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The Ultimate Bench Press Guide: How to Perfect Your Form and Safely Improve Your Strength

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calendar-iconOctober 11, 2020

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Maintaining proper form on an exercise is challenging, especially if you are unfamiliar with it.

This is especially true for the bench press. It is a very technical exercise that requires lots of practice and patience in order to perfect. Moreover, doing it incorrectly can have major consequences, since getting trapped under the bar could lead to you getting hurt. Whether you are just trying it for the first time or you are trying to bench a new personal best, you must be aware of how to always bench safely and effectively. You might feel discouraged from incorporating it into your workout routine, since this task may seem very daunting.

This guide is here to change that.

You will learn all about the basics of the bench press, including the proper general form that you should aim to have while doing your sets. In addition, this guide will cover many of the common mistakes that beginners tend to make, as well as different variations of the bench press that can be used to improve your form and strength. It will also go over some of the various pieces of equipment that are necessary for doing a bench press, along with other tools that can be utilized to help you get accustomed to having proper technique. 

First, let’s discuss what exactly a bench press is, and how to do it properly.

What Is a Bench Press, and How Do You Bench Press Properly?

Let’s start with the most basic question: What exactly is a bench press?

It is a compound exercise that works your entire body, even though it primarily engages the muscles in your upper body. 

Some people who haven’t tried doing bench press believe that your lower body muscles do not get used while doing this exercise, but they are wrong. 

Nerd Fitness says, “Your entire body should be working – your shoulders are pinched together and your lats are engaged, while your back, hips and legs are tight, stabilizing your entire body to create a solid base and help you generate drive from the ground”.

So it is clear that the bench press is a useful exercise not just for your chest and shoulders, but what other reasons are there for incorporating it into your workout? 

Building a bigger chest and more muscular shoulders may not be your primary goal, so it’s important to know that the bench press has several other health benefits. Healthline claims: 

Other benefits of adding bench presses to your weight-training regimen include increasing upper body strength, improving muscular endurance, and even preparing your upper body to do movements like pushups. They also can be an effective strengthening exercise for sports like sprinting, hockey, and football.

National Institute of Health

WebMD also talks about the advantages of doing bench press, and strength training in general:

“Building chest muscles — and all other muscles — not only makes you stronger, it also improves your metabolism by helping your body remove sugar from your blood. This protects against diabetes.

WebMD

Now that you are aware of how good bench presses can be for your overall health, it is time to explain how you should do them properly. 

Bench Press Preparation

Before getting into the actual exercise, though, remember to set up your equipment first and ensure that it is adjusted properly for your body type.

  1. Sit at the end of your flat bench, then lie down by lowering yourself back on the bench. Adjust yourself so that you are on the center of the bench, and put your eyes directly under the bar.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder-blades by raising your chest and tightening your upper-back, then put your shoulder-blades back and down. 
  3. Grab the bar and hold it low, close to your wrists. Squeeze the bar tightly so you don’t run the chance of dropping it on accident.
  4. Set your feet flat on the floor,shoulder-width apart. Place one foot under your knee first, then set the other one.
  5. Unrack the bar by straightening your arms to lift it out of the uprights. Then, move it horizontally until it’s balanced over your shoulders.

How to do Bench Press

Once you are fully set up, you are ready to do a set of bench presses. Here are the steps on how to perform this exercise:

  1. Keep looking up at the ceiling and slowly lower the bar down to your mid-chest. You do not want to bring the bar down too quickly and hurt yourself. In addition, make sure the bar is not too high on your body. Having it on your mid-chest will give you the power you need to press the bar back up. It should be a few inches below your clavicles, according to Nerd Fitness.
  2. After the bar has touched your chest, raise the bar back up towards its starting position. Try to go up in the exact same way you came down, in a slightly diagonal path.
  3. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked in while pushing the bar back up. Letting your elbows flare out to 90 degrees at the bottom of the bench press can mess up your form and ruin the set. You don’t want to let your elbows flare out that wide, since being in that position can severely limit the amount of power you get from your chest muscles as you push. Losing that crucial bit of strength right as you get to the hardest part of the exercise will mess up your rhythm, and the set will be ruined. You won’t get the most out of the rep without your maximum strength. The same can be said for tucking your elbows in too much, so finding the perfect balance between tuck and flare is valuable for improving your bench press.
  4. Keep your back and butt on the bench as you press the bar, and your feet on the floor. Focus on pushing the bar up and back, towards the front of the bench, instead of pushing it directly up. This can help keep you from raising your butt off the bench. 
  5. Repeat the above steps for each of your reps. 
  6. Once you are done with your set, re-rack the bar by moving it backwards to the rack. When the bar touches them, lower the bar and let go to secure it in place.

Remember that there is a lot to think about in regards to your form as you do your bench press, and that you may not do it properly the first time you try it. 

However, with enough practice, you will eventually be able to improve your technique and be able to lift heavier weights. Not everyone will have the exact same form, since your body type is a major factor that determines how you should hold the bar.

According to StrongLifts, “Your build determines how your Bench Press form will look like maximum effectiveness. The wider your shoulders are, the wider your grip should be. The longer your upper-arms, the closer your elbows will be to your torso at the bottom”.

