The bench press is one of the most common exercises performed—and bragged about—in the gym. However, many lifters make mistakes in their technique causing them to complain about shoulder pain and boast sub-par bench numbers. With just a few tweaks, you can perfect your bench press form for maximum size and strength gains.
Incorrect bench pressing technique can lead to shoulder issues that can end up being unbearable to the point that you can’t even bench anymore. Proper positioning of your elbows and the bar can keep your shoulder joints safe, allowing you to comfortably continue benching so that you can progress in weight and build mass.
Flaring the elbows out to the side will put a lot of stress on the shoulder joints and, over time, possibly lead to shoulder impingement or rotator cuff injuries. This will also put you at a huge mechanical disadvantage and prevent you from adding weight to the bar. The good news is that this is an easy fix. Simply bring the elbows in so that you are forming about a 45 degree angle at the armpit. This will transfer the load more towards your chest and allow your triceps to assist in the movement, allowing for a more comfortable motion and a boost in strength.
Bar position is also important when it comes to ensuring a safe and effective bench press. When the bar touches your chest, it should be towards the bottom of your chest. As you touch the bar higher up the chest, you increase the amount of stress on your shoulders, so make sure the bar touches no higher than your nipple line. This bar placement will have similar effects to correcting your elbow placement—more pectoralis and triceps recruitment to perform the movement and an increased shoulder joint safety.
A good back arch is crucial for an effective bench pressing motion. Now, by “a good back arch” I don’t mean contorting your body into a semi-circle. Exaggerating the arch in your back only decreases your range of motion, essentially turning the flat bench press into a decline press. Yes, you will be able to push more weight by lessening the distance you have to move the bar, but you are also not targeting the intended area of the chest and minimizing improvements in strength and size. Over-arching of the back can also set you up for injury from hyper-extending the low back while it is under a significant amount of stress, essentially crushing your vertebral disks.
A slight, natural arch is all you need to establish a solid foundation on this lift. In order to do this, all you have to do is retract your shoulder blades down and back before lying down on the bench and place your feet below or slightly behind your knees. That’s it! You should have just a small opening between your mid back and the bench, which will allow you to press more of yourself into the bench during the lift. Finally, by keeping a natural back arch during the movement, you are able to get a true measure of functional strength since you are performing the movement in as close to a natural position as possible.
Face it – we all want to be the big man on campus and bench 315 for reps. However, it needs to be understood that it will take time to get there. You need to forget about what everyone else is lifting and stop worrying about what they might think of your numbers. It is important to progressively load the bar in a way that matches your strength level. There is no reason why you would need to put an excessive amount of weight on the bar and risk injury in an attempt to impress your gym buddies.
If you cannot hold good technique while lifting a particular weight, then it may mean that you need to take a step back for a bit, decrease the weight, and work your way up to your desired goal. Work hard but also work smart. You aren’t going to make any gains in size or strength if you’re stuck in bed with injuries.
Unilateral Training for Maximal Size and Strength
Unilateral (single limb) training can be a great supplement to bilateral (both limbs at the same time) exercises. You may not realize it but one side of your body may be slightly stronger than the other, causing you to get an uneven push on your bench. The imbalance may not be so great that you see the bar tipping to one side or the other, but it could be just enough that it is holding you back from increasing the weight.
Add in some dumbbell bench pressing in order to even out any imbalances and boost your numbers on the barbell. The even muscle activation on both sides of your body will also increase hypertrophy potential and create symmetry in the pecs.