How to Bench Press: The Best Bench Press Form

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woman bench pressing

How to Bench Press

The bench press is one of the most universal lifting exercises in the book and for good reason, too. This-tried-and-true move is a total upper body strength exercise that works the triceps, chest and shoulders. And if done correctly, the move will recruit even more muscles like the glutes and hamstrings to work in tandem with the upper body. Whether you’ve never picked up a dumbbell in your life or you hit the gym five times a week, you can find numerous benefits in including the bench press in your ongoing fitness routine.

It doesn’t require anything fancy, either. All you need is a bench and a barbell with weights or a set of dumbbells. Pair the right equipment with proper form, and you’re on your way to learning how to bench press correctly.

If you’re new to lifting or to this move in particular, start by getting comfortable with the technique and the weight of just the bar before you add weights. Once you are warmed up, you can add weights and then follow these steps to do a bench press with a barbell:

  • Use a bench that has a rack to hold the bar when you’re not lifting it. Start by loading the barbell with the desired weight and secure each side with collars.
  • Lay on your back on the bench and position yourself so that the barbell is in the space between your nose and your eyes.
  • Plant your feet on the ground and slightly arch your back; do not overarch. A slight bend will help you press with more power.
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip. For a conventional bench press, your hands should be just outside of your shoulders.
  • Drive your feet into the ground, brace your core and lift the bar off the rack. Lock your elbows and position the barbell so that it’s directly above your chest.
  • Using control, lower the bar down toward your chest, pausing once the bar touches your chest.
  • Once it reaches your chest, use your upper body to push the bar back up until your arms are extended and your elbows slightly bent.
  • Repeat the movement three to 10 times before placing the barbell back onto the rack.

If you are apprehensive about bench pressing for the first time or about trying to lift a weight you never have before, consider having someone stand behind you to spot you. A spotter will be there to help you push the bar back up if you begin to struggle or lose control of the bar.

Bench Press Form

Even though anyone can do a bench press, it’s imperative that you learn the proper bench press form. Doing a bench press incorrectly can put significant strain on your back, shoulders and wrists, and could cause you to drop the barbell resulting in serious injuries.

Once you have the barbell loaded and you are positioned beneath it on the bench, having the correct grip on the bar is vital to executing the exercise. Your hands should grip the bar in an overhand position with your thumbs under the bar. Your thumbs help to stabilize the bar as you lift so do not tuck them under your fingers. As far as hand placement, there are a few variations you can choose from and each one will work the upper body differently. For now, we’ll focus on the standard bench press grip which is to position the hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart.

Now turn your attention to the rest of your body. Your feet should be firmly planted into the ground at a shoulder-width or slightly wider stance. Lower the bench if you have trouble planting your feet. Your butt should never leave the bench; this can cause your back to overarch. However, there should be a slight arch in your lower back. There is some debate about the arch in the back because if you do too much, you could strain your back. But if you err on the side of caution, the slight bend can help your upper body push with more power.

A couple safety notes:

  • Do not lock your elbows until you are ready to place the bar back onto the rack. Your elbows should keep a slight bend while you are pressing.
  • Keep the bar centered over your chest while pressing. Do not lift higher or lower than that, especially over your neck.
  • Keep your neck neutral and loose to prevent neck strain or injury.
  • Always exhale as you push the bar up, inhaling as you lower it toward your chest.
  • Don’t ever bounce the bar off of your chest. The barbell should be lowered until it touches your chest, but you should always have control.

Different Types of Bench Press

The beauty of the bench press is that there are several modifications that you can alternate between to meet your specific training goals. It’s easy to change it up and simply requires that you adjust the positioning of the bench or adjust the positioning of your grip on the barbell. Alternating between the different types of bench press ensures that your upper body muscles will be worked evenly and regularly.

Incline Bench Press

An incline bench press is a riff off of the conventional bench press that can be done with either a barbell or a set of dumbbells. To do this lift, you simply have to adjust the bench at an incline. The incline should be about 15 to 30 degrees vertical. The higher the incline, the more work your shoulders are going to put in. What other muscles does the incline bench press work? This press is powerful for the pectorals, shoulders and triceps, but particularly for the shoulders as you increase the incline degree. The higher the incline, the more the bench press starts to become an overhead press.

Decline Bench Press

The decline bench press is also done with an adjustable bench, except it’s set at a decline, hence the name. A barbell or a set of dumbbells are needed for this lift. The decline positions your body at a downward angle forcing you to push harder using your lower pectoral muscles. However, at this angle, your shoulders will be less involved in the movement which may be a disadvantage depending on your training goals.

Close Grip Bench Press

As mentioned earlier, you can work different parts of your upper body by adjusting your grip on the barbell. One of these variations is called the close grip bench press. As you can likely guess, this is when your hands are positioned on the bar in a closer grip than the standard bench press. While the basic press has your hands a bit wider than shoulder-width apart, the close grip requires your hands to be in line with your shoulders. By moving your hand placement inward, the lift specifically targets the triceps. Since it relies mostly on the tris to complete the lift, you will probably not be able to lift as heavy as you would a normal bench press.

The alternative to the close grip press is the wide grip bench press. A wide grip puts more focus on the pectoral muscles.

How Much Should I Bench Press?

Unfortunately, there is not a scientific rule or BMI-like equation that will help you figure out how much you should bench press. It’s more of a question of how much can you bench press. It’s different for everyone and it can take some trial and error to know what you should be lifting. If you are just starting out, the general rule is to start lighter than you think you should and gradually add weight as you acclimate. Of course, bench pressing is work, and it should always feel like it is, but if you feel like you could drop the bar at any second, you’re lifting too heavy. You should always feel in control of the bar or dumbbells.

Although the average bench press depends heavily on your body weight and lifting experience, you may want to know how your press stacks up against gym go-ers in the same arena as yourself. To calculate a ballpark figure of your bench press should be, use this chart that has been approved by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. The chart breaks down the bench press average for males and females and is further categorized by weight and experience level. Remember though, this is just a guideline and what feels right for you is the most important factor.

Bench Press Equipment

Walk into our gym and you’ll find everything you need to do a bench press. Not only because it’s a fundamental strength training exercise that’s been around for decades, but also because it requires minimal equipment. Bench press equipment consists of two key pieces: the bench and the bar (you can substitute the bar for a pair of dumbbells, too).

Bench Press Bar

There are two main types of bench press bars. An Olympic barbell (the standard barbell) is seven feet long and weighs 45 pounds unloaded. You can load them with weight plates ranging from two and half pounds to 45 pounds. If you do add weights, you need to also grab a pair of collars to secure the plates.

The other type of bar is a pre-loaded barbell. A pre-loaded barbell is typically shorter in length and has a fixed weight ranging anywhere from 20 to 120 pounds. If you aren’t ready to bench press at least 45 pounds, then choose a pre-loaded barbell that weighs less.

Due to its length, the standard bar requires more stability which recruits more muscles. For this same reason, beginners may want to start with a pre-loaded bar until they get comfortable.

Weight Bench

Walk into any gym and you’ll be greeted with a weight bench in every direction you turn. Some of them are basic benches and others are decked out with extra features that can be confusing. You have two choices: a flat bench and an adjustable bench. Both will work just fine for the conventional bench press, but if you want to do the incline or decline press, you will need an adjustable bench.

Understanding the technique of the bench press is relatively easy, learning how to bench press correctly is a different story. As you now know, there’s more to it than just knowing how much you can lift. Proper form is just as, if not more important than the weight you lift. Follow these steps and keep these pointers in mind, and the bench press will become that one exercise you can’t leave the gym without doing.

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