If you’ve ever researched how to add size or definition to your chest, you already know the first thing that pops up is the barbell bench press.
And for good reason, it’s pretty much the chest-building exercises!
The problem is, most people will naturally perform the barbell bench press incorrectly.
In fact, I’d say I see this exercise performed incorrectly more than most any other. Except for maybe squats...but that’s a topic for another day.
So I’m gonna break down the bench press into 5 easy steps to ensure you’re minimizing risk of injury, getting the most strength benefits, and activating the right muscle fibers to build a sculpted chest!
Change how you think about the movement
First off, calling it a bench “press” is actually a bit of a misnomer.
If you take a moment to analyze the anatomy of your chest, you’ll see that the muscle fibers (Pectoralis Majors, aka Pecs) actually run laterally, and somewhat diagonally, from your sternum to your humerus (upper arm).
So when we contract our Pecs to perform an exercise, we have to think about squeezing our arms in towards the middle of our chest, not pressing straight out in front.
And since we know our chest fibers attach to our upper arm, it’s beneficial to think about squeezing your elbows in towards your chest because your pecs ultimately control your arm from the elbow-up!
Plant your feet flat, directly below your knees
I’ll often see people bringing their knees up from the floor, usually to keep their back flat on the bench. In reality, you’ll want a slight arch in your lower back, but I’ll discuss this more in the next step.
For now, focus on planting your feet flat and firmly on the ground to create a solid chain of energy for you to lift from. Your Bench Press should always begin with your feet being driven into the ground, forcing you to dig your shoulder blades deeper into the bench, allowing you to drive the bar from your chest with more power!
Retract your shoulder blades and slightly arch your lower back
Going along with point #2, it’s extremely important to retract your shoulder blades and keep your back muscles flexed as you’re setting up for your bench. Any loose points, such as feet off the floor, loose legs, or your back muscles being relaxed, will result in an immediate loss of energy and power from your press.
No need to go crazy with the arch in your lower back. The small arch is primarily a result of locking in your legs (flexed) with your feet beneath your knees, and your glutes flexed, indicating a solid kinetic chain in your lower body. An overly-excessive arch can cause back problems in your lumbar region (no bueno!).
Keep your wrists locked and grip the h*** out of the bar!
Again, it’s all about the solidarity of your body for energy to flow through. Start by placing the bar in the lower part of your hand, directly above where your forearm forms a joint with your hand. Having the bar placed any higher results in a bent wrist (quite painful) and a loss of energy. It’s also important to grip the bar tight, and I mean grip the h*** out of it! A tight grip is the only way to guarantee your wrists are locked throughout the movement and that there’s no energy leakage.
Flexed and sturdy forearms equals a stronger lift.
Keep your elbows tucked at ~45 degrees, bring the bar down via an arc motion to your lower chest
Lastly, you NEVER want to let your elbows drift out to 90 degrees when you’re bench pressing. Not only do you lose a tremendous amount of power from your chest, you put your entire shoulder joint in a compromised position. Ever hear the old guy at the gym reminiscing about how he blew out his shoulder benching? I can almost guarantee you that’s how he did it. Instead, keep your elbows slightly tucked, roughly ~45 degrees from your chest. Remember that your chest fibers run diagonally, so having your elbow at more of an angle from your body will allow the muscle fibers to contract naturally, resulting in much better Pec activation.
Another point; don’t try to lower the bar straight down to your chest, it’s unnatural. Instead, think about lowering the bar in an arc motion towards the bottom of your chest. It may feel a little weird at first, but it’s optimal given the angle that the muscle fibers in our chest are aligned.
Finally, pay particular attention to your forearms.
You want to make sure they remain perpendicular to the floor (vertical) throughout the entire movement.
Wrapping it all up...
So there you have it, 5 simple steps to improving your bench press.
It may seem like a lot to remember, but just take it slow, and perform numerous repetitions with light weight to really ingrain the movement pattern. If you’ve been neglecting one (or several) of these steps, I’m willing to bet you’ll see immediate improvement in not only the weight you’re able to handle, but in how natural the movement feels, which is what’s most important.
Happy benching, comrades!