Seasoned trainers and newbies alike take great pride in getting strong and building big numbers on the bench.
 

But how many people are performing it correctly, safely and for optimum results?

There is so much more to building an impressive bench press than just getting under the bar and pushing the biggest weight possible.

Here we take an in-depth look at the anatomy of the bench press, examining the science and best practice that will help master your technique, overcome plateaus and progress much faster and safer than before.

This article will cover:

  1. Equipment requirements
  2. How to bench press
  3. Key technique issues
  4. Safety considerations
     

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The Bench Press is a multi-joint exercise that targets several muscles of the upper body, including

  1. Pectoralis Major – Clavicular head (upper chest) and Sternocostal head (lower chest)

  2. Anterior Deltoid

  3. Triceps Brachii

It is an extremely versatile exercise and can be performed with several different methods of resistance (barbell, dumbbell and machine) and from different angles (flat, incline and decline).
 

1. Bench Press Equipment Requirements

Most commercial gyms are well equipped for bench pressing, but there are variations in equipment to look out for. Especially if you’re searching for a new gym or considering setting up a home gym.

Bench Press Station/Power Rack
 

The traditional bench press station is a standard weight lifting bench modified to support a barbell in place above your head.  

For safety, you’ll need a training partner to watch over your heavy sets and to help out if needed. The person supervising and assisting the lifter is known as the ‘spotter’.

The obvious downside to using traditional bench press stations without a spotter is that you run the risk of being pinned by the barbell if you fail to complete a rep. This can negatively affect performance as you focus more on the risk of failure, rather than on lifting the weight powerfully and with good technique.

Concentrating on the lift has measurable benefits. Research (Tod et al, 2005) has shown a 12% difference in peak force production between focused lifters and distracted lifters.  Eliminating distractions and focusing on the task at hand is sound advice for all exercises.

One potential solution is to stop short of failure, holding 1-2 reps back in reserve on each set. However, it takes time to develop an understanding of how close you are to failure.  Experienced lifters (more than 1 years training experience) have been shown to be more consistent at estimating the number of reps in reserve than novice lifters (Zourdos et al, 2016).

Moreover, even experienced lifters benching without a spotter run the risk of a freak incident such as a muscle cramp derailing their set.

The alternative to the traditional bench press station is the power rack, which has adjustable safety arms that can be positioned to catch the barbell if you fail.  However, you may still need assistance with a ‘hand off’ to un-rack the barbell from the hooks.  

 
Barbells

 

Barbells come in all shapes and sizes and an in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article.  A number of speciality bars exist that are designed to match the demands of strength sports, such as Olympic lifting, Powerlifting and CrossFit.  However, these bars are expensive and therefore unlikely to be found in most commercial gyms.

Although no universal dimensions exist for barbells, the generic straight bars found in most commercial gyms weigh between 15-20kg.  Some gyms will also have lighter bars that weigh 15kg.

As a rule of thumb, the average load of the Dumbbell Press is 15-20% less than the Barbell Press.  So, if you cannot press more than a pair of 10kg dumbbells (not uncommon for female beginners), focus on getting to 10kg first.  Following this, you can switch to barbell, starting with an unloaded bar and progressing from there.

Most barbells will also have grip marks, which are used to specify legal grip widths in competitive weightlifting.  However, for the average gym goer, they simply serve as reference points for remembering your preferred grip position.

Bench
 

The bench should be wide enough to support your upper back and not too tall so that you cannot keep your feet flat on the floor. Shorter individuals may need to place their feet on an elevated surface like a weight plate.  

Weight Plates and Collars
 

Most gyms will have weight plates in the following sizes: 1.25kg, 2.5kg, 5kg, 10kg, 15kg and 20kg.
Barbell collars will also be needed to securely hold the weights in place.

2. How to Bench Press

The Set-Up
 

  1. Position your feet shoulder width apart, under or behind your knees and flat on the floor.

  2. Lie back on the bench with your eyes directly under the barbell.

  3. Place your hands on the barbell with an overhand grip, roughly 1.5 times shoulder-width apart.

  4. Point your chest up towards the ceiling and pinch your shoulder blades back together and pull them down towards your waist.

