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Proper Bench Press Technique & Variations

The bench press has been considered one of the “core” weight lifting exercises for many years. The reason for this is simple: this exercise is extremely effective in strengthening the prime movers of the upper extremity. Examples of this can be found in:

Football: tackling, blocking, and passing;,

Swimming: crawl and breaststroke,

Track & Field: pole vault, shot put, and discus,

Baseball: throwing and hitting,

Boxing: punching,

Basketball: shooting, boxing out, and rebounding.

The muscles strengthened are the triceps, anterior and middle deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, and wrist flexors (grip). Also, the rotator cuff and biceps work as shoulder stabilizers and are slightly strengthened with the bench press.

Preparation For The Lift

Prior to the lift, the lifter should be certain that the weight is balanced on the bar and that collars are securing the plates. Improper balance can result in an awkward and uncomfortable left attempt that may result in injury.

The lifter should position themselves so that the bar is located above the eyes. The back and buttocks should be firmly placed on the bench pad. The feet should be placed flat on the floor.

The grip should be centered on the bar. Most athletes will feel comfortable with the arms slightly wider than the shoulders. Longer armed athletes however, may prefer a wider grip while shorter armed athletes will find a slightly narrower grip more comfortable.

A spotter should be present to assist the lifter. The function of the spotter is to help the lifter when assistance is necessary. The spotter should do very little work during the lift. If the lifter requires assistance, the spotter should lift with two or three fingers from the center of the bar, applying only enough force to help the athlete past the trouble area.

Proper breathing is another important aspect of the lift. The athlete should inhale as the bar is lowered to the chest. The breath is then exhaled as the bar is pressed off of the chest.

The Down Phase

The down phase begins as the lifter lowers the bar to the chest. The pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, and triceps contract eccentrically (lengthening contraction) to lower the bar at a controlled pace. The weight continues down until it gently touches the chest just below nipple level.

If the bar is lowered too quickly control is lost resulting in the bar bouncing off of the chest. This is improper for numerous reasons.

Striking the chest with too great a force can result in fractures to the sternum or ribs. The bounce off of the rib cage generates upward momentum, resulting in less force generation by the muscles. This will result in less strength gains by the prime movers of the chest. Ultimately this results in poor strength throughout the full range of motion.

The Pressing Phase

The pressing phase begins as the weight is pushed toward the starting position. The lifter exhales as the muscles contract to control the ascent of the weight. The pressing phase concludes with the arms fully extended and the elbows locked. The muscles can only develop optimally if they exert controlled force through the entire range of motion.

Common errors during the press phase include: arching the back and lifting the feet from the floor. Arching the back is a cheating movement that is the result of a lifter attempting too heavy of a weight. The back arch allows the lifter to cheat by utilizing the force generated by the buttocks and hips to assist the chest in the lift.

The back arch places the bones and intervertibral disks at risk of injury. The back was not designed to arch in this exaggerated manner. When the lifter arches his/her back to compensate for a lack of strength, the intervertibral joints can sustain injury due to the combination of compressive and expansion forces simultaneously affecting the joints and disks.

To correct this problem, stress proper technique. Also, the weight should be decreased to a level that is more appropriate to the strength of the lifter. This can be a problem with the competitive ego-driven male. Simply reinforce the notion that proper technique leads to proper strength gain in the target muscles.

An alternative method for correcting this flaw is to have the lifter place his/her heels on the end of the bench. This method has inherent limitations and risks. First, the bench may not be long enough for taller lifters to perform this technique safely. Secondly, moving the feet from the floor to the bench results in a less stable support for the lifter. Feet on the floor will stabilize the lifter so that if there is a struggle he/she will not feel as if they are falling off of the bench. This should only be attempted with low weight to reinforce not arching the back.


Reverse-Grip: Accentuates the outer pectorals, medial triceps, and serratus anterior.

Close-Grip: Accentuates the inner pectorals and places a tremendous load on the triceps.

Pause-lockout: This uses a pause at chest level to cause maximum muscle recruitment for maximal strength gains.

Dumb-Bells: Using dumb-bells adds variety to the lifting routine and can result in strength gains in the accessory muscles of the shoulder.

Incline Bench Press: To strengthen the upper pectorals and anterior deltoids.

Decline Bench Press: To work the lower pectorals.

by David Edell

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