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September 06, 2020 10 min read

The year is 1899. You are Estonian strongman George Hackenschmidt; wrestling’s first world heavyweight champion, among many other things. The bench press method during this time is the strict floor press, so you roll the barbell over your face and succeed in pressing 362 lbs - a record that will stand for 16 years until it’s broken by a single kilogram.

Just over 100 years later and we have an unequipped bench press record of 770 lbs and an equipped record of just over 1,100 lbs.

There is no doubt that the bench press has become the de facto bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strength training in general. While the squat and the deadlift stand beside it as the bread-and-butter lifts, the fact remains that whenever someone says they lift, the first thing they’ll be asked about is their bench.

And while we can hem and haw about the benefits and drawbacks of the bench press, it can’t be argued that it’s a juggernaut of a lift—especially when it comes to benchmarking upper body strength.

The impression that it’s a (seemingly) simple movement also helps its case.

However, as with most compound exercises (especially those that are done with heavy free weights), proper bench press form becomes essential. And not just as a way to build muscle, but more importantly as a way to avoid injury.

Here is our definitive guide to proper bench press technique.

Your Body and the Barbell Bench Press 

As a full-body compound movement, a well-performed bench press will activate almost every single muscle group in your body. It also relies on a number of joints, bones, and muscles in order for the motion to be effectively carried out. 

While we won’t go too far into depth with physiology, it is good to know what’s really going on when chest day comes around.

One of the bones we’ll be bringing up more often is the scapulae, otherwise known as the shoulder blades. These are a pair of flat, triangular bones that are found at the back of your rib cage; providing attachment to several muscles in the upper body region. This includes the traps, shoulder girdle, delts, rhomboids, the rotator cuff muscles, your biceps, and one of the heads of the triceps.

But when it comes to the muscles, the stars of the show are obviously the pectoralis. These chest muscles are the strongest and biggest mover while benching, with their primary role being horizontal flexion.

Second come the triceps, your only elbow extensors. These have three heads to them, with the two smaller ones performing elbow flexion. It’s the long head that aids in shoulder extension.

Along with the above, your front (anterior delts), rotator cuffs, and lats all play an important role in getting that barbell over your body—however heavy it may be. But while these are the most important muscles, your entire body needs to be engaged in order to perform at peak strength. That means activating your core, glutes, and your entire posterior chain.

Part of the complexity of the bench press is that, unlike its cousins the squat and the deadlift, the bar doesn’t move in a vertical straight line from the bottom. Due to this physiology, the bar travels at an angle. Not only is it more comfortable, but there is greater utilization of power.

Two men working out in a gym.

Before You Begin 

While performing a bench press doesn’t take a whole lot of equipment, it’s important to keep things optimal. This is especially true when it comes to the bench itself and the hooks that hold up the barbell. Also, if you're new to bench pressing, you can always find a solid trainer to help you with your form.

When it comes to the flat bench, you don’t want it to be too slick. A little bit of grip will go a very long way when it comes to maintaining proper form during the exercise. For example, it might be difficult to maintain the positioning of your shoulder blades if the bench is too slippery. This goes the same for keeping your shoulder blades in the correct position.

The proper hook height is entirely dependent on the length of your arms and width at which you're planning to grip the bar. You want to get to a sweet spot of not too high and not too low, but there is some wiggle room. The bar definitely shouldn’t be set at a height where you have to reach up high and lose the positioning of your shoulder blades, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be set so low that you need to press it up 5 inches from the hook.

A good height for hook positioning is when you only need to press the bar 1 to 2 inches in order to clear it completely.

Setting Up for Success

While part of a successful bench press comes from raw strength, properly laying the groundwork beforehand will get you even further.

In the context of the bench press, this means several things:

  • Lay flat on the bench with the barbell at around eye level.
  • You want to grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, but this depends on what kind of bench press you’re going for. A balanced grip would be just inside the rings, or pinky/ring finger on top of the rings.
  • Puff your chest, this should allow your back to arch.
  • Now you want your scapulae (shoulder blades) pinched in the back. Imagine holding a pencil in between them. Keeping them tight will allow you to exert more force.
  • Feet should be placed flat on the floor in a position that’s stable for you. Usually, this means pulling them back towards the upper body.

Now let’s do a deep dive into some of these points. 

Arching Your Back 

If you’ve ever seen a powerlifter do an insanely heavy bench press, you’ll have probably noticed the dramatic arc in their back. While you don’t have to go that far (until you start doing some really serious lifting), a slight arch will help you.

What arching does is reduce the range of motion you have to go through. And a reduced range of motion means that you’ll probably be able to lift more weight—the heart of the matter. 

How you go about arching is up to you, but make sure that your chest puffs up as well since that’s the entire point. You don’t want to be just arching your back. You can either set your shoulders or your hips first and then push the opposite side of your body towards the end that’s braced.

Positioning the Shoulder Blades

By pinching your shoulder blades together your range of motion is effectively reduced since the chest is puffed up. More importantly, however, is that your shoulders will be placed in a safer position for the lift. Injuries such as front shoulder pain and rotator cuff tears.

However, as long you have your shoulder blades pulled back, the rest is up to you and whatever you find most comfortable. How will you know?

Play around with elevating and retracting your shoulders and feel out what gives you the strongest power output while also being comfortable. Chances this won’t be that necessary until you start lifting heavier, but it’s always good to keep in the back of your mind. 

Positioning the Feet

And finally, the feet. Although it’s an important point to take note of, you’ll probably find a positioning that works best for you when you go to bench.

There are, however, three general ways you can go about it.

