Bench Press…You’re Doing It Wrong!

There are a few things that are guaranteed in life….death, taxes, and crowded bench press on Monday. The slogan of international chest day has surely taken hold and is a staple for any gym goer. Why? I think people flock to this exercise because its simple, the ladies love the pecs, and lets face it, a big bench press is just plain awesome and gains you bragging rights over all the other alphas in the gym. It is a sure thing that no one skips chest day and the most famous question of “how much ya bench” is always going to be one of the most important.

Now, any of us who take this stuff (way too) seriously know the true complications behind this widely recognized movement. BUT, we have all seen the guy who throws on a few plates, yells a little bit while head-bangin’ to that techno blaring in his headphones, clearly drawing attention to himself, only to un-rack a weight that is about 150% of his true max. “That guy” moves the bar down a few inches and slams it back up…basking in the glory of his new PR. His buddies, who would never set off the lunk alarm, join him in the celebration. The same buddy who uses his chest as a trampoline when bench pressing probably put in a fair amount of effort spotting this lift as well.

If that’s you and you’re proud of your progress thus far, good for you. But for those who want to make serious progress on this lift or have aspirations to compete in some sort of a contest, lets take a look at the proper way to perform a bench press. In a short summary, there are a few important rules to follow if you’re getting ready to compete. The absolute first thing when performing any lift is safety. The technicality behind this exercise is designed to help you stay safe and perform the lift as effectively as possible.

So, Lets get technical:

  1. The first things to think of with the bench press are the points of contact. In general, your head/shoulders, butt, and feet need to stay down. The bench guy we mentioned before is most likely firing his butt of the bench, moving his feet, or lifting uneven and uncontrolled. Its simple, If your butt comes off the bench, your getting a no lift.
  1. Next is knowing your bar. I’m sure if we polled most gym rats, they would have no idea why the ring/marks on the bar are there. Most feds will not allow you to have a grip wider than these marks on the bar. According to the IPF, this grip width cannot exceed 81 cm. No suicide grip is allowed. This is for your SAFETY first and foremost. For further evidence of this, YouTube bench press fails and you’ll surely see what I mean.
  1. Now, know the range of motion! For those of us who have a hard time remembering what to do, a ref will let you know. The simple steps to the movement of the bench come in the form of the commands of “Start, Press, Rack” Simple right?

Begin with elbows straight.

“Start” or “Lift”= Lower the bar in a controlled manner to the chest (where the bar will briefly pause)

“Press” = you guessed it, press the weight to fully extended locked out position

“Rack” = The bar then returns with the rack.

These are the basic things to know when getting involved in a “real” bench press movement. Know your body position, know your grip, and know the range of motion. Not everyone will follow this but that’s ok because you’re going to be better off for it in the long run.

Now that you’re doing it right, lets focus on some common ways to avoid injury. Your shoulders are probably the first thing that are going to rebel against you if you start being lackadaisical with your form. Speaking from experience on this one, so don’t try to learn first hand. Stay tight and stay right!

Tip #1: Keep your elbows tucked in! You’ve probably heard this before and for good reason. Flaring your elbows out puts stress on the shoulders, and they will hate you for this, especially when you start going heavy. There are so many more muscles involved with this movement other than the “chest.” Isolation of the pecs from flared elbows can cause serious injury. Focus on pinning the elbows in as you bring the bar down into the body. Be smart. Be strong, Be safe!

Tip #2: Don’t Bench Press. Well, not exclusively. Use other exercises to supplement this power movement such as dumbbell presses, incline presses, and other accessory/mobility exercises associated with the shoulders and chest. The first time I broke into the 400 lbs range on bench, my prior max was 365 lbs., where I had plateaued for quite some time. I got away from strict barbell benching and when I came back, 405 lbs was all mine. Sometime focusing on similar movements or variations of the lift will address weaknesses or inefficiencies in your patterns and allow for you to break through plateaus easier.

Tip #3: Don’t get hung up on a number. This is part of that grind that we all love. When I hit my first plateau I was so focused on breaking 400lbs that I benched, and benched and benched. I’m sure it would have eventually came but you need to focus on the programming and techniques that would help me get those. Remember that small increases (even if they are 1%) are more of an increase then you had the day before. Know when to fight for that precious improvement and know when it’s just not your time and live to fight another day. Lowering weight and getting some drop sets focusing on technique or obtaining extra tonnage isn’t a bad option for those rough days where heavy just isn’t happening.

Tip #4:  Do not be afraid of technology.  One word of advice on this matter…Buy a Slingshot.  This has been the single best tool I have invested in to improve my bench press. The purpose of this tool is to allow the lifter to overload the bench press with additional volume and reps while not increasing the amount of torque and pressure on the shoulders and elbows during the movement. Many folks with shoulder/elbow pain from pressing have reported using this tool with great results.  There are wide variety of slingshots on the site that all serve a purpose.  I use the “reactive” slingshot, but assess your needs and get what works best for the goals you are trying to achieve.

Tip #5: Don’t be that guy. Be open to advice and critiques and surround yourself with opinions and mentors who are better than you. No matter how much you have learned or think you know, chances are there is someone out there that can help you move on to the next level. Contrary to popular belief the strength community is riddled with guys and girls that are very welcoming and willing to help new lifters out in terms of achieving their goals.  Never be satisfied with your progress but don’t let your pride/stubbornness prevent you from improving.

With that being said, you should have a good base, there are many different causes for disqualification in this lift. A simple Google search will bring up a list and videos examples. Some of the most common DQs are failure to listen to commands, bouncing the bar, lifting a point of contact, or losing upward motion of the bar after the press has been initiated. This simple summary should get you going in the right direction with your bench press, and please take care to not be “that guy” on International chest day.



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