"How to improve your bench press" would have to be the most popular search on any weight training article. From the time we started training with weights, many of us have obsessed over our bench press, even though it is not the best exercise one can do for overall chest development, we sort of measure ourselves by "how much we can bench".
This has been the case since the bench press became the defacto upper body measure of strength when it replaced the overhead press somewhere back in the 50s or 60s. As with everything else, technique is king. Like with bad form in the squat and deadlift, we can walk into any gym and see terrible form in the bench press; "spotters" holding on to the bar, butts coming a half a foot off of the bench and the one that bugs me the most - loading up the bar with tons of weight and only coming down with the bar a few inches - a good 5-6" off of the chest!
People also complain of shoulder strain from bench pressing. More often than not, when one looks at their form, we see them making the most critical errors: moving the bar in a straight line up and down, moving the bar with a wide grip and bringing the bar too high on the chest, not having the feet stay firmly planted on the floor, not staying tight in the body, and keeping the chest flat on the bench.
Fixing The Most Common Bench Press Errors
Error #1: Moving the bar in a straight line. When lying on the bench, the bar should sit directly over your eyes. When locked out, the bar should be directly over the shoulders. When in the bottom position, the bar should be somewhere at least below the nipple line of the chest depending on how high the arch of the torso is and limb length. When viewed
Error #2: Moving the bar with a wide grip. The width of your hand placement has to involve one of your fingers being on the lathe mark of the bar. That being said, the angle of your limbs will best determine hand spacing. When the bar is touching your chest, the humerus should be out at 45 degrees to the body and no more with the bend in the arms at 90 degrees. The forearms should be at 90 degrees vertically.
Too wide and there is too much shoulder strain and too narrow and you are at a leverage disadvantage with the triceps doing too much work. There has to be a straight line between the bar, drawn through the forearm and elbow with the elbows always directly below the bar. If the bar is between the elbows and your shoulders, you will be doing something that resembles more of a tricep extension rather than a bench press.
Error #3: Bringing the bar too high up on the chest. If the bar is too high on the chest you will be putting your shoulders at risk of injury. You want to lower the bar on an angle from lockout directly over the shoulders to below your nipple line and raise it back up, sliding it on an angle to lockout over the shoulders where the elbows snap out under the bar, locking it out over the shoulders.
Error #4: Not having the feet stay firmly planted on the floor. When you first get into position on the bench, the first thing you need to do is plant your feet and heels on the floor and push your body downwards into them, digging your heels into the ground. This is where the leg drive comes from, where exploding from the bottom of the movement, the thigh muscles push backwards up the bench, which results in a transfer of force upwards to the bar. I cannot believe the number of people struggling with their bench press who do not even have or keep both feet on the floor when performing the movement.
Error #5: Not keeping your body tight . As pointed out in the last line above, the bench press is a full body lift, so the whole body needs to be tight and stay tight. Don't believe me? Try tensing your glutes as hard as you can and work on leg drive and see that work magic for your bench press.
Error #6: Keeping the chest flat on the bench. After getting foot position on the bench and sliding your torso towards your feet along the bench as far as you can, you need to push your shoulder blades back and down towards your body too and tense your traps as hard as you can. This tightness needs to be maintained and you should use a spotter to give you a lift off so you can maintain this position. With the shoulders back and down and the traps tensed, your lats come into play more and actually help the lift as they control the downwards motion and help with the upwards drive as well.
Setting up the bench press and getting into position (below)
The importance of bringing the bar down low and hand position (below)