There’s a lot to control: Your complete guide to the bench press
To set up, lie on a horizontal weight bench with your back flat. It’s crucial to keep your lumbar (lower back) and cervical (neck) spine neutral to prevent injury (this means it isn’t curving either way, and there shouldn’t be a gap between your lower back and the bench, though a very slight gap is acceptable). The classic set-up is to have your feet planted on the ground and knees bent at about 90 degrees. But it can be hard to maintain the correct spine position if you are of shorter stature or highly flexible, or if your bench isn’t low enough. It’s why in my work, I usually recommend people put their feet flat up on the bench, so their hips are bent at 45 degrees and the knees bend at 90 degrees.
To keep the cervical spine neutral, focus on a point on the roof directly above your head, keeping a subtle nod throughout the movement. Don’t raise your head off the bench or tilt it backwards so the chin moves away from the chest. Concentrate on your lift. For novice bench-pressers and those rehabilitating from a shoulder injury, I’ll often have the patient lying on the floor to work through the fundamentals in this supported position.
There are a lot of components to the movement, so let’s go in order. For ease of explanation, we’ll begin with the weight at the lower, chest position.
- Hold the barbell or dumbbells horizontally, with your thumbs closest to your body as if punching away from you.
- The most important position is that of your elbows. They should be out to your side with a 45-degree angle between your upper arm and torso. This should line your hands and the bar up with your nipple line. And the elbow joint should be at 90 degrees, with the weight directly over the shoulder. To practise this position now, sit or stand upright, have your hands by your side and bend your elbows to 90 degrees so your palms face each other. Clench your fists and lift your arms out to the side to about 45 degrees, to line up your hands with your nipple line – and this is your approximate start position for the bench press. Lying on your back of course!
- Your shoulder blades should be “set” – so, keep them at a neutral position throughout the movement to ensure they don’t slide around the ribcage and follow the weights up into the air, which will compress the shoulder tendons. By stabilising the shoulder blades, we are “dissociating” the movement, so that the arm can move in isolation without taking the rest of the body with it. If we focus on this concept with the bench press, we will go a long way to avoiding injury.
- Exhale to move and push the weight directly up into the air. Finish the lift over your shoulders. Perform this in a slow, controlled movement with a consistent pace of about 1.5-2 seconds per lift.
- Do not snap your elbows when you complete a lift. This is one of the biggest mistakes in all weight-lifting exercises. Keep the elbows soft and just shy (a few degrees) of a completely locked out position. This will protect the elbow joint and avoids compressing your triceps tendon.
- Inhale to lower the bar and control this part of the exercise, again for a 1.5-2 second period.
- Return to the starting position with your elbows not passing below the line of the body. This is about protecting the shoulder joint because it decreases the risk of the bone ball shifting forwards in the socket of the shoulder joint when you lift the weight towards the roof, which over time can lead to damage or dislocation. Technically, the elbow can extend lower than shoulder height but this must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
The most common errors with bench pressing come from people lifting too great a weight, holding their breath, curving their upper back forwards, letting the shoulder blades slide around the rib cage, lifting their lower back off the bench or moving their neck during the lift. There really is a lot to control!
Feel the burn in your pectorals, front of deltoids and triceps. Take note of where the burn is and this will guide you on which body part needs to be targeted next. You can really learn a lot by being aware of these details – and that goes for all your exercises.
If you’re using a barbell, build up from a low weight. Consider using just the bar itself to begin with. Being pinned or choked by an inanimate object is not the best way to start your bench-pressing venture.
Start with three sets of 8-10 repetitions and as the last repetitions of the third set become easy over a few weeks of training, then feel free to increase the weight (maximum of 10 per cent increase per progression).
Keep in mind that the bench press puts significant load through the acromioclavicular joint (where your collarbone meets the outer most point of the shoulder blade) and can contribute to osteo-arthritis, so be sensible with your weight selection and technique.
Always ensure that you stretch your pectoral muscles post-workout and don’t skip on training the opposing back muscles with strength exercises like seated rows or one arm rows.
Luke Pickett is a physiotherapist who has worked as a head physio for AFL, AIS and Australian sporting teams. He is director of Melbourne Physio Clinic.
Also check out his complete guide to the squat. And next week we’ll be back with a guide to the deadlift.
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