Benching seems simple – just grab the bar and start pressing, aiming not to crush your own rib-cage. Before we move on, here are the basics:
- Lie flat on your back on a bench
- Grip the bar just wider than shoulder-width apart, so when you’re at the bottom of your move your hands are directly above your elbows. This allows for maximum force generation.
- Bring the bar gently down to your chest as you breathe in.
- Push up and breath out to create a natural arch so the bar rests just above your chin.
Simple, right? But in reality, a few simple tweaks can make all the difference between a pigeon chest and blown rotator cuffs, and an impressive bench. Here are some technique tips for correct form along with a few variations for you to try.
Bench Press Tips
“Bodybuilders aiming to recruit the pectoralis major often flare the elbows,” says trainer Will Purdue, “but that can strain the rotator cuffs. For athleticism and power, keeping your elbows bent at a 45˚ angle recruits more of the lats and triceps.”
Grip it good
“A wide grip targets the pecs,” says trainer Robert Kane. “A closer grip focuses on the triceps. For heavy weights, keep your hands in line with your elbows to recruit optimum power from both. On a heavy set, squeeze the bar as hard as possible for a second or two before taking it out of the rack – according to the principle of irradiation, this’ll fire up the surrounding muscles and allow you to lift heavier. Oh, and don’t forget the rule of thumb: wrap them around the bar. Some lifters use a thumbless grip, but it’s nicknamed the ‘suicide’ grip for a reason.”
Get in line
The bar should be in line with your nipples for optimal pressing. And yes, it should touch your chest on every rep, but it shouldn’t bounce. Think about touching the bar to your T-shirt but not your chest, and you’ll get the requisite soft touch. And experiment with using a pause at the bottom occasionally – as well as improving your explosive strength from the bottom, it‘s essential if you ever want to compete in powerlifting.
Keep them straight. Letting them bend back might feel more natural, but it takes the bar out of line with your forearms, making it hard to lift big weights.
Some people keep them up in an effort to work the core, but it just ruins your balance, increases your risk of injury, and forces you to lift less. Keep your feet on the floor – when you’re pressing as heavy as possible, you’ll be able to drive through them to generate more force.”
Back in action
Squeezing your lats together will give you a solid platform to press from, and so having a solid upper back is just as essential to a big bench as strong triceps and pecs. Add bent-over rows to your upper-body day to strengthen up this vital area.
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How to Avoid Damaging Your Shoulders
We asked Dan Roberts, former athlete and trainer to film stars, models and other PTs, what to do if you’re worried that bench pressing is ruining your shoulders.
The classic answer would be to do more pulling movements – face pulls and pull-aparts especially – but that’s not the whole story. If you’re developing a hunch, then focus on correcting the bench-press movement itself, so that you can do it damage-free.
Try this: lie on a foam roller so that it’s running down the length of your spine. Focus on “pinching” it with your shoulder blades, so that you almost feel as if you could grip it and pull it off the ground, then get a spotter to pass you a pair of fairly light dumbbells – about 50% of what you’d usually bench. Use them to do a couple of sets of five, and this will “cue” your shoulders into the right position for the rest of your bench session.
How to Boost Your Bench Press
Here are PT Olly Foster’s top three tips.
- Level up: “Lowering the bar to nipple level allows you to lift the heaviest weight because it keeps your shoulder and elbow joints in their strongest and most stable position.”
- Get engaged: “Bracing your core, tensing your lats and glutes, and arching your lower back will increase how much weight you can put on the bar by keeping your body as stable as possible.”
- Breathe easy: “Inhaling deeply as you lower the bar then exhaling forcefully as you press it back up will keep your torso stable, so lifting a heavy weight feels slightly easier.”
But what do you do if you’ve done all of the above and you’re still stuck on a bench press plateau? The key is to work the muscle groups used for the bench independently so you can build strength in all of them before bringing them back into play as a collective unit for the bog standard flat bench. Here are a few moves you can do and why they’ll help you bench more than you thought possible.
Dumbbell bench press
By making each arm deal with exactly the same amount of weight you build more balanced strength for the barbell bench press. What’s more this double weight move forces you engage your core more than you would when using a barbell so means you’re more in control when you come to do the one weight version.
How to do it
- Lie flat on a bench with your feet on either side and a dumbbell held above each shoulder.
- Push your feet into the floor and press up explosively until your arms are fully extended.
- Lower slowly under control, keeping your head, upper back and glutes on the bench throughout the move.
Shoulder injuries are common during heavy bench sessions but you can protect them by making them stronger – which is exactly what the Bradford press does. It’s part military press, part behind the head shoulder press and will work the anterior, posterior and medial deltoids of your shoulder so they’re fully activated and ready to cope with the strain of benching. Do it as a warm-up before benching – one set of 20 light reps, two sets of ten heavier reps will do the job.
How to do it
- Stand with your feet close together and barbell help against the top of your chest with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press it up explosively until your arms are straight.
- Lower it behind your back until it’s sitting on your traps.
- Reverse the move.
When you bench you should be transferring power from your legs through your core and up to your chest to help stabilise the movement. Your glutes are your biggest muscles in your legs so a lot of the power will come from them. And you’ll need to keep them tensed for a significant period of time during each rep of the bench press, which means you should be doing moves that keep them under tension for a comparable amount of time. Deadlifts do just that.
How to do it
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lower into a deep squat and grip a barbell just wider than shoulder-width apart with an alternate grip.
- Pushing your chest forward and keeping your back straight stand up, driving through your heels and pushing your hips forward as your reach the top of the move.
- Lower the bar back to the ground under control.
Bench Press Variations
Ballistic bench press
Push the bar up explosively, as if you were trying to throw it off you, but keep it under control. This fires up your fast-twitch muscle fibres.
Smith machine press
The machine locks the bar into a path so you can concentrate on pressing the maximum weight in safety. Make sure you position the bench so the bar is over your chest and push the bar up faster than you let it drop down.