The bench press is probably the most well known and popular weightlifting exercise out there for lifters and non-lifters. Some people seem to think that how much you can bench press is directly connected to how strong or big you are. With this comes the dreaded question :
“Bro, how much do you bench?“
This question actually brings a lot of problems to the table, even if you disregard that how much you can bench isn’t a pissing contest. The pressure to bench press more brings a lot of ego into the gym, which is never a good sign. Lifting for ego always ends up sacrificing form, which is (usually) a complete waste of even doing the exercise.
Doing half-reps or even quarter-reps isn’t considered a bench press, and muscle soreness isn’t a good indication of a good workout. A real bench-press by weightlifting/power-lifting standards is where the bar makes contact with your chest, according to most professional strength and conditioning coaches and power-lifting competition rules1.
You may have your own definition of a bench press such as stopping when your elbows are at your chest, or the bar is almost touching the chest, but that’s not the official way. As far as form, it’s best to watch some experts run through the complete bench press setup and process. Two great ones are Dave Tate’s 6-Week Bench Press Cure available here or this intro to the bench press by Mark Rippetoe.
It’s can be a lot more technical than it seems, but in order to get the most out of the exercise, it’s best to drop the ego and the weight. With any luck, you could actually be adding weight to your working sets.
“People need to quit fuckin’ askin exercise wise, until they reinforce their technique… bench press” Dave Tate
1. Body Position
Creating an arch is a technique power lifters often use to create more leverage, and more overall tension in the body. Power lifters exaggerate this in order to decrease the distance from the bar to their chest, but you don’t have to go to that limit. An arched back with your shoulders digging into the bench will allow more control on the pushing aspect of the lift. During all this, your ass should still remain on the bench!
Feet should ideally be flat on the floor, which allows you to draw power by pushing against that base during your sticking point. You should feel like you’re about to push your soles into the floor. Flailing legs or feet not placed firmly on the ground are great ways to reduce power, balance, and focus.
2. Proper Grip
Gripping the bar tight when you’re bench pressing, or doing any exercise for that matter, will recruit more on stabilizing and secondary muscles to help with your lift. It will also create a better link between your muscle system and central nervous system – basically telling your body “get ready, here comes the heavy weight”. Check out this guide for tips on how you can improve and increase your grip the right way.
Your elbows and hands should be at 90 degrees to get the most leverage. Having your forearms bent too far in or out causes unnecessary strain on your shoulders and triceps, and does nothing to help your bench. Dave Tate speaks more about this in his 6-Week Bench Press Cure4
3. Keep Control
Proper bench press form is being able to be in full control of the bar at all times. This is incredibly important – if you’re not controlling the bar both on the eccentric contraction (the way down), as well as the concentric contraction (the way up), you’re missing half the exercise! On top of that, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Controlling the negative rep helps to keep your core tight and ready for the push. This is also a technique many people use to break pleateaus or increase correctly – focusing more on negative reps and controlled reps5. Your overall goal should be to bring the bar down to your chest, and then explode back up by pushing the bar back as fast as possible.
Speed is just as important as strength to bench press – you should be practicing trying to get the bar from your chest back to its starting position as fast as possible. Another way to look at this is not to think of pushing the bar away from you, but think of pushing yourself into the bench.
As obvious and natural as this is, we apparently forget to breathe when there’s a barbell on top of us. Proper breathing is essential for any heavy lift, and can help you out of your sticking points because of the increase in intra-abdominal pressure3.
On the other hand, you could not breathe, and risk passing out with a barbell as a necklace – wouldn’t that be nice! (Don’t do that…)
5. Keep Your Body & Core Tight
Like having a firm grip, keeping your body and core tiight helps to create stability and strength. Keep your shoulder blades tight, almost like you’re trying to pushh them together. Your upper back, glutes, and feet should not move during the exercise. As mentioned before, your lower back should have a slight curve to it, which also helps to raise and expand your chest. This also decreases the total distance the bar has to travel from the starting position to your chest. This essentially allows you to bench more weight, as the distance you have to move the weight has decreased.
You should be practicing keeping this form with just the bar as a warm-up until you are comfortable holding position. Don’t lift for ego. Learning proper form now will allow you bench much more than you could before if you disipline yourself to doing it properly.