Bench Press 101
The bench press is an absolute staple exercise for anyone who is serious about gaining muscle, strength and size. As well as being one of the three power lifts (alongside the squat and deadlift), it is also one of the most effective chest and triceps builders that you can do.
But, just like the squat and deadlift, it is often performed inefficiently or downright incorrectly. Here’s a brief guide to the bench press, what it works, how to set up correctly and common faults and fixes.
Deconstructing The Bench Press
The bench press is first and foremost a chest exercise. The primary muscle worked (also referred to as the agonist) is the pectoralis major –the pecs. The main function of the pectoralis major is to control the lateral and vertical movement of the arm. It is connected to the upper arm (humerus) through the pectoralis tendon, which stretches across the front of the shoulder. The pectoralis major muscles are easily visible in males but are hidden beneath the breasts in females.
In addition to the pecs, the bench press also recruits two other muscle groups to assist in the movement, referred to as synergists. These synergists are the triceps and the deltoids. In a bench press, both the shoulder joint and the elbow joint must extend in unison to facilitate the movement. The triceps control extension of the arm at the elbow by contracting (the ‘push’ phase of the bench press) and allow the elbow to bend by relaxing (the ‘lowering’ phase). At the same time, the anterior deltoids contract with the pecs to extend the arm vertically at the shoulder joint during the bench press.
All of these joints and muscles working together to complete a single movement mean that the bench press is a compound exercise – an exercise that requires movement at more than one joint. The result is a greater activation of muscle fibres and a greater anabolic response, which means greater size and strength!
Bench Press Set Up
Although it looks relatively simple, there’s actually a proper way of setting up for a bench press that will both make you stronger and reduce your risk of injury. To begin, ensure that you have set the bar at the right height. Although this is subjective, and there are no hard and fast rules on this, it should be low enough that you can reach it without having to stretch, but not so low that you have already done a rep just un-racking the bar!
Sit at the end of the bench and lie back so that the bar is behind your head. Place your hands on the bar, pull your shoulder blades back into the bench, and then slide yourself up to the bench until your eyes are directly under the bar. This way, your shoulder blades stay pinned back and low, which gives your upper body greater stability.
Ensure that your feet are flat on the floor. This provides your body with a stable base with which to push from, enabling you to move more weight. Occasionally, you may find that the bench you are using is a little too high for you to get your feet flat on the floor. If this is the case, try to place your feet on the bench supports. Alternatively, grab yourself a step and place it at the end of the bench for you to put your feet on. Resist the temptation to lift your feet off the ground when benching – this will only compromise your stability, therefore making you weaker and more likely to injure yourself.
To take your grip, utilise the reference points on the bar. Olympic bars are divided into smooth and gripped sections – for the optimal grip width, place the tip of your outstretched thumb where the main grip begins (the two gripped sections either side of the middle of the bar). Proceed to wrap your thumb around the bar and point your knuckles to the ceiling. Try not to let the bar sit in your palm – this can lead to the wrists being excessively bent backwards and cause wrist pain further down the line. Instead, allow the bar to sit with the pad of the thumb. When done correctly, your knuckles will point straight up and your wrists will be totally straight. Avoid the false grip, where the thumb sits underneath the bar, as you are more likely to injure your wrists this way.
After taking your grip, gently squeeze and apply pressure to the bar as if you are trying to snap a twig. The tension should be such that you feel a tension in your shoulders, but not so much that you are about to pass out from elevated blood pressure! One of their key functions is to keep the upper arms stable in the shoulder joint, and activating them by ‘breaking the bar’ means that they provide the shoulder with additional stability during the bench press. The physical effect that this will have is that your elbows will be much more tucked into your body, as opposed to flaring out to the side. Whilst this may feel strange at first, it is absolutely vital for avoiding shoulder injuries (incorrect bench pressing is one of the most common causes of shoulder injuries) and for an ultimately stronger bench press.
Let’s Lift This Thing Already!
OK, so you are now perfectly set up to execute a perfect bench press. Don’t mess it up by losing all of the tension that you have created as soon as you un-rack the bar – keep your shoulder pinned into the bench and keep bending the bar!
When done correctly, you will lower the bar to your lower chest/sternum, keeping your elbows tucked in at around a 45-degree angle to your body. Tap your chest with the bar, pause, then extend your arms and squeeze your pecs at the top. Be careful not to lock-out your elbow – you should extend your arms as far as you can without locking them into place. Likewise, do not round the shoulders forward at the top of the lift, keep them pinned back! You should feel as though you are puffing your chest out, and your back will feel slightly arched.
Also, try not to ‘cheat’ by bouncing the bar off of your chest. This is why I advocate a brief pause at the bottom of the lift, to ensure that you are not using momentum to move the weight. Whilst it may mean you lift slightly less weight than you ultimately could, it will result in greater size and strength gains due to a higher recruitment of muscle fibres. As for breathing, take in a big breath at the top, hold it as you lower the bar, and release as you push the bar up. Don’t forget to get your breath back in between reps!
That’s it for part one! Check out part two for common bench press faults and fixes.