The Bench Press – What is it and how do I do it?

As part of our MOH Basic Lifting Blog Series, we’re trying to put together a simple guide for the more common lifts we see with weight training. We’re not trying to write the definitive “one size fits all” guide to each lift. It’s not a highly technical review of the science and research, just something honest and reliable to refer to when there’s something you’re not too sure on.

What is a bench press?

The bench press is possibly the most iconic lift in the gym. Along with the squat and the deadlift, they make up the three primary lifts you would see in any resistance training program. These three moves translate to many of the functional movements you use on a daily basis, so doing them well means that life gets that little bit easier.

The bench press is relatively simple. You’re lying flat on a bench (hence the name) with a bar in front of you at chest height. The bar descends to touch your chest, and you press the bar back up to it’s starting position. Statistically speaking every second door you open will require this basic movement pattern.

The rack should be set up so that lifting the bar to and from it is comfortable, safe and easy. Typically, a racked bar at about eye level is fine for most people. It should be close enough that it’s not too far above shoulder height in order to rack and unrack the bar, but far enough that the clips don’t physically interfere with the bar movement.

Hand placement largely depends on comfort (or ability) and whether you have a particular focus to training. Close grip means more tricep work and less demands on wrist mobility in terms of radial deviation. The wider the grip, the more radial deviation your wrists undergo, but at the same time less tricep involvement which leaves the pecs to do more of the work. Typically hands just outside shoulder width is a good starting position, it allows the glenohumeral (true shoulder) joint to operate at a fairly natural angle, without over-complicating the actual movement.

I personally feel the larger range worked the better, but this may come at the cost of how heavy you can lift. From a functional viewpoint, ability to generate power under a wider range of joint angles is more useful. If you’ve fallen and have to push yourself off the floor, you need to be stronger than gravity at all ranges or you’ll be left floundering. In terms of training heavy, we know mid-range movements typically give us the most power, so you’ll see some teeth grinding grunters at the gym (myself included) that prefer to work in shorter ranges. Either way, your body adapts to the demand you place on it so it’s helpful to incorporate a variety of training challenges.

Torso posture and foot placement tend to be under contention too. How much to arch? Where do the feet go? On tip toes or push through heels? I normally advocate a neutral spine, that’s head, thoracic spine, and glutes firmly planted on the bench. Some arching may be needed for intraabdominal pressure and overall stability, but for regular lifters engaging your glutes and core will automatically lift your lower back off the bench, anything more is unnecessary. Yes, you can lift heavier with a bigger arch, but you’ve also changed the angle of the push to be less horizontal and more decline.

Foot position may seem negligible for most beginners, but it does play a big role. Less commonly seen these days is feet on bench. This eliminates any possibly back arching, and makes it far less stable, but isolates the chest and requires more upper body balance and coordination. The other end is toes on ground, knees bent to get your feet as close in line with your bum as you can. The drive is quad dominant, pushing toes into the ground, but there’s a tendency to lift your bum off the bench and over arch your back. I generally start people off with feet on ground, knees at 90 degrees and pushing through the heels. This places emphasis on overall balance and control of the whole body.

What does it activate?

When performed as intended, the bench press, like the other primary lifts should utilise the whole body. The prime movers moving the bar up and down however, are the pecs and triceps. How much you flare your elbows will determine how much you involve your anterior delts. But, the whole shoulder girdle will either contribute to the lift or help stabilise the region.

Besides the feet up option as mentioned, the lower body works by counterbalancing the forces in the upper body. Pushing into the ground in turn pushes your chest back and up into the bar which helps with the push.

What to look out for?

It’s quite common for beginners to not follow gravity when they push, and end up doing more of an incline press on a flat bench. For some it’s the fear with a new movement under load, and they want to keep the bar in visual range at all times. Others its just mimicking the movement line from unracking and not knowing where the line of gravity is. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix for this, just repetition and constant correction. With enough practice the body will learn where the centre of gravity is in relation to the limbs holding it up and how best to travel.

The other common fear is the bar touching the sternum at the bottom of descent. We’ve all been caught under the bar at one point or another. The panic as the air is squeezed from your lungs is real, as you frantically look around to see if someone’s coming over to save you. The easy thing here is to just not clip the weights in. Worse case scenario, tilt to one side so the plates fall off, gravity will take care of the other side. Unfortunately, there’s no salve for your ego. Just laugh it off. We’ve all been there.

One of the most common complaints regarding bench press is shoulder pain. Usually at the front, in or around the AC joint, and can refer to run down the bicep line. Any movement that mimics a bench press, like reaching for a seatbelt, can aggravate the pain. Keeping your shoulder blades retracted (pinched together at the back) will help limit the range of motion during the push, which can help with issues of shoulder impingement or AC joint complaints like those above. The typical position is retracted and depressed, but that will depend on the individual’s anatomy and physiology. It’s generally best to work with whats most comfortable for you.

Workarounds

One of the simplest workarounds is to swap out the bar for dumbbells. This allows for a neutral grip if needed, and maintains forearms vertical rather than locking them in. This might eliminate some symptoms of shoulder impingement, but it does tax more on the rotator cuff muscles for individual shoulder stability.

Changing the angle of the press could also work. Sure, incline or decline press would do it, but a more radical change could be to flip the body instead. By having the resistance fixed instead and the body moving, the joint play and muscle recruitment is slightly different. Some might find it easier to sink into scapula retraction from a prone or push up position.

Stay tuned for the next in our Lifting Blog Series from MOH…

Want know how to improve your lifting technique? Whether you’re looking for ways to lift without pain, or you’ve hit a ceiling and want to fine tune your performance to squeeze out just that little bit more – Jason can help.

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