Bench press technique tips
Fine-tune your benching and watch your pressing improve in minutes
Benching seems simple - just grab the bar and start pressing, aiming not to crush your own rib-cage. But in reality, a few simple tweaks can make all the difference between a pigeon chest and blown rotator cuffs and an impressive bench. Here's some technique tips for correct form along with a few variations for you to try
'Bodybuilders aiming to recruit the pectoralis major often flare the elbows,' says trainer Will Purdue (willpurdue.co.uk), 'But that can strain the rotator cuffs. For athleticism and power, keeping your elbows bent at a 45˚ angle recruits more of the lats and triceps.'
Grip it good
'A wide grip targets the pecs,' says trainer Robert Kane, (davidlloyd.co.uk), 'A closer grip focuses on the triceps. For heavy weights, keep your hands in line with your elbows to recruit optimum power from both. On a heavy set, squeeze the bar as hard as possible for a second or two before taking it out of the rack - according to the principle of 'irradiation', this'll fire up the surrounding muscles and allow you to lift heavier. Oh, and don't forget the rule of thumb: wrap them around the bar. Some lifters use a thumbless grip, but it's nicknamed the 'suicide' grip for a reason.
Get in line
The bar should be in line with your nipples for optimal pressing. And yes, it should touch your chest on every rep, but it shouldn't bounce. Think about touching the bar to your t-shirt but not your chest, and you'll get the requisite soft touch. And experiment with using a 'pause' at the bottom occasionally - as well as improving your explosive strength from the bottom, it's essential if you ever want to compete in powerlifting.
Keep them straight. Letting them bend back might feel more natural, but it takes the bar out of line with your forearms, making it hard to lift big weights.
Some people keep them up in an effort to 'work the core', but it just ruins your balance, increases your risk of injury, and forces you to lift less. Keep your feet on the floor - when you're pressing as heavy as possible, you'll be able to drive through them (without arching up off the bench, thanks) to generate more force.
Back in action
Squeezing your lats together will give you a solid platform to press from, and so having a solid upper back is just as essential to a big bench as strong triceps and pecs. Add bent-over rows to your upper body day to strengthen up this vital area.
So what do you do if you've done all of the above and you're still stuck on a bench press plateau? The key is to work the muscle groups used for the bench independently so you can build strength in all of them before brining them back into play as a collective unit for the bog standard flat bench. Here are a few moves you can do and why they'll help you bench more than you thought possible:
Dumbbell bench press
How to do it
- Lie flat on a bench with your feet on either side and a dumbbell held above each shoulder.
- Push your feet into the floor and press up explosively until your arms are fully extended.
- Lower slowly under control, keeping your head, upper back and glutes on the bench throughout the move.
Why it helps
By making each arm deal with exactly the same amount of weight you build more balanced strength for the barbell bench press. What's more this double weight move forces you engage your core more than you would when using a barbell so means you're more in control when you come to do the one weight version.
How to do it
- Stand with your feet close together and barbell help against the top of your chest with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press it up explosively until your arms are straight.
- Lower it behind your back until it’s sitting on your traps.
- Reverse the move.
Why it helps
Shoulder injuries are common during heavy bench sessions but you can protect them by making them stronger – which is exactly what the Bradford press does. It's part military press, part behind the head shoulder press and will work the anterior, posterior and medial deltoids of your shoulder so they're fully activated and ready to cope with the strain of benching. Do it as a warm-up before benching – one set of 20 light reps, two sets of ten heavier reps will do the job.
How to do it
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lower into a deep squat and grip a barbell just wider than shoulder-width apart with an alternate grip.
- Pushing your chest forward and keeping your back straight stand up, driving through your heels and pushing your hips forward as your reach the top of the move.
- Lower the bar back to the ground under control.
Why it helps
When you bench you should be transferring power from your legs through your core and up to your chest to help stabilise the movement. Your glutes are your biggest muscles in your legs so a lot of the power will come from them. And you'll need to keep them tensed for a significant period of time during each rep of the bench press, which means you should be doing moves that keep them under tension for a comparable amount of time. Deadlifts do just that.