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Don't Be A Basic Bench: A Comprehensive Introductory Guide
Hello everyone! In an effort to keep the subreddit and its wiki filled with good and useful information, we are compiling guides for the main lifts (deadlift, squat, bench, potentially others). These guides will be added to the wiki and posted as posts as they are completed. The goal of these guides is to provide basic lift information, descriptions of some common variations, equipment considerations, related and complimentary exercises, additional resources for further reading, and to showcase incredible women (and non-binary folks) performing these lifts. This is the second entry in this lift series. Check out the first entry, The Deadlift Guide in the FAQ! If you have suggestions regarding things that should be added to these guides, or other subjects you'd like to see in the wiki, please message the mods!
The Bench Press
Bench Press Form and Variations
The main muscle group worked by the bench press is the pectoralis major, which is the largest muscle in the chest area. The pectoralis major muscle has two sections that are named for the bones they attach to – the sternal portion attaches to the breast bone and makes up the bulk of the muscle fibers, making up the middle and lower section; the clavicular portion attaches to the collarbone and is the more superior (upper) portion. The bench press also heavily involves the triceps (back of the upper arm), and recruits the deltoid muscles (shoulder), and pectoralis minor to lesser extents. I’ll first be discussing the form for a standard, flat, “neutral/wide” grip bench press. Variations on this will be discussed below it. This guide is written for barbell bench pressing, but all of these variations can be performed with dumbbells as well. Flat bench – the standard/”default” bench press Start out flat on the bench with bar directly over your eyes (with spotter) or over your nose/mouth (without spotter), feet flat, butt and upper back planted firmly on the bench. Arching of the lumbar spine is normal, fine, and absolutely legal in lifting competitions. Scapulas (shoulderblades) should be retracted or “pinched together” to provide both a stable flat surface for your upper back to settle on the bench, and to minimize undue tension on your shoulder joints. Retracting your scapulae will also puff your chest up and put your shoulders in a safer position for the lift. The bar should rest in the heel of your palm so that it is stacked above the wrist, forearm, and elbows through the lift. A slight internal rotation of the hands will help with this positioning and will angle your elbows out slightly. For a standard flat bench press, your hands will be a bit further apart than shoulder width – about 1.5-2x shoulder width is the average position – position your hands so that your forearms will be almost completely perpendicular to the floor at the bottom of the lift. Retract your scapulae (as if you’re trying to pick up a pencil off the bench between them), keep actively pushing your chest up, take in a big belly breath, and hold it before pushing the bar away from the rack and locking out at the elbows. Bring the bar down your torso so that it is directly over the line of your shoulders – this is likely going to be about the level of the middle of your sternum or your nipple line, but may vary depending on your individual anatomy and the degree of arching your back is doing. The bar should be directly above your elbows at all times during the movement of the lift. This not only increases stability during the lift, but also prevents undue stress on your triceps or your shoulders. It also is the most efficient configuration for using the majority of the muscle fibers within the pectoralis major. Speaking of efficiency in recruiting pectoral muscle fibers, let’s talk about arching your back during a bench press. This is a faux controversy like “sumo deadlifting is cheating” – the claim is that an arch will significantly decrease the range of motion for the bar, making the lift “easier”. While the purpose of the arch is to slightly decrease the range of motion, it also makes the lift safer at the bottom of the movement, which is the riskiest for your shoulder joints. It also serves to recruit more of your pectoral muscle fibers to the lift – this should increase the amount of weight one can lift and impact muscle growth when the goal is hypertrophy. Degree of arching is going to be up to personal preference and anatomy, but some degree of arch is natural and normal. Check out the natural position of the spine and you can see that the lumbar spine (lower back) has a natural forward curve (lordosis) which helps with loadbearing since we’re just hairless upright apes. An arch during bench press may be anywhere from your normal lumbar spine position to an exaggeration of your body’s natural lordosis. As you lower the bar, keep tension in your upper body by trying to “break the bar in half” or “rip the bar apart” until it touches your mid-to-lower sternum (depending on anatomy and degree of arch). After a touch (and brief pause, if you’re powerlifting), push the bar back upwards and slightly backwards towards your face to lockout. You can now exhale that big belly breath you’ve been holding for the duration of the rep.
