The bench press is a movement that becomes many lifters’ favorite exercise. Why? Because progress can be seen very quickly both in terms of physique as well as objectively with how much weight you can press. It has become the lift to judge upper body strength and is used in many different sports and training programs.
The bench press is a staple to almost all training routines because it does level out the playing field for many lifters. The overhead press requires a significant amount of mobility and control, whereas the bench press eliminates a large portion of that by simply having you lay down on your back.
The majority of lifters will use a version of the bench press called tucked position and it should be taught this way unless with an advanced trainee that understands the increased risk for using a straight position or commonly known as the guillotine press. This is where you have a wider grip and lower the bar down higher at your neck and it can be suicide to your shoulders if unable to manage the load.
Now the bench press is one movement where a lot of fellow athletes and powerlifters don’t necessarily agree on proper execution. But understand that many people who teach this movement are competing or focusing a large part on the number on the bar rather than their movement underneath it. With that being said, there are ways mechanically to change the lift to allow for increased weight on the bar. But right now I want to focus on the proper technique to allow you to lift safely for many years to come.
As a former competitor, I recommend every athlete who participates in the bench press to get really good at the technique as explained below and in the video above. There are times that they can go outside these parameters when looking at breaking plateaus or for competition reasons. You should note, that after breaking these plateaus it is important to resume proper technique to not overly stress the anterior shoulders as it inherently does so in this lift.
Similar to the squat, the bench press works primarily Type II muscle fibers which respond well to heavy loads, therefore the lift should be trained with heavier loads. With that being said, lifters should continue to focus on their “smaller” less dominant shoulder muscles as their bench press increases as many athletes get anterior shoulder pain from the bench press due to poor control of the lift.
The bench press works the entire upper body, but gets the majority of its emphasis from the pecs, triceps, and anterior delt.
The pec major’s greatest action is adduction or bringing your arms together, but it also allows for internal rotation and flexion or extension depending on your position and angle in relation to gravity. The triceps are the secondary muscle which allow for extension of the elbow with the deltoids and rotator cuff controlling the head of the humerus. The lats, biceps and scapular stabilizers such as rhomboids, serratus anterior and middle traps also play a role.
When lying on your back the bench press works the clavicular and sternal head of the pectoralis major. Many people either for competition purposes or because they are thinner will arch their back to decrease the distance that the bar has to travel. When doing so, it reduces the amount of activation at the clavicular head. In contrast, the incline press reduces the amount of recruitment of the sternal head.
For this reason, many athletes who do NOT incorporate the incline bench press into their routine are more apt to:
As a former competitor as well as rehab specialist, I employ you to train both movements. Our bodies are more apt to injury prevention when we have variability in our lifts.
Let’s take a look at what perfect technique should look like. For a visual walkthrough go to the youtube video at the top of this post.
When lying down on the bench, we want to make sure our eyes are just under the bar, this will keep us from hitting the j-hooks throughout the movement.
Your shoulder blades should be “down and back” as this allows you to have maximal mobility and control without the risk of injury to many of the shoulder structures. The wrists should be in slight extension or commonly called power position. This is the same fist position many boxers will use. If you want to try it on yourself, simply make a fist and squeeze, you should notice that your wrists extend to approximately 35 degrees as this allows the greatest length-tension relationship of the forearm muscles for maximal control.
The grip width should allow you to freely move your shoulders throughout the range while having a vertical forearm position at the bottom position when the bar is on your chest.
Again, a lot of people will cue this by using the 32” knurling marks and suggest that those are optimal hand placements, but just note those markings are as wide as allowed in powerlifting competitions as many athletes will use a wider grip to decrease bar path ROM.
Finally, the feet should be flat on the ground for maximal stability and leg drive.
As you unrack the bar, you should fully extend and lockout your elbows before transferring the bar over your chest. This is for the athlete’s safety and ideally, they should have a spotter to rack and un-rack the weight.
Once having full control of the bar in the top position, bring the bar down to the chest making a slight arc towards the nipple line as this is generally the highest point when laying on the bench.
As you bring the barbell towards the chest, you should be actively tucking the elbows towards your side to engage the rotator cuff musculature and increase control of the lift.
I don’t typically have athletes pause the BB bench press due to the high stress it places on the shoulders unless they are or have thoughts of competing. During the transition from the descent to the ascent of the lift, athletes should move the barbell with control and not simply let the bar bounce off the chest to use it for momentum to get it off the chest.
Athletes should press the barbell up and slightly back towards their eyes in the same slight arc position that was used to bring the barbell towards their chest. This places the least amount of stress on the already highly stressed shoulders in this lift as the arc allows the lifter to remain as close to the scapular angle as possible.