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Bench Press: The Complete Guide to Bench Press Form

By Lukas Hambsch

Posted in Exercise guides, Upper body, Bench press

Dumbbell bench press.
Dumbbell bench press.

Bench Press Benefits

The bench press is one of four core upper body lifts. It works a variety of upper body muscles including your pectorals, triceps, and deltoids. For men, the bench press will be the best exercise to build those big, defined pecs you are looking for. For women, it will lead to much better overall upper body definition and posture. One of the biggest keys to looking and feeling great is having the balanced athletic look provided by great posture.

Bench Press Progression

Before starting the barbell or dumbbell bench press, you should make sure you have the necessary strength. There's no reason to head to the bench press before you're ready. You should be able to complete at least 5 sets of 10 pushups with perfect form before you move on to the bench press. If you can't do any push ups, then start off with knee push ups. Do 5 sets of as many as you can with perfect form. Once you can do 5 sets of 10 with knee push ups, move on to 5 sets of as many reps as possible on regular push ups. Once you're able to do 5 sets of 10 with perfect form, then you're ready to bench press.

Perfect Push Up Form

  • Your arms should form straight line from your shoulders to the ground.
  • Keep your body in a straight line from your feet all the way to your head.
  • Keep your neck neutral and straight, with your head looking straight at the ground. Don't reach towards the ground with your head.

Bench Press Form

Dumbbell Bench Press

Set Up

  • Choose your dumbbells, sit on the bench, and set them just above your knees on your quads.

Dumbbells on quads ready to start lift.

  • Next you're going to lay back on the bench, but as you're laying back bring your knees up to push the dumbbells back with your legs.
  • Bring your feet back down to the ground or the bench, whichever you prefer.
  • After you get the dumbbells to their starting position, push the weight up as fast as possible so it's above the bottom of your sternum. The starting position is at the bottom of the lift for the dumbbell bench press.

Movement

  • After you lay back and get the dumbbells back, the weight should be just outside your ribcage and even with your sternum.

Bottom position of dumbbell bench press

  • Keep your elbows at an 80 degree angle to your ribcage, just like the barbell bench press. Don't let them flare out to 90 degrees.
  • As soon as you get the weight into it's starting position, push it up as fast as you can.

Top position of dumbbell bench press

  • After you reach the top of the lift, you'll lower the weight back down to the starting position. Then you'll start the movement over again.

Finish

  • You have two options to finish your set.
  • First, you can drop the weight next to the bench. To do this safely drop the weight forward. If you drop it backwards or straight out, you put your shoulders at risk.
  • Second, you can bring the dumbbells in over your chest, bring your knees back up towards them, and kick yourself forward while bringing the weight back to your knees.

Barbell Bench Press

Set Up

  • Place the bar on the rack so that your arms have a slight bend when they reach the bar.
  • Grip the bar just outside of shoulder width. Find the marking on the bar to make sure each hand is grabbing the bar the same distance from the center.

Bar at correct height for bench press, with elbows slightly bent

  • When the bar is on the rack, your head should be under the bar. This allows you to have the weight in position once you pull it off the rack.
  • Your feet should be placed firmly on the ground so they form a straight line from your knee to your feet. The other option, is to put your feet up on the end of the bench which helps make sure you don't arch your back too much.

Feet on bench for bench pressFeet on floor for bench press

  • Pinch your shoulder blades together and hold them together throughout the lift.
  • Once you are set up, lift the bar off the rack by straightening your arms.
  • As you lift the bar off the rack, bring it forward until it's directly over the bottom of your sternum.

Ready to start bench press

Movement

  • Once the weight is over your sternum, begin lowering it in a controlled manner until it touches the bottom of your sternum.
  • As you lower the weight, keep your elbows at about an 80 degree angle to your ribcage. Just like the overhead press, letting them flare all the way out to 90 puts more strain on your shoulders.
  • As soon as the weight touches your sternum, push it up as fast as you can. The weight will still be moving slowly, but focusing on moving it as fast as you can will help you lift heavier weight.
  • As you reach the top of the lift, you'll start the movement over again.

Common Bench Press Mistakes

Elbows Too Far Out

It's common for people to flare their elbows out too far while bench pressing. Doing this gives you better leverage to lift more weight, but it also puts more strain on your shoulder joints. In order to keep your shoulders healthy and pain-free, make sure your elbows stay at about an 80 degree angle with your ribcage.

Elbows Too Far In

Bringing your elbows in too close to your side isn't as common as letting them flare too far out. There isn't any additional injury risk by having your elbows in too far, but it puts more emphasis on your triceps. You'll use your triceps during a normal bench press, but your main target is the chest. By keeping your elbows in the correct position, you'll put the emphasis on your chest.

Overarching Your Back

I recommend putting your feet on the bench while bench pressing because it helps keep the focus on your upper body and minimize the arch in your back. As you start using heavier weights there will be a slight arch in your back, especially if you put your feet on the ground. You should minimize this arch for two different reasons. First, it puts unnecessary stress on your spine and increases your risk of injury. Second, it transfers some of the work from your upper body muscles to your lower body ones. Using only your upper body muscles helps you get the same results at lower weights that you would get with a higher weight.

Not Going Down All the Way

Not using a full range of motion in any exercise is just cheating yourself. The goal with every exercise you do is to get your muscles as much work as possible with the lowest weight we can. You can do this by controlling the weight on the way down, moving it as fast as possible on the way up, and performing the exercise through a full range of motion. Each time you cheat by not going all the way down, you aren't getting as much work as you can out of the exercise.

Bar in Incorrect Position

Starting with the bar too high in the rack makes the bench press a more dangerous exercise. If the rack is too high, you'll have difficulty re-racking the weight. Make sure the bar is racked in a position that makes you bend your arms while grabbing it. If the rack you're using doesn't have the height you need, ask someone to spot you.

Starting with the bar too low in the rack is better than starting with it too high, but it's best to have it just right. When you have the bar too low, you have to perform a partial rep just to get the bar to the starting position. This can negatively effect the rest of your reps.