The first is putting your feet forward and a bit to the side. This is sometimes used by shorter lifters but is still relatively rare to see since you’re not able to “drive-up” through your legs. You’re only really able to drive backward.

Another way to position your feet is to pull them back and place them as far as your hips will let you. Your feet should end up in between your hips and your knees. This position is the most common because it allows for more leg drive.

The last method is one that is mostly used by powerlifters to the extreme arches. This requires the most “pull-back” of the feet, and they often end up on their tiptoes.

The Movement

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can move onto the actual movement of the bench press. Now the fun can begin.

  1. To begin, take a deep breath and hold it.
  2. Choose your grip positioning and lift the bar out of the rack, but make sure to keep your body tight and your shoulders pinched.
  3. Slowly bring your body all the way down to your lower chest over 2 to 3 seconds. The elbows should naturally tuck in towards the body, but only slightly.
  4. Once the bar has touched your chest you’ve reached the bottom position. Reverse the movement explosively until you lockout your elbow joints. Make sure not to lose tightness in this step either.
  5. Release the breath that you’ve been holding.

As with the initial setup, we’ll go a little more into depth when it comes to some of these points.

Getting a Grip on Bench Press Form

First things first: the width of your grip. 

It might sound trivial at first glance, but the width of your grip will impact how far the bar needs to travel, the muscles used, and the path the load takes.

A narrower grip is usually considered around shoulder-width, while a wide grip is anywhere from 1.5 to 2 times the width measured between your shoulders. The wider grip is usually easier because it requires a reduced range of motion, but more importantly, it engages your pecs a lot more than the narrow grip bench press. 

On the other hand, a close grip bench will engage your triceps to a greater degree. Whether you go one or the other is up to you, but what is important is that you don’t go too narrow or too wide. Either of these options can hurt your elbows or hurt your shoulders. 

But once you’ve set your grip width, squeeze the bar like your life depends on it. Not only will this help in terms of muscle irradiation, but it’ll also help you better control the bar (or at least make you feel like you are).

Once you press up and un-rack the bar, position it over your throat. At this point, you want to make sure that your wrists are in the position they should be in. That means they’re not being bent back excessively, and the bar sits comfortably in your hands. Wrist wraps can help with this. 

Also, remember to keep your thumb hooked underneath the bar. Not doing this (called the suicide grip) makes it far too easy for the bar to slip out of your hands.

Bringing the Bar Down

The name of the game during the descent is to maintain tension and go down slowly. There are a couple of ways you can think of this in order to help you out.

With “ripping the bar in half”, you want to imagine tearing the bar in the middle by pulling outwards—especially at the top of the movement and on the way down. Otherwise, you can try thinking of “bending the bar” with your hands, inward.

Both of these cues are meant as a way to activate your upper back muscles and help you lower the bar in a controlled manner. This descent should take about 2 to 3 seconds.

You’ll know you’ve gotten to the bottom of the exercise when you feel the bar touch the bottom of your chest. Once again, it’s a good idea to experiment with where works best for you. For some it might be at the nipples while for others it could be at the sternum—what you’re looking for is comfort and greater power output.

Your chest should rise up slightly in order to meet the bar, effectively reducing the range of motion.

Back on the Come Up

Once you’ve touched the bar to the chosen location on your chest, pause there for a second or two. It’s also important to choose a place and stick to it. Don’t switch around the positioning of the bar on your chest after every rep. 

Now it’s time to get that bar up back into the starting position. 

Where you want to initiate that movement is in the glutes while driving through the legs into the ground. This will keep your entire body tight and engaged, allowing you to produce a more explosive movement on the come-up.

The path the bar will travel will not only be vertical, but it should also end up above your general throat area. This is the most efficient bar path and the way your joints should naturally bend. 

And finally, remember to release your breath when you lockout at the top. Holding the breath will allow your body to hold even more tension throughout the movement.

A man doing a bench press.

Common Bench Press Mistakes to Avoid

The above covers the things you should be doing, but what about the things you should be avoiding? It’s often useful to look at common mistakes in order to avoid potentially leaving gains on the table, or worse, injuring yourself.

Avoid having your elbows flare out or tuck in too much. Often people flare them out because there’s an assumption that this will activate more of the pecs. While this may be true, it’s not worth it when it comes to avoiding injuries since it works against your elbows’ natural positioning.

We’ve been going on and on about keeping it tight throughout this article, but it’s important enough to mention again. The shoulder blades need to be tight, legs rooted to the ground, and hands gripping the bar, hard. Adding onto this point: don’t press too high. While you want your elbows locked out, your shoulders should never come into play. Their job is to stay tight and tucked in behind you.

Remember to complete the full range of motion. Don’t skimp out at the bottom, and don’t descend too fast. You want the bar to touch your chest. Often the best way to improve the form is by lightening the load, so if you don’t have a full range of motion then try taking some plates off.

Another common mistake that stems from too heavy a load is the bar bouncing off the chest or your butt and lower back lifting off the bench. The point is to touch the chest lightly, and then explosively ascend—not use the momentum of a chest bounce. People have cracked ribs this way, which leads us to the last point…

Safety Never Takes a Vacation

Along with never bouncing from the chest and using a suicide grip, make sure to always have a spotter or a power rack. If you’re lucky you’ll have to do the roll of shame, and if you’re not, then get ready for some serious injuries. It’s also a solid idea to load up on some supplements that can help you build muscle, burn fat, and get shredded quicker.

While there’s a host of techniques and equipment that promise you the world, remember to keep the basics close, warmup, and give your body the fuel it deserves. Maybe one day we’ll all be hearing about your record-setting bench pressing.