Who doesn’t love chest day! I know I do!!
If you have ever worked out or thought about it there is one exercise you think of…
All other exercises fall in somewhere after that.
This article is about the bench press and exactly what may be holding you back.
We will talk about the TOP 10 Bench Press Mistakes.
A huge deal!
Some of these simple tips can get you benching more instantly!
Several of the tips will prevent injury and keep you bench pressing for years to come.
And some tips…
Can save your life! Literally…..
I get kind of excited when talking about lifting, so some of the tips turn into like 3 or 4 in one.
Here it is;
The Top 10 Bench Pressing Mistakes
1. The Bench and All About it….
When it comes to the bench there are two factors to consider
What is the proper bench height for you
Where to place the bench and yourself on it
When you go to pick the bench you will be using, first find one that is the proper height. Most benches are a fairly standard height and that works for most people.
If you’re a short guy it may not work. This is where those nice little foot pads come in place, or you can stack some weight plates under your feet, much like I’m sure you short guys do with phone books while driving….
If you’re a really tall guy you may need to stack plates under the bench to get it to the proper height for you.
Fix 1: Finding the bench height
To find the proper height of your bench;
When you lay flat on it your back should not have to arch for your feet touch the ground or the foot rests.
When you go to drive your legs if the bench is too short it may be challenging to keep your butt down.
As for where to put the bench and yourself on it;
Many benches in gyms are attached directly to the uprights and this takes some of the guessing out of it.
But where you go on the bench is still a question….
- Lay on the bench & grasp the bar.
- Position your head so your eyebrows are in-line with the bar.
- This way when you do your lift off and bring the bar over my chest it will hit your chest in the appropriate spot (see below) and I won’t hit the bar rests on the upright.
And we all know that’s about the worst thing that can happen mid-set.
Where the bar should hit:
Ha! But seriously;
Your nipple line is where you want the bar to hit.
If the bar is hitting this approximate area, you will be solving several other problems, such as; elbow flare, bar path and you’ll help avoid a shoulder injury.
One exception for this would be saggy tits.
In this case aim for about your fifth rib. That’s where most nipples and the barbell should be on your chest.
2. Height of Rack
When picking the height of the rack it is important to choose wisely.
If you set too low and your elbows are bent too much….
You are basically doing an extra ¼ lift or so every time you lift off to start a set. And that’s not cool, especially when you’re going heavy.
If you set too high, you have to over-reach for your lift off…
You will likely find yourself in a bad spot when it comes time to re-rack. At the end of the set you probably won’t be able to get that last little push above and beyond (literally) full extension.
Hope you have a good spotter!
To pick the height of the rack appropriate for you;
- Lay face up on the bench and grasp the bar
- Your elbows should have a slight bend in them
- When you go to re-rack it should require no additional pushing up from your natural full extension position to get over the lip of the bar rests.
3. Width of Hands
The width of your hands determines which muscles are used most.
A wider grip will bring in more action from the pectoralis major (Pecs). And a narrower grip will bring in more action from the Triceps.
Confucius say,” Stare deeply into the barbell for all your answers”.
That’s probably a mis-quote, but still a good rule.
When you look at a barbell you will notice it has smooth parts and knurled parts (the spikey parts). Generally, a barbell will have a large smooth part in the middle, then knurling almost all the way to the sleeves.
There is an exception! In the long-knurled part there is a smooth ring about ¾ of the way to the sleeve. Some bars will have two rings, those are power lifting bars and not found in your average gym.
Everyone will vary in exactly what they like best.
For the average height fella, try wrapping your ring finger around the ring in the knurling and let the other fingers fall into place.
Do a set here.
If you feel the grip is too wide, go in a finger; too short, go out a finger. Very quickly you will find what works best for you.
A word of warning!
Don’t go too narrow or you will fail to see large growth in your chest and you will be slow to see the numbers climb on the bench.
Don’t go too wide or you will decrease your range of motion, loose mobility and likely injure yourself.
The Goldilocks Zone is what you’re in search of.
Find the spot that’s just right.
4. Hand/Wrist Position
The position of your wrist on the bar can be a make or break for your lift, especially when lifting heavy weights.
Did you know…..
Having your wrist in an improper position can actually make you significantly weaker (1). Fact!