Therefore, since the bench press is not a “one size fits all” type of exercise, it is crucial that you try gripping the bar in different ways. Find the grip width that works best for you so that you can get the most out of every rep. 

Your form may also be different depending on what kind of lifter you are. 

Powerlifters and bodybuilders, for example, do not have the same technique while doing a bench press.  Powerlifters have the goal of maximizing their strength by doing a 1-rep max.

Nerd Fitness says, “You will see powerlifters use a super wide grip because it reduces the range of motion and therefore allows them to lift more weight in competition”. They also use an extreme arch, which is not recommended, in order to lift as much weight as they possibly can.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, sometimes lift their feet up off the ground completely. Some people do this either as an alternative to the normal bench press if they have a lower body injury, or as an assistance exercise to help improve the form and strength of their upper body, says Nerd Fitness. Lifting your feet up and bench pressing is a completely different movement, one that should not necessarily be done frequently if you are looking to get better on the normal bench press. 

In addition, bodybuilders may take shorter rest periods and have a narrower grip width, as they want to put more strain on their arms and shoulders in order to get the most out of every rep.

You should start with a basic form using a medium grip and a lighter weight if you are new to doing bench press. Make sure you are aware of your personal fitness goals and adjust your form accordingly, once you are fully comfortable with doing a normal bench press. 

Mastering your form and technique on this exercise can take a lot of time and may seem overwhelming. 

There are a lot of things you must remember to do with each part of your body in order to get the most results from your sets. Here is a general guide on what all of your muscles should be doing on the different phases of the bench press:

  • Grip: It is important to hold the bar in the base of your palms, close to your wrists, and remember to squeeze the bar tightly. You don’t want to risk dropping it on yourself.
  • Grip Width: Keep your hands inside the ring marks of the bar, and your forearms vertical in order to have the most effective grip. 
  • Thumbs: A common mistake people make when doing bench press is having a thumbless grip, which is ineffective and can be dangerous. Be sure to wrap your thumbs around the bar.
  • Wrists: Your elbows and wrists should be in a straight line in relation to the bar. Benching with bent wrists is another common mistake that can lead to injury.
  • Elbows: Your elbows should be out to around 75° at the bottom. They should never flare out to a 90° angle or touch your torso.
  • Forearms: Make sure your forearms are vertical to the floor from every angle (from both the front and the side).
  • Shoulders: Keep your shoulders back and on the bench as you do the bench press. Be careful not to shrug your shoulders forward at the top.
  • Upper-back: Squeeze your shoulder-blades together when you bench, so that you are more stable when the bar is over your body.
  • Chest: Raise it to the ceiling and reach to the bar when you are lowering it.
  • Head: When you set up for the bench press, lay on the bench with your eyes under the bar. Keep your head neutral as you do your reps and don’t push it into your bench.
  • Lower Back: Your lower back should have a natural arch as you do the bench press.
  • Butt: Keep your butt on your bench when you bench, as raising it is cheating and makes it easier to press the bar.
  • Feet: Your feet should always be flat on the floor, not up in the air. They should be underneath your knees and about shoulder-width apart.
  • Unracking: Unrack the weight by straightening your arms, and then moving the bar up above your shoulders.
  • Way Down: When lowering the bar back down, bring it down to your mid-chest, and tuck your elbows in to 75° while you lower the weight.
  • Bottom: At the bottom, keep your wrists straight, your forearms vertical, and your elbows in (but not against your torso). Keep the bar in the middle of your chest.
  • Way Up: On the way up, make sure you aren’t pausing at the bottom. Press the bar back to above your shoulders, and then lock your elbows to keep the bar securely above you.
  • Lockout: When locking out at the top of the bench press, lock the bar over your shoulder joints and then lock your elbows at the top. Be sure not to bend your elbows back though.
  • Racking: When racking the bar after a set, make sure to lockout your arms with straight elbows. Then, move the bar back against the rack and lower it in the uprights.
  • Bar Path: The bar should move in a diagonal path from your mid-chest to shoulders. It should not go vertically over your shoulders, neck or chest.
  • Breathing: Breathing at the right times during this exercise is absolutely essential. It will help you stay energized and focused on your reps. Make sure to breathe in as you bring the bar down, take a breath at the bottom, and breathe out on the way up to the top of the bench press.

Now that you know the basics on how to perform a bench press, let’s discuss some of the most prevalent mistakes that beginners make, as well as the problems that can come from them.

Common Mistakes and Issues

When first starting to integrate bench press into your workout regiment, it will be very common for you to make some mistakes. 

You are not going to be perfect right away. It takes time and practice to get better technique, and you should not get discouraged if things do not always go as you intended. 

Being aware of what some of the most prevalent mistakes that people make when doing bench press, as well as the issues and potential injuries that can arise from them, will only help you. 

Knowing what NOT to do the next time you bench press will eventually help you focus on what you should do. Don’t focus solely on the mistakes themselves because you may be more likely to make them. Instead, just keep them in mind so that you pay proper attention to improving your form, so that you can eventually see the results you desire. 

