Table of Contents:
- 1. Bench Press Overview
- 2. Technical Issues #1 - The Set Up
- 3. Technical Issues #2 - The Bench Stroke
- 4. The Ascent
- 5. Ineffective Training
- 6. Conclusion
This Guide Teaches You:
- What the most common bench press mistakes are.
- How to spot bad bench press set up, and what to do to fix it.
- Why your rep form is compromising your progress and how to improve it and prevent injuries.
- Which exercises will help you improve your bench press.
- How to properly warm up so that you maximize your working sets.
- The importance of planning, effort and patience, and how to make your training sessions as effective as possible.
- Why mental strength plays a critical role in your success.
Bench press Monday is a global institution in just about every commercial gym. So is bench press Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You get the picture. Weekend warriors and all-round keyboard tough guys commonly speak as if a 300 pound bench is easily performed by every other gym rat. The reality is very different.
Although statistics vary, most findings accept that the average 175 pound male will bench around 180 pounds for one repetition. The average twenty-something male of that size rarely ever benches above 250 for a single rep (approximately 10% in fact) let alone the 300 that is commonly boasted of online. Commonly used tables of relative strength standards describe a 275 pound bench for a 181 pound man as ‘advanced’.
More observant gym goers will tell you that statistics are unnecessary as they can see with their own eyes the weekly bench struggles in gyms worldwide. Watching anyone confidently rep 225 without a spotter is rare enough. Seeing 315 for reps is almost an anomaly such is its infrequency.
But why is the bench press such a difficult lift to master when all it involves is unracking a bar, lowering it to the chest and then raising it? Why is it (along with the strict standing overhead press) one of the lifts that is first to stall and how come stalling on the bench press is something that can happen for years rather than months?
Perhaps because the vast majority of individuals perform this lift incorrectly. The first issue is the perception that the bench press is an ‘easy’ lift. In actual fact, it is one of the most technical of all lifts as you are about to see below.
There are dozens of bench press mistakes made by almost every single lifter. The few that master these techniques and utilize the bench press frequently and consistently are those who bench 315, 405 and 495+ with impunity. In this guide, we will explain the following points:
- Technical Errors #1: The set up - Why your approach is all wrong and how you can fix it.
- Technical Errors #2: The bench stroke - How your form is compromising your progress and why injuries are inevitable when you follow this path.
- Assistance: While the best way to improve your bench press is to bench, this lift is more of a full body lift than you could ever imagine.
- The Warm Up: Are your ‘light’ sets are actually holding you back?
- Ineffective Training: A big bench takes planning, effort and patience. Plan your attack or you’re doomed to spend eternity in bench press purgatory.
- Mentality: Every time you go under the bar, your mind must be in the right place. Mental strength begets physical strength.
A cursory look at the sorry state of bench pressing in virtually every gym should be enough to reveal a myriad of mistakes being made. However, since few people pay any attention to technical detail, the same errors are made for years by the same individuals who wonder why they can never add any weight to the bar.
Most people view the bench press as a simple matter of lying down on the bench, unracking the bar and getting down to business. This is of course not the case and a huge percentage of lifters make bench press mistakes before they even unrack the weight! Below, we will look at the litany of set up errors and how such errors can be rectified.
Rule #1 of any lift, especially the bench, is to decrease the range of motion when looking to increase the weight lifted. It is common sense: The less distance you have to press, the more you can lift. Widening the grip on the bar is one method of decreasing the ROM.
In many lifting circles, a shoulder width grip is deemed to be a close grip bench press so if you’re guilty of a narrow grip, it’s important to bring it wide. Having the small finger on the outer ring of the bar is a good start. From there, increase or decrease the width according to personal preference. However, it’s important to note that TOO wide a grip can cause shoulder damage down the line so bear this in mind when chasing huge weights.
When you have decided on a grip width, it’s time to start learning how to retract those shoulder blades. When you pull your shoulders back, you automatically reduce the distance the bar has to travel. Although your head, shoulder blades and butt need to be in contact with the bench, arching your lower back while under the bar is an excellent way to shorten ROM as your chest will come closer to the bar during the negative portion of the movement.