Equally, your strength will decrease when other things like your elbows and shoulders aren’t in proper position (2). As we will talk about in later sections.
Having your wrist, and all joints for that matter, in a stacked position is strongest. What I mean by stacked is one joint over the other, or in a straight line.
Think about it this way;
If you had to hold a barbell off your chest for an hour with no weight on it how would you hold it? With your elbows straight or elbows half bent?
Elbows straight. That way your muscles are doing little work and your skeletal system is stacked up, wrist over elbow, elbow over shoulder and it’s stable.
If you had your elbows half bent, you wouldn’t last two minutes before you started shaking like Miley Cyrus’s ass on the MTV Music Awards.
So, your wrist should be no different!
Put it in its strongest position!
This can get confusing….
It’s not simply hand straight; as in knuckles over wrist, over elbow.
Forget the knuckles, barbell centered over wrist over, over elbow.
This will naturally put your knuckles a little behind your wrist.
Your thumbs should always be “active” during a bench press. It can literally save your life.
Wrapping your thumbs around the bar helps a few things;
- Safety – Having your thumbs wrapped prevents loss of control and dropping the bar on yourself….
A potentially life-ending scenario…
- Helps set the wrist properly
The thumb wrap helps engage the wrist and makes it less likely you will allow your wrist to fall back during a set.
- Proper placement of the bar
This goes hand in hand with the above (pun intended, Ha!).
The bar should be resting across the bottom or your hand, not up in mid-hand/fingers
5. Shoulder Blade engagement
Shoulder injuries and the bench press go together like peanut butter & jelly.
Because people don’t engage their shoulder blades properly.
Most people have never even thought about it. But it’s a big hairy deal!
When your shoulder blades are not engaged…..
Your shoulders are not stabilized properly, and this leaves them very venerable to injuries (3).
And guess what else…
Improper position of the arm/shoulder during a press will cause shoulder impingement (4).
And another thing…..
Engaging your shoulder blades will make your lift stronger too!
After you have done your lift off, engage your shoulder blades and then begin your reps.
The easiest way to learn is in a closed chain movement, like a push-up.
- Get into push-up position
- Think about screwing your hands into the floor so the pinkys move out & down and the thumbs move in & up.
- Your elbows should naturally turn in and…
- This should translate to your back as your shoulder blades moving in and down.
You are engaged and ready!
Now hop on the bench and practice this a few times with no weight.
Then light weights and eventually your full load and beyond.
6. Hitting/Bouncing On The Chest/Depth of Press
Some lifters (usually power lifter types) like to almost “bounce” the bar on their chest.
Most trainers like to lightly “tap” the chest with the bar.
And cheaters who “maxed 405 today” only brought those eight plates 2/3rds of the way down.
It can really depend who you talk to on this one. But there is one common thread.
The bar should touch your chest to count as a rep.
I am not going to tell any power lifter they’re wrong, because they’d probably bend me in half.
But I will say bouncing the bar on your chest is giving your muscles a fractional break and the rebound from that bounce helps through the hardest part of the lift…..
The direction change and first few inches until the elbows hit 90 again.
When you do as most trainers will tell you;
Lightly tap the bar to the chest, or even stop just shy of actual contact; then you are truly doing all the work and you will feel that struggle.
Doing a rep this way focuses more on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift.
And that’s where real gains can happen!
In fact, eccentric training alone has shown great results for building and maintaining new muscle (5)..
7. Back & Butt Lifting Off Bench
If your back and butt is arching off the bench when you are pressing the bar it means the weight is too heavy and your body needs to pull in recruit muscles to help your chest, shoulders and triceps.
I would call this cheating.
Then again, I would call kip-ups cheating too.
And as I am told a true pull-up is simply called a “strict pull-up”. I suppose then keeping your back on the bench while pressing could be considered a “strict bench press”?
if your back and butt are coming off the bench you are totally losing your core engagement and you ‘re begging for an injury.
Not to mention your cheating your lift….
Liken lifting your back of the bench to arching your back during a military press.
Bad idea…Right? Obviously. Same here.
Engage your entire body during your press;
Drive your feet into the floor, keep your butt on the bench with your core engaged and push your shoulders blades into the bench as you push the bar away.
If you arch high and lose your core,
Reset and try again.
Maybe drop the weights a bit too.