With that being said, here are some of the most frequent mistakes people make when doing bench press, as well as problems that can occur because of them.

Not Keeping Your Body Tight 

It is key to have a tight foundation as you perform a bench press. 

Having an unstable core, a loose grip, or feet not in the right position can completely mess up your set. The last thing you want is to have a good rhythm going through a set, only for you to lose it just because a part of your body wasn’t constantly tight.

A good way to keep your body tight through all your sets is to practice it all the time, through every rep and every set. Slow down and focus on engaging your whole body. 

Nerd Fitness recommends that “even when you are warming up and the weight is light, that you keep your entire body tight”. Practicing good exercise habits more often will prevent you from making the same mistakes in the future, and will only speed up your fitness progress.

Having the Wrong Starting and Ending Positions 

Another common error made when doing bench press is having the bar in the wrong position on the body during the exercise, whether that be the starting, middle, or end one. 

We are taught that when using bars and free weights, we should always try to lift the bar in a straight vertical line. If it went diagonally then it was not as efficient as it could be. 

The bench press is different though. When moving the bar, the most efficient path of moving it is on a slight curve. “The bar will start and end above your shoulders, but the middle point of the bar will be below your clavicles”, according to Nerd Fitness. 

Keep this in mind the next time you try doing bench press. Be mindful of the bar’s location as you go through your reps, and remember that if the bar is directly above your shoulders when it is above you, then your middle position is too high.

Not Hitting The Full Range of Motion

It is essential that you get the full range of motion during every rep, on every exercise you do. This gives you the most benefits. Your muscles get fully activated this way, and you will see the most improvements in strength. 

Some beginners may be scared to lower the bar all the way down to their chest, as they are afraid that they might get stuck in the bottom phase of the exercise. In that case, having a medium grip, proper feet placement, and a slight arch in the back will give them the power they need to get the bar safely off their chest. It could also be that they are using too heavy of a weight for the exercise, and that they know they wouldn’t be able to push it back up.

Likewise, another common mistake is that some individuals are not locking their elbows up at the top. Partial reps may be beneficial at some points for improving form (which will be discussed later), but not locking your elbows will keep your muscles tensed. If you are tired, then you risk dropping the bar on your face. Locking your elbows is not bad for your joints, as long as you do not hyperextend them. It is the safest way to keep the bar over your body, and it makes it easier to get through the lockout phase and bring the bar back down. 

Remember, having a full range of motion is one of the best ways to get bigger and stronger muscles.

Having Your Butt Come Up

It’s fine to have your lower back arch slightly; however, your butt should never come up off the seat. That is considered cheating according to StrongLifts, since you are shortening the range of motion of the exercise. When your butt comes off the seat, you are also making the weight easier to lift, which will definitely not help you get much stronger. Your lower back can even hyperextend in some extreme cases, which is very painful and may set you back greatly. 

This is why StrongLifts says, “Drive your upper-back and glutes into the bench too. Push yourself away from the bar instead of pushing the bar away”. Keeping your body tight and pushing it into the bench slightly will force your butt to stay down. This will allow you to get the full range of motion as you do bench press, meaning, you will get the most out of every rep.

Bouncing the Bar Off Your Chest

Bouncing the bar off your chest is sometimes considered cheating, since you are using the extra momentum from the bounce to get the bar back up into the air. This may allow you to press heavier weights, but your muscles are not getting the most benefits from doing it this way. 

Also, bouncing a heavy metal bar with several heavy plates off your ribcage is an easy way to get injured. It is just not a smart way to get a little bit of extra weight on the bar. An injury from bouncing the bar can destroy a lot of the fitness progress you have made, since you will likely spend a long time recovering.

Therefore, do not rush through your sets and feel you have to bounce the bar off your chest just to get through a rep. Slowly bring the bar down, let it lightly touch your chest for a moment or two, and then lift it back up again. If you are getting stuck at the bottom, then it is fine to come down a bit quicker and explode off your chest, according to Jeff Nippard. No matter what, though, do not let the bar bounce off your ribcage.

Having Your Elbows in the Wrong Position

Having your elbows flare out to 90 degrees can be very bad for your shoulders. StrongLifts says that this can cause shoulder impingement over time and eventually lead to injury. You do not want to feel pain during every rep.

However, you do not want your elbows to be too far inwards, as you will have no power when you get to the bottom of your press. You do not want to get stuck at the bottom (or the sticking point) because the bar will be stuck on your chest. Jeff Nippard explains that keeping your elbows tucked at about a 75 degree angle and your forearms vertical to the floor can make it easier to get through the bottom phase of the bench press. Furthermore, StrongLifts claims that maintaining a 75 degree angle in your elbows is the best way to prevent rotator cuff inflammation and shoulder pain.

Having a Thumbless Grip

Not wrapping your thumbs around the bar is incredibly dangerous, simply for the fact that the bar is not nearly as secure. The last thing you want is to drop a bar with several heavy weights on it directly onto your chest. That is why StrongLifts highly recommends using a full, tight grip, with your thumbs wrapped around the bar to keep it in place. This can also help increase strength because the full grip causes your arms and shoulder muscles to contract more.

