Most guys who start training at the gym want to have an impressive chest and biceps. And the bench press is pretty good at building up the pectoral muscles. However, in order to get the most from the bench press, don’t just pile on the plates but learn the correct technique described here to bench safely and efficiently.
There are 4 contact points when laying down on the bench: the feet on the floor, the glutes, the shoulders and the head on the bench.
The feet don’t just provide stability, use them to push off the floor towards the bar to involve the whole body. Keep the angle at the knees less than 90 degrees. This helps to push off the floor.
Keep the glutes anchored to the bench. Don’t be tempted to raise the hips.
Give a good arch to the back, pushing the chest out and the shoulders back. Squeeze the shoulder blades together hard and keep them squeezed hard. This will provide stability when lowering the bar. Don’t let the bench fabric get in the way when squeezing the shoulders back, especially if bare skin is in contact with the bench. Squeeze your shoulders first, then lay them on the bench.
Lie down such that your eyes are just below the bar. This helps you unrack the bar easily and ensures you’re not too close to the supports that would get in the way during the exercise.
In order to get the right curve to the back, the right squeeze to the shoulders, the chest out and the legs at the right angle, I like to lie on the bench with my eyes under the bar first. Then I extend my arms overhead in a pull-over position. This helps me curve my back, bring my chest up and my shoulders back. I then squeeze each shoulder blade inwards one at a time, raising each side off the bench so the fabric doesn’t impede the movement. I align my body if needed so the bar is above my eyes again, then I anchor my shoulders to the bench, pull up my hips a little to arch my back one last time and then set my feet in position.
Everyone has their own way of getting into position. Some like to grab the bar to arch their back, others literally climb on the bench first. It doesn’t matter what process you use as long as you end up with a rigid shoulder girdle, chest out and the back arched.
Gripping the bar
The next stage is perhaps the most critical one in performing the bench press correctly – getting your grip right.
Grip too close and the emphasis is on the triceps. As the triceps are weaker muscles than the pecs, you will not be able to lift as heavy and anyway, the pecs won’t be targeted sufficiently.
Too wide a grip targets the anterior deltoids excessively and they are also weaker than the pecs, resulting in a lighter lift.
The correct grip to target the pecs most efficiently is when the arms are bent at 90 degrees at the bottom of the movement. At this point, both the bar and the upper arms are parallel to each other and to the floor.
You may have to move your hands around the first few times in order to find the optimum grip width. As you get more experienced, you’ll eventually know the right grip width by habit.
Wrap your thumb around the bar, as in making a fist. Some people, including me, like to tuck the thumb behind the bar, alongside the other fingers, and allow the bar to rest on the palm of the hands. This allows me to rotate my hands slightly towards each other. This position feels more comfortable on my wrists and allows me to keep my elbows closer to my body during the exercise. I’m effectively trying to mirror the setup in a dumbell press, where the hands are in a neutral position.
However there’s a very real risk that the bar may slip and fall with fatal consequences, even with a spotter. This has happened with experienced lifters before and even in competitions. Sweat makes the hands more slippery. If the bar slips, suddenly your spotter is expected to lift the whole weight, whereas if he was helping you with the last couple of reps, he’d be just lifting a few kilos.
If the thumbs are wrapped around the bar, you can have a little boost of strength by trying to pull the bar apart. This gives extra rigidity to the upper back area.
Now that you’ve got the starting position sorted out, unrack the bar, straighten your arms and bring the bar slowly over your shoulders such that the arms are perpendicular to the floor when viewed from the side. In other words, the bar is not too much over your face, nor too far down over your stomach.
Take a deep breath and lower the bar under control until it just touches the bottom of the breast bone. As you breathe in, your chest will jut out even more, as if trying to reach the bar. Keep the elbows tucked in slightly, as opposed to flared out as this puts too much stress on the shoulder joints.
At the bottom of the exercise, push back up and exhale forcefully when going through the sticking point which is about 10 cm off the chest, though this varies from person to person depending on their weak point in the lift.
At the top
The path that the bar travels through when going up looks like the letter J upside down, with the curve of the J being near the top of the movement and serving to bring the arms over the shoulders. This is the natural path and not a straight line as would be expected.
Don’t relax the shoulders once the bar reaches the top and don’t lock the elbows. Breathe in and lower the bar again for another rep.
Lift heavy, but also lift smart.