  5. Your head, shoulders and glutes should be touching the bench, with a slight gap between your lower back and the bench.

  6. Pull the barbell forwards off the hooks and into the start position directly above your shoulders.

The Movement
 

  1. From the start position, control the barbell down towards the lower half of your chest.

  2. Throughout the downward movement your upper arms should be 45-degree to 60-degrees relative to your torso.

  3. The bottom position is the point at which you cannot lower your elbows any further below shoulder height without your chest collapsing and shoulders rolling forwards.  The barbell may or may not touch your chest depending on technique and body proportions.

  4. Pause for a second in the bottom position before pressing the barbell upwards to return to the start position.

  5. On the last rep, fully extend your arms before moving the barbell back towards the hooks.

 

Note: The Flat Bench Barbell Press is a competition lift in the sport of powerlifting (competitive weightlifting), where the goal is to lift as much weight as possible.  The advice included in this article is geared towards muscle building and not optimising powerlifting performance.
 

3. Key Technique Issues

Foot Position
 

The two variables to manipulate for foot placement are depth (up/down) and width (in/out).

Foot Depth
 

Positioning your feet behind your knees and flat to the floor makes it easy to drive your heels directly down into the ground throughout the rep.

This helps to create tension throughout the entire body that reinforces other important parts of your set up, such as back arch and shoulder retraction.  

In contrast, placing your feet out in front of your knees prevents you from applying force directly down into the ground and should be avoided.

Exactly how far back you pull your feet is determined by ankle mobility and comfort.

Foot Width
 

Placing your feet outside of hip width helps to create a more stable base of support.  Exactly how wide you place your feet typically takes care of itself, as excessively wide positions are uncomfortable to maintain.

Ultimately, there is no one-size fits all foot position.  Provided you keep your feet flat on the floor and under or behind your knees, experiment to find the most comfortable and stable position for you.

Bench press anatomy - correct foot position
Bench press - feet in front of knees incorrect foot position
Bench press with feet on bench - incorrect foot positioning

Back Arch
 

The back arch is the gap between your back and the bench that is created when you place your spine into extension. The back arch technique tilts your rib cage upwards, which creates a steeper sternal angle (think breastbone).

This better aligns the muscle fibres of your chest with the exercise’s plane of motion and reduces the anterior shoulder’s workload.

An in-depth analysis of the processes behind this mechanical advantage is beyond the scope of this article, but the key point is that maintaining a ‘chest up’ position makes you stronger and maximises the contribution of your chest muscles compared to a ‘flat back’ position.

The size of the arch will vary between individuals and is based on spinal mobility.  To create the right arch for you, lie back on the bench, where you’ll notice a natural arch in your lower back. From here, point your chest up towards the ceiling and avoid letting it drop at any point during the set.

As an aside, you may see examples of powerlifters adopting extreme arches.  One reason is that powerlifting as a sport attracts people with highly flexible spines where this body shape often leads to success.  Another reason is that powerlifting requires you to touch the barbell to your chest and extreme arches can significantly reduce the range of motion.

However, if you have a history of back-related injuries then excessive arching should be avoided.

Bench press anatomy - correct back position
Bench press anatomy - incorrect back position on the bench

Upper Back
 

Your upper back provides a stable base of support against the bench. To provide this base you need to retract (pinch together) and depress (pull down) your shoulder blades. This will also help to maintain the ‘chest up’ position previously discussed.

A common mistake is for your shoulders to become loose and shrug upwards at the top of the movement.  This reduces stability and shifts tension away from your chest and onto your shoulders and triceps.  Instead, keep your shoulders pinned back to the bench throughout the entire movement, with your elbow driving up and in towards the midline of your body.  

An effective cue is to focus on pushing yourself away from the barbell and into the bench, instead of pressing the barbell away from you. Be careful not to push your head back into the bench, as this can strain your neck.

Bench press correct upper back position
Bench press anatomy - incorrect upper back position

Grip Width
 

Grip width options have traditionally been classified relative to biacromial width, which is the technical name for shoulder width. This makes sense, as it automatically tailors recommendations to an individual. A narrow grip for a large male lifter, may be an extremely wide grip for a smaller female lifter.