Not Keeping Your Feet on the Ground

Keeping your feet on the bench or in the air makes you very unstable, which can cause you to fall off the bench or drop the bar on yourself. Not only that, but Jeff Nippard says that a lack of leg drive can cause people to not make any progress on their bench press. If your feet aren’t on the ground, then you can’t get any of that power from your legs.

Keeping your feet on the ground is a practical way to prevent injury and improve your strength and form on this exercise. In addition, make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart, and are either directly under your knees or slightly behind them. This will give you the most power and stability from your legs, which in turn will enable you to press heavier weights.

Maxing Out Too Often

Trying to bench press your max every time you do the exercise is not very wise. The repeated overuse of the chest, shoulders, and arms can put an immense strain on them. You are only hurting yourself by maxing out every time. 

Constant strain on your muscles can lead to serious injuries, like pec tears or torn shoulders. These types of injuries take a long time to recover from, meaning you may lose a lot of strength and muscle definition.

Unless you are a professional powerlifter, you should only stick to weights less than your max on a regular basis. This gives your muscles the time they need to recover and grow for the next workout. 

You will also be able to practice good technique with more weights, which will make it easier for you the next time you try to max out. Doing more reps with less weight will give your muscles much more of a chance to grow, and will exhaust them more than a one rep max would. Only bench press your max every once in a while. Have a set schedule in your workout routine, allowing yourself plenty of days in between max out days. Most importantly, if you do not feel like you can handle doing a max rep at the moment, then do not force yourself to do it. You will only set yourself back.

Having a Flat Back

You do not want you back to be completely flat on the bench. Jeff from Athlean X says that your back and chest should be slightly arched, since this will give your shoulder blades a stable base as they are pushed back and down into the bench. This, in turn, acts as a crucial counterforce to the bar as you push it away from you. 

Someone should be able to slide a flat hand in between your body and the bench. The slight arch will make the exercise safer for the joints in your back and shoulders, according to Jeff Nippard. It will also give you more strength as you press the bar over you, which will help increase your total weight load over time.

Variations of the Bench Press

There is more than just one way of doing a bench press. 

Not only are there a few different ways of holding the bar while doing bench press, but there’s also a wide variety of exercises that can be done to serve as a substitute for the traditional bench press. Doing these exercises can help you improve your form, as well as build up muscle and strength in your chest, arms and shoulders. 

First, it is important to note the three types of grips that you can use while doing a bench press: Narrow/Close, Medium, and Wide. 

The Medium Grip is the most common way of holding the bar, especially if you are a beginner. It gives you a very balanced feel for the weight you’re pressing. You should start with this grip and get used to it first before trying the other two grips.

The Narrow (or Close) Grip, as mentioned earlier, is more popular among bodybuilders. 

Bodybuilders keep their hands closer together because it puts much more strain on the pecs, and allows them to build muscle faster in the chest, arms and shoulders. It also works the triceps and forearms more than the normal bench press. A newcomer might want to stick to the Medium Grip before moving their hands closer together, so that they can grow stronger and get used to the basic movements. It can be a good alternative for those with shoulder issues, though, according to StrongLifts.

A wide grip, on the other hand, is used more often by powerlifters. Again, they use a super wide grip because it limits their range of motion, which allows them to lift more weight in competitions. 

Someone who is inexperienced with bench pressing should not be using a wide grip. You should practice getting the full range of motion on your reps before even attempting to widen your grip. 

If you feel that the traditional bench press is too difficult for you to do, or if you want to add some exercises that can help improve your strength, then there are plenty of options. 

Many alternative exercises can serve as a suitable substitute to a bench press if you are unable to perform the exercise, or they may help you build up to eventually doing it. 

Incline Bench Press

The incline barbell bench press variation involves doing a bench press with dumbbells while having the front of the bench being tilted at a 45 degree angle. According to Healthline, “the incline dumbbell press targets the upper portion of the pectoral muscle and shoulders more than a standard bench press does”. 

Chris Beardsley explains in his article about how you should train to build strength in your pectoral (or chest) muscles how the incline and decline bench press target different regions of the pectoral muscles. He says, “increasing bench press incline leads to greater activation of the higher regions, while decreasing bench press incline leads to greater activation of lower regions”.

Therefore, if you are looking to primarily improve the strength and muscle size of your upper chest muscles, then it may be a good idea to try adding the incline bench press to your workout routine.

Decline Bench Press

The decline bench press is a variation where “the front of the bench is angled upward, so when you lie down your feet are in a higher position than your head”, says Healthline. Doing the dumbbell bench press at a slight decline mainly works the lower pecs, so make sure to do this exercise along with the incline bench press, so that your upper and lower chest muscles both get equal gains.

Push-ups

Push-ups can be a great alternative for building strong chest muscles if bench press is too difficult, or if you do not have access to any equipment. 

Greatist claims, “The push-up can be a good starting point before moving on to bench pressing. It targets the pectoral muscles, triceps, and shoulders, demands core strength, and involves other muscles like the lower trapezius and the serratus anterior as stabilizers”.

