Arguably the most popular strength exercise, especially amongst high school boys, is the bench press. Go to any commercial gym during the summer and the bench will be the most used piece of equipment for the next three months.
With its more frequent use so comes the increasing number of technically terrible sets and reps. It is not uncommon to see a kid load up a bar with more weight than they can handle, receive a poor handoff from their spotter and after a bounce off their chest with shaky arms and tap dancing feet, try and press the weight back up. I once saw a young guy get pinned with 95lbs and after his three spotters pulled the weight off him they were all so embarrassed they ran away never to perform another set that evening.
Now there are tons of articles about bench pressing out and about on the internet; I even received two this past week in my inbox from popular trainers; however most of the articles talk about how to increase your bench press giving minimal attention to technique. You can throw as much weight as you want on the bar, try wave loading cycles, use bands and chains and even do heavy eccentric work but without the technical basics you won’t get anywhere but a trip to the hospital with a jacked shoulder or torn tendon.
In this article I am going to focus only on the set up and technique of bench pressing. Build a solid foundation around these principles and then the numbers will follow.
These technical principals are not restricted to just the bench press; utilize them for your dumbbell pressing and chest flyes as well.
Set it up Right
Before you can press any weight off your body it is important that you are set up properly. When you lay down on the bench, I prefer that your eyes should be directly in-line with the bar you are about to press. Many try to line their chest up with the bar but after it is unracked in this position you may hit the rack when you press if your head is too far behind the bar.
Your feet should be rooted into the ground. Read that last sentence again. Not tap dancing around or, heaven forbid, on the bench to keep your back flat, They should be firmly on the ground and ready to help support the lift and add pressing power.
Hand spacing is a matter of personal preference. Some like a narrow grip because they can generate more power and some like a wide grip because the bar has to travel a smaller distance. Both have their pros and cons. I say find a zone where you can be the most powerful and maintain proper technique. You can get a rough idea about where this is by standing up and placing your arms in a position where you would push someone who weighs 100lbs. more than you. This is most likely the spot where you feel the most powerful and should work well for bench pressing.
One more note about the hands, I would prefer you use a true grip where your thumbs are wrapped around the handle. I find this to be a safer position, minimizing the chance the bar comes down on your neck; also you will be able to grip the bar more and activate more muscle for strength. Save the false (thumbless) grip for the professional powerlifters who choose to use it.
Pinch Those Shoulder Blades
One of the most common complaints I hear about bench pressing is when people say the movement hurts their shoulder. After watching their technique it is easy to see why; their shoulders are not stable and flopping around while performing the movement.
The fix is pretty simple: pinch the shoulder blades together. Pinch them to the point where they are not only touching each other but where they are also contacting the bench itself. The set up itself is not difficult to achieve, however it is maintaining this position that gets challenging.
Practice only with weight and within repetitions where you can maintain this position. You may have to initially use a lighter weight than you are used to but mastering this technique will not only make you a stronger presser down the road, it will also save your shoulders in the process.
The pinch also allows the elbows to stay closer to the body which, when practiced, makes your press stronger and safer than having the elbows pointed perpendicular to the body. If the weight is too heavy for you there will be a tendency to lose the proper shoulder position and the elbows will flare outward to press the weight back up.
Do not worry about the increased arch in the lower back; this is a positive result, especially when protected properly. The next section will tell you exactly how to do so.
Put the Squeeze On
Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my athletes in the gym to “keep their butts tight.” I am firm believer that the butt protects the low back. By keeping the glutes clenched not only will you keep your hips stable, therefore protecting your low back, but it also creates more tension to move heavier weight.
As far as grip on the bar is concerned, one of the best ways to activate more muscles and move more weight is to create tension. Grip the bar strong, as if you are going to crush it, when you bench press. The wrapped thumb around the bar is a good way to apply maximal tension on the bar for bigger, safer presses.
Compress the Spring
It is not uncommon for many novice pressers to focus solely on the concentric (upward) portion of the lift. They usually do one of two things: literally drop the weight too fast towards the chest and try and press it up or shorten the range of motion so much that they don’t get the weight anywhere near the chest so they can get it back to the top position.
I tell all of my athletes to think about lifting in two directions. In the bench press you want to set up properly and use your back muscles to pull the bar towards the chest. This creates tension in the pressing muscles which is like a loaded spring that can be used to drive the weight back to the top.
Press in a Straight Line
Once you are all set up it is time to press. Pressing in a straight line is important for a good lift. It is common for someone to press back towards the head as if to rack the weight however when you press the bar back you lose your proper set up and it can be disastrous for your shoulders.
Get your set up, have a spotter help you with the bar placement, pick a line or focus point above you and press within that straight line. When the lift is complete, have the spotter help you rack the weight.
There you have some tips to help your set up for successful bench pressing. Check the video below for visual demonstrations of techniques described above.