The Barbell Bench Press
Developing a strong upper torso is an essential aspect of strength training. No matter the sport, athletes will benefit significantly by improving the strength of their shoulders, upper back, pecs, triceps, biceps, and forearms. Not only will strength and athletic performance improve, but the upper body will also become more resistant to injury.
The barbell bench press is one of the most effective exercises for developing upper body strength. The barbell bench press is to the upper body what the squat is to the lower body. It is a multi-joint lift that targets practically all major upper-body muscle groups and does so very efficiently. While this lift has been demonized as "hard on the shoulders" and often replaced with dumbbell pressing, real strength coaches understand that a properly performed bench press presents no more risk of shoulder injury than a dumbbell bench press.
It doesn't matter if the goal is to improve upper body absolute strength, explosive power, hypertrophy, or work capacity; the bench press and its many variations can be utilized to deliver rapid results. There is a reason the bench press is considered one of the big three barbell lifts - because it works.
However, there are a few things all athletes and coaches should understand before implementing a training program that includes the bench press. Below, we will discuss the benefits of the barbell bench press, including form and technique, exercise variations, basic programming, and a few tips to help maximize the effectiveness of your barbell bench press training.
Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press
As mentioned above, the barbell bench press targets the shoulders, upper back, pecs, triceps, biceps, and forearms. When following a Conjugate Method program, the bench press is most commonly used to improve absolute strength and explosive power and to increase upper body muscle mass.
During max effort upper training, we use the bench press and many different variations to enhance the absolute strength of athletes. We use the bench press to develop upper-body explosive power on dynamic effort training days. On either day, we will use drop sets or specifically programmed bench press exercises for accessory work, with the goal being to increase upper body muscle mass.
By using the Conjugate Method properly, we can use one exercise and bring about a multitude of specific training effects and benefits. This is the primary reason why the bench press is so valuable. It is a multi-joint barbell movement that can be programmed in different ways to profoundly affect the most important muscle groups of the upper body.
While it may indeed be possible to train an athlete without using the barbell bench press, there is no doubt that athletes who use it will gain upper body strength at an accelerated rate.
Proper Barbell Bench Press Form and Technique
One of the most critical aspects of bench press training is execution. As long as athletes understand how to properly perform the bench press and focus on the correct execution of each rep, the bench press will be one of the most beneficial exercises. However, failure to properly execute when performing a bench press can result in a shoulder, pec, or tricep injury.
Knowing this, each athlete must understand the proper execution of a barbell bench press. The first thing to note is there is no exact right or wrong form. Correct form is ultimately the form that works best for the athlete based on their physical attributes. A coach must guide the athlete in finding the form best fit for their physical characteristics and strengths.
However, regardless of build or strengths, there are a few parameters that must be acknowledged before performing a barbell bench press:
First, we want to lie down on the bench and make contact with the barbell using our hands. From here, the idea is to grab the barbell and pull the torso into a position that makes sense for unracking the barbell so that the entire setup process can begin. We want to be as close to the rack as possible to make the unrack easy, but we want to be far enough from the rack to avoid pressing the barbell into the hooks or pins.
Now that we have correctly positioned the torso on the bench, it is time to set the feet up. Depending on physical structure, or the rules of the federation you compete in, there are two ways an athlete can choose to set their feet: flat or on the toes. The basic idea is to select the foot position that allows for proper leg drive during the press and optimal force transfer to the barbell.
Next, we will begin setting up the arch. Depending on the Athlete, the arch may be slight or significant; however, it is recommended that all athletes have somewhat of an arch when performing the barbell bench press. Why? An arch helps elevate the chest, limiting the distance the barbell travels to touch the chest. This limits the stretch experienced by the pecs and shoulders and significantly lowers the chance of injury.
With the feet and arch set, it is time to set the hands for the final time and begin unracking the barbell. Once again, where the hands are placed during the press greatly depends on the build and strengths of the athlete. If the athlete has longer arms but a larger chest, a wide grip would make sense to limit the range of motion. Bringing the grip closer would make sense if the athlete has short arms and powerful triceps.