However, StrongLifts does not recommend using push-ups as a substitute for heavy bench pressing if you are trying to build muscle because bench press introduces your body to more weight and strain that will enable it to grow bigger and stronger, more so than bodyweight push-ups. Here’s how to do a good push-up:

  1. Go into a high plank position, and keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Look straight ahead, and make sure your whole body is always in a straight line.
  3. Start bending your elbows, which should start at a 45-degree angle, and lower yourself down until your chest touches the ground.
  4. Push back up to start, then repeat.

Dumbbell Flys

Dumbbell flys engages the shoulders and upper back in a bigger way than the bench press does, so give this one a try if those are areas you want to work on. Here’s how to do a dumbbell fly. 

  1. Lie back on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, and place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Fully extend your arms and bring them up and over the middle of your chest, parallel to your body. 
  3. Then, slowly bring your arms down to your side while keeping your elbows slightly bent.
  4. When the dumbbells are at the same level as your shoulders, stop and use your chest muscles to bring them back up. 

Bench Dips

Bench dips involve using just your body weight to target the shoulders, triceps, chest, and lats, according to Healthline. Here’s how to do them correctly:

  1. Sit on a flat bench with your hands next to your thighs.
  2. Walk your feet out a bit and extend your legs, then lift your butt off the bench and hold yourself up with your arms extended. Your knees may be slightly bent if you need some extra support.
  3. Lower your body down as far as you can by hinging at the elbow, or until your arms hit 90 degrees. 
  4. Push yourself back up to the starting position through your palms, and repeat.

Floor Presses

A floor press is basically just a bench press done in the ground, without the use of a bench. It works the same muscles as the bench press and can really help protect your shoulders, since you can feel your shoulders and back engage with your upper body. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lie on your back, flat on the ground and with your legs extended upwards. 
  2. Hold a barbell across your chest with your palms facing out.
  3. Push the barbell upwards by extending your arms, like you would in  a bench press.
  4. Pause for a second or two at the top, then slowly bring the weight down until your arms touch the ground.
  5. Push your arms back up quickly for another rep.

Cable Crossovers

The cable crossover is another bench press variation that targets the lower chest muscles, and also your core because you are standing. You will need a cable machine for this exercise. Here’s how to do cable crossovers:

  1. Position two cables at the top rung of the machine, then grab the handles with an overhand grip while facing away from the machine. 
  2. Make sure to slightly stagger your feet, lean forward a bit, and bend your elbows before pulling your hands together.
  3. When your hands touch, stop for a few moments.
  4. Then, release the weight and slowly allow your arms to come up past your shoulders.
  5. Pull your hands together again and repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.

Standing Cable Chest Presses

The standing cable chest press also requires a cable machine, as well as some extra stability since you are basically doing a bench press while standing up. It targets the same muscles in a challenging way. Here’s how to effectively do a standing cable chest press:

  1. Position two of the cables slightly below your chest, then face away from the machine.
  2. Grab the handles with an overhand grip, and keep your elbows bent.
  3. Stagger your feet, and push the handles out and towards the middle of your chest while leaning forward.
  4. Once there, pause for a few seconds and then release the cables until they are back at chest level. 
  5. Repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.

Offset Push-ups

Offsets push-ups involve doing a push-up with one hand on an elevated surface, which according to Healthline, “requires your shoulders, chest, and core to work in a different way to stabilize your body”. They also increase your range of motion. Here’s how to perform an offset push-up: 

  1. Get into a high plank position, with one of your hands on either a step, dumbbell, or a Bosu ball.
  2. Do a push-up, making sure to keep your elbows at a 45 degree angle and your body in a straight line.
  3. Step your hands up together on whatever elevated surface you are using, then switch sides.

Dumbbell Pullovers

Dumbbell pullovers make you use your core and stabilizer muscles in order to stay balanced and do the exercise correctly. They target your chest muscles differently than the bench press does. Here’s how to do dumbbell pullovers:

  1. Lay down on a flat bench or a Bosu ball so that your upper back is supported.
  2. Hold the dumbbell with both hands, and make sure your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle.
  3. Raise your arms overhead until they are parallel with the ground. 
  4. Pull the dumbbell up and over your body, all while keeping your core engaged and your arms extended.
  5. Once your arms are perpendicular with the ground, slowly lower them back to the starting position, then repeat.

Chest Press Machine

Healthline states that using machines like the chest press machine can give you more stability than free weights can, which is very helpful for beginners who do not have a lot of stability yet. 

However, StrongLifts claims that machines are taking a lot of the load off your shoulders, and that they make it much easier to do exercises. This makes it harder to get strong and build muscle. 

With this in mind, you may want to start by using a chest press machine if you do not have a lot of stability. Once you do become more stable, however, and really want to start building strength, then you should switch to free weights. 

Here’s how to properly use a chest press machine:

  1. Sit on the machine and place your back flat up against the pad.
  2. Grab the handles with your palms facing outwards, then push them away from you. Be sure to keep your feet flat on the ground.
  3. Pause for a few moments once your arms are straight, and then slowly lower them back to the start. 
  4. Repeat this for 3 sets of 12 reps.

