The bench press is the best exercise to build a strong and massive upper-body. But take heed because bad technique can lead to aches, missed gym time, and even serious injuries.
Great lifters spend a lot of time perfecting their bench press technique because they know they need to use the right muscles, get into the correct positions, and make the barbell move on the most efficient path possible. The further you stray, however, the more strength you’ll lose and the higher your risk of a torn pec or strained shoulder.
Avoid these ten worst, yet surprisingly common, bench press mistakes and learn exactly how you can fix them to build a barrel chest without the pain.
When you bench press with your elbows directly out to the sides, you put tremendous strain on your shoulder capsules and elbows. From a bird’s-eye view, this mistake also shifts the barbell path over your collarbones instead of over your sternum, which increases the distance the bar has to travel.
Instead, grip the barbell slightly narrower and keep your elbows closer to your ribcage as you descend. From overhead, you want your upper-arms to form a 45-degree angle with your torso.
At the bottom portion of the bench press, don’t bounce the bar on your body — this cheats the movement by creating momentum to make the barbell easier to lift. You can also hurt your ribcage if the weight is heavy enough.
If you have to bounce the barbell, chances are it's too heavy. Reduce the weight and lightly touch the barbell on your body; to emphasize strength, pause the barbell on your chest before pushing.
The bench press demands more than just laying on a bench and pushing weight; you need to create a solid, stable foundation to push from and make the lift as biomechanically efficient as possible.
Not sliding your shoulder blades together will reduce your chest activation and force the shoulders to do more work. It’ll also sink your chest and increase the distance the bar as to travel, which makes the press harder. Always lock your shoulder blades down and back while benching.
Without a liftoff, it’s hard to bring the barbell to the starting position without undoing your posture. For example, to lift the weight up and out of the pins, your shoulders will round forward and your upper-back tension will disappear — once you hold the weight over your body, it’s hard to pull your shoulder blades together again.
Instead, get into the right position first — with your shoulder blades pulled down and in — and get a partner to give you the barbell. If you can’t find a spotter, adjust the pins to the height where you don’t need to lose your posture to lift out the barbell. Bench press in the power rack, if necessary.
Don’t tap your feet or flail your legs as you bench. Instead, root your feet into the ground during the setup and build a firm foundation. Also, tense your quads and squeeze your glutes to stimulate total-body tightness and lift more weight.
Another common mistake is when people put their feet on the bench to “target their core.” The bench press is a strength exercise, not a core exercise — if you want to build a strong and massive upper-body, focus on lifting more weight with the bench press, not sculpting your abs. If you want to engage your core while sculpting your chest, try a Spiderman Pushup instead.
The way you grip the barbell will make or break your lift. (And your wrists, too.) Don’t grip the barbell too high in your palm — or around your fingertips — because your wrist will bend backwards. This creates two problems:
Number one, you’ll lose strength because, from a side view, the line of force from your elbows and forearms will not go directly through the barbell. Number two, you’ll hurt your wrists, especially as the weights get heavier, because the heavy barbell will strain the joints and tendons.
Instead, grip the barbell deep into your palm and keep your wrists slightly bent.
There’s nothing to see — keep your head on the bench at all times. Lifting it up as you push will strain your neck and waste energy.
If you still struggle to keep your neck down, you could have a significant forward-neck posture. If so, stop training your chest for a few weeks and focus on your upper-back to alleviate the imbalances that pull your neck forward.
If you only lower the barbell a few inches, you’ll miss out on extra muscle growth and strength gains. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that moving through a larger ROM improved strength and size better than less ROM, even when less-ROM movements were performed with more weight.
Make sure to touch your chest — or get as close as you can — on every repetition. If you’re worried about your shoulders as you descend or if you’re training the lockout portion of the bench press, use board presses or floor presses to naturally shorten your range of motion, instead.