How To Perform the Bench Press
The bench press is one of the best exercises for building upper body strength, and it would certainly make the list of my top 5 favorite exercises. Maybe even top 3. 🙂
Did I mention it adds FANTASTIC shape to your chest?
Women tend to avoid using challenging weights when they do this exercise, but they shouldn’t. We need strong upper bodies to lift groceries, pick up our kids (if you’re a mom like me), move furniture, and to get about our daily tasks with ease.
Watch the video above to see how I do it, and then read the rest of this article for precise instructions on how to perform this exercise.
The main muscle mover here is the chest (pectorals, or “pecs”Add a Tooltip Text), but the shoulders and arms are involved as well.
You’ll need a sturdy, padded bench to lie on, of course, and either a barbell/weight plates, pair of dumbbells or resistance bandsAdd a Tooltip Text.
I usually recommend performing this exercise at the gym, since you have access to a wide range of barbells, dumbbells, benches and other specialized equipment. It’s entirely possible to do this at home, however, with a simpler set of tools.
One thing that has to be taken into account when buying home gym equipment is progression in weight—as you get stronger, you need to increase the weight you’re pressing. Resistance bands or light, fixed weight dumbbells will work well for beginners, but for intermediate lifters, I recommend either a) Powerblocks or other adjustable weight dumbbells; or b) a set of dumbbell handles + weight plates. These are more compact and easier to store than multiple pairs of fixed weight dumbbells.
Many gyms have bench press machines, although I don’t advise relying on them, in most cases. The machines restrict you to one plane of motion, and do not challenge your muscles to balance or stabilize the weight. The same holds true for doing bench presses using the Smith machineAdd a Tooltip Text. Unless you have a physical limitation, using free weights will give you the best results.
All individuals can perform the bench press—beginner through advanced, all levels.
As you progress in ability and strength with the exercise, you may wish to perform the bench press with a spotterAdd a Tooltip Text. If you’re using a barbell, a spotter can help you unrack the bar, or complete a rep safely (in case of muscular failure). If you’re using dumbbells, a spotter can help you get them into position and assist you with forced repsAdd a Tooltip Text.
Description of action:
- Dumbbells: sit on the edge of a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Lie back on the bench while raising the dumbbells over your chest.All weights: when you lie back, make sure your shoulder blades and butt are in contact with the bench, and your feet are placed flat on the floor.
- Barbell: position yourself so that your eyes are in line with the bar and grasp it with an overhand grip (thumbs around the front of the bar!). Your hands should be placed so that your elbows form a 90-degree angle as you lower the weight toward your chest (this should be approx. shoulder width apart; since everyone’s limb length is different, however, you may need to inch your hands around a bit to get the proper angle). Unrack the bar and position it over your chest.
- All weights: inhale and lower the weight toward the middle of your chest. If you are using a barbell, it should lightly touch (but not bounce off of!) your chest.
- All weights: exhale and push the weight(s) back up to the starting position. The arms should be fully extended at the top of the movement. Repeat.
Do this for three setsAdd a Tooltip Text of 6 to 12 repetitionsAdd a Tooltip Text. I often find that I get more reps completed in the first set, and fewer in subsequent sets. You’ll want to make sure you rest for at least one minute between sets, sometimes more—especially if you need the recovery.
I like to do a couple of lighter warm up sets before I start using a working weight. Warm up sets promote blood flow to the working muscles and allow you to establish your form before starting your work sets.
If you’re already using a light to moderate weight, it’s still a good idea to stretch the chest (e.g., a standing chest stretch) and loosen up the shoulders with a few shoulder rotations forwards and backwards before beginning. Multi-joint exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press should be respected for the inherent challenge of the exercise (they involve many muscle groups), so a light warm up is always a good idea.
- All weights: If you’re pushing serious weight it’s a good idea to have a spotter around to assist. This goes double if you’re using a barbell, which has no place to go but down (on your chest or neck!) if you fail to complete a rep.
- Barbell: if a spotter is not available, work inside a power rack and set the safety bars just above your chest. If you cannot complete a rep, the safety bars will keep the bar off your chest.
- All weights: Make sure the bench is sturdy enough to handle your weight plus the weight(s) you’re lifting.
- All weights: Keep your wrists straight as you hold/move the weights—do not roll them back as this will cause undue strain.
- Barbell: avoid bouncing the bar off your chest. Lower the bar under full control and just touch your chest before raising it again.
- Barbell: if you’re not certain you can balance the barbell, and you’re using weight plates, make sure to fasten collarsAdd a Tooltip Text to the bar before you start the exercise.
- All Weights: Go through the full range of motion, from your chest back to the starting position.
Don’t become obsessed with barbell bench pressing. Dumbbells are fantastic for presses and may even be better since…
- each arm moves independently, allowing you to work around pre-existing injuries better (this is why Paul likes using them!).
- balance plays a greater role in the lift, calling into play supportive tissues and tendons.
Variations On The Bench Press:
- The angle of the bench can be varied so that you are doing an incline or decline press. Those exercises are set up differently, but I am mentioning it here for completeness.
- If you are using a barbell, you can vary the width of your grip. A closer grip (8–12 inches apart) will work the triceps harder. A wider-than-shoulder-width grip shortens the range of motion and makes the pecs work harder. It also carries a greater risk of injury, however, so—unless you’re a competitive powerlifter—going too wide isn’t recommended.
Using dumbbells, barbells, different angles and grips in your bench pressing routine is always a good idea. The muscles and mind need the variety, and you’ll enjoy the challenges inherent in each variation.
At least I know I do!