses your spinal discs and can cause back pain. This is different. This is about making your Bench Press form safer for your shoulders and more effective. Raise you chest but arch naturally.
Raising Your Butt off The Bench
The weight is easier to Bench Press when you raise your butt off the bench. But it’s cheating. It shortens the range of motion. Some raise their butt so high, their Bench Press turns into half reps. The bar moves half the distance. Your muscles do half the work to Bench Press it. And you get half the gains. Raise your butt high enough and your lower back can hyper-extend. This squeezes your spinal discs and can cause back pain.
Keep your butt on the bench. Don’t just push your feet into the floor when you Bench Press. Drive your upper-back and glutes into the bench too. Push yourself away from the bar instead of pushing the bar away. Your lower back can come off the bench to help keeping your chest up. But your butt can never come off the bench. If it does at any point during the rep, it doesn’t count. It’s a failed set and you have to repeat the weight.
If your butt keeps coming off the bench, check its height. Some gyms have short benches that make it impossible to keep your butt down. It should be 45cm/18″ high so your hips are slightly higher than your knees when you lie down. If your bench is shorter, put plates flat under its legs to raise it. If you train at home like me, just get a better bench so you don’t have to mess with plates. Here are some I recommend for StrongLifts 5×5…
Bench Pressing with Your Feet In The Air
It’s unstable to Bench Press with your feet in the air or on the bench. If you lose balance while you Bench Press, you can fall off the bench and drop the bar on you. It’s easy to lose balance if you Bench Press unevenly or load more plates on one side of the bar. Bench Pressing with your feet in the air is also ineffective for going heavy because you can’t engage your legs. It makes it harder to keep you chest up.
You don’t have to Bench Press with your feet in the air to feel the muscles more. When you Bench Press 100kg for 5×5 you’ll feel it in your muscles. And the fastest way to get there is to put your feet on the floor so you can use your legs. Raising your feet is a trick to keep your chest and back flat. The idea is to “isolate” your chest. In truth, it makes the Bench Press harder on you shoulders as explained above. Don’t do it.
Bench Press with your feet on the floor. Your whole foot should be flat floor, heels included. Put you feet shoulder-width apart like on the Squat so you have optimal balance. Your feet should be directly under your knees or slightly behind. Don’t Bench Press with your feet narrow. It’s less stable. Don’t Bench Press with your feet in front of your knees either. You can’t use your legs if your feet are too far forward.
If your lower back hurts when your feet are on the floor, check your spine. It should have a natural arch like when you stand. Don’t hyper-extend your lower back it or you’ll squeeze your spinal discs. This will hurt. If your spine is neutral but continues to hurt, check the height of your bench. It might be too high for your size. If your legs are short, put something under your feet to raise them. This will keep your back neutral.