- The mechanics and importance of benching
- Exercise phases and basic description of benching
- Preparing for the benchpress and belaying
- Technically correct execution of the bench press
- The most common technical errors and how to avoid them
- How to exercise the pectoral muscles, triceps and shoulders using the bench press
The mechanics and importance of benching
Benchpress or bench press is an iconic exercise that even those who have never been to the gym in their life know. Its popularity is certainly not undeserved, as it is one of the best exercises when it comes to developing strength in the bench press and stimulating the pectoral muscles and triceps.
The Benchpress is essentially an inverted push press, where the pressure is exerted not against a static mat, but against the axis of a large dumbbell. Another difference from the push-up is that in the benchpress, the back and generally the posterior chain hold the body firmly in place, whereas in the push-up we statically clench the abdominals and quadriceps femoris (to prevent pelvic flexion). Otherwise, both exercises are essentially the same pressure.
The benefits of bench presses are the same as with any barbell exercise. Unlike push-ups, where we have to adjust the difficulty with different variations that can include larger jumps in difficulty, with bench presses we can only add one kilogram to each side of the dumbbell each time. This makes the curve of increasing difficulty much smoother, so once the technique is learned, it’s no problem to gradually add load and get to respectable numbers fairly quickly.
Exercise phases and basic description of benching
Benchpress has four phases. In the first phase (liftoff), we lift the barbell from the rack to a position where the axis is directly over the shoulders. We then lower the barbell by bending the elbows until the axis touches the chest (usually somewhere just below the pectoral muscles). After touching the chest comes the actual concentric phase, in which we push the dumbbell back above the shoulders.
Repeat these two phases X number of times in one set according to the training plan. The last step is returning the dumbbell to the rack, which should be trivial unless you’re working with a bad rack (an inappropriate rack, for example, will allow you to “overshoot” the drop point and drop the dumbbell all the way behind the bench).
It should be obvious from the description that the axis path is not vertical (perpendicular to the ground), but oblique. This is where a lot of people make mistakes, and it’s also one of the reasons the bench press is an extremely technically challenging exercise. You have to watch your trajectory on every repetition, and it’s not hard to touch the axis too high or too low on your chest.
Preparing for the benchpress and belaying
Bench press technique is such a rich and complex topic that if we really wanted to go in depth, the material would make a book, not a single article. That’s why today I’m going to focus on the basics for beginners, so that anyone can start performing this exercise safely and productively.
If this is the first time in your life that you’re starting to train systematically, I highly recommend you master push-ups first, before you even start bench pressing. Be sure to start with an empty axis on the bench, as you are initially training technique, not strength. For slim and weaker individuals (especially petite women), I would even recommend taking a smaller axle that weighs about 10kg, and then moving on to a standard 20kg axle.
It’s always a good idea to do the bench with a partner who will “lock you in” (i.e. help you if you don’t lift the barbell or if you make a fundamental error in technique). Don’t be afraid to ask whoever is resting in the gym to lock you out. Everyone is counting on it, it’s perfectly normal, and any decent person will help you if they have a moment.
If you don’t have a partner to comfort you, it’s wise to work with a load that you can comfortably handle and that won’t hurt, even if you eventually have to load it on your chest. So if you normally bench press 90kg, without belaying, I’d recommend about 80kg and not attempt that tricky “last hang” that may not work out.
Note: If you find yourself in the role of belay partner, a few rules of etiquette and proper belay technique apply. The first and most important is to communicate with the person on the bench – they should tell you in advance what they expect you to do (how many reps they want to do, what to watch out for, and at what point they expect help). The biggest taboo is to start helping unnecessarily early, as this robs the practitioner of the effort they wanted to put in for no good reason. Unless otherwise agreed, assistance should only occur when the practitioner is no longer able to actually lift the barbell, or when he begins to significantly mess up his technique.
Technically correct execution of the bench press
Before we pull the barbell from the rack, we need to establish a solid base from which we can exert a strong push without moving, losing our balance, or straightening up on the bench. I will now break down the steps in the order that I teach them to every beginning bench presser:
- Lie with your back on the bench so that your body is center ed (no more to the right or left) and the line formed by your shoulders is parallel to the axis but about 10 cm “in front” of the level of the axis (if we started directly below the deferred axis or even behind it, we would not have room to freely manipulate the barbell because the rack would get in the way)
- Place the rules under your knees or preferably slightly behind them (towards your body). The knees themselves face away from each other in a fairly wide but not uncomfortable crotch. If you can keep your heels on the ground in this position, it’s ideal. If not, it is permissible to raise your heels slightly and lean firmly on the front of your feet.
- Grasp the axis symmetrically at such a width that when the axis touches the chest, the angle of the bent elbows (forearms to humerus)is approximately right. The width of the grip is individual according to the ratio of bone lengths and also varies according to preference and intention (a wide grip puts more demand on the pectoral muscles, a narrower one on the triceps).
- Suggest pulling the body towards the midline (no need to literally pull yourself up) – this is just a technical aid to help with the back arch I describe in the next step.
- Engage all the back muscles (firmly, but not spasmodically), drawing the shoulder blades together so that the shoulders are pulled back, towards the bench and away from the ears. The lumbar spine will be slightly flexed – this is undesirable in many exercises, but the opposite is true in the bench press. This position is called the bridge (after the shape of the bow, which resembles a bow).
