How to do Bench Press

How do I properly perform a basic bench press?

This is not a bodybuilding bench press, nor a power lifting bench press. This is a basic bench press.

1) Lie flat on the bench, ensuring that you are evenly balanced from left to right.

2) Keep your feet on the floor at all times and don’t move them. Don’t lift your feet in the air or rest them on the bench. Your knees should be bent at approximately 90 degrees and your feet should be on either side of the bench with your legs spread at approximately 30 degrees to either side. Find a comfortable stance and foot width and maintain it throughout the motion.

3) Your glutes should stay in contact with the bench at all times and should be contracted during all repetitions to help maintain a stable base.

4) Tuck your shoulder blades underneath your body and pinch them together and down. This will elevate the rib cage and stabilize the shoulder girdle. Maintain this state of tightness in your upper back/traps during all repetitions. This will create a natural arch in the lower back and will create a stable platform out of your upper back muscles for you to press from. This is called “shoulder joint retraction” and will keep your rotator cuff happy when benching.

5) Without allowing your shoulders to roll forward/upward and lose tightness, reach up with each hand and grasp it equidistant from the center of the bar. Use the outer “smooth ring” as a reference point. You should use a hand spacing that places your pinkies within an inch or 2 of the smooth ring depending on the length of your arms. Wrap your thumbs around the bar and allow the bar to rest along the heel of the hand, rather than up near the knuckles.

6) Unrack the bar and move it so that the bar is directly over your lower chest area. Do not unrack the bar and immediately lower it to your chest from the rack in a diagonal line.

7) With the bar directly above your lower chest area, take a deep breath, maintain tightness in the upper back, and “pull” the bar to your chest in a controlled fashion. Your elbows should not flare or tuck excessively. Ideally, your upper arm bones will form an angle that is approximately 40-60 degrees from your torso. If your elbows flare out wide to the sides then you hit your pecs incredibly hard at the risk of your rotator cuffs’ health. If your elbows tuck into your body (20-30 degree angle) then you will place too much emphasis on your triceps and delts, and not enough on your pecs.

8) Touch the bar to your chest. TOUCH, not bounce.

9) Press steadily and evenly to complete lockout without hyperextending your elbows or lifting your shoulders from the bench.

10) On the final repetition of the set, do NOT press directly toward the rack. The last rep should look identical to the first. Once you lockout the final repetition directly above your lower chest, then allow the bar to fall back toward the rack.

Can I do bench presses without having my thumbs wrapped around the bar, i.e. a “false” or “thumbless” grip?

The thumbless grip is used by people who have issues with their wrists. This can be fixed by resting the bar along the heel of your hands and wrapping your thumb properly around the bar, rather than holding the bar up near the knuckles, which will cause the wrist to bend backward uncomfortably.

The thumbless grip can also be dangerous:

There have been actual instances of people dying from dropping the bar on themselves while bench pressing with a thumbless grip.

Should I do inclines instead of flat bench? I don’t want to overdevelop my lower pecs or injure my shoulder

The over-development of the lower pectoral and the possibility for shoulder injury are not things that a lifter need concern himself with as long as technique is proper.

The incline press is an outstanding exercise and is encouraged as training and conditioning progresses, but the potential pectoral and strength development of the flat barbell bench press is higher than the incline press As such, use of the flat press should be thoroughly explored before making the decision to refocus your supine pressing efforts elsewhere.

As for the shoulder injury issue, the most pectoral tears occur in one of the following scenarios

  • The injured party uses steroids and has developed his strength faster than connective tissues can safely support
  • The injured party uses weights that are too heavy and uses them too often
  • The injured party uses poor technique, bouncing the weight off his chest
  • The injured party has poorly developed upper back musculature, which makes all supine pressing a relatively precarious activity

Should I pause while benching?

Pausing at the chest during a bench press is the primary technique adjustment of the power lifter. In order to get “3 whites” the power lifter must lower the bar to the chest and hold it there briefly until the official signals the press. For a power lifter, it is a necessity to pause the bench press during a contest.

