Fitness Friday: How to do the bench press

Right or wrong, the bench press has become one of the main measures of upper body strength. But the fact is, it is also a solid way to build upper body strength and pack on some muscle. Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer photo/via Wikipedia Commons

In the hierarchy of lifts, it’s difficult to say where the bench press sits.

On one hand, it’s one of several methods used to test college athletes invited to the NFL combine each spring. Football players are measured for performance, and one of the tests is to see of many times they can bench press 225 pounds.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what “real world” application the bench press has. A lot of strength coaches will look at lifts like the squat, deadlift, overhead press and clean as better “real world” indicators of strength and performance than the bench, mostly because there is no activity you do that resembles the bench press exercise.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was sort of a gym bro joke that people would be judged with this simple question: “How much ya bench?” And it would often be asked by dudes could rattle some plates on the bench press, but looked like they skipped leg day on the reg.

So why is it still a thing? I’d say the answer is two-fold. First, it’s easy to learn and do, and much less “work” than heavy deadlifts or squats. That’s just the nature of upper body exercises. Second, the bench press works a good number of muscles, including the chest, shoulders and triceps. You get a lot of bang for the buck from the bench.

So, it’s not a great measurement of overall strength. But it is a tool that you can use to strengthen your upper body. So, let’s look at how this thing works.

THE BENCH PRESS SETUP

Unlike other barbell exercises, the rack (in this case, the bench itself) plays a big role. It acts as your backside’s “floor,” but also gives you the support and range of motion needed to fully execute the move.

Lay down on the bench, lining up to where your eyes are just about level with the bar. This will allow you to execute the lift without the bar hitting the uprights and any safety prongs that are attached to the upright posts of the bench.

Grab the bar with a tight grip, with your hands more than shoulder-width apart. Your arms should line up in a way in which your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Where your hands are on the bar will depends greatly on how long your arms are, so adjust accordingly.

Your feet should be firmly on the floor. You want your quads to feel slightly tight in this position. My cue is this: I put my toes on the floor until I can feel that tightness in my quads. Then I force my heels down. This will make my lower back arch somewhat and will also arch my chest a little. But my butt remains firmly planted on the bench, and that’s where it should stay for the entirety of the lift.

Now that your feet are set and you’ve gripped the bar, pinch your shoulder blades inward slightly. Once you’ve done this, unrack the bar and have it lined up with the bottom half of your pecs. You’re ready to begin the lift.

EXECUTING THE LIFT

Lower the weight under control to where it touches your chest. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest; just lightly touch it. Once the bar has made contact with your chest, press the bar straight back up. You don’t want to lift in an arc toward your eyes, because if something goes wrong and you can’t get the bar racked safety, it could come crashing down on your head. No bueno.

Something to watch: Your arms should be positioned in a way that they are somewhat edging toward a 45-degree angle toward your waist, meaning that the point of your elbows should be about the same level as where the bar touches your chest. Don’t let your elbows flare out to where they are even with your shoulders. You lose a lot of power that way and put tremendous strain on your shoulder sockets.

When you are doing the last rep of your set, go straight up with the bar (just like every other rep), maintain a locked-out position, and then rerack the bar. Remember, you don’t want to do that last rep with the bar heading toward the rack. That’s how accidents happen.

A CAUTION

It goes without saying that every big compound lift comes with the risk of injury. Most bench press injuries happen in the shoulder sockets, and sometime occur with pec tears.

But in terms of real risk to your life, the bench press is unique. Of all the lifts, this is the one where people have suffered the most fatal injuries. This most often happens when a fatigued lifter, or someone who tries too much weight, cannot successfully complete the lift and has the bar come down on their neck or skull. If no one is there to help the stranded lifter, that person could have a couple hundred pounds or more crushing vital areas of their neck or head. So, if you’re going to challenge yourself with heavier weight or a bunch of reps, ask for a spotter. If you’re lifting alone and there’s no one there to help you, understand that you might need to dump the bar off to the side and wriggle out from underneath it, but just make sure it doesn’t come back toward your head and neck. Better yet, if you’re lifting alone, weigh the risks of what you’re trying to do and be conservative. No rep is worth your life.

DON’T CHEAT

I mentioned some of this earlier, but I want to reiterate those things again when it comes to proper form on the bench. More than any other compound lift, this is the easiest one in which to cheat. Keep in mind that the more you cheat, the less you get out of the exercise.

So, when you’re lifting, don’t bounce the bar off your chest. That extra rebound will allow you to “lift” more, but it will also rob you of potential performance gains. A light touch of the bar on your chest will do. And if you choose to compete, you’ll be required to let the bar come to a complete stop on your chest before you push it back up. Otherwise, three red lights and a no-go.

Also, keep that butt on the bench. If it come off the bench, you’re cheating.

With that in mind, please be aware that if we see you bouncing 350 pounds off your chest with your butt in the air, we’re not impressed. We’re inwardly laughing at you. It ain’t a PR if your chest is used as a trampoline for the bar.

There are other form quirks that aren’t necessarily “cheating,” but I’d steer clear from. One is the thumbless grip. Wrap that thumb around the bar. This is a safety thing. They don’t call the thumbless thing a “suicide grip” for nothing. And, you may have seen people lay on the bench with their feet on the bench pad by their butt, or even in the air with their shins crossed. I get that this is a way to keep your butt firmly planted, but this move will limit how tight you can get when executing the lift, and thus limit how much you can press. Keep those feet planted.

Here’s another great video on how to bench press properly. Watch and learn!

Next week: Let’s talk about the quirky world of Swiss balls, Bosu balls and wobble boards. Does unstable surface training actually work?

Bob Doucette

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