Bench Press 101
In part one of my bench press 101 series, we explored the fundamentals of the bench press and the correct way to set up and execute the lift. In part two, we are going to explore some common bench press mistakes and the easiest and quickest ways to correct them. So, here are the most common bench press faults and fixes:
Common Fault #1: Flared Elbows
Bench press rookies and seasoned gym-goers alike are equally as likely to be making this mistake. In part one, I outlined the importance of ‘breaking the bar’ to engage the musculature of the shoulder. The purpose of this is to provide the shoulder with greater stability and to make the joint stronger.
When you flare your elbows out during a bench press, the pectoral tendon (which runs across the front of the shoulder and attaches to the upper arm) is stretched further than it has to be. When you add a heavy load, an excessively stretched tendon is far more likely to rupture or tear because it is structurally weaker when overstretched. Flared elbows are one of the most common causes of shoulder pain when bench pressing, and if left unchecked shoulder pain can cause all kinds of havoc – pretty much every compound upper body exercise requires movement at the shoulder, so an injury to this joint can seriously impact your training.
At setup and throughout the lift, keep your shoulders engaged and your elbows tucked in by applying tension to the bar as though you are trying to bend it. When done correctly, your upper arms should be at roughly a 45-degree angle to your body during the lift. It will feel strange at first, and you may have to drop the weight a little to get used to it, but your shoulders will thank you!
Common Fault #2: Poor Range Of Motion
Usually the result of lifting too much weight as opposed to anything wrong with technique, poor range of motion (ROM) is detrimental for a number of reasons. When done correctly, the bar shoulder make contact with or be no more than an inch above the lower chest at the bottom of the movement. This allows an optimal contraction of the pectoral muscles, and therefore greater muscle activation.
Beginning the concentric (press) portion of the movement any earlier than this cheats you out of a full muscle contraction, which means less muscle growth and slower strength development over time. It also means that your triceps will be bearing the brunt of the load as opposed to your chest, which defeats the objective of a bench press – remember, although your triceps get a good workout from bench pressing, it is primarily a chest exercise!
If you consistently find you are unable to lower the weight to your chest, there are two possible causes: you have a pre-existing shoulder injury that limits your range of motion (in which case, you shouldn’t be bench pressing anyway) or the weight you are lifting is simply too heavy for you. Seeing as the latter is the cause of 99.9% of ROM issues, it’s a pretty good bet that simply dropping the weight down will greatly improve your bench press ROM. Always remember, the weight you lift isn’t important – time under tension and a full range of motion have been consistently proven to be the key factors determining muscle growth. Leave your ego at the door, drop down the weights and perfect your form before you load up the bar again!
Common Fault #3: Lifting Your Body Too Far Off The Bench
This area is somewhat contentious. Talk to a powerlifter, and they will tell you that by arching your back and lifting your chest closer to the bar, you are reducing the distance that the bar has to travel and you can therefore lift more weight, which is what’s most important to a powerlifter. On the other hand, a bodybuilder would tell you to keep your back flat and use as great a ROM as possible in order to isolate the pecs and stimulate the most amount of muscle growth possible, which is what’s most important to a bodybuilder.
Neither approach is wrong, and depending on your goals you can do either/or. What is incorrect, however, is excessively lifting your body off of the bench during a bench press. By removing points of contact with the bench, you make the entire structure weaker, and therefore you become weaker. So what is excessive? In general, a small arch in the back is fine. If you find that in addition to this arch, your backside is lifting off the bench and you are starting to incorporate a hybrid glute bridge into each rep, you are lifting your body off too far.
The reason for excessively lifting your body off the bench ties in directly with the previous fault: you are, in all likelihood, trying to lift too much weight. If you are unable to achieve a full range of motion in any exercise due to excessive weight, the body will often make compensations to give you the illusion of full ROM. In the case of the bench press, you will subconsciously move your body closer to the bar as you lower it, giving the appearance of full ROM. So once again, take weight off the bar and focus on your technique. Revisit all of the setup points from Part One: pull your shoulders back into the bench and keep your feet flat on the floor. This will make your body more stable and therefore less likely to rise up from the bench.
Common Fault #4: ‘Broken’ Wrists & False-Grips
Now I don’t mean literally broken wrists (although chronic misuse of the wrists when bench pressing will certainly increase the likelihood of this). When I say broken, I mean wrists that are bent back on themselves when bench pressing, as opposed to straight wrists that are un-bent. Sitting the bar in your palms forces the hand to bend backwards, which puts excessive strain on the wrists under heavy loads and can lead to chronic wrist pain. If you already suffer from a repetitive strain related injury in the wrists, it can further compound the issue.
Rather than holding the bar in your palms, allow it to sit in the pad of your thumb and point your knuckles to the ceiling – try to imagine there is a straight line going downwards through the bar directly down your forearm. Always wrap your thumb around the bar and avoid the false grip (when the thumb is tucked underneath the bar), as it’s almost impossible not to break the wrists back when using this grip.
So there you have it, some of the most common bench press faults and their fixes. If you are guilty of any of these faults, addressing them quickly and easily will do wonders for your bench press, as well as making you stronger and more injury proof. Happy benching!