Dumbbell Chest Press

The dumbbell chest press can be a good option for beginners, since it targets the same muscles as the bench press. Not only that, but dumbbells may be easier for newcomers to handle than a bar. Here’s how to do a Dumbbell Chest Press:

  1. Lay on a flat bench on your back. Have a dumbbell in each hand resting at chest level.
  2. Face your palms towards your feet, which should always be flat on the floor.
  3. Slowly extend your arms directly over your shoulders to push the dumbbells over your chest.
  4. When your arms are straight, pause for a few moments and then bring the dumbbells back to shoulder level. 
  5. Push back up again and repeat for 3 sets of 12 reps.

Ways to Improve Your Bench Press

Knowing what the proper form is for bench press, as well as being aware of the most common mistakes, are crucial first steps into being efficient with this exercise. 

There are plenty of other things that you can do in order to get stronger and see more results, however. Here are some ways on how to improve your bench press:

Lift More Explosively

Michael Matthews, in his podcast on how to improve your bench press, discusses eleven ways on how you can get stronger on this exercise and bench more weight. 

One of the tips he gives is to lift more explosively. 

He says that using more power on both the ascent and the descent of the bench press will probably cause you to find heavier weights to be more manageable. 

You should not bounce the bar off your chest, but you do want to bring it down relatively quickly, pause for a second, and then go back up with just as much momentum. Michael says, “You want to visualize, you want to feel like you are pulling the bar down toward your chest.”

Get Focused

Michael also expresses the importance of being in the right mindset before you attempt to bench press. 

According to Michael, “There was a study conducted by AUT University with elite rugby players that found that if they pumped themself up before a bench press, their force production improved by about eight percent on average. And if they distracted themselves before their forced production decreased by about 12 percent”.

Visualizing or listening to music to get yourself pumped up, therefore, can increase the amount of force you put out, and may be a useful method for lifting more weight.

Start Your Workout With Bench Press

Another point made by Michael in his podcast is that he usually has his clients start their workouts with compound exercises and key lifts (which includes bench press), since you are typically the most energized at the beginning of the workout.

If you want to give yourself a boost for your sets of bench press, then try integrating it into the start of your workout, after you get a nice warmup session in.

Find Balance in Your Training 

Having a balanced workout plan is essential for long-term fitness success. There is a fine line between overtraining and undertraining certain muscle groups, and one that Michael thinks is very important. 

Michael Matthews says that overtraining a certain body part through one exercise can lead to fatigue and injury, while undertraining won’t lead to any substantial strength gain. 

How often you do bench press in a given week may vary. It depends on your strength level and what your personal fitness goals are. 

Make sure you do not overwork your shoulders, chest and arm by overdoing it on bench press, but don’t completely forget about this exercise either.

Bench Press More Often

On that note, if you feel that you do not do enough bench presses in your workouts, then perhaps increasing the frequency at which you do them will help you get stronger. StrongLifts puts it simply:

By increasing your Bench Press frequency you practice the movement more. Your form improves and becomes more effective. This increases your Bench Press strength.

StrongLifts

The more you practice the proper form for bench press, the better it becomes, and the stronger you will get. 

Jeff Nippard advises, however, that when you are increasing the frequency of doing bench press, you should reduce the number of reps you do and your intensity level slightly, just so you do not overtrain yourself.

Don’t give up if you aren’t the best at it; remember that everyone’s average weight on the bench press is different. You may not fall into a certain category, but don’t worry about what anyone else can do. Just focus on improving your technique through doing the exercise more often.

Partial Reps

Doing partial reps, where you only do one phase of the bench press, may help you improve your form. For example, doing reps where you only work on lifting the bar up off your chest can be good practice for getting past the bottom phase of the exercise. 

Working on getting through these sticking points by breaking down the exercise into separate parts is an effective strategy for enhancing your technique.

Rack Lock-outs

Rack lock-outs are a variation of the bench press, where you have higher safety bars that greatly shorten the range of motion in the exercise. They are primarily meant to strengthen the triceps, as well as the shoulders and chest, and also serve to improve your form. 

Doing rack lock-outs at a fairly rapid pace could increase your strength in the muscles used for the traditional bench press, so give it a try if you want to see some positive results when you do bench press.

Isometrics

Adding isometric exercises, which contract a particular muscle or muscle group, to your workouts may result in you being better able to maintain strength when you aren’t bench pressing. The particular area being targeted during these kinds of exercise do not change length, and the affected joints do not move. A good example of this would be a plank, where you stay in one spot on your toes and elbows for a certain amount of time without moving.

According to Mayo Clinic, “They can be useful, however, in enhancing stabilization — maintaining the position of the affected area — since muscles often contract isometrically to aid in stabilization”. Doing isometric exercises that work on the core, shoulders, arms or chest may cause you to see significant gains the next time you do bench press, so try them if you feel unstable while bench pressing.

Mix Up Your Routines

Do different kinds of exercises throughout your week. Sticking with the same routine can cause your progress to stall, which is why Healthline recommends adding aerobic exercises and stretches that will improve your weight training. 

