How to Bench Press Correctly

How to Bench Press Correctly

The bench press is an exercise that is a staple in practically any type of training program. It doesn't matter whether you are an athlete, a powerlifter, or someone just looking to get stronger; the bench press is one of the most effective exercises when focusing on building strength and muscle in the upper torso. However, to ensure this exercise is maximally effective, it is crucial to understand what qualifies as proper execution of a bench press. 

If you've been around a barbell gym for a few years, you've either seen or heard about someone tearing their pectoralis major muscle while training the bench press. Unfortunately, this type of injury has become commonplace in strength training. The exact cause of the injury can vary slightly, but one thing is for sure, poor bench press execution always plays a role. 

When an athlete fails to set up and execute the bench press correctly, the pectoralis major muscle becomes overstretched, causing an overload of the tissue and resulting in a muscle tear. This is no injury to scoff at either; a torn pec muscle can permanently alter your bench press abilities. 

Fortunately, we have developed a simple and effective way of teaching the basics of bench press execution at Westside Barbell. Considering all athletes move differently from one another, we use basic guidelines to help all athletes find their ideal setup and form to allow themselves to press the most weight without placing their pecs and shoulders at risk. 

Now, let's get started with the training day. First, we must ensure we are properly warmed up for the day. Here is how we go about warming up:

How to Warmup for Bench Press

Before we begin our workout, we must warm up for the bench press. As a beginner learning how to bench press, it is crucial to get the upper body's muscles prepared for the training day. We want to perform a few quick movements to get our blood flowing and the joints ready to go.

This is the basic warmup we use at Westside Barbell:

A. Tricep Cable Pressdowns - 2 x 15

B. Y Raises - 2 x 15

C. Pulldowns / Pull-Ups - 2 x 10

D. Pushups - 2 x 15

Here is how to bench press correctly for beginners:

Basic Execution of the Bench Press

Positioning & Set Up

1. Where to sit under the bar

First, we need to set the upper back and torso in position on the bench that allows us to unrack the barbell or receive a handoff without losing our arch once it is established. The idea is to get in position so that you are just outside of the rack hooks when the barbell is in your hands. If you start too far under the rack hooks, you will end up pushing the barbell into them, and if you are too far away, you will lose your setup while trying to unrack the barbell. 

2. Hand placement and grip on bar

Next, we want to set our hands. Where we put our hands will differ depending on the athlete. Some athletes will find they have an advantage when pressing close grip. Some will like their pinky or ring finger on the barbell rings, while others may opt for a wide grip. There is no rule on which type of grip will work best based on a lifter's anatomy, so you must test the different grip styles to see what feels best. 

3. Set the arch

Now that we have our upper back in position and our grip on the barbell, it is time to begin setting our arch. Once again, the type of arch used will differ from athlete to athlete. Your arch and grip setup can work to your advantage. For instance, the lift's ROM would be manipulated to your advantage if you have a wide grip and a high arch. However, you may discover your best pressing strength is found when you use a close grip and a slight arch. There is no rule about which will work best; you must try a few different styles and see what feels right. 

4. Feet placement

With the upper back, torso, grip, and arch set, it is time to get the feet set and prepare to unrack the barbell. Setting the feet is important because we want to place them in position to allow maximum leg drive when pressing the barbell off the chest. Some will choose to bench with their feet flat on the floor, while others will feel more comfortable benching with the heels elevated off the floor. You want to choose the foot position that allows you to get maximum leg drive to wedge the upper back into the bench to stabilize the torso as much as possible, allowing maximum force to be applied to the barbell. 

Executing the Eccentric Phase

5. Unracking the weight

It is now time to unrack the weight. To do this, we will take a deep breath to fill the torso with air to brace the entire torso under the weight and against the bench. We will then squeeze the barbell, using our upper back and triceps to unrack the barbell. Athletes should do this without lifting the upper back out of position. Set your barbell rack height accordingly to ensure this is possible. 

6. Lowering the weight & elbow position

The weight is now out of the rack and over the chest. While maintaining a tremendous brace, we will begin lowering the barbell. To do this safely, we want to pull the elbows in slightly towards the lats to allow us to tuck them while lowering the barbell. This elbow position will help to reduce the stretch and strain experienced by the pectoralis major muscles. You should feel more weight in the arms and upper back if done correctly. 

7. Chest position and bar path

As we tuck the elbows and lower the bar, we want to keep our upper back posture established and the chest raised as much as possible. Keeping the chest elevated helps protect the pecs and shoulders further while reducing the ROM a bit. The barbell should be lowered in a straight line, touching the chest right around the middle of the sternum. 

Executing the Concentric Phase

8. Grip and brace maintenance before the press

Once the barbell is on the chest, we want to maintain a firm grip and brace. Failure to do so will cause the back to flatten, the chest to lower, and the burden of the weight to be shifted to the pecs and anterior shoulder. This eliminates all of the protections provided by the initial setup and places the athlete at significant risk of injury. Focus on perfecting your off-the-chest technique. 

