By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
About the Bench Press
Arguably, there’s not a single exercise as identifiable with bodybuilding as the bench press. “How much do you bench?” is still at the top of the list of icebreakers among gym rats. Not only is it an anchor exercise, it clearly tops the charts of moves for hitting the pecs as well as the front delts, triceps and even the lats to a certain degree. It’s important to remember when pressing the bar up during a bench press the strongest path is a curved one (from a position just above your lower pecs heading toward your chin on the way up). Many guys make the mistake of going straight up and down with the bar.
Spot the Error
As popular as it is, the bench press is often performed in such a way that the lifter is at a biomechanical disadvantage. Most commonly, guys will grip the bar with the “standard” shoulder-width grip. And while it’s not wrong, per se, it’s not the best grip to take if you want to build the meatier middle pecs. While research shows that you place slightly greater emphasis on the upper pecs with a narrow grip, you also place a lot of stress on the weaker triceps (and the elbow joints) and delts, while not engaging and recruiting the majority of the chest musculature. PHOTO 2 is correct.
Start with a standard grip and then take two thumb’s-worth of distance outward with your hands on the bar. In other words, starting from that shoulder width, dig your thumbnails into the barbell and extend your hands and pinkie fingers outward. Do that twice. That will place your hands at a distance that allows your arms to form 90-degree angles when the bar is in the down position, which will help you recruit as much of the chest as possible while also safely recruiting both the triceps and shoulders at optimum levels.
Some beginners naturally want to head to the Smith machine to get a good feel for the bench press, however that’s not always the best option. Research shows that we’re stronger on the standard bench press than the Smith version because the best path of the bar for fiber recruitment and strength is a curved one, going from the lower pecs up and over the chin. That curve is impossible with the Smith because it’s locked in a vertical plane. So if you’re not ready for the standard bench, try a wide-grip variation in a power rack where you can adjust the safeties to different levels. As you become stronger and more comfortable, you can lower the safeties until eventually you’re working in a full range of motion.