- Simultaneously with the bridge, start pushing your feet into the ground and gently clench your glute muscles without lifting your butt off the bench. This will ensure the stability of the position from the feet to the shoulders. Both the bridge and the pressure of the feet into the ground will keep you firm throughout the bench press exercise. This is your solid, immovable base from which you will be able to exert a strong push without shifting on the bench and losing your balance.
- Last, forcefully clasp your hands together for a firm grip, and lift the barbell off the rack to the starting position when the axis is exactly above shoulder level. Ideally, this should be a small and not too challenging movement. If simply lifting the dumbbell to the starting position is uncomfortable and challenging, either your shoulders are too far off axis or your rack is incorrectly set up (perhaps too low, making the journey to the starting position unnecessarily long).
- The actual execution of the exercise is where it begins. Smoothly bend your elbows and draw them in towards your body so that when the axis touches your chest (somewhere under your pectoral muscles), your forearms are pointing exactly where you’re going to push the barbell. That is, not perpendicularly upwards (and certainly not lower, i.e. above the level of your abdomen), but slightly diagonally, back above shoulder level.
- After touching your chest, push the dumbbell back to its original position above your shoulders along the same path. This is one repetition. Perform the desired number of reps and move to the last point.
- From the top axis position over the shoulders, return the dumbbell to the rack. If you are working with a good quality rack, this should be easy and you shouldn’t even have to look at the rack, just “throw” the dumbbell behind you.
Congratulations, you have now completed your first set of bench press! The list of points describing the technique may look intimidating, but by the time you do the bench press for the tenth time, you’ll have everything properly automated and you’ll be able to focus on the exercise itself.
The last thing I didn’t describe in the points is breathing. For beginners, at least for the first 5 to 10 workouts, I recommend doing a standard inhale in the eccentric phase (on the way down) and exhale in the concentric phase (push up).
I’ll cover the second breathing option next time when I describe the disciplines of power triathlon in more detail.
The most common technical errors and how to avoid them
Let’s take a look at the most common mistakes and how to prevent or eliminate them:
The movement path of the barbell
A faulty dumbbell trajectory leads to the axis touching the wrong place on the chest (too high – at the shoulders, or too low – at the abdomen). Unless you go to some strange extreme, this is a relatively harmless error that does not lead to injury. It will, however, cause you to fail to optimally transfer the compressive force to the axis because either the forearms are not pointing where they should be pushing (when touching too low) or the shoulders are in an unfavorable position (when touching too high).
unfortunately, there’s no other way to slowly drill the correct path and automate it so that you almost never deviate from it. It’s just a habit that is formed by regular repetition of the same movement pattern.
Losing a fixed position (bridge)
Losing a fixed position (bridge) is another common mistake that shouldn’t be hard to avoid. Some people tend to over-extend their shoulders at the top of the concentric phase, which of course means loosening the shoulder blades (and this should never happen). Others, on the other hand, lose the correct optimal position the moment they run out of strength. We avoid this simply by ending the series before our technique fails.
during the entire Bench Press series, we simply must not lose our upright back, shoulder blades pulled together and feet pressing into the ground. This position is a prerequisite for successful benching, so the moment the technique fails, we should end the series.
Elbow flexion trajectory
The elbow movement usually manifests itself in such a way that at the very beginning of the concentric phase (when we start pushing upwards) the elbows quickly pop up towards shoulder level. Thus, when the elbows overtake the axis itself, the forearms logically cannot point in the direction we are pushing, causing a suboptimal transfer of force to the barbell and a greater likelihood that the trajectory of the barbell will also be incorrect.
good engagement of the back muscles, which, among other things, draw the elbows towards the body, should ensure that the elbows do not leak. If this problem persists despite efforts to maintain technique, then the dumbbell is probably too heavy and a slightly lighter weight should be chosen.
How to exercise the pectoral muscles, triceps and shoulders using the bench press
Once you’ve mastered the technique, all that’s left to do is incorporate benchpress into your training plan. Since the bench press is likely to replace the overhead press in your plan, you can include it a few times a week as well. Unless you’re working with a really heavy load, your body should be able to recover from the effects of bench pressing three times a week.
For most people, I would recommend bench press training twice a week, and on those two days you can include a different pattern of sets and reps, or even a different exercise variation. For example, one day of the week you might set a more strength-based 5×5 rep scheme (with a fairly heavy load), while the second time you might include 5 sets of 10 reps with a moderate load and with the axis stopped at the chest (called a paused benchpress).
Especially for men, the results of bench pressing should show quickly, after just three months of proper training you should see your chest (pectoral muscles) and arms (triceps) getting stronger. In addition to bench pressing, your plan should also include vertical pressing (e.g. overhead pressing) to give your shoulders a proper workout.
These two comprehensive exercises are enough to develop push press strength, but you don’t have to limit yourself to them. Variations of these exercises or other exercises (e.g., one-arm push-ups on an incline bench) are certainly not lost in the plan.
For the sake of completeness, I would also point out that at least as much effort and attention as you put into training push-ups (bench press, overhead press, push-ups, etc.) should be put into training pull-ups (or back muscles). Movements and rowing (of any type – whether with a large barbell, one-handed dumbbells, or your own body weight) are particularly good candidates for this purpose.
If you are training your body unevenly, for example if you are doing many more push-ups than pull-ups, the problems won’t be long in coming. In this particular case, you are at risk of postural deterioration (rounded upper back, shoulders rolled inward) because you will have a disproportionately strong front to back. Bench presses with heavy loads require, among other things, a strong and rigid back that anchors the body in place during the exercise and provides the best conditions for the shoulders to exert as much pressure as possible against the axis.