The bench press is a perpetual gym favorite, and for good reason: it works. Bench presses are excellent for building upper body size and strength, but they also require great focus on form to get the most out of them while avoiding injury. As always — and perhaps more so with this move than others — the devil is in the details. Here are seven checkpoints to make sure you are not robbing yourself of optimal benching performance.
1. Tucked Elbows
One of the most common mistakes is to do heavy bench presses with the elbows sticking straight out to the sides. Yes, it gives a great pectoral stretch, and yes, you get a fuller range of motion compared with the traditional, tucked-elbows press of power lifters. But the extra range of movement comes at a cost—it also puts a lot of undue strain on the shoulder joints, leading to injury down the road. Furthermore, the shorter movement conserves energy and boosts power, allowing you to use heavier weight, due in part to a greater contribution of the triceps.
2. Straight Wrists
Many trainers let their wrists bend backwards so that the knuckles end up parallel to the floor. This is bad news for two reasons. First, it lays the groundwork for painful wrist joint problems in the future by rubbing bones against each other in a vulnerable position. Secondly, it shifts the weight out of alignment, meaning you have to divert some power to counter this competing force. By keeping straight wrists there are no distractions and all focus is on the primary task of pushing as much weight as possible.
3. Back Positioning
Squeezing the scapulae together makes it a natural “launch pad” against the bench, while the chest is naturally puffed out cutting the distance the bar has to travel by an inch or two. This shorter distance translates to more power (and less distance that the power is required). In addition, an arched back shifts the working angle of the pectorals slightly downward, allowing the muscles to utilize more power as you might in a dip or a decline press. Note that the butt should remain in contact with the bench at all times though.
4. Push With Your Feet
This where traditional lifters typically fall short, yet it’s a technique employed by all of the world’s best benchers. You don’t typically think about any muscular engagement below your pecs, but your feet should be firmly planted on the ground with a shoulder-wide stance. As the positive (ascending) phase of the rep starts, try to push your heels down through the floor. This will reinforce the arched back and drive more power to your lift.
5. A Tight, Straight Grip
Forget the “monkey grip” — the parlor name for not wrapping your thumb around the bar. Not only do you risk hurting the wrists in the long run, but there is also the danger of losing control towards the end of a tough rep and have the bar come crashing down on your chest. Squeezing the bar tight with a normal, opposed-thumb grip ensures full control of the bar throughout the set. As a bonus, it makes it natural to tense up the supporting muscles and even gives a boost to mental focus.
6. Flexed Glutes and Abs
Keeping the glutes and abs flexed helps stabilize the core. This allows for full focus on the lift rather than countering imbalances and as a bonus it works as a potent safeguard against potential back injury.
7. Controlled Breathing
Inhaling deeply during the negative phase (descent) comes naturally for most trainers but many make the mistake of blowing out the air too quickly during the positive, ascending phase. This can be problematic, as sudden lack of oxygen towards the end of the rep is both distracting and suboptimal for power output. Squeezing out a small but continuous airflow through the teeth so that you have approximately 50 percent left when you reach the top preserves air while maximizing pushing strength.