Many trainees simply view the bench press as a chest and triceps movement without really understanding the full-body nature of the exercise. The idea of ‘getting tight’ involves being completely rigid before the bar is even unhooked. World renowned power lifter and strength coach Dave Tate states that he pushes his knee against the knee or torso of a trainee before the bar is unracked. If the trainee moves at all, Tate decides that the bar is not to be unracked. So how does one go about ‘getting tight’?
Footwork plays a major role. If you allow your legs to merely dangle out while pressing, the amount you can lift is severely limited. When your feet are correctly set, you can utilize ‘leg drive’ to squeeze an extra rep or extra pounds on each lift thus increasing strength. There is no single ‘right’ place to set your feet. Some lifters like to tuck their feet underneath the bench and push off their toes while others are happy to spread their feet out wide and push off their heels. Experiment and find what works best for you. Roll your chest up and push your heels (or toes if that suits you) into the ground as you are driving your traps into the bench.
To have a big bench press, you need to grab the bar and squeeze it for all it’s worth before unracking. When you squeeze the bar, you activate the muscles in your forearms, hands and triceps while also reinforcing your body’s overall tightness. As the bench press takes place on a padded bench, it is seen as a ‘soft’ exercise. The reality is that to bench big weights, you have to be fairly uncomfortable when the time comes to unrack the weight.
Finally! After all that technical nonsense, you get to press, right? Actually, we’re only just beginning. Most trainees simply push the bar out of the rack and start pressing. This is a huge mistake for a number of reasons.
When you push the bar up and out of the rack, you instantly lose the tightness you strived so hard to attain. Your shoulder blades will be pulled apart and there’s no way to regain your previous position now that the bar is unracked. Instead, pull the bar out of the rack or have someone do it for you. This occurs in powerlifting competitions where it is known as a ‘lift off’. Your eyes should also be directly under the bar as you unrack it.
Pressing the bar straight away is a great way to undo all the progress you’ve made in your technical approach. With extremely heavy weights, immediately pressing the weight can be dangerous as you may not have control over the bar. A better approach is to allow the bar to settle in your hands for approximately 2 seconds.
During this wait, your elbows and traps will compress, pushing you deeper into the bench thus giving your body greater stability. You may also find that the bar will move an inch or two closer to your chest without your arms bending.
Before you press the first rep, your forearms and wrist joints should be in line with the bar. This will help you push the bar in a straight line which is of course the shortest and most expedient route when it comes to strength. It can also help prevent your wrists from bending back as you press which can be an extremely painful sensation when you have hundreds of pounds on the bar.
For most trainees, it’s a matter of benching the weight by any means necessary. This is why you’ll see exhibitions of bar bouncing, bars pressed at a 45 degree angle, spotters doing half the work and butts being raised as far off the bench as possible. Such antics not only look foolish, they contribute greatly to your lack of bench press success. Here are some commonplace errors when it comes to the art of the bench stroke.
This certainly seems to be a strange addition to bench press mistakes doesn’t it? When benching for more than three reps, you still need to take a deep breath on the bar descent and exhale each time you push the bar off your chest. For sets under 3 reps, take a large belly breath as opposed to the normal ‘chest’ breath.
In other words, your shoulders shouldn’t rise when you take a belly breath. This helps keep your body stable under the strain of a maximum effort attempt. Breathing out during the attempt will destabilize your body and may cause you to miss the lift.
This is one of the most common bench press mistakes. While it isn’t 100% ‘wrong’ to allow your elbows to flare out during the press, it does place a greater amount of strain on your shoulders thus increasing the risk of injury.
When you tuck in your elbows, the bar will touch the chest just below the nipples in most cases. Flared elbows provide less leverage than tucked elbows which transfers the load to your triceps and protects the shoulders. This also ensures that the bar travels in a straight line.
This refers to where the bar touches on the chest as well as the depth of each rep. In the latter case, each rep should see the bar touching the chest. You may see strong bodybuilders doing ‘partial’ reps but you better believe they spent years doing full range of motion reps before progressing to that level.
You need to find a groove where the bar touches the chest in the same place for every rep. This may involve checking your ego as you drop the weight you’re currently pressing in the name of progress. One tip is to chalk the middle of the bar and hit several reps in a row. If there is one straight line on your shirt, you should be good to go. When you have the ability to hit the same spot on your chest with virtually every rep, you will have a nice groove that preserves energy.