It is now time to unrack the barbell and begin the press. Without losing an aspect of the setup, we want to breathe into the stomach to expand and elevate the torso as much as possible while using the arms and upper back to unrack the barbell and bring it into position over the chest. Once this has been accomplished, we will begin the eccentric portion of the barbell bench press.
Keeping the elbows tucked in with a tight grip on the barbell is essential as the barbell is lowered. This helps protect the shoulders, elevate the chest, and activate the triceps. However, be sure to avoid tucking the elbows in too tightly to the torso, as this will limit pressing strength and can potentially cause injury. The idea is to comfortably tuck the elbows in towards the torso to limit the stretch and strain experienced by the pecs and shoulders.
The barbell is now at chest level, with the eccentric portion complete. When the barbell reaches the chest, athletes must maintain their arch and elevate the chest and torso. Failure to do so will result in the arch collapsing, the range of motion extending, and the shoulders and pecs being further stretched. This leads to a failed lift at best or an injury at worst.
Now that the barbell is in the proper position on the chest and the ideal arch posture has been maintained, it is time to begin the concentric portion of the barbell bench press. The idea is to continue squeezing the barbell, utilizing the triceps as much as possible both off the chest and as the press is completed to reduce the strain experienced by the pecs and anterior shoulders.
An ideal concentric press should be controlled and powerful, with little to no loss of arch posture as the lift is completed. If the lift is executed correctly, the athlete should still be in relatively the same position as they were when the lift began. Anything less would reveal specific muscle weakness or highlight issues with remaining disciplined in execution.
With the concentric portion of the barbell bench press completed, we can now rack the barbell.
Common Bench Press Variations
Here is a list of the basic barbell bench press variations utilized at Westside Barbell, along with a brief explanation of each exercise:
Flat Bench Press - this is the most common variation of the barbell bench press. The flat bench press is the foundational movement and does an excellent job of efficiently targeting all upper torso muscle groups. This variation will be the first bench press variation introduced to athletes and can be used as a main or accessory exercise.
Close-Grip Bench Press - this is the second most common bench press variation, used to enhance the strength of the shoulders and triceps significantly. The close-grip bench press also acts as a variation for the dynamic effort bench press. This variation will be the second bench press variation introduced to athletes and can be used as a main or accessory exercise.
Incline Bench Press - this bench press variation places the torso in an incline position and increases the emphasis on the anterior shoulders, pecs, and triceps. Additionally, the incline bench press also helps improve upper back and posterior delt strength. However, the incline bench press can prove challenging to execute for athletes with previous shoulder issues or injuries. This will be the third bench press variation introduced to athletes and can be used as a main or accessory exercise.
Floor Press - the floor press is one of the best ways to use a bench press variation to target the triceps directly. While the close-grip bench press is undoubtedly tricep-focused, the floor press almost only focuses on the triceps. The shoulders and upper back are involved, but the burden is mostly placed on the triceps. This will be the fourth bench press variation introduced to athletes and can be used as a main or accessory exercise.
Decline Bench Press - the decline bench press is another tricep-focused barbell bench press variation. When performing a decline press, the arms perform much of the work, primarily the triceps. For this reason, we prefer to use this exercise as an accessory exercise. Considering the floor press accomplishes similar goals while involving more muscle groups, the decline bench press is better used as a bench press accessory option to target the triceps.
Programming and Progression
No matter how well you understand the intent or execution of an exercise, it doesn't mean much if you do not know how to program the exercise into your training program effectively. At Westside, we use the barbell bench press as a main or accessory exercise during each upper-body training session. Here are the basic programming parameters depending on the training day:
Max Effort Upper - all acceptable barbell bench press variations should be programmed for a top set of 1-3 repetitions, focusing on crossing the 90% intensity threshold to improve absolute strength optimally. If a deload is necessary, the rep range can be extended to a top set of five repetitions.
Dynamic Effort Upper - speed bench press will be performed using either the flat or close-grip bench press variation. Athletes can change grips within the same workout, week to week, or wave to wave. Each wave will feature three weeks of 9 x 3, performed at ascending percentages throughout the three-week wave.
