The bench press is undeniably the most popular barbell movement in gyms across America. Come on, Bench Press Monday is almost an official holiday. Although a relatively simple exercise, the bench press has a few key components to its execution. In this article I’ve selected a few of these components that when performed properly, will add safety as well as pounds to the bar. So, if you want to build a stronger and safer bench press, keep reading.
For overall development of the chest, shoulder, and triceps the ideal placement of the hands is such that when the bar touches the chest the forearms are vertical when viewed from all sides. This will allow for a more efficient force transfer into the bar since the forearms are now perpendicular to the object they are trying to move. A good starting point is to place the hands approximately 1 hand width away from the inside edge of the knurling. FYI, the knurling is the engraved hash marks that provide the friction surface of the bar. If you are a person with broad shoulders you may need a slightly wider spacing, and vise versa if you more narrow.
Some powerlifters choose an excessively wide hand spacing in an attempt to decrease the range of motion and thus, lift more weight. Lifting more weight doesn’t always mean you’re stronger, though. If you aren’t a competitive lifter you will be much better off with a more narrow hand spacing. Even if you are a powerlifter you might still be better served by narrowing your spacing. There is certainly a time and place for closer and wider grips as part of your bench press training. The default grip, however, should be the one that places the forearms vertical when the bar touches the chest.
Stop using the thumbless/suicide grip! It’s probably the single most dangerous thing you can do in the gym. Why a person would want hundreds of pounds sitting precariously on a few square inches of flesh directly over their chest is beyond my comprehension. Just go online and look up “bench press fail”.
This technique is a case of good intentions, bad execution. The intent is the same as previously explained; to align the bar over the bones of the forearm, whether the lifter realizes it or not. In an attempt to be more efficient we’ve severely compromised safety. If the bar doesn’t stay perfectly balanced it will slip and gravity will do the rest. This grip doesn’t actually make you stronger either. Being able to squeeze the bar will improve motor unit recruitment and as a result, strength. If you choose to bench press with a thumbless grip, make sure your life insurance policy covers this, and have your facial reconstructive surgeon pre-selected.
The next time you bench press I want you to follow these steps:
Set your hands at the appropriate spacing.
Open your hands and spread your fingers as wide as you can, and rotate them inwards. Think about pointing your thumbs to your feet. The bar should be right over the outer pad of your hand.
Grip the bar like it owes you money. The hands don’t move from this spot. If you let the bar slide into the crease of the hand near the knuckles you’ve just wasted all the time you spent trying to get it right. This is the most common error I see when first learning to use this grip.
Notice the chalked hand? Yeah, get some. Chalk keeps your hands dry and improves friction for a better grip. It’s cheap and very effective. You should be able to purchase bricks of chalk at most sporting goods stores, but your best pricing will be online.
Unracking the bar should be accomplished by pulling the bar from the rack, not pressing it out. Pulling the bar from the rack activates the lats, which play a crucial role in maintaining the angle of your upper arm and bar path, as well as over all body rigidity. Be sure to set your bar at a height that allows you to do this. Performing a half rep just to get the bar out of the rack is a waste of energy. I realize that not everyone reading this has access to equipment that will permit them to do this perfectly. Just do the best you can with what you have.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add a few common sense safety tips.
Use a spotter if one is available and use good judgment when picking one. The last thing you need is a space case having life and death responsibilities. Tell them exactly how you want them to spot you. Don’t assume they already know how.
If you don’t have a spotter available, bench press inside of a power rack and use the safety pins. Half racks will have spotter arms. Use them!! Set them at a height that enables you to bench press without smacking the safety pins/arms, but will keep you from, you know, dying.
If your gym only has the more traditional benches we’re all familiar with, don’t use collars. If you miss a rep you can dump one side of the bar and then the other
When in doubt don’t go for the next rep. You have to know your limits and tomorrow is another day. It might not be if you tempt fate and go for the rep.
You can fashion your own spotter arms out of stacked bumper plates or small plyometric boxes. Whatever you use just make sure it’s sturdy. Experiment with the height so that either the bar or the plates can be rested on the object.
This is by no means an exhaustive review of bench press mechanics. These tips merely scratch the surface and provides you, the user, with some easily digestible information that can be taken to the gym today.
About the Author:
Scott is a Starting Strength Coach, USA Powerlifting Coach, Westside Barbell Strength Coach, and competitive powerlifter.
Scott’s best competition lifts are a 540 lb. squat, 391 lb. bench press, and 606 lb. deadlift in the 231 lb. men’s open weight class.
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition, Mark Rippetoe