To find your biacromial width, you need to locate your acromion process (a bony point on your shoulder blade) on each side. To do this, place your fingers on your collar bone and follow it along to the outside of the shoulder. The outermost edge is the acromion (see picture).

Based on this we can group different grip widths into the following categories:

Narrow: biacromial width or the horizontal distance across the shoulders measured between the acromia.

Medium: 150% +/-10% x biacromial width.

Wide:  200% +/-10% x biacromial width.

* Measured from the inside edge of your index finger.

The biacromial width is the suggested cut-off point, as narrower grips can strain your wrists.

Research to date has focused on how different grip widths affect strength performance and muscle activation.

Several researchers including Wagner et al (1992), Barnett et al (1995) and Gomo and Van den Tillar (2015) have all reported greater strength performances with wide grips, which makes sense as the range of motion is smaller compared to more narrow grips.

Muscle activation is assessed by researchers using a technique called electromyography (EMG). During EMG testing, several electrodes are attached to a particular muscle while an exercise is performed.  EMG measures the strength of the nervous systems signalling to a muscle based on changes in electrical activity within the muscle.

The results provide an indicator of how hard a muscle is working during an exercise and can be used to assess:

  1. Regional differences in muscle activation within a muscle (e.g. upper and lower chest).

  2. How changes to exercise technique (e.g. grip widths) affect muscle activation.

Overall, the research suggests that narrow, medium and wide grips produce similar amounts of chest muscle activity (Strength and Conditioning Research, 2017).

There is also a trend towards greater triceps muscle activity with narrower grips, which helps to explain the popularity of the narrow grip bench press for triceps training (Lehman (2005), Barnet et al (1995)).

EMG is not without its methodological limitations and care should be taken when interpreting and applying the results. More practical methods that you can apply in your own training to judge a muscle’s contribution towards a movement include:

  1. Muscle palpation: can you physically feel the muscles working during a set on yourself or a training partner?

  2. Muscle soreness: does the target area ever feel sore after a hard workout?

  3. Muscle growth: can you actually see muscle growth over time?

Upper Arm Placement
 

This refers to the position of your upper arm in relation to your torso during the downward movement. The technical term for this is shoulder horizontal abduction, which describes the movement of the shoulder away from the midline of your body.

Upper arm position is largely determined by the decisions you make on grip width. The narrow and medium grip widths recommended above will result in an ‘elbows tucked’ position and an approximately 45-degree to 60-degree angle of abduction. In contrast, the wide grip encourages an ‘elbows flared’ position and an angle of abduction above 75 degrees.

There is an argument that angles of abduction above 75 degrees place your shoulders in a potentially vulnerable position (Green and Comfort, 2007).  

However, weight training related injuries are multi-faceted and cannot just be blamed on grip width alone.

For example, past injuries, excessive training volumes, lack of control and many other factors all contribute to a greater risk of injury.  

However, the elbows flared position may be too high risk of a strategy for individuals still learning the movement or who have a history of shoulder related injuries.

Taking all of the above information into account we recommend a medium grip and between 45 degrees to 60 degrees of shoulder abduction.

However, considering the relatively small changes that occur when changing grip widths and individual differences in shoulder anatomy, we also recommend experimenting to find what works best for you.  Start with a medium grip and then test out positions 1-2 inches either side to see what feels most comfortable.

Bench press anatomy - narrow grip
Bench press anatomy - medium grip
Bench press anatomy - wide grip

Un-Racking the Barbell
 

Incorrectly un-racking the barbell from the barbell station or power rack hooks can ruin your set before it even begins.  Attempting to lift the barbell up off the hooks pulls your shoulder blades out of their retracted position and places you in an unstable position.

If you’re performing the bench press in a power rack, this problem can be exacerbated by:

  1. Setting the hooks too high: Make sure to set the hooks at a height that allows you to hold the barbell in the hooks while maintaining your set up position.
  2. Overly aggressive hand-offs: Make sure your training partner knows how to perform a hand-off without pulling your shoulders out of position.

