Exercises

How to Bench Press

You want to bench press, and you want to bench press well. Especially when it comes to lifting several hundred pounds worth of weight. And making sure you get the most out of your bench pressing comes with a solid posture and the right bar path.

So, how do you bench press?

Firstly, let's just establish what type of bench pressing we're talking about here. You may have seen power lifters bench pressing in a certain way. But power lifters train to be able to lift the maximum amount of weight – but not necessarily to build strength. And the two don't always go hand-in-hand. There are certain techniques that power lifters employ to be able to compete.

We'll be talking about bench pressing with a barbell, with the purpose of building strength with a full press to get full results.

Correct posture for bench pressing

Before you even start lifting any weight, it's important you adopt the correct posture:

  • Your feet should be in a solid position, at either side of the weight bench. And even though you're mainly focusing your upper body, you still need a firm base to push up from. This means you should be as stable as possible for when you press. So, make sure you feel well-grounded to give you that solid foundation to lift from. This doesn't necessarily mean flat feet; what you want to ensure is that your hips stay firmly pressed into the bench and don't lift upwards every time you press. You should also make sure you are not pressing from your toes. So, whether you have your heels on the floor or slightly raised off the ground, make sure you have them so they don't move and that your body is rigid. You should be pressing from your upper body.
  • Your back should be arched. Normally, when we talk about lifting, it's usually necessary to maintain a neutral spin. However, when doing a bench press, you need to arch your back. Why? To make sure your shoulder blades are pulled back, so that you can activate your chest muscles to a larger degree. It also helps you to stop putting excessive strain on your shoulders because you're stopping your elbows from going too low. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades before you take any weight and that your hips stay flat on the weight bench. Arching your back also lifts your chest up which helps to shorten your bar path. Ultimately this is important because it will help you lift more weight.
  • Your core must be tight. This is to avoid straining your lower back. Again, it's all about making your body rigid and tense to give you that solid foundation to push up from that's properly stable. If you are relaxed, you're much more likely to put yourself at risk of injury. And especially as you are in an arched position, you need to protect those weaker muscles. So, tense your core.

Ensuring you have the correct grip

Whenever it comes to lifting, grip and wrist position is always going to play a big part. Not only to ensure you avoid injuring yourself, but also so you optimise your form. The right grip will allow you to follow the correct bar path as well as target all the right muscles.

  • Firstly, the bar should be lined up correctly before you get yourself into position. It's quite common for the bar to move when you're loading it up on the rack. So be sure it's centred properly.
  • When you're in position, the bar should be directly above your eyes while it is still on the rack. When you reach up, make sure your elbows are still ever so slightly bent. If they're locked out while the bar is still on the rack, then the bar is going to be too high for you to release it from the supports. Equally, if the bar is way too low, this will be much harder to get started and could upset that tense posture you've just spent time setting up.
  • How wide you place your grip will be determined mostly by your elbows and your body type. For a classic barbell form, you want your elbows to be at 45 degrees away from your body. Many lifters place their arms at a 90-degree angle to their body, but this can cause some serious damage to your rotator cuffs. Equally, arms right down by your sides will only target your triceps rather than your triceps, chest and shoulders. Engage your pecs and protect your shoulders – stick to the 45-degree angle.
  • So, we've talked about where your elbows should be in relation to your body. Now let's talk about the actual angle of your elbows. When you bring your elbows down, while maintaining those straight wrists, you want the bend in your elbow to be at 90 degrees when your arms reach their lowest point in the press. If your grip is too wide, the angle will be too wide which in turn compromises your wrist stability, safety and push power. A narrow grip will bring the forearms in at an angle. Again, this adjusts the angle of your wrists, putting you at risk of injury.
  • The press itself comes from your upper body muscles. Not your toes, not your hips and definitely not your wrists. This means ensuring you have straight wrists the whole way. To ensure that this happens, push your hands up onto the bar and get them fixed before you lift the bar off the rack. You want a full grip – a thumbless grip can allow the bar to slip out of your hands. Your wrists should be solid and straight so make sure the bar is as low down on your hand as possible. If the bar is too close to your fingers, it'll roll back as you come to press. This means your wrists will be bent, and your pushing power decreased.

man-doing-bench-press-in-a-dark-garage-gym

Follow the correct bar path

Unlike squats, bench presses do not have a straight bar path. If the bar follows a straight line, then your elbows will be too wide, i.e. too far away from your body. This puts unnecessary pressure on to your shoulder joints. Doing this can also affect that solid grip.

Your technique should be as follows:

  • Remove the barbell from the rack and lock your arms out so the bar is directly above your shoulders – using the grip discussed above. This movement should include as little press upwards as possible. If you're pressing in this position, you will upset your posture and start off with loose shoulders and your hips off the bench.
  • Then, maintaining those straight, solid wrists, bring the bar down and slightly forward. Watch you don't exaggerate this movement. The idea is that you are ensuring your forearms and wrists stay straight all the way down. So, let this be your focus, rather than trying to create a bar path gradient.
  • As you lower the bar, your elbows will be corkscrewing inwards slightly. You can see this more clearly if you spot someone else bench pressing. Watch their elbows as they lower the bar and you can see them turning in slightly towards their body, then flaring out again as they push back up. As you do this, imagine pulling the barbell apart. This is going to ensure you maintain those tight muscles as well as engage your lats.
  • When the bar reaches your lowest point, push it back up into position so it ends above your shoulders, all while maintaining that straight grip.
  • Keep your eyes fixed on the ceiling and make sure the bar touches the same point on your chest and back to the ceiling each time.

man-doing-bench-press-with-spotter-demonstrating-correct-wrist-position

Finally, everyone's bench presses will look ever so slightly different as it will depend on body type. This includes arm length, leg length, injuries, strength etc. Watch your joints and practise your form so you can get your technique down before you start pressing any weight.

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