Accessory Training - barbell bench press variations can always be utilized as accessory exercises. This is done to increase strength and muscle mass or improve work capacity. When using the barbell bench press to increase strength, we will use 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps. We will go with 2-4 sets of 10-12 reps to increase muscle mass. We will go with 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps to increase work capacity.
The bench press is an exercise that requires an athlete to take time to learn how to execute the lift based on their build and abilities properly. However, no matter how well athletes prepare, it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made. While errors are expected, correcting them as quickly as possible is critical.
As mentioned previously, the barbell bench press can cause injury if executed incorrectly, so an athlete must refrain from developing bad habits or committing frequent mistakes. Here are a few common mistakes to be on the lookout for when initially learning the bench press:
Excessive Wrist Flexion - when performing a barbell bench press, some wrist flexion is expected. However, we want to limit the amount of wrist flexion allowed so that the weight sits in line with the forearm bones and elbow joints. This limits the wear and tear experienced by the wrists significantly.
Loose Grip - a loose grip means a barbell is not under control. When gripping the barbell during a bench press, it is essential to grasp it as firmly as possible. This allows for a better elbow position during the press and significantly improves triceps activation.
Flat Back - as mentioned above, all athletes should bench with an arch of some sort. It may not be a dramatic arch, but an arch is necessary to help alleviate the stretch and stress experienced by the pecs and shoulders. Flat back benching extends the stretch and overall range of motion, placing the pecs and shoulders in a compromised position.
No Leg Drive - to press the heaviest weights, you need to be able to apply some leg drive to your bench press. If you follow the setup discussed above, using leg drive during your bench press should be no issue. However, if your setup is undisciplined, you will likely be unable to transfer leg drive to the barbell.
Flared Elbows - this is likely the most dangerous mistake when performing a heavy bench press. Bodybuilders often use this style of benching, and it is a recipe for disaster for the shoulders and pecs. Most torn pecs result from failure to properly tuck the elbows towards the torso before performing the rep.
Q: What muscles does the barbell bench press target?
A: The barbell bench press primarily targets the shoulders, pecs, triceps, biceps, forearms, and upper back.
Q: Is the barbell bench press the same as the bench press?
A: The barbell bench press refers to using the barbell to perform the press. A bench press can also be performed using dumbbells, kettlebells, cable machines, bench press machines, or bands.
Q: Should athletes use supportive equipment when performing the barbell bench press?
A: We typically recommend wrist wraps and a belt when performing moderate to heavy upper-body pressing movements.
Q: How often should athletes use a barbell bench press variation as a main exercise?
A: We typically use a barbell bench press variation as a main exercise during both max and dynamic effort upper training. The only exception to this would be strongman competitors, who will perform overhead press variations more frequently.
Q: Should athletes playing sports focused on using the arms and shoulders perform the barbell bench press regularly?
A: The barbell bench press should be used relatively frequently provided the athlete is not experiencing any pain or discomfort performing the exercise and no significant loss of sports performance has been reported. However, replacing some barbell bench press exercises with dumbbell or kettlebell bench presses can be helpful for athletes in this situation.
Stronger athlete = Better Athlete
Strength is always a benefit to any athlete. The ability to tap into large reserves of absolute strength and explosive power almost always gives an athlete an advantage on the playing field. The benefits of properly programmed barbell exercises cannot be replicated by any other training means.
Too often, modern strength coaches seek to avoid the big three movements, hoping to find a "safer" way of training their athletes. This flawed logic leads to less prepared athletes competing while at a higher risk of injury. No basic exercise is inherently dangerous; it is understanding, execution, and programming of a movement that decides whether it is dangerous or not.
As a coach, avoiding using the barbell bench press is a surefire way to leave your athletes with weak upper bodies and at a greater risk of injury. The ability to target and load major upper-body muscle groups provided by the barbell bench press cannot be mimicked by other upper-body exercises. Similar to how the squat is the King of lower body training, the barbell bench press rules when developing the upper body's absolute strength and power.
Always remember, an athlete's ability to execute decides whether or not an exercise is dangerous. Do not fall victim to the fear and myths associated with specific exercises. Learn how to perform and program these exercises correctly. Stronger athletes lead to better athletes; there is no doubt the barbell bench press can make all athletes stronger.