Barbell bench press is one of the first and most basic exercises that athletes learn once they come to the gym. It is originally taken from powerlifting where the bench press is the second of the three competitive exercises.
It is suitable and helpful for both professionals and newbies. Thus, it is the most popular and recognized exercise among athletes of all levels and sports. I am sure that everyone has been asked about their bench press result at least once. It is something like a universal strength indicator.
Though someone may think that the bench press is rather easy to learn, it has a lot of technical intricacies. Any powerlifter will prove that it is not that simple to perform barbell bench press properly. It demands a lot of time and effort to grasp everything about this exercise. However, it brings up plenty of benefits if you are into fitness.
What muscles are involved in bench press exercise?
The bench press is one of the most basic exercises to involve most body muscles effectively. Though it may look as if it develops only upper-limb muscles, you will feel tension in all, even the most unexpected, parts, too.
As most athletes know, the bench press is used mainly to build up strong chest and massive upper limb muscles and become similar to those handsome men on the Internet. It actually works perfectly well for this purpose but has also some other significant benefits.
The main emphasis is put on pecs, shoulders, and triceps. But if you follow all the necessary steps and technical principles, you also involve leg and back muscles, lats, and abs as well. On top of that, all bench press variations put a lot of load on stabilizers, developing balance, coordination, and muscle control.
Bench press technique
If you want to learn how to bench press effectively, read this full guide that I have prepared for you. Follow all the steps precisely to perform the exercise with the proper technique and avoid injuries. However, don’t hesitate to ask a coach for advice if some points seem tough for you.
Setup for barbell bench press and lift-off
First of all, lie on the bench so that a barbell is right in line with your eyes. Put your legs slightly wider than your shoulders and point out the toes. As to the grip width, it may vary depending on the variation but the most optimal one is approximately 1,5 lengths of the shoulder width.
Grab the bar from underneath, not from above, to ensure a stable position. Use the regular grip but make sure that the barbell is not too close to the fingers and fixed firmly and comfortably in the palm.
The bar shouldn’t be established on the racks too high. When you reach it, your elbows should be slightly bent, not completely straight, so that you can lift the bar off the racks while stretching them.
Before the lift-off, slightly bent your back and squiz the shoulder blades opening your chest to keep a natural arch. Throughout the whole movement, keep your head, shoulders, glutes on the bench, and feet on the floor. In this position, you involve all muscles and make them work for a better result. You should keep your legs, back, lats, and abs tense during the entire exercise.
If you work with heavy weights or don’t feel comfortable yet, ask your fellow to be a spotter and stand behind to help you lift the bar off.
Always fix the barbell in your hands firmly before descending, do not rush. Breathing is very important in the bench press exercise as it determines the range of motion and muscle tension. You should inhale deeply before lowering the bar so that your chest opens and becomes bigger.
Start descending the bar slowly, maintaining all body parts firmly fixed and tense. The bottom point should be in the lower part of the chest below the nipples.
Don’t point your elbows out and don’t push them to the body. Keep around a 75° angle to make the movement safe, comfortable and powerful.
Slightly touch your chest with the bar but don’t bump it into the body. At powerlifting competitions, you are required to make a pause in this position and wait for the command “press”. However, there is no need to do that if you are not going to compete.
After you touch the chest, start pressing the bar powerfully, involving all muscles: pecs, triceps, delts, legs, back, lats, glutes, and abs. Push your feet towards the floor and don’t forget to keep your head, shoulders, and glutes on the bench.
The trajectory should NOT be strictly vertical, but slightly curved. Finish above the upper part of the chest.
Some athletes start exhaling when they are over the hardest point of the movement. Others prefer to breathe out after fixing the bar. Try both options and choose the most comfortable time for you.
Don’t forget to fix the bar by stretching the elbows, and don’t rush. Again, if you are lifting a new weight or have little experience, ask your spotter to help you rack the bar after finishing the exercise.
Newbies often make some mistakes in the bench press. Here are the most common ones:
- keeping the back flat
It is not only ineffective but also dangerous for your lower back. Firstly, you can’t involve all muscles in such a position so it limits your bench press result. Secondly, your lower back disks aren’t safe in this case. All in all, it is better to maintain a comfortable arch.
- Driving your glutes off the bench
Always keep your head, shoulders and glutes on the bench firmly or you risk getting an injury. If you drive your glutes up, it puts too much load on your lower back. Moreover, it is even banned at powerlifting competitions.
- Driving your heels off the floor
This mistake doesn't allow you to involve all muscle groups, especially the legs. Also, it makes the position unstable and puts your ankles at risk.
- Wrist rotation
Do not band your wrists backward in order not to get a joint injury. Feel the bar in your palms and don’t put it too close to the fingers.
- Using thumbless grip
Don’t ever use the thumbless grip while working with a bar. It is completely unsafe. The bar may slip off your palms and injure the chest. Even if you haven’t had such an awful experience, the thumbless grip puts too much load on your wrist joints.
- Bumping the chest with the bar
At the bottom point, you should touch the chest slightly but don’t bound the bar off. In this case, you relax your muscles and usually drive the glutes off the bench. On top of that, hitting your chest and rib cage with a heavy bar is also unsafe.
- Overbending the back
Overbending the back is as harmful as leaving it flat. Some powerlifters do that in order to shorten the range of motion but don’t make this mistake if you use the bench press just as a regular gym exercise. It won’t benefit you anyway.
Bench press variations
In order to target slightly different muscles or just try something new, you can perform different variations of the bench press. I recommend starting with the traditional option but after some time you can include other exercises in your training plan:
- narrow-grip bench press – it puts more load on your triceps. The main difference is the grip. Grab the bar at the shoulder width but don’t go too narrow to avoid wrist injury;
- incline bench press – it is performed on the incline bench within the 45-60° angle. It mostly targets the upper chest. Do not bend your back for this variation, keep it in the neutral position;
- decline bench press – the technique is similar to the previous variation but the bench is declined usually by 15-30°. This exercise targets the lower part of the chest;
- dumbbell bench press – it is performed with dumbbells instead of the bar. Mind that the weight for this variation is much lower than for the traditional one. Do not chase high results in this exercise, just use it to work on your stabilizers more precisely.
Bench press for weightlifters
All weightlifters know that the bench press is harmful to the snatch and clean & jerk and, therefore, they rarely perform it. It actually restricts shoulder mobility and range of motion so you may experience difficulty in these exercises at once. But can bench press weightlifting be used anyway?
Weightlifters and crossfit athletes can bench press during the off-season or transition period. This exercise actually helps build a strong chest, shoulders, and triceps, which are also important for these sports, and adds variety to the training routine. Moreover, performing bench press won’t restrict your mobility and flexibility unless you make it a habit.
All in all, don’t be afraid of the barbell bench press but don’t get too carried away.