Whether you think it’s the king of all exercises or the most overrated movement in the gym, the bench press is still the standard for a fit guy’s or gal’s powerlifting prowess. Somewhere, someday, someone’s gonna ask you, “How much do you bench?” Make sure the answer is always “much more than you” by following these eight tips for a bigger, better bench press.
Tip 1: Eyes Under the Bar
The most important part of bench pressing might just be your set-up. When you lay back on the bench, make sure you line up your eyes directly under the bar. This will help for two reasons. First, it will allow you to pull the bar forward, setting your shoulders and back in the proper “shelf” position (see Tip 4). And it will prevent the bar from hitting the pins as you get close to lock out, which will throw off your set.
Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Your Feet
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to foot position during benching. Some people like to keep their feet flat on the floor, since it helps them feel like they can deliver more leg drive that way. Another option? Take a tip from power lifters by pulling your feet back (towards your hips) and only keeping the balls of your feet on the floor. You can still get leg drive from this position, and it puts your back in a nice arch. Just make sure you keep your butt, shoulders and head on the bench at all times—and don’t lift the balls of your feet off the floor.
Tip 3: Get the Right Grip
While you should probably avoid the “false” or thumbless grip (aka the “suicide grip”) during benching for safety reasons, you should place the bar in the heel of your hand (directly above your wrist). Notice that if you place the bar more towards the base of your fingers or in your palm, your wrist gets bent back. If the bar rests towards the heel of your hand, however, you can maintain a straighter wrist position and your forearm will line up directly under the bar, giving you more stability and strength. It’s also worth experimenting with a slightly narrower grip than many people are used to—just outside of shoulder width. This will allow you to kick in more triceps during the movement.
Tip 4: Create a Shelf
It’s easy to think of the bench press as a chest/shoulder/triceps exercise, but if you want to move bigger loads you better start considering it a complete upper body exercise. Make sure that your abs are braced and contract your lats and upper back. By activating these antagonist and synergist muscles, you will establish a rock solid “shelf” to press from. (We’re already at Tip 4 and we haven’t even unracked the bar yet—pre-lift form is that important.)
Tip 5: Make Sure Your Arms are at the Right Angle
Ideally, have a spotter help you unrack and set the bar into position. This will allow you to keep the good starting position you’ve established. The classic bodybuilding style of bench pressing has you lowering the bar with your elbows flared out to 90 degrees as that keeps the majority of the tension on your pecs and anterior (front) deltoids. This is great for isolating those muscles, but terrible for shoulder health. Tuck your elbows so they are at 45 degrees, or half-way, between your shoulders and your ribs.
Tip 6: Find the Perfect Spot
It’s really important to find a groove when bench pressing. The bar should follow the same path on the eccentric (down) and concentric (up) portion of every rep. Lower the bar to mid-chest or nipple level and press up and slightly back (the bar should be above your collar bones at the top). And, yes, the bar should touch your chest if you are performing full range-of-motion presses.
Tip 7: Keep Driving
Most everyone has a sticking point in their bench press. Most often it is either an inch or two off the chest or around the midpoint when your elbows are at 90 degrees. You’ll hit this point either when you are fatigued from reps or when you are approaching your maximal load (or both). Many people tend to give up easily when they hit this point. Don’t be one of those people. Try driving through that sticking point. It may be a long, slow rep (and you should DEFINITELY have a spotter there to make sure you are safe), but you need to train your body to get past those sticking points or they will always limit your progress. As long as the bar isn’t heading in the wrong direction, keep pushing.
Tip 8: Stop Benching
There are many alternate or accessory exercises that will help improve your bench press. Utilize a variety of external rotation and rotator cuff work to make sure your shoulders stay healthy and structurally balanced. Both military presses and pull-ups have shown to have carry over to a bigger bench so make sure they are in your program. Dumbbell presses can also help establish better shoulder stability and a greater range of motion and triceps work will help with a stronger lockout. Finally, the bench press is a pretty demanding exercise on one of the most complicated and injury prone joints in your body, your shoulders. Don’t be afraid to take some time off of bench pressing for a phase to concentrate on some supplemental and injury-preventing movements.