Barbell Bench Press

by Dennis Bradford

in physical well-being

For most trainees the barbell bench press is an excellent upper body exercise.

Perhaps because it’s done lying flat on your back, it’s certainly a popular exercise! Although it’s more important to master squats or deadlifts, “How much can you bench?” is a much more popular question than either “How much can you squat?” or “How much can you deadlift?”

It’s a more productive exercise for some than for others. Differences in individual body structure matter a lot when benching. For example, long arms are a real disadvantage.

Regardless of your natural leverage, if you use proper exercise technique and some auxiliary exercises, your pectorals, deltoids, triceps, and upper back muscles will really benefit.

Either master perfect barbell bench press technique or don’t do them.

The reason for this is simple: they are the most deadly weight lifting exercise. If you mess up your technique on other exercises, you might strain or sprain or even break something or blow out a joint. If you drop a loaded barbell onto your throat when doing a barbell bench press, you could kill yourself. Sadly, many have.

There’s more to mastering barbell bench press technique that you might initially think.

If you are a beginner, if you are breathing correctly during the exercise and a day or two afterwards experiencing some DOMS [delayed onset muscular soreness] in your pectorals, you are doing alright. The initial task is to master barbell bench press technique sufficiently well so that you do them safely and also avoid becoming a shoulder bench presser.

If you don’t have spotters, only do benches inside a power rack with properly positioned safety bars (or something similar like squat stands or a half rack).

Use a horizontal bench with a straight barbell. Center the bench between the weight supports so that (i) you won’t hit them when moving the bar up or down and (ii) you minimize how far you have to move the bar horizontally when racking or unracking it.

When racked the bar may be directly above your nose or forehead – it depends upon what works best for you. The safety bars should be set so that they are about one inch below your inflated chest when you are in position. Use an unloaded bar to ensure that everything is adjusted properly.

Lie back on the bench under the bar with your feet flat on the floor and wider than your shoulders. Your heels should be directly under your knees; do not bring them closer to your head or you will tend to arch your back too much. Do not lift your heels off the floor when doing a barbell bench press or otherwise squirm around.

Grip width is important. Ensure that your hands are exactly equidistant from the center of the bar. How wide is the correct grip?

When you lower the empty bar to your lower pecs, have someone ensure that your forearms are vertical when viewed both from the side and from your feet; in other words, your elbows should be directly under your wrists.

Remember that hand position and always use it. Never use a grip that is too wide. Why? It’s important always to think long term in the gym, which is why you should always leave your ego at the door; a wider grip is more likely to cause shoulder or pec problems over time.

Adult men may start with a grip that is 18” between the hands and adjust it from there. Adult women may start with a grip that is 14”.

Use whichever grip you prefer. You’ll probably want to wrap your thumbs under and around the bar like powerlifters always do. On the other hand, a thumbless grip will give you less control over the bar, but that will force you to have better bar balance and may keep you from spraining a thumb.

Keep your wrists rigid throughout the movement. Using wrist wraps [not straps] is a good idea.

To begin the movement, fill your belly with air, raise the bar off the pins and lock out your arms with the bar steady above your chest.

Pull your shoulders back and immediately lower the bar under control to your lower pecs just below your nipples. Keep your elbows slightly tucked on the way down. Do not drop the bar. The descent should take 2 or 3 seconds.

Never bounce the bar off your chest.

Touch your chest with the bar and, after a moment, push it back up as you exhale. Keep your elbows tucked as you drive the bar off the bottom but allow them to flare out about halfway up. Keep your shoulders back and your chest spread throughout the movement.

Never lift your butt off the bench.

Never lower the bar to your throat or high on your chest.

Depending upon which feels best for you, the bar will rise vertically or at a slight diagonal (with two to four inches of horizontal movement) towards your head.

Unless it is your last rep or you are deliberately using a rest-pause technique, do not lock our your arms at the top. Go to just below lock-out and begin another rep.

If you fail to complete a rep, simply lower the bar to your chest, exhale, and slide out to the side.

The worst mistake with respect to doing a barbell bench press is to stop breathing, which can cause you to black out and drop the bar on your throat. Don’t.

The second worst mistake is to fail on a barbell bench press rep outside a power rack and without spotters. If you ever have to roll a loaded barbell down your chest and stomach to get out from under it, you won’t do that again.

What about sets and reps?

A classic way to train is to do 5 sets of 5 reps. The first two sets are really warm-up sets. Increase the weight for each set and do as many reps as possible on your last set while maintaining perfect exercise technique.

What about auxiliary exercises?

Probably the best are other kinds of bench presses (such as dumbbell bench presses), military presses, dips, chins (or pull-downs), and bent over dumbbell rows.

If you follow these guidelines, progress slowly, and train regularly and intensely, you may soon be able to do a barbell bench press with your bodyweight – or, even better, double that!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mick LaFever October 25, 2011 at 9:44 am

Dennis, Great informative article! Also, Tricep press downs on the Lat pull down machine are a good auxillary excercise to improve your bench press. Your pecs are the muscles to power the weight off your chest (get it moving) & the triceps kick in & take over more & more as the weight rises. Powerful triceps are a key to big bench press numbers. Grip consistency can’t be stressed enough. Even the slightest variation will change your bench press ability. It’s good to train with grip variations (distance the hands are apart on the bar) but always use the same grip for heavy weights & one rep maximums. If you have training partners, lowering a heavier weight then you can press will get your muscles used to the heavier weight & assist in building them to eventually press it. I think it was Mike Metzler? who years ago stressed that system & promoted it. I used that technique back in the 80s to break through some plateaus & make numbers gains. Thanks & Power On!

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D. October 25, 2011 at 10:29 am

Thank you, Mick. (Mick is a friend of mine who once won the European powerlifting champtionship with something like a 2000 pound total! [A “total” is the sum of a powerlifting competitor’s best single bench press, deadlift, and squat.])

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D. October 25, 2011 at 10:37 am

Mick’s suggestions are very important and useful. He’s absolutely correct. Exercises that strengthen your triceps will really help your bench press numbers; triceps pushdowns are an excellent exercise to strengthen your triceps. Negatives (lowering a heavy bar slowly, then having spotters raise it so you can lower it again) are such an important training technique that I intend sometime to do a blog post just on that technique. As he says, it’s a great technique for breaking through a plateau.

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