It’s safe to say that, in the US at least, the bench press is one of the favorite exercises of most trainees (especially males). Let’s face it, if someone finds out if you lift, their first question is invariably “How much do you bench?”.
And, while it’s difficult to decide which movement is done more poorly in the average gym (let’s face it, 99% of people have atrocious technique), the bench is right up there. I’ve seen staggering amounts of truly amusing things done on bench press, usually by guys who want to lift more weight to impress their buddies and/or hit the minimum macho poundage (which ranges from 225 to 315 depending on what type of gym you’re in). Never mind that the bench is realistically more or less responsible for more shoulder injuries than any other lift, the reality is that trainees will want to do it. So they might as well do it correctly. And that’s what I’m going to describe here.
Now, let me say right up front that I am going to be detailing a very specific variation on bench pressing, which is the raw generic power bench press. Lemme explain those terms. Raw means no gear as in no bench press shirts. Yeah, a lot of guys belt but, unless you’re using the belt to hold down your bench shirt, it’s pretty pointless. And I guess you could consider wrist wraps gear, I can’t say I’ve seen many non-powerlifters use them. But raw in this context means no bench shirt.
My use of the phrase generic power bench may confuse some people. I’m using the term generic to delineate that this is the generic form I’d teach a beginning/non-competition athlete trainee under most circumstances. Yes, there are exceptions. With a bodybuilder, I might do something a bit different, for a powerlifter, it would depend on their fed and their gear.
Basically, what I’m going to describe is what would be old-school raw powerlifting style bench press.
If you’re wondering why I choose this variation for most applications, it’s because the generic raw power bench will be safer for the shoulders for the average trainee (compared to an elbows high bodybuilder bench press), while allowing them to use the most weight, and while targeting the largest amount of muscle mass (including the pecs) at once.
I’m putting all of this verbiage up-front to avoid comments of the “That’s bad technique advice for a shirted lifter in a Rage double ply denim shirt” (or whatever) or “That’s not the best way to isolate the pecs” (and ruin your shoulders). I’m not talking about a bodybuilder style ‘pectacular’ bench and I’m not talking about geared powerlifting.
If you’re still unclear on the distinction, I’d recommend you read Bench Pressing Variations on this site since it examines the basic differences between the three.
Muscles Targeted in the Bench Press
The bench press hits a large amount of upper body musculature with the primary focus being on the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders, especially front and middle), and triceps (back of the arm). Any number of secondary muscles are hit but these are the main ones that are being targeted.
I’d note that some don’t feel that the bench press is a very good chest exercise, usually this is because they never learned to use the pecs while benching. I addressed this in detail in Benching with the Pecs. I’ve also seen it argued that the bench isn’t even a pec exercise and that it’s only triceps. While that might be true for some types of geared power benching, that certainly isn’t true for what I’m going to describe.
With that said, I would note that some types of body mechanics often make the bench press a poor choice of exercises for targeting the pecs (especially without tearing up the shoulders). Usually this is folks with very very long arms for whom full-range bench pressing tends to do awful things to the shoulders.
But, as noted in the introduction, the simple fact is that most people want to bench, most people are going to bench, and that means that they need to do it correctly.
Bench Press: Technique
First let’s talk about basic set up for the generic raw power bench. The picture below to the left shows a proper starting position. There is a slight arch in the back (nothing excessive as you might see in a powerlifting style bench), the feet are flat on the floor, the bar is directly over the lifter and the shoulders are pulled back with the chest lifted high. Contrast that to the picture on the right, there is no arch in the low back, the chest is dropped and the shoulders are rolled forwards
Note: lifters with pre-existing back problems (especially disk issues) often cannot bench with even the slight arch shown in the picture on the left. However, even if they bench with a flatter low back (as shown in the right), the chest should still be lifted and the shoulders pulled back.
The above may be a little easier to see from the top of the lifter. The picture on the left shows the shoulders pinned back under the lifter, the picture on the right shows the shoulders rolled out from underneath the lifter and shrugged up towards the ceiling. The left picture is the correct start and finish position, that is the shoulders should stay pinned behind the lifter throughout the rep and set.
The next thing I want to look at is the proper starting and finish position for the bench, in terms of where the bar should end up. If you look at the picture entitled “Correct Start Position” above, you can see that the bar is directly vertical to the lifter, that is the arm is perpendicular to the body. This means that the only real effort is going into keeping the arms locked. Contrast that to the following two pictures showing the bar being too far back over the lifter’s eyes (left picture) or too far towards their feet (right picture). Both positions are wrong and require more muscular effort to keep the bar in place compared to having the bar vertical.
Again, the bar should both start and finish in the same position, with the arms vertical and the bar directly above the lifter.
Now one of the long-standing arguments about bench pressing for years has been over the proper bar-path with some advocating what is termed the J-curve path and others advocating a straight line. For various reasons, I teach a slight J-curve. Meaning that from the above starting position, the bar is lowered in a slight curve to the chest, and is pushed back up (towards the eyes) to the proper finish position discussed above.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up terribly well in pictures (see the video at the end of this article to make it clearer) but if you look at the next two pictures (showing the proper start and finish position), you can see that the bar hits the lifter further down the body compared to the starting position. This is due to the lifter lowering the bar in a slight gradual curve to the chest prior to pressing it back and up (in the same curve) to the proper ending position.
Also note that, at the bottom, the elbows are tucked slightly in towards the body, anywhere from 30-45 degrees would be common; that is in contrast to a heavily geared bench where the elbows are generally tucked more, or a bodybuilder style bench where the elbows are flared higher up. Again, this is shown in some detail in Bench Pressing Variations.
Again, this isn’t profoundly clear in the pictures but can be seen in the video at the bottom of the page.
Now, a comment about proper bottom position mechanics. In the picture above and to the right, you’ll note that the elbows are directly underneath the bar, that is the forearms are perpendicular to both the bar and floor.
A common technique flaw is to have the elbows either behind (bottom left) or in front of the bar (bottom right) both of which mess up not only bar path but prevent the lifter from actually putting their force into the bar. In the first case, the lifter will end up pushing the bar towards their feet, in the second, the bar has basically collapsed back onto them and they are unlikely to get the bar moving off the chest at all.
Finally, I want to look at the issue of grip width; as noted above, the elbows are tucked into the body slightly in the generic power bench and this has implications for proper grip width. At the bottom of the lift, the grip should be such that the forearms are perpendicular to the bar and floor. This is shown below.
Which brings us to the end and a short video I took showing both a proper J-curve (first three repetitions) and a straight up and down bar path (second three reps). I want to make a couple of other comments about the video. Note that the lifter gets set and tight with the shoulders pinned down prior to having the bar lifted out of the rack. The shoulders stay down during the lift off as well (this requires that the spotter give a proper lift off, a topic that is beyond the scope of this article). During each rep, the shoulder remain pulled back and down, the only thing moving is the bar.
- Bench Press Variations
- Shirted Benching – A Guest Article by Dan Montague
- Lat Pulldown Technique
- Split Squat Technique
- Clean Style Deadlift Technique