Welcome back to Bro Basics, a series that covers exercises that are popular and can be useful but are often performed inadequately and shows the function of the exercises and how to do them correctly.
Bros. performs many isolation movements like the exercises we’ve covered in this series so far: tricep extensions, bicep curls, and lat pull-downs. When doing one of the “big four” lifts, it’s usually the bench press.
The bench press is popular with bodybuilders and serious powerlifters because it is an exercise that produces both functional and aesthetic results. In addition, it provides a ready (if incomplete) measure of a person’s overall strength. Men like to ask each other, “How much do you bench?”
If you want to bench more tonnage, you need to know more about this lift than how to rack more plates on the line; you need to learn how to bench efficiently. We’ll cover that below, as well as more of the mother of all bro basics.
What Muscles Can the Bench Press Work?
The bench press mainly works the pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), and triceps.
The truth is that these muscles can be used to help you develop big guns. As we discussed in our article about triceps extension, the tricep muscle makes up most of the arm girth. If you want big hands, you have to work on them. You work the tricep muscles in the bench press during the lockout portion of the lift.
In addition to the chest, shoulders, and triceps, the bench press also works on the arms and lats. This is an upper body exercise.
Why Bench Press?
You get a lot of bang for your buck. As mentioned above, the bench press works several large muscles in the upper body, especially the chest. So you get a lot of bang for your buck with one lift. If you want to increase your upper body strength and size, the bench press will help you do that.
Help give the male v-shaped torso. This is definitely the main reason men bench press. Among the physical traits that make men sexually attractive, the v-shaped body — a large chest, shoulders, and back muscles that taper down to a narrower waist — may reign supreme. To add size to the upper part of the v, you need to be able to shoulder, chest, and back. Bench press does that.
It’s fun. The bench press is a fun lift. You’re lifting a lot of weight on your face while lying on the bench. If you do not lift correctly and safely, you could injure yourself or even die. That element of risk gives the bench press a bit of fun.
How to Bench Press
Setting Up Your Equipment
If you use a bench with built-in uprights – a configuration you will find in most commercial gyms – setting up the equipment for the bench press is a no-brainer. Just put the bar on the uprights and you are ready to go.
If you’re working out at home in a garage gym, you’ll be using power racks as uprights, so you’ll need to think about the optimal height to place the j-cups in order to get them in properly. bench press starting position and unrack bar.
You want to set the j-cups on the power rack so that your arms are slightly bent when holding the bar.
If your j cup is too high, your arms will be straight when you hold the bar. To get the bar out of the j-cup, you need to shrug your shoulders forward or lift your butt off the bench. This, in turn, will get you out of the right position for an efficient bench press.
If the j cup is too low, your arms will bend when you hold the bar. Grabbing a bar from a j-cup requires you to do a half rep bench press and will likely put you out of position to bench efficiently.
So, adjust your j-cups so that your arms are in the Goldilocks position when you hold the bar: not too straight and not too bent.
Sitting on the Bench, Eyes One Inch in Front of the Bar
Lie on a bench and slide it up or down so that your eyes are about an inch in front of the bar as you look at the ceiling. This position will prevent the barbell from hitting the j-cups when you press up.
Feet Flat on the Floor
Place your feet on the floor so that your knees are at about a 90 degree angle. It’s okay if your knee angle is a little acute. This leg position will provide the stability you need to bench press safely and allow you to use your legs to drive through the floor as you lift the bar.
Some people like to put their legs back closer to their hips and create a very acute angle with the knee. To achieve this acuteness, people often only have their toes on the floor. They do this because it helps to arch the lower back. As we will discuss in a bit, you want to return to arch a little when you lift, the rest of this walking makes the arch too much, causing the butt to come out of the bench and lead you to bridge the bench press. Not only will this be illegal in competition, but you are deceiving yourself from whether all the muscles are involved in this lift.
If your legs are too short to put on the floor, you can place a plate under your feet.
Take the Bar
Hold the bar so that your hands are about the width of a full hand from the break in the knurling in the middle of the barbell. An easy way to check for proper hand position is to make sure your pinkies are close to the first grip mark on the barbell.