This is a favorite of the majority of gym rats who almost seem to have competitions where they see who can bounce the bar the highest. The theory is that by allowing the bar to descend rapidly, you can bounce it and gain enough momentum to complete the rep. However, this is complete nonsense.
The muscles and connective tissues combine in a stretch reflex which makes it appear as if the bar is bouncing off the chest. At the point of reversal, the bar is likely to sink into the chest due to the fact that the bar is lowered then raised at a high speed.
In a nutshell, ‘bouncing’ the bar doesn’t really occur at all and the effect only happens when you attempt to explosively push the bar upwards. A bench press performed in this manner is one where the lifter does not have full control of the weight. Allowing a weight that’s too heavy for you to smash off your chest is obviously only going to lead to injury. You need to lower the bar at a controlled speed, allow it to touch your chest and explosively press it back up.
When you see lifters benching with their butt off the bench, it’s clear that the weight they are attempting to press is too much to control. A more favorable biomechanical position is undertaken by the body in this instance and is a natural instinct that needs to be beaten back in order to keep your lower back healthy. When you bench with your butt off the bench, you can bench more weight as is the case when you arch your back. However, arching your back does not lead to the same back issues when done correctly. There is no way to bench properly with your butt off the bench!
When you bench heavy weights with your butt off the bench, excessive compression of the intervertebral discs may occur. If you currently have this problem, the number one way to fix this is to drop the weight you bench until you’re comfortable with the new and safe technique.
We already covered this in the section about ‘getting tight’ but it’s worth explaining that your chest is no more isolated when your feet are in the air than when they’re on the ground. You’ll engage the upper stabilizers more with your feet in the air but it does nothing for strength and little or nothing for size or definition. About the only reason to bench with your feet in the air is if you have a lower back problem and feel pain when your feet are on the ground and a natural arch is created. Otherwise, get your feet on the ground and start moving some serious weight!
No list of bench pressing mistakes would be complete without the legendary magic spotter. You should know the scene by now: The bencher bounces the bar off his chest with flared elbows while the person doing the spotting gets unnecessary rowing practice while screaming ‘it’s all you’ at the lifter. Let’s get one thing straight: Having a GOOD spotter will add significantly to your benching sessions. This is someone who gives you a good lift off and gives you a small amount of help on the final rep or two of your heavy sets. And ‘help’ means using an alternating grip to guide the lifter past a sticking point.
What actually happens is that the lifter gets a false reading of his own strength. After 2 reps, he is no longer able to make the reps but ends up with 8 ‘reps’ as the spotter pulls the bar up on each occasion. Then the lifter wonders why he gets pinned with 235 for 2 reps on his own after benching 225 for 8 reps with a spotter the week before.
If you are a spotter, do the lifter a favor and rack the bar as soon as it’s obvious that the lifter can no longer make the reps. Otherwise, he will just keep adding weight to the bar, continue on his path towards a benching injury and will hit a brick wall in terms of progress.
While it’s clear that benching regularly is the best way to increase the lift, you should know after reading this far that big bench pressing involves more than just one movement. You need to train the entire body and make it strong as a whole. You’ll rarely see someone benching huge weights while having an obvious strength weakness elsewhere in their body.
Therefore, neglecting other parts of the body is a major bench pressing mistake. Below we’ll explain why certain body parts need to be strong in order to be a bench press monster.
Hopefully, it will be clear to you why your back, and more specifically, your upper back, is so important when benching. Your lats are extremely important when it comes to the negative phase of the press. As you lower the weight, your back acts as the support base and the bigger your back, the more stable your base and the more weight you can lift. You’re simply not going to meet a 500 pound bencher who doesn’t have an extremely impressive thick back.
You’ll notice that bent over barbell rows are essentially a bench press for your back. There are a variety of rows suitable for the job including bent over barbell row, one arm dumbbell rows and Yates rows. Pull ups and chin ups are also excellent and should be performed instead of the lat pulldown if you have the ability to perform chins and pull ups. Power cleans are another excellent choice and of course you should never forget the king of upper body lifts, the deadlift.