Stronger by Science also has a very in depth How To Bench article. It is more in depth than this guide intends to be, and definitely worth a read. It also covers the anatomy and physics behind the bench press – things you should be interested in if your goal is to move weight safely (even if your goal does not necessarily involve moving a lot of weight).
Dumbbell bench: These are not only great when you aren’t yet able to use the barbell, but also for correcting muscle imbalances and general strength improvements that can translate into a barbell bench press. These also have more flexibility with grip positioning – if a barbell bench press irritates your shoulders, consider trying dumbbell bench press with a neutral grip (the dumbbells will be parallel to your body instead of perpendicular). Dumbbell bench press also allows for an increased range of motion, developing small stabilizer muscles in the upper body, and can be used to correct muscle imbalances.
Incline bench – performed with the bench angled about 15-30 degrees up from parallel to the floor. As you change the bench to a more upright position, the front shoulder muscle (anterior deltoids) will become more involved in the lift compared to lower degrees of incline and flat bench. The purpose of incline benching is to recruit more shoulder involvement and also more of the upper (clavicular) parts of the pectoralis major muscles. Bar will still track to be over your shoulders, about the nipple line/mid sternum. Grip width just wider than shoulder width so forearms will be completely perpendicular to the floor at the lowest point of the press.
Decline bench: There are benches and racks specifically for decline benching. If you only have access to a flat bench, you can potentially “make” your own decline by elevating the foot end of the bench. If you do this, make sure it’s very stable before trying the lift. The benefit of a decline bench is to utilize the lower portions of the sternal portion of the pecs more, and also decrease the amount of involvement of shoulder muscles. If you have a shoulder injury but are still cleared to lift, this can be a better option for you than a flat or incline bench press. In this position, the barbell will be over the lower part of your breast bone (sternum) and will touch the chest lower than in a flat or incline bench press.
Close grip bench: As the name suggests, this bench press variation has a more narrow grip width than standard or wide grip bench press. The purpose for this positioning is to increase the involvement of the triceps muscles during the lift. Proper grip width for this is over the shoulder joints – too narrow of a grip can internally rotate the shoulder joint which can lead to strain and injury. In this variation, the bar will touch your chest even lower than a decline or flat bench press – the bottom of the movement should still have your forearms perpendicular to the floor, with the wrists and bar stacked over the elbows.
Supinated/reverse grip bench: This variation can be very challenging, especially as weights increase. The benefit to supinating your hands so that the palm is facing your chin during the bench press is to reduce strain on the shoulders. It can be challenging to keep the bar in the fleshy part of your hands without dropping the bar on your face. Definitely practice with an empty bar or light dumbbells.
Floor press: Not just an exercise for when the benches are all occupied. Floor press is good in its own right or as an accessory for bench press. Set up is basically the same as a flat bench press, but you’re on the floor. Personally I prefer to have my knees bent and my feet flat, but one could also keep the legs flat out and completely remove lower body involvement/drive. These are especially great with dumbbells for folks with shoulder pain or issues, because you can use a neutral grip. These can help with lockout strength at the top of the bench press as well as if your sticking point on bench press is on the ascent.
Larsen press: The set up for the Larsen press is identical to a standard flat bench press. The biggest difference is that once you unrack the weight and have the bar over your chest, the feet are lifted off the ground, either straight out or resting on something else at the heel (toes up). “This forces athletes to really focus on maintaining their upper back tightness without the feet and legs compensating for poor bar path, set positioning, and inadequate force displacement.” The biggest benefit to this variation is to force the lifter to maintain a tight upper back during the bench press, though it also serves as a way to increase relative intensity/difficulty of the exercise without adding more weight to the bar.
Helpful Bench Press Cues
Try to “break the bar” while pushing it away from you. Imagine it is a big long dry spaghetti noodle and you are trying to turn it into two pieces of spaghetti by snapping it away from you. This will help engage your upper body muscles and ensure that your upper back is tight and flat, promoting a safer and more stable lift.
Grip the bar very hard, with special focus on gripping hard with your pinkies. This can help engage your latissimus dorsi for the lift!
Stack the bar over your wrists over your elbows. This means your forearm will be perpendicular to the floor and the barbell and increases stability, improves form, and reduces undue strain on your shoulders and elbows.
Push yourself away from the bar and push your body down into the bench during the actual press portion (from the bottom back up to the top) of the lift. This will help keep your upper body muscles engaged appropriately and keep you in place on the bench.