When you hold the bar, rotate your hands slightly so that the bar sits in the palm of your hand.
Squeeze the bar with your hands and wrap your thumb around the bar.
Do not use thumb grips! It’s called the “slip grip” for a reason. If the barbell slips through your hands, there’s no thumb to keep it from sliding out of your hands and hitting you in the face or chest.
Thumbs around the barbell when you’re bench pressing.
Adjust the Arch in the Back
When most people bench press, they lie all the way on the bench. This is wrong.
You want a slight arch in your back so that there is some space between your lower back and the bench while your upper back and buttocks remain in contact with the bench.
The back arch does a few things.
First, reduce some bench press movements. If you don’t arch your back and therefore bench press when your back is flat and your chest is lower, you have to press the bar higher. When the arch is lower, the chest rises, shortening the path of the bar.
Second, a low back arch positions your shoulders to generate more power when you bench press.
Adjusting the arch in your back is not ideal for beginners, so it may take some practice to get it right.
With your hands holding the bar, imagine trying to slide a vinyl or leather bench between your shoulders. This will lead you to retract your scapulas, causing your chest to puff out.
You want to keep your shoulder blades squeezed together for the entire lift. This will become harder to do as the weight gets heavier or as you do more repetitions. But it is important to ensure an efficient bench press.
To add more arch, use a leg drive. We’ll talk more about leg drives here, but during the setup, imagine you’re leaning back on the bench with your legs. Doing this will strengthen your arch. You don’t want to back down on the bench; just use this as a physical cue for proper positioning.
Move the Bar to the Starting Position
With your hands gripping the bar and the back of the arch plane, you are ready to lift the bar off the j-cup and move to the bench press starting position.
Straighten your legs. This will take the barbell out of the j-cup. With elbows straight and locked out, move the barbell forward until it goes directly over the shoulder joint. This is the starting position of the bench press or the lockout position (as pictured above).
Make sure you’re engaging in leg drive at this point by pushing your body back into the bench with your legs. You want to maintain this leg drive throughout the lift.
Lower the Bar to Your Sternum
Perform the Valsalva maneuver.
Keeping your wrists straight, lower the bar to your chest.
When most friends bench press, they lower the bar straight down so that the bar touches the upper part of the chest. This will set you up for shoulder impingement and is also inefficient.
Instead, lower the bar and touch it somewhere near the sternum. Where it touches the sternum depends on the anthropometry of the body and the width of the grip. Lowering the bar to the sternum will result in a diagonal line path. This will also cause your elbows to be slightly in front of the bar when the bar touches your chest.
You want the barbell to touch your chest gently. Don’t let it bounce on your chest. Imagine you have a piece of glass in your chest and you want to tap it with a barbell but it doesn’t break.
I like to rest for about one second with the barbell on my chest instead of just touching it and going back up.
Continue leg drive and continue doing the Valsalva maneuver.
Push the bar up and return to the starting position
Push the bar up and back to the starting position with the barbell in the shoulder joint. Again, this will result in a slightly diagonal line of bars. For many beginning bench pressers, this bar path is counterintuitive; they want to push the bar straight up.
Some cues I use to help me stay up and behind the bar are “eyes” and “elbows”.
“Eyes” reminded me to get the bar back to my eyes.
“Elbows” reminds me of the elbows I placed on. Keeping your elbows tucked in will help you maintain that diagonal bar path up. I have a tendency to let my elbows flare out when I push the bar up – especially when it’s heavy – and this results in the path of the bar that goes up but doesn’t come back.
Take a Deep Breath; Perform Valsalva; Repeat
After finishing the rep, take a big, fresh breath, do Valsalva, and repeat for the prescribed reps.
Bench Press Safety
The bench press can kill you. This is a lift where the barbell is above your throat and vital organs in your upper body, and there is no way to save yourself if you fail the lift.
Because the bench press has the potential to kill you, you want to take extra precautions to ensure your safety when lifting. One such precaution is to use a spotter.
But there are right and wrong ways to find someone to bench press. See our guide on how to find someone to bench press for more details.
If you don’t have someone to watch you bench press, follow these four safety rules so you can bench press alone and live for your legendary PR story.