Bench Press Overview
Movement Class: Compound exercise
Workout Importance: A
Primary Target: Chest
Secondary Targets: Front shoulders and triceps
Variations: Dumbbell bench press, dumbbell and barbell incline bench press, dumbbell and barbell decline bench press, close grip bench press, pin press, board press, floor press
The bench press is a staple strength and muscle mass building exercise for both powerlifters and bodybuilders. Bodybuilders tend to approach the bench press with a looser form, and perform it with a focus on chest stimulation.
Powerlifters, on the other hand, are all about moving heavy weight. This may seem like a contradictory statement – as the bench press is often held up as the exercise of manliness – but few intermediate and beginning bodybuilders have a grasp of basic bench press setup, form and execution.
Watch several bench press training videos of top name powerlifters. You will see that they tend to lower the weight to a point below the chest. Bodybuilders generally lower the weight to the chest. Keep in mind that this is not a criticism of bodybuilders (by any means). Bodybuilders are all about packing on chest muscle mass. With that said, a more concerted focus on form can – and will – benefit a bodybuilder and his shoulders as he enters his late 30’s, and beyond.
The Bench Press
- Grab the bar with a comfortable grip, not too wide or narrow. Make sure you wrap your thumbs around the bar. An open-palmed grip is dangerous. Your elbows should be directly below your wrists.
- Get decent foot placement. Leg drive is an underused aspect of bench pressing. Your feet will need to push off – or drive as you begin the pressing motion.
- Pull yourself slightly up towards the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and then lower your upper back and traps back down to the bench. It should feel like you are resting your upper body weight upon your traps/upper back.
- Keep your shoulder blades tight, and slowly lower the bar. Visualize yourself bending the ends of the bar together along the horizontal plane. This technique will train you to keep your elbows in proper alignment. Also, by holding the bar with this pressure, you are tightening your grip on the bar, as well as putting yourself in the position to lower the barbell to a location below your pecs.
- With the bar on the chest, it’s time to initiate the lift. Push off with your legs and explode the bar upwards along a natural, comfortable plane. Make sure that your shoulder blades are still tight and compressed. Lifting with your shoulder blades apart creates a longer travel, and restricts the weight you can press. It’s also a good idea to get in the habit of visualizing the back’s involvement with the bench press. Back development, and use, is a key ingredient in boosting your bench press totals.
Please note that this is a complete analysis of the bench press movement. It is best to learn from books, videos, and websites as you hone your form. The above information is a very good start.
Bench Press Tips
Warm up. Do not rush into heavier sets without properly warming up on the bench press. Failure to do so could lead to shoulder and chest strains and muscle tears.
Get a Spotter. Too many things can go wrong when benching. Get a spotter. Don’t end up like one of those Youtube videos where it takes the guy 10 minutes to get the weight off his chest.
Collars. Use collars when you bench. Any form of collar will do. Even a slight amount of plate sliding can throw the bench press out of whack and cause an injury.
The Face Press. Don’t press the weight to your upper chest or face. This is a highly controversial form of the bench press, and can only do more harm then good.
Elbows. Don’t bench press with your elbows flared out 90 degrees from your body. This is a good way to mess up your shoulders.
A Big Butt. Keep your big butt on the bench. The pressing motion becomes very unstable if your plump rump isn’t firmly planted.
Muscles. The bench press movement utilizes the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, long head of biceps brachii and coracobrachialis to flex the shoulder. It also uses predominately triceps brachii and anconeous to produce elbow extension. Wider hand spacing creates larger emphasis on shoulder flexion and narrower hand spacing utilizes more elbow extension. Because of this a wider spacing is associated with working pectorals and narrower hand spacing is associated with working triceps.
In addition to the major phasic (dynamic) muscles the bench press also uses tonic (stabilizing) muscles: scapular stabilizers (serratus anterior, middle and inferior trapezius), humeral head stabilizers (rotator cuff muscles), and core (transverse abdominis, obliques, multifidus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum).Because the bench press is a large, compound exercise it should be completed early in a exercise session to ensure fatigue of one component does not limit the entire exercise (for example doing elbow extension before this exercise would fatigue the triceps and lead to under performance of the bench press).
Bench Press Variations. Bench press works primarily to build the chest. Variations work different subgroups of muscles, or work the same muscles in different ways:
Angle. A weight lifter can bench press on a flat bench, incline, or decline
* The flat bench press works the mid portion of the pectoralis major muscle as well as the anterior deltoid muscle. If ‘bench press’ is used, it is generally assumed to be a flat bench press.
* An incline elevates the shoulders and lowers the pelvis as if reclining in a chair; this variation works the upper portion of the chest and deltoid. This is referred to as an incline press or incline bench press. Anecdotally this emphasises the upper fibres of the pectorials and middle deltoid.
* A decline bench press elevates the pelvis and lowers the head, and works the lower portion of the chest and deltoid. This is called a decline press or decline bench press.
Stability. A lifter can do certain things to destabilize their lifting. Examples include lifting on a swiss ball, using dumbbells instead of a barbell, or not using the legs to stabilize oneself on the bench. Narrowing the leg position or bringing the feet onto the bench are other examples of ways a lifter can destabilize the movement, and lessen the amount of weight they can safely press.
* Varying the width of the grip can shift stress between pectorals and triceps. A wide grip focuses on the pectorals. A narrow, shoulder width grip focuses more on the triceps.
* Using different lifting impliments can alter the stress on a lifter’s grips, a lifter can extend or flex the wrist while lifting.
Chains and Bands. A lifter can use chains and bands to increase their bench press (much like other lifts). This is popular amongst those training for power lifting. These give a ‘resistance curve’ where it is harder to lock out the press. It allows a lifter to bypass weakness in the muscle while stretched and to focus on lockout strength, primarily a triceps issue.
Possible Injuries. Incorrect form may lead to multiple types of injuries:
* Torn ligaments/tendons in shoulders.
* Back injuries due to bridging, which is the arching of the lower back turning the bench press into the decline press. To prevent bridging, compress the stomach muscles to force the lower back down, or bring legs up and lie flat on the bench.
* Injuries to the trapezius muscle.
* Elbow/wrist strains.
* Cracked or broken ribs, usually the result of bouncing the bar off of the chest to add momentum to the lift or a loss of strength causing the bar to fall onto the chest.
How to Bench Press the Correct Way, from the Diesel Crew
Mark Rippetoe: Bench Press Positioning