In addition, make sure you give your major muscle groups at least one day to recover in between training sessions, and practice good breathing techniques while you workout.

Eat Healthy Foods

Healthline also says that having a healthy diet is absolutely necessary for you to see strength gains in your bench press. They say that you should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and “include foods that build lean muscle, such as healthy carbs, fats, and proteins”. 

Having a well-balanced diet with a proper amount of healthy macronutrients will not just increase the rate at which your muscles grow and recover, but also improve your overall health and make you feel a whole lot better in general. Eating habits can be hard to change, but starting slowly by trying something new is always a smart first step.

You can learn more about the basics of nutrition and macronutrients in our foundational nutrition guide.

Rest Longer

Giving yourself enough time to rest is a major factor in your fitness progress. The amount of time you take to rest in between sets may vary depending on your goals, so figure out what they are first before deciding on how much time to give yourself. You can read more about how you can optimize your rest periods

StrongLifts recommends that you take five minutes in between sets if you are doing heavy bench presses. “Resting longer increases the amount of ATP available for your next set. ATP is your main energy source for lifting weights”.

The more energy you have in your muscles, the better you will perform. So try taking a bit of a longer break the next time you are doing bench press with heavier weights.

Get a Good Warmup In

StrongLifts also stresses the importance of getting a good, light warmup in before starting your main sets of bench press. You should start by doing some cardio or HIIT training to get your heart rate up, then do two quick sets of five reps of bench presses with just the bar. After that, gradually add weight for each set until you reach your target weight for the day. 

Doing easier sets before getting into the harder ones gives you a chance to practice good form, and allow your muscles to be activated for the heavy lifting. Starting slow and building up gradually to more weight is a smart way to get stronger on this exercise.

Microload Your Bench Press

Microloading, according to StrongLifts, involves adding a very small amount of weight (usually less than five pounds) to an exercise every time you do it in a workout. It can help improve your strength at a slower, but safer and more reasonable pace. This slower pace can delay plateaus, and allow you to see small but consistent gains. 

If you have been doing bench press for a while and have hit a plateau, or if you are new and want to progress slowly, then microloading might be an effective option for you. 

Bench Press Equipment

You will need some equipment in order to do a bench press. Most gyms have a Power Rack set up for you already, which allows you to just set up your weights and do your sets. If a Power Rack isn’t available, though, you will have to set up your own equipment. There are plenty of alternatives to these pieces of equipment if you are not able to get to a gym. In addition, there are a few tools that can add on to your bench press experience. Some of them make it easier for you to grip the bar or lift heavier weights, while others increase the amount of resistance you have to go against in each rep and make it even more challenging. Make sure you know how to set up everything and use all your equipment correctly, as this will help you do bench presses safely and effectively. Here are some of the most common pieces of equipment that people use while doing bench press:

Bench

You will need a bench to lay on while you do the bench press; it gives you the foundation you need to push heavy weights above you. Most gyms have multiple benches laying around that you can adjust to be completely flat for the exercise. 

If you do not have a bench available that has some sort of uprights for you to place the bar in, then doing bench press can be dangerous. It is okay to use dumbbells or barbells on a bench without uprights, but be sure to have someone spot you just in case you can’t lift the weights anymore.

Barbell/Dumbbell

If you do not have a barbell for you to put weight plates on, then using dumbbells is a great substitute. 

As previously mentioned, it is good to have someone there watching you do your reps, since they can take the weights from you if you cannot complete the full motion and risk hurting yourself. No matter what type of weight you use, always start with a light weight. 

Use either an empty bar, lighter barbells or lighter dumbbells at first, so that you can get accustomed to using the right form. 

Wrist Wraps

Wrist wraps can be very useful for helping you have the right wrist placement while you do bench presses. They prevent wrist overextension and bending, which is a huge mistake that may lead to injury. Using them if you have a lack of wrist stability or are trying to perfect your form does have some benefits.

However, you do not want to use them too often. This can lead to your wrists not getting stronger because of the support that the wrist wraps provide. They are only meant to be used as a temporary crutch, since they are tight and can cut off circulation if left on for too long. 

Wrist wraps do not automatically fix bad form. StrongLifts says, “If your wrists hurt because they bend when you Bench Press, then fix your grip first. Wrist wraps may provide relief from wrist pain, but they don’t fix the root of the issue.”

Therefore, you shouldn’t necessarily use wrist wraps if you are struggling with technique. Only use them every once in a while if you notice that your wrists are moving around too much.

Fat Gripz

Fat Gripz are a piece of equipment that can be placed on any sort of dumbbell or barbell while you perform a bench press. They can really spice up your sets and make you get even better results from your training. 

A pair of Fat Gripz helps to improve your grip strength by stimulating the muscles in your hands, arms and upper body, which can lead to greater strength and muscle gains. 

Since thicker handles and bars are tougher to hold, they make the exercise you’re doing a lot harder. You must focus harder on your technique as you do your reps.

It would definitely be worth it to give Fat Gripz a try once you are accustomed to doing bench press normally. They are fairly cheap and come in a variety of different difficulty levels.