If you’re a powerlifter…..
Lifting your low back off the bench slightly might make sense?
I am not a power lifter, and personally feel stronger when I keep everything engaged.
But if that’s how you train to lift mega weight, that’s cool.
8. Foot Placement and Leg Drive
Legs in the air while bench pressing….
For some unknown reason you will often see morons in the gym doing this…
I say morons with an exception…
Those who really know what they’re doing and are maybe performing a one arm press with the legs in the air to engage their core more.
Those people are exceptions and aren’t training their chest, they’re training a movement pattern and you will likely never see them in a typical gym.
If your feet are up during a bench press while trying to make gains your chest
Get your feet flat on the floor.
Drive through your legs on the concentric (UP) portion of your bench press and enjoy the benefits…
Extra strength and stability!
Breathing is more helpful then you think.
Lots of people will hold their breath while doing a lift.
Especially a heavy lift.
This can actually cause a stroke (6).
And that’s a day ruiner…
Breathe throughout your lift.
Inhale as you bring the weight down.
Exhale as you push the weight up.
For your lift off it may help to do a 3, 2, 1, lift with 3 big breaths to get your body in the zone.
10: Spotter’s Positioning and Hand Placement
Spotters are super important, so, I felt this had to be included:
Two things on your spotter.
Where their hands are on the bar
How they should position their bodies
If you’re in a “tough guy” crowd and some bro circles, having a spotter do anything more than just watch is forbidden.
And to you I ask, “What’s the point in the spotter then?”.
A spotter is there to help you work through a tough spot in the lift and to give encouragement.
If all they do is stand there and watch you struggle until fail then all they’ve accomplished is watching their buddy get injured.
In fact, it is when the bar motion stops that injury is most likely to happen.
If your spotter doesn’t help through those sticking points, then you need a new spotter. And probably some better friends.
In a lifting competition it is illegal for your spotter to be too close to the bar. But that is a competition, not training.
It’s like a boxer training for a fight with no headgear. Why hurt yourself in practice??
The Fix: Your spotter’s Hand Position
Personally, I like my spotter to have his hands shadow under the bar the entire lift. This makes me think he’s helping me and then the bar seems lighter. I know, stupid mental trick, but it works.
Assure your spotters hands are very near the bar, he should not be standing carelessly staring at girls on the treadmill.
Now for your spotter’s body position:
You can see it all in a typical gym…
From one spotter in horrible rounded back posture to
The Tea Bagger.
The spotter who stands with their nuts literally on their buddies face.
The Fix: Your Spotter’s Body Position
For your spotter’s safety….
Have him stand in a bent-over row type position.
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Knees slightly bent
- Hips back
- Back straight and core engaged.
- Bend the knees up and down as you track the bar
o Similar to a hang clean movement.
A good spotter is well braced and ready to grab the bar.
If your spotter isn’t ready and you drop the bar you’ll wind up with two people injured.
Honestly, that would be impressive though….
By now you should have all you need to go out and get your bench press on!
These simple fixes will have you lifting more and lifting safer, quickly!
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom!
Dr. Dave Hopper
1. The relationship between wrist position, grasp size, and grip strength.
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2. Grip strength: relationship to shoulder position in normal subjects.
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Gaoxiong Yi Xue Ke Xue Za Zhi. 1993 Jul;9(7):385-91.
3. Effects of scapular stability exercise on shoulder stability and rehabilitative ultrasound images in office workers.
Go SU, Lee BH.
J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Nov;28(11):2999-3002. Epub 2016 Nov 29.
4. ShoulderRetractor Strengthening Exercise to Minimize Rhomboid Muscle Activity and Subacromial Impingement.
Fennell J, Phadke CP, Mochizuki G, Ismail F, Boulias C.
Physiother Can. 2016;68(1):24-8. doi: 10.3138/ptc.2014-83.
5. Eccentricresistance training increases and retains maximal strength, muscle endurance, and hypertrophy in trained men.
Coratella G, Schena F.
Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Nov;41(11):1184-1189. Epub 2016 Aug 12.
6. Resistance exercise, the Valsalva maneuver, and cerebrovascular transmural pressure.
Haykowsky MJ, Eves ND, R Warburton DE, Findlay MJ.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Jan;35(1):65-8.
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