How To Bench Press: Setup, Safety, Bar Path
This step-by-step bench press tutorial walks you through the best setup–grip, leg drive, arch, shoulder stability–and bar path to improve your form & technique & bench press more weight.
A proper setup puts the lifter in the best position to bench press the most weight safely. This involves–especially for beginners–feet flat on the floor, butt on the bench, chest up, shoulder blades squeezed together and lower (scapular retraction & depression), eyes looking at the ceiling just beneath (toward your feet) the barbell. The legs drive up the bench toward the shoulder, reinforcing the arch.
A good bar path allows you to lift more weight. The proper bench press bar path is a straight line from the top position to the bottom position.
The top position has the elbows fully extended directly over the shoulder joint. The bar does not move straight down but rather to a position around mid-sternum (so in a straight, diagonal line). This diagonal nature of the line helps prevent impingement of the rotator cuff muscles. The arch helps reduce the range of motion as well as better allow the pecs to contribute to the bench.
Muscles Involved & Safety
The bench press involves the pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoid (front of shoulder), and the triceps. The forearm muscles, upper back muscles, and latissimus dorsi also contribute to moving the weight during a bench press. The bench press utilizes more muscle mass than the overhead press over a shorter range of motion. The bench press benefits from the stability provided by the bench, as the kinetic chain starts at the shoulders.
The lower body is also involved with the bench press – a concept known as “leg drive.” Leg drive occurs when the lifter pushes into the ground to provide more support for the slight upper back arch.
Safety during the bench press is crucial as well. The bench press involves a heavy barbell moving over your body, including your neck. Have a spotter is you can. If you’re benching in a squat rack or power rack, set up the safety pins so–if you miss a rep–you can safely lower the bar to the pins and get rid of the arch, allowing yourself to wiggle out from under the bar. Do not put the safety clips on the bar, so that if you have no spotter or safety pins you can easily tilt the bar and the plates will fall off the barbell. Lastly, ensure you move the bar from the j-hooks to the top position with straight arms (elbows locked out).
Ready for Lift Off
With the empty bar, first learn how to take your grip and position your body on the bench. Slide up or down the bench until your eyes are about one inch in front of the barbell, while looking up at the ceiling. To take your grip with straight wrists, just like the press, rotate your first fingers towards each other, palms down and wrap your fingers around the bar. Your grip will be wider than the overhead press, and one that facilitates vertical forearms when the bar touches your chest.
Once your grip is in place, squeeze your chest up and walk your shoulder blades down towards your butt. This will create an arch in your upper back – it is perfectly safe. It provides a stable base to press the bar from.
Unrack the bar by pushing up off the hooks, and lock your elbows (fully extended arms). Never move the bar over your face, neck and throat with unlocked elbows. This is important for safety. Once you are holding the bar directly over your shoulder joint, lower the bar to a position on your chest somewhere near your sternum. Tuck your elbows anywhere from 15-45 degrees, depending on your anthropometry. The tuck should create a slight angle to your forearm, and place your elbows slightly in front of the barbell, when viewed from the side.
Touch your chest with the barbell and push up and back to the lockout – directly over your shoulder joint. Notice this isn’t a perfectly vertical bar path – the bar will travel in a horizontal line.
Experience a Life of Strength
The biggest challenge of barbell-based strength training is the lifts themselves, and far too many people give up before giving them a try. It’s true that the lifts take patience and practice to master, but they are surprisingly easy to learn. And once you learn them, you can train optimally for strength absolutely anywhere there is a barbell.
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