During training, there are advantages and disadvantages to pausing (or not pausing). For now, those advantages and disadvantages are irrelevant. Lower the bar to your lower pectoral region and touch very lightly without bouncing. Don’t worry about pausing.

What are the most common errors in benching, and why do they occur?

1) Hip hop bench press – This occurs because you shorten the ROM by several inches when you pop your hips off the bench, and also allows for hip drive to actually assist. You won’t see too many people doing a “hip hop” without doing a bounce off their chest.

This results in the joyously humorous movement known as the “Hip Hop Bounce press”. Don’t correct people that do this. You can’t fix stupid.

2) Bouncing – This occurs because people want to be able to use stretch reflex as well as the flexibility and rebound properties of the sternum and rib cage to help get the bar up. The alternative, doing it properly and using their pectorals, delts and lats, obviously isn’t their preferred method.

3) Lifting one leg while benching – this usually occurs in the novice who has asymmetrical strength/coordination/flexibility. The stronger side arm presses the bar too fast, and the bar tips toward the weaker side. In an attempt to “rebalance” themselves, they lift the opposite leg, which, of course, doesn’t work.

4) Lowering the bar/pressing the bar unevenly – happens for the same reasons as the “lift one leg”. One side will be stronger or more flexible, so the bar will typically be lowered farther on this side than the weak/tight side. While pressing, one side will shoot up and the other side (the weak side) gets stuck. This is a shoulder joint wreck waiting to happen. If you have issues with this, and you have been working on your barbell bench press technique for a few months, then IMMEDIATELY get rid of the bar and do 2 exercises: DB presses and dips. If you’re crooked on these, you will be forced to correct the asymmetry.

5) Not tucking your shoulder blades properly – this leads to a whole host of problems:

  • If one shoulder blade is tucked and the other isn’t, then one shoulder joint is stable and the other is loose. Again, this is a shoulder-joint train wreck waiting to happen.
  • If your shoulder blades aren’t tucked, then your base will NOT be stable, and you will be pressing from a big pile of mush. Imagine standing on a row boat in a calm pond. If you are balanced properly on the rowboat (stable), you can jump straight up into the air without too much issue. Now imagine standing on the rowboat, but you are off balance. One side is lower than the other side. Try and jump…you can’t generate any type of pressure or force when you press off of an unstable base. Your shoulder blades are the same way. If they are loose, then they can wobble around, and you cannot press properly or with any power, not to mention the rotator cuff injuries you open yourself up to with this kind of unstable position.

 I have a sticking point in my bench press, how do I fix it?

In a normal person who is doing a standard grip bench press, the lifter will get usually stuck a few inches off of their chest. At the very lowest point in the lift, the lats and anterior delts are going to be strong relative to the pecs and triceps, which will be weaker at this point in the motion. As you press the bar from your chest, the pectorals begin to take over the motion, and eventually “hand it off” to the triceps.

People make the mistake of assuming that they can automatically determine the weak point just by knowing where in the motion the sticking point occurs. Professional powerlifters who use bench press shirts know that a poor lockout is caused by triceps that aren’t strong enough (relative to the spring in the shirt and the strength in their pecs). However, in a non-assisted athlete, this determination can NOT be made without examining the technique across a full range of motion, as well as examining strength in the various muscle-specific strength benchmarks.

In other words, if someone tells you what your weak muscles are just by reading where in the bench press motion you get stuck, then they are full of crap. There is a lot more than meets the eye. Something can look like a pork chop, but smell and taste like chicken.

Regardless, your sticking point exists not because one muscle is weaker than another, but simply because you are untrained. Spend at least 4-6 months of steady, consistent pressing, both supine (Bench press) and overhead, and then we can worry about where your sticking point is.

This guy does a good job of demonstrating proper form for the bench press. When starting out, it can be beneficial to focus on timing by doing a two seconds down, touch, two seconds up. This forces you to focus on form and control rather than just slinging the bar around.


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