Here is your ultimate guide to bench press!
When people think of lifting weights, one of the first exercises to pop into their head will be bench press. And when people who lift weights get a talking, one of the most common questions will be “How much can you bench?”.
This detailed article is the ultimate guide for beginners, regular gym goers and even personal trainers and coaches. It walks you through what a bench press is, what equipment you need, what muscles it helps develop, proper technique, a guide to the weight to use, tips for success, variations and a description about what could go wrong and how to minimise the chance of injury.
Here it is …
The low down
When people think of lifting weights, one of the first exercises to pop into their head will be bench press. And when people who lift weights get a talking, one of the most common questions will be “how much can you bench?”.
Basically, a bench press requires you to lie on your back on a bench and move a barbell down to your chest and push it back up again.
‘Bench press’ can also be referred to as ‘chest press’. Though the term chest press refers to the family of exercises that use the chest muscles to press a weight away from the body.
What does this one do?
Bench press strengthens your entire upper body and, if performed correctly, you will feel the back muscular the next day too.
The main focus is of course the chest, but the shoulders and triceps are also heavily involved.
Oh and don’t forget about biceps! They work real hard as a shoulder and elbow stabilizer in the lowering phase of this exercise.
To perform a barbell chest press, you really only need a bench to lie on, a barbell and some weights.
However, it is strongly recommended that you use a specific bench press bench. This piece of equipment also includes a structure at one end (called a ‘rack’) that holds the barbell until you are ready to start lifting. The rack is also there so you can put the bar down at the top of your lift.
Wrist straps can also be useful. They help stabilise the wrists when lifting very heavy weight.
Bench press can also be performed with dumbbells. Of course, meaning you will need some dumbbells!
How do I do the standard version of this exercise?
Important: If you are doing a chest press for your first time or if you intend to push your limits on this exercise, be sure to have a buddy with you ready to help if you are unable to lift the bar (also called ‘spotting’). You don’t want to get stuck at the bottom of the movement or drop the bar and risk crushing your chest or, even worse, your neck!
First, lie on the bench, making sure you are positioned just forward of where the barbell is racked. This is to help ensure that once you are doing the movement the barbell doesn’t clip or collide with the rack.
For the standard movement have your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and flat on the ground.
Note: the positioning for bench press when power lifting is different.
Next, reach up and grab the barbell with your hands wide apart in a standard grip (that is, with your palms facing towards your feet). Most barbells have a smooth ring that you can easily feel. As a guide, line the little finger of each hand with this ring. Try and keep your wrists nice and straight, though you may need to bend your wrists slightly as you increase weight.
Now comes an important, and often forgotten or overlooked point. Engage your shoulders by concentrating on bringing your shoulder blades together. And do not release or relax from this shoulder blade contraction until you have put the bar back in the rack! This is where the back gets its workout too!
Take a deep breath, hold it, and then, either on your own or with the help of your buddy, unrack the bar and bring it up so it is above the upper part of your chest.
Note: do not lock your arms so that the arms and elbows are 100% straight. Try to keep them at around 95% to 98%.
Next, remembering to keep your shoulder blades contracted, your feet flat on the ground and holding that same first breath, lower the bar with control down to touch your chest around the nipple line or just below.
Once the bar has touched your chest immediately push it up again so the bar is again above your upper chest, remembering not to lock out the arms completely.
Now repeat until you have completed the set or can’t lift any more!
Try and do all the reps holding the same first breath. If you need to breathe, take a big breath at the top of your lift and hold it for the entire downward and upward movement before releasing the breath and taking another one.
When performing the standard chest press movement you do not want your elbows to come down right next to your body. You don’t want them flared right out to the side either. You really want them to be somewhere in the middle at about 45 degrees from the body.
How much weight should I be using?
The amount of weight to use depends on your strength level. There is no cheating on this one because if you can’t push that weight up it ends up on your chest! That is something that you really don’t want so use a buddy to spot you here!
If you are doing bench press for recreation or if you are just a usual gym goer, a good target is to be able to complete 12 reps of your own bodyweight. For example, if you are 80Kg and you can do 12 proper full bench press reps of 80Kgs you will be the hero in the office!
If you want to build size use between10-12 reps but if strength is your focus 1-5 reps will be your range!
Always, and we mean always, stretch and mobilise all the muscles you intend to work before you start. A foam roller, a Rumble Roller, stretch bands and even a tennis ball placed in just the right spot are all useful tools.
The standard barbell weighs 20Kgs. If this is too heavy for you, then most gyms will have lighter bars that you can start with.
Also, if you don’t have a spotter to help you, or if you are worried about using free weights, your gym will almost certainly have a pin-operated machine that you can use to get comfortable with the movement.
While a pin-operated bench press machine has its place, and will allow you to start with very low weights, you really won’t get the full benefit of the press exercise unless you move to free weights. Nothing can substitute for the real thing!
Remember your breathing. Take a deep breath and don’t let it go until you have completed the full rep. This helps keep your core engaged and helps generate stability and strength through the movement.
How can I mix it up a bit?
There are heaps of ways to mix up the chest press. Check out these variations:
Change your grip: Instead of having your palms facing towards your feet, grab the bar in a reverse grip so your palms are facing away from your feet. Your guns and upper forearms will get a blasting with this one!
Change the tempo: Changing the time it takes you to lower the bar and/or push it up can really bring on the burn. For example, lower for a count of 4 and press up for a count of one. If you know what you are doing and if you have a spotter, you can also try holding the bar at the bottom of the movement on your chest for a period of time (e.g. a two count).
Change the width of your grip: Instead of holding the bar in the wide position, as described above, try holding the bar with a close grip (e.g. with your hands about two hand’s width apart). Note: with a narrow grip, your elbows will track closer to your body than described for the standard grip above.
Change the angle: Most gyms have benches that are on an angle, or that can be adjusted to be on an angle. By performing a bench press on a bench that is either on an incline or a decline angle, you can work different muscles of the chest region.
Use dumbbells instead: Instead of a barbell, use a dumbbell in each hand. Stability through the core and strength through the back is even more important with this version of the chest press and will be the focus of its own article.
What could go wrong?
With any exercise, the heavier you lift the higher the chance that something could go wrong. Bench press is no exception! The slightest shift in posture, the slightest loss of focus, the momentary relaxing of a muscle can all result in a failed rep at best, and injury at worst. And the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller the more weight you lift.
If you are doing a chest press for your first time or if you intend to push your limits on this exercise, be sure to have a buddy with you ready to help if you are unable to lift the bar (also called ‘spotting’). You don’t want to get stuck at the bottom of the movement or drop the bar and risk crushing your chest or, even worse, your neck!
There is also a risk that you will damage your shoulders if you don’t keep them properly engaged. Protect your shoulders by maintaining control on the downward movement and keeping those shoulder blades nicely contracted throughout the entire set.
While some like working with a partial movement, we believe that you will get the most benefit and quicker results if you push through and complete the whole movement.