“How much do you bench?”
It might be the most frequently asked question among hardcore “gym bros” and experienced gym veterans looking to establish a pecking order, as well as curious beginners looking to strike up a conversation. It’s also one of the most popular (if misguided) ways to inquire about someone’s strength, fitness, and general capability in the gym.
Some might consider the notion of bench press-specific status ridiculous, but you can’t erase the reality of the situation. Also, some people just want to have a big bench press for themselves. You may as well position yourself to move some impressive numbers, and move the weight safely.
Here’s how to fine-tune your bench press, optimize your technique, and set up a plan to start pushing bigger weights.
Bench Press Technique Review
A strong bench press is built around one thing: Stability. Here’s a step-by-step approach to creating a good environment for a big lift. It all begins with a good starting position before you even unrack the weight.
Step 1 — Find Your Contact Points
Once you’re positioned on the flat bench, the bench press requires four points of contact. Your two feet placed firmly on the floor counts as one point. Your butt and upper back are two more points, as they’re pressed hard against the bench and remain in place throughout the lift.
Lastly, your head must also be firmly against the bench and stay put during each repetition. When you set up, get your eyes directly under the bar before taking the weight out of the rack. This four-point setup is the foundation for a good quality set.
You may have noticed that your lower back is not in contact with the bench, and that’s actually an important distinction. Some lifters believe that having an arch in the lumbar region (lower back) when bench pressing is dangerous for your spine, when truthfully, the arch must be there.
The bench press is considered a horizontal pushing exercise (due to the position of the load relative to your body), which means the force angle doesn’t line up to create spinal loading the way a standing overhead press, squat, or deadlift would affect your lower back. The joint that bears the most load during a bench press is your shoulder joint, not your spine, so arching your lower back doesn’t expose it to any significant strain.
Once you’re in place, it’s time to get your hands on the bar.
Step 2 — Get a Grip
Most barbells you’ll find at a typical gym will have knurling on either side for grip, but also some shiny “rings” on even points on each side. In competitive powerlifting, those rings represent grip-width boundaries a lifter isn’t allowed to exceed.
If you’re not a competitive powerlifter, you can use the rings as reference points as to where your hands belong. Depending on what’s comfortable for your arm length, align the same finger on each hand with the ring on either side. Many lifters will opt for either their middle or ring fingers, but everyone’s preferred grip will be slightly different.
Just be aware of setting your hands too close together with your pinkies far inside of the rings. This morphs the exercise from a standard flat barbell bench press to a close-grip bench press which emphasizes your triceps. (1)
Once your hands are in place, close a strong fist around the bar and you’re ready to lift.
Step 3 — We Have Lift Off
The way you take the bar out of the rack is more important — and more technical — than meets the eye. Safe and efficient technique requires your shoulder blades to remain retracted (pulled together) on the bench. This helps to arch your lower back while elevating your chest and ribcage.
The small “press” that might happen as a lifter takes the bar out of the rack can pull your shoulders out of position (with protraction, the opposite of retraction). Protracted shoulders will make your chest sink down and place more stress on the shoulder joints as a result. This is difficult to correct by the time the weight is in your hands, making it tough to re-adjust.
Making the effort to raise your hips during lift off can help with this, placing them back down as soon as the bar’s unracked and in position over your chest. Lifters without a spotter can use this method to begin the movement in a strong position without sacrificing form.
Step 4 — Lower and Press
The bar should descend under control to make contact on your chest. Aim for touching the bar to your mid- or lower chest, and make that point of contact consistent from rep to rep. The finished, locked out position should be a bit more in line with your upper chest or shoulder-level, meaning the bar will travel on a slightly slanted path.
Always remember that a true testament of strength in a big lift like this doesn’t come from how quickly you can perform the reps, it comes from how slowly and well-controlled you can perform them. Especially on the eccentric (lowering) phase, take the speed down a couple of notches. You can even add a pause with the bar on the chest to exert even more control over the weight — just be sure to stay tight and not relax under the weight.
Make each individual rep count and you’ll slap on strength and size.
