How to Bench Press, Common Mistakes and Popular Variations

We see a variety of techniques used to perform bench press, and all of these have their place. The exception to this is when we are talking about risky techniques, overloading, and fools who don’t understand progressions!

Before we really get into the breakdown of Bench Press, let’s go over a few important things to consider and note;

1. Bench press technique changes depending on the desired outcome. For example, Powerlifting vs football strength training vs functional training. All of these use unique adjustments to technique to use the exercise to their particular advantage.
2. There are a variety of positions a bench press can be performed with, and all are correct, unless the position compromises the body in one way or another.
3. Bench press is for everyone, is a safe, simple exercise, and can be used in one way or another in any routine, regardless of experience or strength ability!

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How to Perform Bench Press

Correct back position
Lying flat on a bench to perform this lift is incorrect. The back has 2 natural curves. The lower back has a lordodic curve when we stand, and is designed to be there for weight bearing. When lying on a bench, the same curve should be maintained. I say this with great emphasis… the SAME curve should be maintained! Not greater! Extending the spine and lifting the hips as high as possible is not a functional movement and is used as a sort of “cheat”.

The upper back should be pressed into the bench, as this is where the load of the bar will be directly over. Shoulder blades should be inferior and squeezed together. Every articulation will then incorporate the traps.

Don’t forget to “tuck” your elbows, and not to let them chicken wing out to the sides as the bar moves up and down.

Correct hip position
This brings us to the hips. Should the lifters glutes be popped up in the air? This happens because the feet get involved in a squat, pressing into the floor, creating a counterforce for the bar. Because the glutes are squeezed tight creating hip extension, there may be some lifting off the bench. However, there is a happy middle ground for this. If your hips are up beyond the height of your chest, you’ve gone too far!

Correct foot position
As mentioned, your feet should be engaged, pushing against the floor. This creates a counterbalance for your real work, which is to press out. The ball of the foot should be on the ground. If possible, for functional bench press, the whole foot is flat on the floor, at the side of the bench, under the knees.

For people with shorter legs and longer torsos, drawing the feet backwards (closer to being under the hip) can be more advantageous.

Correct grip positions
The main difference in wide or narrow grip is the level of recruitment of muscles. Both grips engage all of the same muscles, but to a different degree. A narrower grip engages more of the medial parts of pec major, and the triceps and anterior deltoids.

A wider grip works a greater range of pec major, and the trapezius muscles. This is also a less “functional” movement, because it does not translate well to everyday push movements, where hands would typically be placed narrower.

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Common Bench Press Mistakes to Avoid

Mistake 1: Partial Bench Press: Decreasing the range of motion by not bringing the bar down to your chest will reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. For some of us, we might feel a stretch in our chest before we touch the chest that is fine. Just make sure that you are performing the exercise over your full range of motion.

Mistake 2: Lifting your hips off the bench: This generally happens if the weight is too heavy for you. Lifting the hips off the floor put your back in a compromised position. If you notice that your butt is lifting off the bench, just decease the weight and perform the exercise

Mistake 3: Flaring your elbows out: Flaring your elbows out puts a lot of stress on you shoulders and will lead to injury. Always keep your elbows within 30-60 degrees from the torso

Mistake 4: Not keeping your shoulders retracted: Keeping shoulders retracted provides you body a solid foundation in which it can lift heavier and heavier weights. Failing to do so will decrease the weight you can lift.

Mistake 5: Bouncing the weight of the chest : Using the momentum from bouncing the weight off the chest and not bringing your bar down in a controlled manner will decrease the efficiency of this exercise and not provide you optimal results.


Benefits of Bench Press

This is one the best strength building exercises for upper body. Bench press mainly targets the chest, triceps and the anterior shoulders. Traps, back muscles and rotator cuff muscles are used as stabilizers

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Variations of a Bench Press

You might choose to change up the positions of a bench press or switch from barbells to dumbbells every now and then. Variety adds to the likelihood of getting an adaptation in the muscles, increasing either strength or hypertrophy.

Grip positions 
The bench press can be performed at a variety of grips such as wide narrow and reverse. All these grips engage all of the same muscles, but to a different degree. A narrower grip engages more of the inner chest, and the triceps and anterior deltoids.

A wider grip works a greater range of chest, and the trapezius muscles. A reverse grip where you palm face towards your face engage more of the upper chest

Pressing on an Incline or Decline bench
Working on an incline (with the shoulders higher than the hips) engages more of the shoulders compared to a flat bench.

A decline bench is the opposite, and engages more of pec minor. Typically, both of these variations are performed at a lower weight than a classic flat bench press.

Dumbbell Bench press
Dumbbells add a unique twist to all training. In fact, training with dumbbells alone is a great challenge. Dumbbells isolate each arm, forcing them to work extra hard to achieve the goal. Press with dumbbells to improve stability in the shoulder by working all of the tiny muscles that hold your shoulder together.

Dumbbell bench press is also a great way to warm up for barbell pressing, especially for people who have current or previous imbalances.

Single dumbbell bench press
Adding yet another layer of difficulty would be to perform bench with just one arm at a time. This leaves the lifter with nothing to laterally balance your body on the bench. Single arm bench is a great way to work through core weaknesses and wake up postural muscles.

Bench press must be an integral part of your workout as it is the staple exercise for upper body strength. George Hackenschmidt, who is the inventor of hack squat, performed first bench press in 1899. He loaded the bar with 164KGs, rolled it over his head and pressed it from the floor. This is how the question “How much can you bench bro” started.