9. Controlled and explosive pressing

Next, we will press the barbell off the chest to complete the lift. We want to do this in a controlled but explosive manner. While keeping the elbows tucked, we will use the triceps, posterior shoulders, and upper back to exert as much force as possible to quickly press the barbell. Ideally, your elbows would stay slightly tucked throughout the entire concentric portion of the lift. However, your elbows may flare a bit as you approach lockout with heavier weights. As long as this does not place excessive stress on the pecs, it is nothing to cause concern. 

10. Re-racking the weight

Finally, while maintaining a solid grip on the barbell, you will rack the barbell in a controlled manner. 

Here's a short video tutorial from 8-time world record holder Laura Phelps of Queen Bee Power to help you pull it all together.


Common Mistakes

Here are a few of the common mistakes athletes make when performing the bench press:

Mistake: A weak grip and failure to maintain control over the barbell.
Correction: Maintain a strong grip on the barbell throughout the entire lift.

Mistake: Loss of upper back brace resulting in the upper back becoming flat. This results in excess strain being placed on the pecs and anterior shoulders.
Correction: Keep the chest elevated while tucking the elbows and squeezing the shoulder blades together. 

Mistake: Excessive elbow flaring resulting in increased stretch and strain of the pectoralis major muscles. 
Correction: Squeeze the barbell while keeping the chest elevated and elbows tucked. Some elbow flare is acceptable as the barbell approaches lockout. 

Mistake: Lack of control over the barbell during the eccentric phase, letting the barbell crash into the torso. This causes a lifter's entire setup to become disrupted, with the back flattening and the arch being lost. This is a common cause of bench press injury during max effort bench. 
Correction: Lower the barbell to the chest in a controlled manner, slowing the bar as it approaches the chest. Once the barbell touches the chest, we pause briefly, then press. We do not let the weight sink into the torso and collapse our setup. 

Mistake: Poor chest and torso elevation prior to unracking the barbell. 
Correction: Learn to breathe into the stomach and chest to fill the torso with air and establish a strong brace against the bench before lifting the barbell out of the rack.  

Mistake: No leg drive. 
Correction: Learn to use your legs in the bench press. You can do this by setting up on the bench with a weight you can't easily unrack and practicing using the feet to drive the upper back into the bench while pressing into the barbell. If done correctly, you will feel the stability provided to the torso when leg drive is appropriately applied. 

Mistake: Letting your air out, resulting in a loss of setup. 
Correction: Condition yourself to hold your air in and maintain your brace with maximum discipline. This can be done by training back down sets around 75-80% for sets of 3, while focusing on holding your breath and brace for all three reps without a reset. 

Avoiding these mistakes will almost guarantee you will always have healthy pecs and shoulders. These parameters may seem simple when you read them, but applying them can become difficult as the weight on the bar increases. Always make intelligent jumps in weight and perform each set and rep with as much discipline as possible.

Also, allow yourself enough time to rest between sets to have the energy to set up and perform each set and rep properly. It is always better to take an extra minute of rest to ensure you're ready to go than to rush and injure yourself. It is up to you to set yourself up for success. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are there any differences in form between advanced and beginner lifters? 
A: No, the only difference would be overall execution and proficiency. The guidelines remain the same for all lifters. 

Q: Should non-powerlifters bench differently than powerlifters?
A: No, the guidelines above represent the proper way to bench press regardless of sport. Safe execution is safe execution. 

Q: Which variations should be performed when learning how to bench press?
A: We recommend starting with flat bench press, close grip bench press, and incline bench press.

Q: Should the barbell touch the chest with each rep?
A: Yes, unless you perform a variation that calls for the barbell to be paused above the chest. When initially learning how to bench press correctly, it is suggested that you touch all reps to the chest. 

Q: What equipment will I need when learning how to bench press?
A: No equipment is required. However, we suggest using a set of wrist wraps and a belt if it allows you to establish a better brace. 

Q: Do the guidelines above apply to all variations of the bench press or only the flat bench press?
A: The guidelines listed above can be applied to all bench press variations like close grip or incline bench presses. Although the exact way you press the barbell may slightly differ, the guidelines remain the same. 

Q: What is the expected time for a beginner to learn how to bench press?
A: It will typically take a beginner 2-4 weeks to grasp the concepts described above. Mastery can take a lifetime. 

The Benefits of Learning How to Bench Press Correctly

Learning how to bench press correctly will pay off tremendously for any athlete. You will avoid costly mistakes and injuries while yielding maximum gains from your bench press exercise variations. These gains will help improve upper body strength and durability where it matters most; the shoulders, mid and upper back, and arms

Understanding the proper way to bench press is crucial for any athlete, no matter if their focus is the platform or the playing field. Whether you are exerting maximal force into a barbell or the chest of an opponent when throwing a block, knowing how to bench press correctly will provide you with the torso strength necessary to exert your will no matter the sport you play. 

The guidelines and suggestions above represent how to bench press correctly for beginners. It is essential to take each step seriously and focus on dialing in your form more and more each set. No matter how easy the weight may feel, you will always go through your steps and execute as if the bar is loaded with max weight. It's easy to learn to bench press. Learning how to bench press correctly takes time, practice, and discipline. 

Where To Learn More

Check out our Bench Press Manual, and get additional workouts, learn the most effective training methods, bench press technique, and more. 

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Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

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