Chains and Bands

Both chains and bands have a powerful effect on your bench press. They “are sometimes called “accommodating resistance,” because they are used to match the resistance provided by the barbell with the force produced by the muscles”, according to Chris Beardsley.

They increase the amount of resistance from the weights and enable you to move faster through the middle part of the bench press, which very well may lead to greater gains in strength. Not only that, but the stability of bands and chains can fluctuate as you do your sets, which require your muscles to work harder to keep you balanced. You have to work much harder to get the bar above you and lockout your arms.

Try using chains and bands after you feel comfortable doing a normal bench press, and you are looking for an intense and challenging way to make your sets more effective.

Chalk

Putting chalk on your hands helps you to have better grip strength. This can be useful if you are trying to lift heavier weights or if you do not have a super strong grip to begin with. However, it does make a huge mess when you use it, which is why many gyms do not allow it to be used. 

It may be worth it to at least try using it, but it might be a better option to use gloves instead, or use a lighter weight until your grip is strong enough for heavier weights.

BOSU Ball

Doing bench press on a BOSU ball gives you an interesting challenge. Instead of having the flat surface of a bench, you must do your reps on an unstable and uneven surface. 

While your shoulders, chest and arms muscles must work to push the dumbbells over your body, your core and legs must work just as hard to keep you balanced. Combining the Bosu ball with bench press is an excellent way to increase core stability and strength, as well as increase the benefits felt throughout your entire body.

Make sure you feel comfortable with your bench press form first before trying this, and start with a lighter dumbbell if you do not have the most stable core. It will be quite challenging to do bench press on a Bosu ball at first.

Takeaways

The bench press is an extremely technical exercise that takes a lot of practice to get the hang of. 

This is especially true if you are trying to gain strength by using heavier weights, since having improper technique can lead to ineffective reps, or even serious injury. 

Knowing the best ways to do this exercise safely and effectively is crucial to seeing the results you desire. 

Here are some of the most important points to take away from this bench press guide:

  • The bench press is a compound exercise that works your whole body, and is an excellent way to gain strength and muscle mass in your shoulders, triceps, and chest (especially your pectoral muscles). 
  • Your grip while doing it may differ depending on how wide your shoulders are and how long your upper-arms are. 
  • No matter how good your form is, if you are not doing your bench press in a Power Rack (where you can fail safely and not have the bar fall on you), then you should have someone else spot you. Doing bench press by yourself with no one to help you if you get stuck is very dangerous.
  • Mistakes and issues with finishing a rep are likely to be common if you are new to trying to do bench press. 
  • Getting stuck either at the bottom of the press or the lock-out phase, for example, can occur if you are using too much weight early on, you are using a thumbless grip, or you are bending your wrists. Be aware of what the proper form for bench press is because it will help you to easily avoid making mistakes, and get the most out of every rep. 
  • Several variations of the traditional bench press exist, including the Close Grip Bench Press, Incline Bench Press, Decline Bench Press, and Dumbbell Bench Press. There are also machines specifically designed for assisting you as you do your reps. Push-ups are also a very effective way to work the same muscles as the bench press, without the use of heavy weights.
  • Improving your bench press starts with  having the correct technique. Without the right form, you can only handle so much before you end up getting hurt. 
  • Doing the exercise more often will help you get used to doing it correctly. In addition to that, slowing down your sets and performing less reps will help you focus more on improving your form. 
  • There is also equipment (like wrist wraps) that can reduce the amount of physical strain placed on your body, which may be useful if you are new to doing bench presses or have weak wrists. 
  • Furthermore, plenty of other exercises, especially push-ups, can help you get stronger in your shoulders and chest muscles, which in turn will allow you to maintain better form while doing the bench press.
  • You will need a bench and a bar or dumbbells to do a traditional bench press, but there is plenty of optional equipment you can use to make the exercise easier or even more challenging.
  • You can use chains, bands, a Bosu ball, or Fat Gripz,  to make bench pressing harder.
  • You can use chalk or wrist wraps to make bench press easier. 
  • It is highly recommended that you stick with a normal bench press until you are sure that you are comfortable with your form. 

For more articles on different exercises and other fitness guides, be sure to visit https://www.myworkouts.io/edu.

Resources

https://stronglifts.com/bench-press/

https://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/what-do-you-bench-strength-training-101-the-bench-press/

https://youtu.be/vthMCtgVtFw

https://youtu.be/vcBig73ojpE

https://youtu.be/ptpmRrzRtWQ

https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/bench-press-alternative

https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/bench-press-muscles-worked

https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/average-bench-press

https://greatist.com/fitness/push-ups-or-bench-press-better-chest#6

https://www.webmd.com/men/features/strength-training-building-chest-muscles

https://legionathletics.com/increase-bench-press-podcast/

https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/how-should-we-train-the-pectoralis-major-3b302dfbda1e

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5357260/

https://www.fatgripz.com/how-fat-gripz-work.html

https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/what-do-you-think-you-are-doing-by-adding-bands-or-chains-a8f37d6de904

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/isometric-exercises/faq-20058186

https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/ultimate-foundational-nutrition-guide/1921

Date Created: October 11, 2020

Last Updated: October 11, 2020

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