How to Do a Bench Press: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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The bench press helps build many muscles in the upper body. You can do this exercise with either a barbell or dumbbells. Perform bench presses regularly as part of an upper-body workout for increased strength and muscle development.

Targets: Chest, triceps, and shoulders

Equipment Needed: Weight bench and barbell (or dumbbells)

Level: Intermediate

How to Do a Bench Press

Bench press

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

If you don't have access to a specialized bench press rack, a standard flat bench can be used. You can also do bench presses with dumbbells or a barbell. Whichever you choose, be sure to select the appropriate weight for you.

Lie on the bench, under the rack that holds the bar. Your eyes should be roughly aligned with the front of the barbell rack uprights. Your butt, shoulders, and head are flat on the bench with a neutral spine. Your feet are flat on the floor and relatively wide apart.

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

  1. Draw your shoulder blades back behind you to keep from pressing with rounded shoulders.
  2. Grasp the barbell using an overhand grip, placing your thumbs on the outside of your closed fist. Your arms are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and the angle of your upper arms is about 45 degrees to the body.
  3. Remove the barbell from the rack, locking your elbows. (Don't move the bar in an arc from the rack directly to the chest position.)
  4. Inhale while lowering the bar to your chest, at the nipple line.
  5. Exhale as you press the bar above your chest, extending your arms. Don't watch the bar—focus on the ceiling.
  6. Lower the bar so it is just above your chest. This is the starting position for the next bench press.

Once you've finished your desired reps, place the bar on the rack with elbows in a locked-out position. Move the bar backward gradually until you feel the rack uprights, then lower the bar to the barbell rest.

Don't try to hit the rack rests directly. If you miss, you can lose control, which can be dangerous.

Benefits of a Bench Press

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 encouraging the growth (hypertrophy) of these muscles.

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

The bench press can help restore muscle balance for athletes who primarily use pulling muscles. This includes wrestlers, rock climbers, and swimmers. The barbell bench press is also a competitive lift in the sport of powerlifting, the other two being the deadlift and squat.

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

Other Variations of the Bench Press

You can perform this exercise in a variety of ways to better meet your fitness level and goals.

Partial Bench Press

If you have any concerns about shoulder joint stability, don't lower the weight so far that the top part of the arms fall below parallel. While you may not get the benefit of the full range of motion, this modification places less stress on the shoulder area.

Partial bench press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Varied Grips

Once you are experienced with the bench press, you can vary the grip to work slightly different muscles. A slightly wider grip will increase the use of the pectorals, for instance, whereas a narrower grip will increase the use of the triceps.

Incline Bench Press

An additional variation involves performing the press while on an incline bench. Lifting from an incline emphasizes the anterior deltoids of the shoulder.

You can do an incline press with dumbbells or a barbell. Sit on the incline bench with the weight just above the chest. Press the weight up, toward the ceiling, then lower it slowly to return to the starting position.

Incline Dumbbell Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Decline Bench Press

Another option is to do this exercise on a decline bench, which better emphasizes the pectoralis major. To do a decline bench press, you follow the same basic steps as a standard bench press, just from a declined position.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these common errors to keep your bench press safe and effective.

Moving Bar Over the Mouth or Neck

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

Improper Grip Width

Your grip on the bar should normally be wide enough to have your elbow joints at right angles (at a minimum) and forearms in a perpendicular plane. If your grip is too wide and your elbows too flared out, you risk injuring your pectoral muscles.

Incorrect Thumb Position

Another grip-based mistake involves thumb position. Your hand grip should be overhand with 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.

Locking Elbows Suddenly

Contrary to some weightlifting safety advice, you can "lock out" your elbows when doing a bench press. The key to making this action safe is to not lock the elbows out suddenly or explosively.

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 during the press. Don't emulate the powerlifter style of arching your back so much that your buttocks lift off the bench. If you do, this can result in low back pain.

Safety and Precautions

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

Beginners can benefit from doing presses without weight on the bar to warm up, get a feel for the bar, and learn good form. If you are more advanced and, thus, bench pressing a heavy weight, do so only with the assistance of a spotter.

If pressing heavy weights, it is also good to use a power rack. This type of rack has bars on either side, set at the level of your chest. This way, if your lift fails, the bars prevent the barbell from crushing your chest.

Start with three sets of 10 reps using an unweighted barbell. Once you are able to perform this exercise safely and with good form, 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 the current weight with good form.

Try It Out

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

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6 Sources
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