Bench Press Mistakes to Avoid
Nobody wants to become the next “YouTube fail” video, usually featuring people butchering the bench press movement or, worse, getting into life-threatening situations due to a disregard for safety. Make sure you’ve got your bases covered by stopping these issues before they start.
Lifting Your Hips
Aside from giving yourself a lift off (if needed), your glutes should never leave the bench during the exercise. Lifting your hips won’t make you any stronger on the lift. It’s simply a cheat tactic and an indicator that the weight is too heavy to lift properly. This is the bench press equivalent of doing standing biceps curls and leaning your upper body back to get the weight up.
Keep the movement honest to your ability. You’ll build strength over time when you apply good form.
Stopping shy of full range of motion — from full lockout to the bar touching your chest — does nothing to properly service your chest muscles (the prime movers of the bench press) or access the strength the body can put into the weight. (2)
If you feel like you can only perform half reps, chances are the weight is too heavy, your shoulders are too unstable, or both. Instead, reduce the load and practice staying tight through full range of motion.
If that still hurts your shoulders, it could be due to weakness in the movement itself or it could stem from a lack of upper back strength to stabilize and protect the shoulder. Make sure your training plan includes plenty of upper-back pulling exercises like face pulls or reverse flyes.
Using Collars on the Bar
This isn’t necessarily a point about increasing your bench press, but it’s an important issue any time you’re benching heavy. It might sound counterintuitive or controversial but, if you’re lifting alone, securing the weight plates with collars is a potentially high-risk maneuver.
Common sense would say you usually “should” secure the weights to prevent them from moving around. The truth is that, if you do fail a rep and manage to get pinned to the bench, it could spell danger if you’re not strong enough to press the bar off your chest all the way back up to the rack. You can’t always rely on rolling it down over your hips and waist (which can be extremely painful and uncomfortable on its own).
If you’re a person who lifts unsupervised at home, it’s best to leave the weights unclipped so that, in the event of failure, you can tip the weights off one end of the bar and free you from being stapled. It’s better to crack a couple of tiles on the workout room floor than to crack a couple of ribs or your larynx.
Three Tips for More Gains
Getting the basics down is a good first step, but taking things to the next level involves a little deeper thinking, where this exercise is concerned.
Tuck your feet closer to your butt to create a knee angle inside 90-degrees. This is essential to taking advantage of a very important and overlooked principle — the bench press is more than just an “upper body” exercise.
In truth, your legs have a serious role to play in promoting overall bracing and tightness. As you press, think about driving your feet into the ground hard. The bar isn’t just moving away from your chest, it’s moving away from the floor, so this cue will come in handy to add more strength to your lift by increasing overall muscle recruitment. (3)
Tuck Your Elbows
If you want to protect your shoulder joints, focus on improving bench performance while using a slightly narrower grip (as opposed to a relatively wide grip) and tucking your elbows during the movement.
The closer your upper arm is to your torso, the less vulnerable position your shoulder joints will be put into. Your shoulders will instantly feel happier, more stable, and more powerful by aiming your elbows more forward than sideways.
Use a Thicker Bar or Thick Grip Attachments
Using a larger diameter bar with more surface area spread across the palms of your hands usually feels more comfortable once you get used to the unique grip. It also can reduce joint stress in the elbows and shoulders by increasing forearm recruitment and muscle tension for added stability. (4)
The greater diameter disperses the load and reduces the pressure transferred to your joints. If you don’t have access to thick barbells, you can use thick grip attachments like “Fat Gripz.” This simple pair of removable handles can be one of the most useful tools to have in your gym bag, since it can be used with any exercise that requires grabbing a barbell, dumbbell, or handle.
Build a Better Bench: Methods That Work
If you’ve been training in the gym for a while, the classic 3 x 10 or 4 x 6 might not really be doing the job to get you past your strength or size plateau. If your lifting numbers aren’t budging, it’s worth thinking a bit further outside the box to find ways to stimulate your chest.
