How to Bench Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Bench Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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Target: Chest, triceps, shoulders

Equipment Needed: Weight bench and barbell, or dumbbells

Level: Intermediate

The bench press builds the muscles of the chest, triceps, and shoulders. You can do this exercise with a barbell or dumbbells. Beginners should try lifts without weight on the bar to warm up, get a feel for the bar, and learn good form. Perform this exercise regularly as part of an upper-body workout for strength and muscle development.


The bench press is a compound exercise that involves the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. It builds strength as well as encourages the growth of these muscles.

Muscle growth is not only desired by bodybuilders, but also provides benefits for everyone else as muscle mass typically declines with age. It is a functional exercise that helps you perform daily activities that require pushing or carrying.

The bench press can help restore muscle balance for athletes that primarily use pulling muscles, such as in wrestling, rock climbing, and swimming. The barbell bench press is a competitive lift in the sport of powerlifting, with the other two being the deadlift and squat.

If you're training for competition powerlifting, contact a professional coach for personal instruction.

Step-by-Step Instructions

If you don't use a specialized bench press rack, a standard flat bench can be used with dumbbells or a light barbell. Select the appropriate weights.

Beginners and those lifting heavy weights should get the assistance of a "spotter" who stands behind the rack and assists with the bar when you have trouble lifting.

  1. Lie on the bench under the rack that holds the bar. Your eyes should be approximately aligned with the front of the barbell rack uprights. Your butt, shoulders, and head should be flat on the bench with a slight, neutral bend in the spine. Arch your back drawing your shoulder blades back behind you to keep from pressing with rounded shoulders. Your feet should be flat on the floor and relatively wide apart.
  2. Grasp the bar with your thumbs on the outside of a closed fist, using an overhand grip, with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The angle of your upper arms should be about 45 degrees to the body.
  3. Remove the barbell from the rack and lock your elbows out before lowering the bar to your chest, at the nipple line. Don't move the bar in an arc from the rack directly to the chest position.
  4. Take a deep breath and raise the bar above your chest with your arms extended, exhaling while you push upward and aiming consistently at the same spot on the ceiling. Don't watch the bar; focus on the ceiling.
  5. Return the bar to just above your chest and repeat the exercise. Three sets of 10 reps is a suggested number.
  6. To finish, place the bar on the rack from the locked-out position. Move the bar backward gradually until you feel the rack uprights, then lower the bar to the rack rest. Do not try to hit the rack rests directly. If you miss, you can lose control, which can be dangerous.

Common Mistakes

Bench pressing can be dangerous. Be sure to avoid these errors.

Low Bar

Make sure the path of the bar is not low over the mouth and neck region when unracking or racking the bar. That means you should move the weight "from" and "to" the rack from an arms-extended position and not low across the neck and face.

Width of Grip

The grip on the bar should normally be wide enough so your elbow joints are at least at right angles and forearms in a perpendicular plane. If your grip is too wide and your elbows are too flared out, you risk injuring your pectoral muscles.

Locking Elbows Suddenly

You can "lock out" your elbows, contrary to some safety advice that may be misguided. Just make sure you don't lock them out suddenly or explosively.

Thumb Position

Your hand grip should be overhand and feature the thumbs placed under the bar and across the top of the fingers. Don't place the thumbs behind the bar or locked beneath the fingers.

Pushing Head Into Bench

Keep your head flat on the bench and feet flat on the floor for stability, but don't push your head into the bench to assist the lift; firm up the neck muscles instead.

Arched Back and Lifted Buttocks

Your buttocks should remain flat on the bench. Do not emulate the powerlifter style of arching your back so much that your buttocks lift off the bench. This can result in low back pain.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you are not at ease with your feet on the floor because of short legs, use blocks or weight plates under the feet to boost your height rather than placing your legs on the bench, which reduces stability.

If you have any concerns about shoulder joint stability, don't lower the bar so far that the top part of the arm falls much below parallel.

Up for a Challenge?

Once you are able to perform the bench press safely with good form for three sets of 10 reps, you can begin to add weight. Each week, add 2.5 pounds to each side of the bar (5 pounds total addition per week). Do not add more weight until you are able to lift that weight with good form.

Variations include inclining or declining the bench to emphasize the upper or lower chest muscles. Lifting from an incline emphasizes the anterior deltoids of the shoulder. Lifting from a decline emphasizes the pectoralis major.

Once you are experienced with the bench press, you can vary the grip for different effects. A slightly wider grip will increase the use of the pectorals. A narrower grip will increase the use of the triceps.

Safety and Precautions

If you have any injury to your shoulders, you should avoid the bench press. If you feel any shoulder pain during the bench press, replace the weights and end the exercise.

If you are bench pressing a heavy weight, do so only with the assistance of a spotter. It is also good to use a power rack, which has bars on either side set at the level of your chest. If your lift fails, the bars will prevent the barbell from crushing your chest.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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