Compound Exercises 101: Bench Press

Compund exercises - Bench Press

To many people (and by that I mean guys), the bench press is the pinnacle of strength training. The question “how much do you bench?” is a tried-and-true filler for party conversations revolving around fitness (closely followed by “Do you even lift?”).

For good reason. The bench press is counted as one of the “big three”, the three exercises that are preferred to measure athletic prowess in strength competitions (the other two being squats and deadlifts). While you may have no motivation to enter a powerlifting tournament any time soon (I certainly don’t), you can still use the bench press when your aim is to lose fat or gain muscle.

(To find out why compound exercises like the bench press are especially suited for that, please read the first article here)

[Disclaimer: I'm not a certified trainer nor a doctor nor do I pretend to be either on the internet. I'm just a guy who likes to work out, do his own research, and share what he learns with others. Please consult with a professional before making any changes to your workout regimen. And please don't hurt yourself or others. It would make both of us very unhappy.]

What bench pressing can do for you

The bench press is usually mainly seen as a chest exercise. The main muscles involved in the lift are the pectoralis (chest muscles), anterior deltoids (front shoulder muscles), and triceps (muscles on the back of your arms).

While these muscles do most of the heavy work, if performed correctly, the bench press will have other secondary benefits. It will build your grip strength, forearm muscles, and, being a free-weight exercise, work the stabilizer muscles that you are using to keep the bar steady during the lift.

To facilitate the necessary stability all along your body, you will also use muscles in your upper back, abs, glutes and legs. As you can see, like many of the compound exercises we will be looking at over time, the bench press is demanding your whole body, not just a few isolated muscles.

How to bench properly

The exercise is divided into four phases: setup, unracking the bar, lowering the weight (or eccentric contraction), and lifting the weight (aka concentric contraction). We will talk about the most important details for each phase.

A decisive factor in bench pressing is to establish full-body stability. The idea is to build a kinetic chain throughout your body, meaning a tightness that goes from your legs all the way to your upper back and shoulders. This will provide a stable base to control the weight and it is important to get this right before lifting heavy.

So get your ego out of the way. Take the time to learn the technique. Form comes first, performance second.

Strength is a skill. There is an art to it. It’s much better to lay a proper foundation and then keep upping the weight you can bench for years to come instead of going heavy from the beginning, busting your shoulder joints, and waving the bench press goodbye for good. Think long term. You will need your shoulders.

Setup

  1. Lie down on the bench with your head passing underneath the bar. To get your full body stable, you will need to tighten it and this will move you further toward your feet, therefore you need to start a little higher up. In the end the bar should end up right above your eyes.
  2. Grab the bar. Typically the width of your grip will be around shoulder width or slightly greater than that. Put the bar in the palm of your hand close to your wrists and not close to your fingers. This will make it easier to keep your wrists straight throughout the lift. Do not let them tilt backwards, it will result in pain over time.
  3. Take a deep breath and drive your chest upwards by squeezing your shoulder-blades together. Keep your shoulders back and down at all times. Pretend you want to bend the bar in half. This activates your upper back and prevents shoulder injuries. At the same time brace your abs.
  4. Plant your feet solidly on the ground using a wide stance. Actively drive them downward. Squeeze your glutes (that’s your ass) to keep your hips stable. If so far you have been pressing with your feet in the air or planted on the bench, you need to stop that.
  5.  Squeeze the bar tight to create tension in your upper body all the way from your hands to your upper back. Try to crush the bar in your hands until your knuckles turn white.

You should end up with your eyes under the bar, your lower back arched, and your body activated and tight from legs to shoulders. This setup will give you a stable base to start lifting from.

Unracking the bar

  1. Take a deep breath. Push the bar up until your arms are straight and your elbows locked out.
  2. With straight arms, move the bar directly over your chest. Do not bend your elbows, as you are risking letting the bar fall on your face.

Especially at heavier weights, it is a good idea to use a spotter for this. A spotter is someone who is standing behind the bar ready to assist you should the weight prove too heavy.

Lowering the bar

  1. Take a breath to reset your breathing. Then hold it for the lift.
  2. Instead of relaxing and letting gravity pull down the bar for you, you want to actively pull the weight downward with your lats in a controlled movement while bringing up your chest. Think seated cable row. This will keep your body rigid and limit how far your shoulders can travel forward at the bottom of the lift and keep them back and down.
  3. Tuck in your elbows. They should track at about 45 degrees from your body. Most people will lift with their elbows and arms at an almost perpendicular angle (I’ve definitely made this mistake). This is bad for the shoulder joints as it puts a lot of weight on them.
  4. Lower the bar so that it ends up mid-chest at about nipple level. Let it make contact with your chest for a full range of motion. Don’t bounce it off. That’s just not cool.

The lift

  1. Once the bar makes contact, press it as hard as you can back up until your elbows lock out. Actively drive your feet downward during the lift. At heavier weights the bar will move slowly but your intent should always be to move it as fast as you can.
  2. Congratulations, you just did your first bench press repetition. Reset your breath and repeat.

Bench Press – The fine print

Bench Press - the details

As everything in life, the bench press is all about details. There are a few things to keep in mind and errors to avoid.

  • Don’t use a thumbless grip. Wrap both of your thumbs around the bar. Not using them is called a “suicide grip” and for good reason. Especially at higher weights, when the bar slips out for your grasp it can result in serious injury. Don’t do that.
  • Do not push out of your neck. If you find yourself pressing your neck into the bench in order move the weight, stop the lift. This is a part of your body you do not want to involve or damage (neither is any other part of your body).
  • After transitioning to this technique you will probably have to scale down the weight you can lift a little. This is normal so don’t freak out.
  • Don’t look at the bar. Fix your eyes at a point at the ceiling. Press the bar in a straight line above your chest, not towards your face. Keep it above your elbows during the whole lift.

Overwhelmed yet? Below is a very good video which goes through the whole process again.

I would suggest you do a few sessions only perfecting your technique with no weight on the bar. I know, it’s not as glamorous as benching however many kilos and gives you no bragging rights but will pay off in the long run. You know what they say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Are you incorporating the bench press in your workout routine? What is your experience? Did I forget something? Let me know your opinion in the comments.

Images: Tim Green/Flickr, Usodesita/Flickr

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