Instead of pushing the barbell directly upwards, pull the barbell forwards off the hooks. This is made much easier with the help of a training partner and is known in the weight training community as a ‘hand-off’.

Once the barbell is in position above your shoulders, don’t jump straight into the downward movement. Take 1-2 seconds to allow the barbell to settle and to fine-tune your set up.

Range of Motion
 

Range of motion (ROM) is a measure of the distance travelled during an exercise relative to the movement potential of the joints involved. Exercises can either be performed with a full or partial ROM.

For example, sit upright in your chair with your arms hanging by your sides. Now, fixing your elbows in position, flex your biceps and curl your forearm upwards until you cannot move any further without your elbows pulling forwards.

This is an example of a full ROM biceps curl. In contrast, stopping at the half-way point would have been an example of a partial ROM biceps curl.

We typically recommend full ROM training in order to develop strength throughout the entire range.  

Several factors influence ROM in the bench press, including:

  1. Technique and body proportions: Individuals with thicker rib cages and/or who adopt an arched spine position and wide grip will have a shorter ROM than those with thinner rib cages and a flat back position.
  2. Injury history: Individuals with an existing or history of shoulder related injuries may restrict ROM to avoid aggravating the issue.
  3. Training goals: Certain advanced training techniques intentionally limit the ROM to target specific ‘sticking points’ throughout the range.
  4. Load:  Overly ambitious or ego-driven weight selection can limit ROM.

A popular guideline for bench press ROM is to touch the barbell to your chest. However, this is an overgeneralisation and not specific to you as an individual.  

Instead, full ROM is the point at which you cannot lower your elbows any further below shoulder height while maintaining the correct upper back and chest position. Exceeding your ROM will cause your chest to collapse and shoulders to roll forwards. The barbell may or may not touch your chest dependent upon body proportions and technique.

Before starting your workout, we recommend performing a specific warm-up to determine ranges of motion for safe and effective training without the distraction of heavy weights. Start with an unloaded barbell and progressively increase the load with each warm-up set.

4. Safety Considerations
 

  1. When training without a spotter, make sure to use safety pins that will prevent the barbell from crushing you on failed lift attempts.

  2. Grip the barbell with your entire hand and avoid using a thumb-less grip as this increases the risk of losing control of the barbell.

  3. If full ROM pressing causes any pain or discomfort, try reducing the range of motion by only lowering your elbows to shoulder height.  This ROM can be standardised using the power rack safety arms.

  4. if you have a history of back-related injuries then excessive arching should be avoided.

  5. Do not place your feet on top of the bench. Keep them flat on the floor.

  6. On the last rep, fully extend your arms before moving the barbell back towards the hooks. Do not aim directly for the hooks on the final rep as you might miss!

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References

Tod DA, Iredale KF, McGuigan MR, Strange DEO and Gill, N (2005), ‘Psyching-UP: Enhances Force Production During the Bench Press Exercise’, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol.19, no. 3, pp.599-603.

Zourdos MC, Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Schau KA, Jo E, Helms E, Esgro B, Duncan S, Merino SG and Blanco R (2016), ‘Novel Resistance Training Specific RPE Scale Measuring Repetitions in Reserve’, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research’, vol. 30, pp.267-275.

Wagner LL, Evans SA, Weir JP, Housh TJ and Johnson GO (1992), ‘The Effect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance’, International Journal of Sport Biomechanics, vol.8, no.1, pp. 1-10.

Barnett C, Kippers V and Turner P (1995), ‘Effect of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol.9, no.4, pp.222-227.

Gomo O, Van den Tillaar R (2015), ‘The Effects of Grip Width on Sticking Region in Bench Press’, Journal of Sports Sciences, vol.34, no.3, pp.232-238.

Lehman GJ (2005), ‘The Influence of Grip Width and Forearm Pronation/Supination on Upper-Body Myoelectric Activity During the Flat Bench Press’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol.19, no.3, pp.587-591.

Green CM, Comfort P (2007), ‘The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury’, Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol.29, no.5, pp.10-14.  

Strength and Conditioning Research (2017), Bench Press, [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/exercises/bench-press/ [Accessed 8 August 2017].