Tucking the elbows helps the shoulders and also ensures that your triceps bear much of the load. Trainees make the mistake of performing isolation exercises such as dumbbell kickbacks or pushdowns exclusively while steering clear of more effective exercises. What you need is heavy training for the triceps such as weighted dips, close grip bench presses and dumbbell floor presses. If you spend more time doing these exercises and less time on dumbbell pullovers and pec flies, you’ll go a long way towards increasing your bench press prowess. Floor presses are also an excellent assistance lift while the incline bench press can be of some use.
Sorry bench lovers, you can’t become an ‘upper body’ guy. Yes, we’ve all see guys rocking the Johnny Bravo look with impressive pecs and skinny legs but you’re setting yourself up for failure by following this strategy. Leg drive helps at the bottom of the lift and can set you up to move big weights. Squats are the most obvious choice here.
Don’t neglect the hips and posterior chain either. Strong glutes give you an excellent starting foundation for each rep and can help you overcome the weight. You don’t need to train legs like Tom Platz but you do need to give them some attention. Besides, nothing looks better than someone with a well-rounded physique.
Sighs of relief all round as you discover that it’s ok to do bicep work while looking to increase your bench. This is probably the rarest of mistakes since almost everyone loves biceps yet more experienced and hardened trainees may ignore direct bicep work. As we keep repeating, the bench is a total body exercise.
While biceps seem to have little to do with benching, it’s important to remember that they can be the weak link in building a strong back which is known to be crucial in increasing your bench press. As a result, not training your biceps hard and heavy could be a mistake. However, this is NOT an excuse to do 54 sets of curls a week.
Ignoring overhead pressing and rotator cuff work are major errors. The former is rarely a problem with seated overhead dumbbell presses a gym favorite. Standing overhead pressing is better for your bench as it strengthens the midsection more as well as being tremendous fun!
We’ve seen how poor bench press technique can injure the shoulders. Your rotator cuffs are four tiny muscles surrounding the scapula and help stabilize your shoulder joints but they are often ignored. Weak rotator cuffs are one of the main culprits when shoulders get injured during the bench press. Internal and external rotations with cables are easy ways to warm up the rotator cuff. Don’t go overboard with the weight on these exercises. Forcing reps with rotator cuff exercises is a quick way to end up in the treatment room.
The warm up is undoubtedly the least popular part of any weight training session but it’s importance can’t be overstated. Warming up is less about working up a sweat than it is about priming the Central Nervous System (CNS) for the heavy weights ahead. A common bench press warm up is a few minutes on a treadmill, some arm swings and straight to sets of 135 before jumping up in large increments, sometimes of 50 pounds or more.
It’s easy to pull a muscle while doing this and at best, the weight will feel heavier than it should because your CNS has not been adequately primed. You must always perform warm up sets with the bar. Many of the world’s best benchers perform several sets with just the bar and take as many as 10-12 sets before hitting their target weight. Jump to 95 pounds then 135 pounds and perform a few reps of each. 20-30 pound increments thereafter until you reach your work set weight are ideal.
Warm up sets are also an excellent way to work on your form. The more often you learn how to ‘get tight’, pull the bar out and focus on your breathing and technique, the more natural it will feel.
Perhaps the average trainee’s biggest mistake (yes, even bigger than the dozens of technical mistakes!) is the complete lack of a plan. Countless trainees enter the gym for their weekly bench day and put the same amount of weight on the bar, almost always hitting the same amount of reps and sets. How do you expect to bench more than 185 pounds if you never put more than that amount of weight on the bar?
The concept of progressive overload training eludes them. This involves adding more weight to the bar each week or else performing more reps in a set than what was achieved in the previous session. While it is no magic pill, it is the best way for beginners and intermediate trainees to progress. Many of the world’s most successful training programs are based on this principle.
At some point, you will stop making gains in this fashion but you can be sure that this will only happen when you are far beyond your current level of strength. Increase resistance frequently and consistently and watch your strength go up. Here is a simple example of progressive overload in action. Trainee hits 185 pounds for 5 reps and aims to increase from there (weights in pounds)
First warm up sets will always be - 45x5 - 2 sets, 95x5, 135x3.
