The bench press is a tried-and-true upper body exercise. It’s one of the best moves for strength and chest muscle development and targets almost every muscle group in your body.
For beginner weight lifters, bench presses can seem intimidating if you aren’t used to using free weights. Dumbbells are one thing, but you need to utilize your entire body to push through a bench press. The benefits are definitely worth it, but you need to know how to perform bench presses correctly if you want to avoid getting hurt and build as much upper body strength as you can.
What are the benefits of using a bench press?
Bench presses are a classic chest builder move that almost every bodybuilder includes in their upper body workouts. To some people, the barbell bench press is just another chest exercise, but this move targets more muscles areas than you’d think, including your:
Pectorals: All the chest muscles are activated during a standard bench press.
Triceps: Adjusting your grip width to a narrower grip will increase the load on your triceps to help develop them.
Shoulders: The anterior deltoid are an assistant muscle, and it's activated more on an incline bench press.
Forearms: The standard bench press can help improve your grip strength which will help you improve on other heavy compound lifts.
Core: To bench press with good form and technique you need to ensure your glutes and abdominal muscles are activated. This in turn will help you develop better core strength.
This is why the bench press is so beneficial. Not only are you building your upper body muscles, but you’re also increasing your strength and endurance. Even though you’re lying down, your body is completely engaged. You can basically consider the barbell bench press a full-body workout.
Tips on how to bench press with proper form
You don’t want to mess around with your form when you bench press. Many people have torn their muscles and suffered other serious injuries because they were bench pressing incorrectly. Proper execution of any exercise should be a top concern for bodybuilders at every level, especially when involving free weights.
Here’s how to prep yourself for a barbell bench press:
- Set your feet and press into the ground so you’re activating the hamstrings and glutes. You want your body to remain stable so you can draw power through your lower body. Make sure your shins are also perpendicular to the floor.
- Position your body so your eyes are directly under the bar. The bar shouldn’t go any higher than your wrists so you can easily unrack the bar without lifting your body off the bench. Your head, shoulders, and hips should never leave the bench throughout the entire set.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together to protect your shoulders. Pulling your shoulder blades back helps stabilize the weight. It should feel like you’re pressing yourself into the bench.
- Keep a slight arch in your lower back. This helps maintain a neutral spine and protects your back as you lift and lower the weight. Some bodybuilders won’t do this because they think it’s only done for powerlifting moves. However, the arch doesn’t need to be over-exaggerated.
- Your bench press grip is super important. The barbell needs to sit in the palm of your hand with your fingers and thumbs grasped firmly around it. Your hands also need to be shoulder-width apart. Don’t worry if have a slightly wider or narrower grip than others. This depends on the length of your arms and the width of your shoulders. The most proper way is to have your forearms in a vertical position. Powerlifters will often choose a wide grip so they can limit their full range of motion to lift more weight.
- Use wrist wraps to help keep your wrists straight. These help support your wrists so you can lift heavier weight without having your wrists give in. Our UPPPER wrist wraps are made with a strong velcro that compresses and safely secures your wrists to minimize the risk of injury.
- KEEP YOUR BODY TIGHT. Your body needs to feel like a solid unit. The shoulders, core, glutes, and lower body must stay tight at all times.
- If you can, try to always have a spotter with you. It can be dangerous to bench press alone. A spotter protects the weight lifter in case they need help re-racking the bar if they fail the rep or help with your lift off. You can also use a power rack if don’t have a spotter.
Performing the bench press
Now that your body’s in the right position, you’re ready to perform a bench press.
- Brace yourself and take a deep breath. Let out the breath as you unrack the bar and lockout your elbows so the bar is directly above your shoulders. Remember to keep squeezing your shoulder blades together!
- While continuing to stare at the ceiling, unlock your elbows and inhale as you lower the bar to your chest. The bar should touch just below the clavicle or near the top of your abs with your forearms at a 90-degree angle.
- Release your breath and press the bar straight back up to the starting position. Make sure the barbell is fully re-racked before releasing the tension in your arms and body.
Common beginner bench press mistakes
It’s natural for beginners to mess up on the bench press. This move is complex and involves a strong technique. What’s important is that these mistakes are corrected early on. These are the most common mistakes beginning weight lifters make when doing a barbell bench press:
Starting off with too much weight- Don’t try matching the bodybuilder next to you who’s bench pressing 200+ pounds. You’re only setting yourself up for failure. Most beginners don’t even start out adding weight to the ends of the barbell. Not only can you get hurt trying to lift more, but you end up compromising your form trying to handle the weight.
Not keeping the body tight- Bench presses require the use of your entire body. If you move around or loosen your body too much, you won’t be able to move the weight. Your body needs to brace itself so you have enough energy and power to lift the bar from the rack, lower it down, and pressing it back up.
Having a thumbless grip- Doing a bench press without wrapping your thumbs around the bar is called a suicide grip, but the name exists for a reason. Aside from having no benefit whatsoever, you risk dropping the barbell on your face, neck, or chest. You must always have an overhand grip so your thumbs sit across the tops of your fingers.
Messing with the grip width- As we mentioned before, not every bodybuilder will have the same exact grip width on the bar. However, if your grip is changed too much, it will affect what muscles get worked and how much weight you can lift.
Bouncing the barbell off the chest- You may have seen some people at the gym who actually bounce the barbell off their chest. This is totally incorrect. You never want to put that much pressure directly on your chest. The bar should only lightly touch your chest as you lower it down towards you. Besides, if the bar is just bouncing off your body, then you aren’t really lifting anything.
Flaring out the elbows- This goes back to having a much wider grip than you should have on the bar. If your elbows are flared too far out, your pecs are doing more of the work, and your lats aren’t engaged. A common injury this can cause is torn pecs.
Beginner bench press variations/modifications
Now that you know more about bench presses, you may or may not feel slightly intimidated by this exercise. It definitely takes time and training to work your way up in weight and strength and to start seeing more muscle growth. Once you get the hang of it and nail your bench press form, you’ll end up making this a regular exercise in your workouts.
There are a few variations and modifications you can do to help work your way up to a weight bench press. One variation many beginners like to try first is bench pressing the bar without any additional weight. These bars weigh 45 pounds by themselves, which is plenty of weight for a new bodybuilder. As you build their strength and perfect your form, you can try adding 5 lbs total (2.5 lbs) to the barbell every week.
Another modification you can do is the dumbbell bench press. The weight of the barbell can still be too heavy for some beginning bodybuilders, but that’s nothing to be embarrassed over. Safety is always important when working out. Dumbbells will allow you to train your shoulders and arms so you have more stability in your upper body.
Incline bench presses also provide a little more support if you’re unable to lift while flat on your back. This move works out the upper pecs more than a traditional bench press and requires a lighter weight. We recommend doing pushups as well since the movement pattern is similar to doing a bench press.
Start bench pressing with the best of them!
There is so much more to bodybuilding than simply lifting weights. Exercises like the barbell bench press take immense skill and a strong dedication to training. Increasing the hypertrophy in the upper body can be particularly challenging for some bodybuilders, but there are many ways to turn that struggle around! Check out these chest exercises for women and men you can include in your upper body program.