One-and-a-Half Rep Bench Press
Especially if a lifter has longer arms, it can be a hassle adding muscle to the chest for a better aesthetic. The relatively long range of motion and massive amount of lockout space a lifter will have to move through can make the triceps and shoulders take over a typical chest pressing pattern. This leaves the chest less fatigued over the course of a set.
Performing a “one and a half rep” bench press involves unracking the barbell and lowering it all the way to chest level. Remain tight and press the weight from chest level to halfway up, and pause. Your upper arms should be at roughly 90-degrees. Lower the weight once more to chest level, and then press all the way up to the top — that entire series counts as one single repetition.
This high-tension technique will make your chest work more than your triceps and shoulders because the latter two muscle groups aren’t significantly involved in the bottom-half of the movement.
Your chest is in the strongest biomechanical position, and is the most involved, through this section of the exercise, and the one-and-a-half rep technique takes advantage of that. Three to four sets of four to six reps would be ideal here, remembering that each “one and a half” equals one rep.
Cluster sets deserve more mention than they often get when it comes to increasing your strength and size. Understanding how the body works from a physiological level can help create more appreciation for cluster training and its import.
When it comes to short bouts of explosive power like a 100-meter dash, a first down in football, or a heavy, low-rep set of weight training, the body relies on adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as its primary source of energy to make muscles work hard.
The ATP stores leave the body after 10 to 15 seconds and the primary muscles in use begin to shut down and create lactic acid as a byproduct. It usually takes one to two minutes to sufficiently replenish these stores of ATP in the affected muscles.
Knowing that, you can take advantage of this replenishment phase while still lifting heavy weights. A set of three reps can be extended to four or even five total reps if short breaks are taken between each individual repetition.
This mini-rest will partially replenish the stores of ATP available in the body. This can improve your strength over time and also expose you to a higher cumulative volume of heavy reps, which can lead to more muscle growth. Here are some of the most effective ways to use clusters.
Put 90-95% of your one-repetition max on the bar. This weight is typically a two-rep max, but you’re about to do four reps with it. Perform one repetition, and rack the weight for 10 to 15 seconds. Then take the weight off the rack and perform another before re-racking it. Repeat until you’ve performed four reps. Rest at least two minutes and perform a total of two to three full sets.
Resetting between single reps also allows you to ensure correct technique on each separate effort.
Put your five-repetition max on the bar. Perform four reps before racking the weight and resting for 10 seconds. Take the bar off the rack and perform two more reps. You’ve just performed six reps with your five-rep max. Complete three to five full sets.
This is a good way to increase time spent under tension (TUT), which benefits muscle growth, while working with slightly lighter-than-max loads, which won’t impact recovery as much as very heavy lifting. (5)
High-Rep Clusters, aka Ladders, for Size
Plenty of heavy lifting can do a number on the nervous system, especially if heavy lifts are employed on the regular. A good change of pace (that doubles as a great way to break a size plateau) is to use high-rep methods with the same approach.
Ladder sets are just the ticket. Use your 10 to 12-rep max weight. Perform a mini-set of two reps, then three reps, then five reps, and finally 10 reps with 10-second breaks between each mini-set.
This creates 20 reps of muscle-building stimulus with a weight that “should have” only allowed 10 to 12 reps. One or two sets can be plenty. It’s a psychological killer as much as it is a muscular killer, all while keeping the nervous system in check due to the higher rep range and relatively lighter weight.
Go Build a Bigger Bench
The bench press is arguably the most popular lift in the gym. With that prestige, it should be the most properly executed, but that’s not always the case. With this information now in hand, you’ll be set apart in the gym and will have found a way to train smart while also training hard. Soon your performance will be turning heads and you’ll have a reliably impressive answer next time you’re asked “how much do you bench?”
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- Pinto, R. S., Gomes, N., Radaelli, R., Botton, C. E., Brown, L. E., & Bottaro, M. (2012). Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(8), 2140–2145. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a3b15
- Gontijo, L. B., Pereira, P. D., Neves, C. D., Santos, A. P., Machado, D.deC., & Bastos, V. H. (2012). Evaluation of strength and irradiated movement pattern resulting from trunk motions of the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Rehabilitation research and practice, 2012, 281937. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/281937
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