- Session 1 - 160x3, 170x2, 185x5
- Session 2 - 160x3, 170x2, 190x5
- Session 3 - 165x3, 175x2, 195x4
- Session 4 - 165x3, 175x2, 195x5
- Session 5 - 165x3, 180x2, 200x5
We’ve already mentioned that the bench press is arguably the most stubborn lift when it comes to progression. Utilizing the above techniques will almost certainly add poundage to your lift within a reasonably short period of time. Do yourself a favor and steer clear of so-called ‘secret’ programs that help you add 50 pounds in 10 weeks. Such a gain is rare and will usually happen while you’re still benching well below 300 pounds. Few people ever bench double their bodyweight with good form for a single rep so the road to such an achievement is long, hard but will ultimately be prosperous.
Therefore, you can’t switch your program every 6 weeks and expect consistent results. Ignore the ‘muscle confusion’ nonsense that pervades internet forums and blogs. Your muscles can adapt over time, but this relates to the volume load NOT exercise selection. Do you really think that your muscle says ‘He’s performing incline dumbbell presses now so I better grow’?
Your muscles need systematic overloading which is covered neatly via progressive overload. For most people, a 50-60 pound gain over 12 months constitutes very good progress. Imagine you can bench press 185x5 today. Adding an average of just 5 pounds a month for 2 years and you hit 305x5 which is far more weight than most people can handle. If you’re looking for instant gratification, the bench press, and the iron in general, is likely to disappoint.
Trainees are often guilty of lowering and raising the bar slowly in a bid to take advantage of the much vaunted Time Under Tension (TUT). This is claimed to be the best way to stimulate muscle growth. But the weight is too heavy for me to bench fast!
Various studies have shown that the intent to move the bar quickly with a rapid rate of contraction can increase the weight lifted over a period time. Increased motor unit synchronization and rate of force development from benching faster are also a good reasons for doing it. In other words, you should look to lower and raise the bar as fast as is possible while still remaining in complete control of the weight. It’s common sense: The faster you complete the rep, the more likely it is that you will be successful! Obviously, you have to do this without bouncing the bar.
There is also the small matter of dynamic training which consists of 8-10 sets of 3 reps at 55-60% of your 1 rep maximum. While this shouldn’t take the place of a normal benching routine for beginners or early intermediates, it can certainly be added on non-bench days if you have the time.
This could easily tie in with the two sections that preceded it so we’ll make it short. Too many trainees turn up on ‘bench’ day and slap a random weight on the bar. There is no rhyme or reason to their training. One day they’ll hit 190x8 for 3 sets and the following week it will be 180x7 for 2 sets. ‘Instinctive’ training can work but it’s best left to experienced lifters.
When you’re struggling to hit 225 on the bench, you need direction and guidance. Classic bench press routines have stuck around because they work. Choose one and stick with it for several months. Don’t switch it up because you missed reps and don’t skip training. Ask yourself: What is your bench press goal? Have a realistic goal. For example, if you bench 200 now, you might aim for 225 in 16 weeks. There are plenty of excellent tried and trusted routines so get cracking! Also, keep a log to record your progress so you remember what you did in previous weeks and can see how far you have come.
If the goal is to increase your max bench press, you need to begin the process of dropping the number of reps in each set. The 8-12 rep range is suitable for hypertrophy which is another term for the increasing of muscle mass. When it comes to increasing your strength, you need to get to the 5 rep range and below.
The 5x5 programs you hear about do a great job of increasing size AND strength and are a fine place to start. With low reps, strength gains are neurological which means you improve your body’s ability to recruit muscle fibers. While you may not get significantly larger, you will find that the weights you lift increase.
After your stabilizers get used to lower reps, you can begin the journey to triples, double and singles. Many strength coaches preach the virtues of triples in particular. Your bones, tendons and CNS adapt to the strain of heavier weights which leads to strength increases. This trio is just as important as your muscles when it comes to handling big weights and getting your bench press up.
Yes, the quality of a training partner can be the different between lengthy stalling and major progress. Of course, you should only hold yourself accountable for your failures but a good training partner can help you squeeze out an extra rep or two. They have an important role when it comes to the bench press where getting pinned is a possibility if you bench alone.
Having this fear in the back of your mind may prevent you from pushing harder. If you have someone to back you up, it’s possible that you’ll go for and make reps you wouldn’t have done had you been alone. Also, a partner can give you a ‘lift off’ thus ensuring you keep your tightness.
