How to Bench Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Bench Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Target: Chest, triceps, shoulders

Equipment Needed: Weight bench and barbell, dumbbells, or Smith machine

Level: Intermediate

The bench press builds the muscles of the chest as well as the triceps of the back of the arms and the front deltoid shoulder muscles. You can do this exercise with barbells, dumbbells, or with a Smith machine, which constrains the path of the barbell and makes the exercise a little easier. You will often learn the bench press in a strength training program. Beginners should try lifts without weight on the bar to warm up, get a feel for the bar, and learn to do it with good form. You can use it regularly as part of an upper body workout for strength and muscle development.

Benefits

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 for anybody over age 40 when age-related muscle loss is a concern. It is a functional exercise that helps you with any 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, you should contact a professional coach for personal instruction.

Step-by-Step Instructions

If you don't use the specialized bench press rack, a standard flat bench can be used with dumbbells or a light barbell. Or, you can use a Smith machine. 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 flat on the bench under the rack that holds the bar. Your eyes should be approximately aligned with the front of the barbell rack uprights. Butt, shoulders, and head should be flat on the bench with a slight (neutral) bend in the spine. Feet should be flat on the floor and relatively wide apart.
  2. Grasp the bar with your thumbs on the outside of your closed fist, overhand grip, with arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The angle of the upper arms should be at about 45 degrees to the body.
  3. Remove the barbell from the rack and lock the elbows out before lowering the bar to the chest at the nipple line. Don't move the bar in an arc from the rack directly to the chest position. With the Smith machine, you can't do this; the path is restricted.
  4. Take a deep breath and raise the bar to above the chest with 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 the chest and repeat the exercise. Three sets of 10 reps is a suggested number.
  6. To finish, replace 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 that the elbow joints are at least at right angles and the 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 is generally misguided. Just make sure you don't lock them out suddenly or explosively.

Thumb Position

The 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 feet on the floor because of short legs, use blocks or weight plates under the feet to boost height rather than placing 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 include 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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  1. Harvard Medical School, Harvard Men's Health Watch, "Preserve your muscle mass"