6 Expert Steps to a Better Bench Press
Our aim in this guide is to teach you not just the proper way to bench, but to help you be more intuitive in the way you treat technique, form, and function.
A lot of the variables found in this document outline the standard of form, but NOT the absolute necessities. The necessities we need to remember are based entirely on the leverages set by your body structure. Identifying that based on the length of your limbs (arms and legs), torso, and mobility of your joints is what will dictate where you should be within the range of setting up for the bench press.
Neutral and set positions of form and technique are based off of a range, not a set standard. And that range will differ based on the individual needs of your body. Our goal here is to help educate you on how to do that precisely.
Now before we dive fully into learning how to bench press, we need to become more familiar with the movement and how our analysis of the technique is meant to be used.
When comparing the bench press to the other two of the big 3 (squat and deadlift), we believe here at Primitive Movement that it’s a more complicated movement to teach.
This is because many believe there isn’t much to it. You lay down on the bench, unrack the bar, and either go to town smashing the bar onto your chest incessantly, or half rep until you can’t.
If anyone else hasn’t told you, I am here to tell you that you’re quite a bit off.
That’s WAY off actually.
That is the exact reason why it's so tough to teach. The relearning aspects concerning the lift.
With this mindset, it can be hard to switch back to an empty barbell and realize that we have to respect this as much as any lift. And that is why we move with purpose and NOT for completion.
Overall, the goal with our bench press analysis here is geared towards strength, and a great base to build from if you are considering building more strength or prepping for a powerlifting meet.
The reason we say “build from” is as mentioned earlier; the meat and potatoes are to become intuitive in the needs for the leverages of YOUR body.
So even though we are going into a deep breakdown in this How To Bench Press tutorial, we invite you to be mindful and open in the overall needs for your body type.
And with that being said, there definitely is some work in what should be done before an athlete is put under the barbell to assure the highest level of success with minimal risk.
We need to be sure we limit injuries in the gym and build a foundation that will allow us to continue to lift and resistance train for decades to come.
Be sure to look out for future content detailing exactly what should be done in the timeframe leading up to using a BB to bench press; and also look out for details on a proper warm up routine including mobility and activation work for specific movements such as the bench press and many more.
So without further ado, let's get into it!
Step 1: Creating the frame
As you sit on the bench to position yourself, keep your feet close together and slide them back close to the bench pad.
This will help you build tension in the quadriceps (knee extensors) which create drive and force into your back and ultimately the barbell (BB).
Think of your foot position as a way to squeeze the bench pad with your thighs.
As you then lay on the bench push your hips into the air (off the bench). You can then readjust your feet if needed so you create optimal drive with your legs.
You can see in the back arch video clip that we are also using the barbell to create stability as we learn to push and extend with our quads.
Avoid hip drive (using glutes and hamstrings) as this causes force and drive going up. This means energy leaks through the hips and isn't directly transferred to the barbell.
Remember, knee extension helps push your back and body into the bench which creates that strong foundation to support big weight.
Step 2: Finding your position on the bench
When positioning yourself under the barbell, be sure that your eyes are directly under the barbell.
Possibly even forehead level under the barbell depending on how long your arms are. The longer they are, the greater the distance from head to the top of the bench. So the forehead under BB will mean greater distance.
This will ensure that your arm length is appropriate as we get into the next step of setting our lats as well as allow enough room for a proper bar path (up and back) throughout the movement.
We’ll get more specific on the proper bar path in step 5.
Grab onto the barbell with a grip slightly wider than elbow width. This will give you a proper position at the bottom, ideally having your fist directly over your elbow as the barbell taps the sternum (just about or below nipple level, again depending on the anatomy and leverages of your body).
The sternum is the midpoint of the body and the bottom end of where your ribs connect.
- *Pro Tip* If you need help finding how wide you should grip the BB, it's totally safe to use an empty barbell if you can manage the weight of it, or even a long PVC pipe, to help find your width. Simply rest it on your sternum as you slide your hands in or out to find the proper hand position on top of your elbows.
As you grab the bar make sure your knuckles are facing towards the sky and squeeze with the entire hand. This includes squeezing with the pinky side of the hand as much as the thumb side.
We recommend starting to wrap your hand onto the bar with your pinky side first as demonstrated in the “Grip” video grip.
Step 3: Setting the foundation with your lats
Start to set your shoulder blades in place by tucking them into your back pocket. This will help contract your lats and create that stable foundation to press from.
A strong and stable back is key to pressing big weight.
If you set your head position with your forehead or eyes under the barbell as stated in step 2 then you will be in optimal position to “push” yourself away from the barbell to set your lats in place.
- *Pro Tip* Notice in image 4 the angle of the elbow is set about 90 degrees as it's facing out. In image 5 the angle on the elbow changes from facing out 90 degrees to tucked in about 75 degrees. Now these are general degrees of motion within a range that is optimal for many, but not all, lifters. Again, the longer the lever the more variance in the range. If you are someone with longer arms you might find more comfort in your elbows being farther out slightly (80 - 85 degrees). Also if you are more of a barrel chested individual this will not only shorten the range of travel between the top and bottom of the movement, but will also create more stability to handle heavier weight. And in turn allow a more tucked in elbow position even with longer arms. However! Always follow what feels best and try different things to find what's the best possible setup for yourself. We can also see in image 5 that the arm is extended as there is force going into the barbell for the purpose of pushing the lats into better position. The “Lats Flex '' video clip shows the action as well.
