How to Bench Press – The Essentials

The Bench Press is a great exercise for developing strength, power and muscle mass in the chest, shoulders and upper arms. This article will focus on the barbell bench press, and focuses more towards the novice gym goer.

Before getting underneath the bar, you must set the height of your rack. Setting up too low is safer than too high, so set your rack height to a level that allows you to unrack the bar with a straightening action at your elbows, NOT a forward push of the shoulder joint.

Laying on the bench, slide your head up until you have the bar lined up between your eyes and chin.

Pull your shoulder blades together and down towards your tailbone. What I like to tell my athletes is to imagine a triangle – 3 points, one at one shoulder blade, one at the other, and one at your tailbone. Now make the triangle smaller by squeezing those three points together.

An arch throughout your torso should develop with this action. It doesn’t have to be big, but its best to have a bit of an arch – to have your lower back floating above the bench rather than in contact with it.

No, this position is not inherently dangerous, but its always best to start within your range of comfort. If you are intolerant of this position, that’s fine – the exercise can be done with a flat back.

Grab the bar at an even, comfortable spot. If your rack is set lower, you can utilize a wider grip. If its set higher, a narrower grip. The width of your grip is something that you can play around with over time depending on comfort and training goals.

Unless you are a competitive powerlifter, there is no reason at this point, for you to get married to any single position on the bar, and mixing it up over time is probably beneficial.

Use your outstretched thumb as markers or gauges, or fingers on the rings that are embedded in the knurling.

Push your knees slightly outwards and pull your feet slightly inwards. Squeeze your butt.

Keep that triangle in your back small, and unrack the bar by straightening out your elbows and pulling the bar down through space to hover over your shoulder. You should feel the weight of the bar pushing down straight through your arm, into your shoulder and then into the bench.

If you feel as if you are expending a lot of energy, the bar may be hovering too far over your face, or too low towards your hips. Find the sweet spot where you can almost feel relaxed.

Breathing is an important aspect of all exercise, and becomes more important as the weights or movements get more challenging.

If you are dealing with high blood pressure or are not a fan of holding your breath, take a small breath. About half of what you would consider a “big” breath in. Emphasize that small triangle in your back, and hold your breath as you slowly bring the bar down to your chest.

Contact points may vary slightly between people and will be influenced by your grip width and the amount of arch in your torso. For now, bring the bar into contact anywhere between your nipple line and the bottom of your rib cage.

Breath out as you press the bar up, keeping your butt squeezed.

As you go through some reps, take note of where you feel contact by the bar, and how awkward or comfortable the movement feels at your shoulders and elbows. Over a few sets, you’ll start feeling what’s better, and develop a preference. For myself, I make contact right at the bottom of the sternum, with an arch that in powerlifting, would be considered “moderate” (to everyone else, I look like a candy cane).

If this is your first time doing the bench press, its ok for it to feel awkward, for the bar to travel all over the place, and for the exercise to not “feel right”. Do a few sets of 5-10 reps at light weights, and a little groove may start to appear to you. Nurture that groove over time, and you’ll be well on your way to developing a base for your bench press technique and strength.

Thanks for reading, good luck in the gym!

About the Author

Since 2011, Artem has been providing coaching for powerlifters and fitness enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US. Passionate for evidence and education, he is currently finishing his Kinesiology Degree from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

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