For leg drive, plant your feet and apply force down on the floor and towards your head. This will help keep your upper back planted so long as you aren't slick and sweaty and keep optimal form and tightness through the lift.
Push ups –Push ups are basically the body weight exercise version of the bench press – the movement and position is very similar and translate well into bench press gains. Succeeding in bench press will benefit your push ups, and succeeding in push ups will benefit your bench press. The bodyweightfitness subreddit guide for pushups is excellent and goes over a suggested progression program if you are not yet able to do full push ups on your toes. Note also that you can do a narrow width diamond pushup to increase involvement of your triceps.
MegSquats also recently posted a “3 tips for push ups” post that several of our users have already mentioned as being helpful.
Svend/pinch press - a great accessory exercise for pectoral muscle growth, especially right in the middle along the sternum. You’ll be squeezing a plate or other weight between your hands at mid chest level and pushing the weight straight out away from your body – make sure you’re squeezing the weight through the whole motion. This can be done either standing upright or lying flat on your back (supine). The supine version recruits your triceps more, and the standing version recruits your anterior deltoid more.
Chest flies - another favorite chest accessory. These also hit the pectoralis minor, along with pectoralis major. These can help your bench press by increasing the strength of the pectoral muscles, but are also great for changing the aesthetics of your chest muscles. Flys can be performed flat or at an incline – like incline bench press vs flat, increasing the angle away from the ground will increase the involvement of the upper aspect of the pectoral muscles as well as the anterior deltoid muscles.
Cable crossoveiron cross: Very similar to chest flies, but you’re using the cable tower and performing these upright. These engage the core and abdominal muscles more, but are still primarily for strengthening the chest, shoulders, and triceps. The best part about cable flyes or cable crossovers is that you can adjust the height of the cables to target different aspects of your chest muscles – higher cable anchors target the lower pectoral fibers, middle (shoulder-ish) height target the middle fibers, especially along the sternum, and low cable anchor points target the upper pectoral muscle fibers.
Dips are challenging body weight exercises that can have either a chest or triceps focus. Essentially, these are vertical pushups – you will be suspended from a rack or pull up/dip ‘machine’. Start with your arms fully extended while you’re holding onto the handles. Bend your arms to lower your body, leaning forward slightly, until your shoulders are just below your elbows. Lift yourself back up while straightening your arms until you lock out at the top. You can also do bench dips which may be easier on your shoulders. Surprisingly good wikihow guide on bench dips.
Around the Worlds - an exercise for pectoral and shoulder muscle strength and development. Can be done supine or standing – supine will be a chest focus, while upright will be a shoulder focused movement (but don’t worry – both groups are definitely involved in both versions). Hold dumbbells or small weight plates with your palms facing forward throughout the motion. Start with your hands at your sides and, keeping elbows slightly bent, slowly move your arms away from your body like you’re making a snow angel until they are side by side over your head. Do the reverse movement to return to the starting position with the weights by your side – this is one rep.
Triceps Pushdowns are one of many triceps extension exercises that can help you get that stylish horseshoe muscle appearance, and improve your bench press. You can do triceps pushdowns with a cable tower, pull down station, or even resistance bands.
Triceps extensions encompass a wide variety of exercises aimed at isolating the triceps for hypertrophy (size) and strength.
Equipment, Tools, and Other Considerations
These items are not required to be successful in bench pressing, but can be beneficial to lifters that bench press at any skill or weight level.
Wrist wraps can help keep your wrists straight and supported during bench press. They can help keep the weight safely and evenly distributed through your wrist and thus through the entire forearm and elbow.
Slingshot: A device invented by powerlifter Mark Bell who can bench 545lbs without special tools and 854lbs “equipped”. It wraps around your elbows and can allow you to overload your bench press by “10-15%” with the help of elastic tension from the Slingshot. It can also be helpful in taking some of the stress off shoulders and elbows during a bench press but is NOT a substitute for proper form and safe lifting.
Blocks or boards - board pressing uses wooden boards or something like benchblokz between the bar and your chest during a bench press. This decreases the range of motion for the lift and can help lifters work through sticking points (relative weak points in the range of motion), which can lead to improved bench without tools (“raw”). Here’s another article, from elitefts on board pressing and its uses.
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