Step 4: “Houston...we have lift off”
All other steps have been beautifully set and it's now time to lift that big heavy barbell off the rack.
From here we recommend having a spotter as the shoulders are in a weak position with the barbell being over the top of your head as opposed to the barbell being over your shoulders where the body is strong.
The reason we set up this way originally is to prepare you for a strong lift and NOT a strong liftoff.
If you set yourself up with the barbell directly over your shoulders then this will have your head sliding off the top of the bench and your bar path will cause you to crash into and hit the rack on the way up. Let’s not be “that guy”.
Only unrack on your own with weight you know 100% without doubt you can manage, and anything heavier be sure to utilize a well trained and educated spotter.
- *Pro Tip* Being a great spotter is also an art form. Don’t just find someone to help spot you in your attempts in lifting big weight, also be the person others can count on when they’re lifting big weight. Watch the speed of the barbell when you’re spotting and know how to adjust yourself based on what is needed. This includes offering technique cues if necessary.
Be mindful that your hips are still off the bench as you are now creating maximum force output from your quads, into your upper back and shoulders, and think about “pulling” the barbell out with your lats as you unrack the weight. This will ensure your foundation is properly set.
From here, drop your hips onto the bench. We can see that drop in the next step as we are about to press. It’s great to remember that once everything is sharpened to flow together we should be doing this all in about 3 seconds.
The adjustments you will make on the barbell as you stabilize your feet and lay on the bench can take much longer as you are finding your grip and stability but the action of unracking and pressing will be much faster. It’s imperative not to rush!
But be mindful of the smooth flow of how it's meant to come together. Images 5, 6, and 7 also show the steps in unracking frame by frame, and it’s helpful to watch the clips to see the tempo and flow come together.
Be sure if you have a spotter helping that they are aware of the timing in which you are lifting the barbell off the rack. One person (usually the spotter if they are well trained and aware) will count down to keep both of you in sync.
- Ex: “3, 2, 1 Lift”
Step 5: Rep that S#!T
You are now set and ready to brace for your rep.
Take a deep breath in through your nose as this allows a larger volume of air to fill your belly and tighten your core. This is proper core bracing known as the valsalva maneuver.
The bar path in the bench press is different from the squat or deadlift in that you actually DO NOT want a straight and linear bar path.
The bar path is measured from a side view and in most lifts you want a straight line going up and down.
However, with the bench press you are moving in between two strong positions (barbell on top of the shoulder at the top and barbell on top of the elbow at the bottom) so the travel of the bar will be much different.
As the barbell is unracked and directly over your shoulders you must realize that this is the strongest position to hold the barbell while arms are extended. Meaning you wouldn't want to hold a loaded barbell with arms extended over your belly button as there is an extremely high likelihood that you will drop it onto said area.
The strongest position on the bottom phase of the lift is not hands over shoulders (this will put way too much stress onto the shoulder joint entirely) but rather bringing the barbell onto the sternum as this is the strongest position for your elbows to set with the weight and drive from using your triceps.
As you lower the barbell onto your sternum we can see in images 9 through 12 the position of the bar outlines the slanted bar path we touched on earlier. Image 9 shows it over the shoulder and image 12 shows it resting on the sternum and stacked on the elbow.
As you work the eccentric portion of the lift (negative or muscle lengthening as the pecs and triceps are stretching) think of it as a pull into your lats and drop the elbows in about 75 degrees (unless otherwise stated based off leverages; refer to the protip in step 3 if needed) to assure you have adequate drive from your triceps on the concentric (up or contracting) phase of the movement.
As you are pushing up be sure to use your feet and legs to drive into the ground and squeeze the bench with your thighs so you continue to transfer force throughout the entire movement.
In short; take a deep breath in through your nose and fill your belly, pull the barbell into your sternum and keep your elbows slightly tucked, and push up and back to your shoulders.
This will create a slanted bar path with efficient drive from the two strong positions of the hand stacked on top of the shoulder and the hand stacked on top of the elbow.
Step 6: Reracking The Barbell
Now that the rep is complete, we have to make sure we safely return the barbell back to its resting place on the rack hooks.
Keep the stability with your lats and foot placement and focus on just extending back.
If you have a spotter, have them assist by grabbing the barbell with both hands and pulling straight back to the top of the handle. We always practice safe lifting.
If you want to lift BIG weight, know that a mistake in form and even unracking or reracking weight can lead to a BIG mistake.
When racking one cue we love to give is to push straight back and high so you are sure to land it on the rack hooks and not under.
Last thing we need is a whole lotta weight coming down on your head.
Our aim was to educate you and help you learn to treat your body intuitively when not just bench pressing, but as a whole when you move.
This includes movements of all types.
Resistance movements using kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, bands, etc. And bodyweight movements utilizing every plane and range we were meant to be in.
Obtaining and maintaining a well rounded strong and mobile body. Let’s recap the points; together we:
- Went over key positions for a proper setup in our bench press.
- Focused on being intuitive in order to find the range in which we were comfortable setting up and moving through the movement; elbow degree of motion, foot placement, grip, etc.
- Maintained safe practice in learning how to be an aware spotter in watching barbell speed and giving technical cues if necessary.
- Became educated in the process of moving through a proper bench press and knowing how to make the proper adjustments to adapt it specifically for our own individual strength goals.
Be sure to use these tips and keep this at the forefront of your training and fitness routine always. They will only propel you to be a better lifter and overall athlete in the long term.