A training partner will also ensure you’re held accountable. You’ll feel guilty for taking an unscheduled day off when there is someone relying on you. Find someone dedicated and ditch a partner that is negative, turns up late or doesn’t have the same fire as you. Apathy and negativity spreads rapidly. Allow someone to drag you down and you’ll find that your bench press (and all other lifts) remain in the toilet. Socialize at other times and be focused on the business of lifting when you’re in the gym.
This is pretty easy. Eat at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight and aim for a caloric surplus. A huge mistake made by those seeking a larger bench press is that they simply don’t eat enough. When your body gets bigger, you have a more stable base to bench off. This is not an excuse to eat all the junk food you want!
Try and avoid empty calories and focus on the basics like lean meat, complex carbs etc. Easy tips to add calories include adding olive oil, cheese and peanut butter to meals. These are great sources of ‘good’ fats and can boost your quest to gain muscle.
If you’re overweight and want to reduce your body fat level, you need to focus on that. Unless you’re a complete beginner, you won’t be able to serve two masters. Lose the fat first, improve your conditioning and then you can begin eating more and benching heavy.
This is the big bad wolf of gym folklore and is primed to chew you up and spit you out. The average trainee lives in perpetual fear of overtraining. This probably should not be included in any version of ‘common mistakes’ ever published but there is a small percentage of lifters who overdo it. Let’s get this straight: Benching three times a week is NOT overtraining.
Benching three times a week at near PR weights for a number of weeks probably is. Few people ever experience the state of overtraining and are probably ‘overreaching’ which is completely different and can be solved by a simple deload week. This involves a couple of sessions where you lift 50-60% of your normal weight and focus on technique. This is FAR better than sitting on your butt at home.
If you are attempting a set at a near PR or actual PR weight, allow 3-5 minutes between sets. Your body and CNS is severely stressed when you lift close to your maximum. Therefore, adequate recovery time between sets is required to get the best out of your bench press. This doesn’t give you a license to be lazy however! Be quicker between lighter sets to get the heart pumping while getting into the groove.
The only way you’ll be guilty of overtraining is by hitting near maximal lifts several times a week. Once you have built up a good base of strength and hit a genuine stalling point, the process of using percentages comes into play. This essentially means using a periodization program. You cycle the weights lifted in an organized manner from one week to the next, aiming to peak after a certain period of time. This is suited for upper intermediates and not something relative beginners need to worry about.
Last, but not least is the psychological aspect of benching heavy weights. This was already touched on slightly in the training partner section. Negativity will defeat you if you allow it to. Training should be competitive and if your partner(s) can’t match your intensity on a regular basis, find someone who can or risk being sucked into the mire of mediocrity. Everyone has ‘off’ days but it’s rare when you AND your training partner have bad days together.
Another mental issue is the sheer weight of the bar. Lifters have a tendency to build up milestones like a 300 pound bench in their minds. The thought of this huge weight is built up so much that it overwhelms them and they can’t make the lift. There have been thousands of occasions when a training partner sneakily adds weight to the bar without telling the lifter.
Without the mental anxiety to hold him back, the lifter easily makes a PR without realizing! The weight on a bar is only a number. If you genuinely believe you’ll make the lift and you’re physiologically capable of doing so on that day, you WILL make that lift. If your head isn’t right, the bench press will defeat you.
Common bench press mistakes can be divided into these categories: Technical, mental, physiological and exercise selection. Mental strength may arguably be the most important but when you focus on improving your technique, your bench press is sure to go up. This will automatically improve confidence and thus the mental aspect of your training. Altering your existing set/rep schemes to become more strength orientated is also useful and will help you get used to the feeling of heavy weight in your hands.
Much is made of exercise selection but as long as you do your best to construct a balanced workout, your bench press should improve. Look at your current exercise selection and identify its purpose. If it doesn’t help your bench press numbers in some way, ditch it.
We already mentioned how the body is a single unit working in harmony. This means neglecting the back, shoulders and legs in the pursuit of a bigger bench press is counter-productive. The bench press is not, and never has been, a simple matter of pec strength. The easiest way to improve your bench press is by strengthening the whole body.
Learn the correct technique of compound lifts and hammer away at them. Above all, remember that improving your bench press significantly is a long-term commitment. Eschew ‘quick fixes’ today and start thinking about the bigger picture.