Do It Better: Bench Pressby Jennifer Blake
I love to write love letters about the bench press, and hunker down, because this is juicy one. Not so secretly, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you’re on board with getting better at this lift because my dream scenario includes women who are fanning out and claiming their benches in gyms all over, executing this lift with rock-solid form. (What, you don’t dream about bench pressing? Just me?)
I’ve written several posts about the basics of bench pressing, including where to put your hands, where to put your feet, and how to press the bar once you get into position. If you need a review on the basics, head to those blog posts to practice the fundamentals, but if you’re already on board with bench pressing, here’s how you can continue to fine-tune this lift and improve your technique in your very next session:
1) Get a Grip.
Handling a barbell for the bench press is not going to feel the same as holding dumbbells, so we shouldn’t treat it as such. You aren’t going to be able to achieve completely neutral wrists with a barbell and with your hands locked into position, your elbows and shoulders don’t have as much freedom to move as when you’re holding individual weights. This means it’s not only important to have your hands in the correct position on the bar (see the post linked above, if need be), but where the bar is positioned in your palms matters, too.
Your setup for bench starts when you put your hands on the bar: Don’t just grab onto it, position the bar in your hands with purpose. Instead of simply wrapping your fingers around the bar, firmly grasp the bar lower in your palms, just below the major crease that runs across your hand. You’ll feel it resting right on top of your wrists, instead of behind them.
Positioning the bar lower in your palms will help you avoid overly flexing your wrists. It will also help keep your wrists stacked over your elbows when the bar is on your chest, and be in a better position to finish the lift, while helping to ward off potential wrist and elbow discomfort.
2) Let the Bar Settle.
When you unrack your bar and pull it into position, there’s no need to dive-bomb the bar straight to your chest right away. Wait a beat to make sure the bar is locked into what feels like your most solid starting position (the bar should hover in somewhere between the bottom of your chin and your nipple line, wherever feels strongest for you), and let the weight of the bar settle onto your stacked wrists, elbows, and shoulders. From there, take a big breath, brace your abs and glutes, and row the bar down to your chest.
If the bar wiggles or wavers out of the groove on the way down, your chances of a clean press on the way up are greatly reduced. Ensuring you’re in control of the weight from the get-go will help you maintain a clean bar path from start to finish.
3) Tuck Your Elbows In (But Not Too Much) on the Descent.
At first glance you wouldn’t guess that your elbow position plays such a key role in a strong bench press, but it most definitely does: If your elbows are tucked in too close to your torso when the bar is on your chest, they likely won’t stay directly under the bar. This means you’re placing the lion’s share of the load on your triceps to the exclusion of your pecs, making the lift harder to finish that it needs to be. Conversely, if you flare your elbows out too much while bringing the bar down, you’re placing your shoulders at an increased risk for pain and/or injury.
To illustrate, click on this video of Jen Thompson, who is widely considered to be, pound for pound, the strongest bencher in the world (of any gender). Here she is “messing around with 270 pounds” for reps at 132-pounds bodyweight:
Jen has a wide grip, but you can see by the angle of her upper arms and elbows that she aims the bar for her sternum, and her wrists are still stacked over her elbows (also, check out that spotter!).
For comparison, here’s a pic of another Jen, a member of The Movement Minneapolis Team Green, benching in a meet a couple weekends ago. You can see her grip on the bar is more narrow and her elbows are closer to her sides, but she, too, still maintains that good upright “goal post” position with her forearms:
So what’s the right amount of elbow tuck? Aim your bar for where your sports bra (if you wear one) meets your sternum, and double-check that in this bottom position, your wrists are stacked over your elbows. Adjust your hands in or out if needed. Aim the bar any higher on your chest and your elbows will flare out too much on the descent, and any lower will draw them in too close.
4) Get Your Flare On During the Ascent.
This last cue is a tiny one, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of advice and it’s regarding the shove off your chest. The bench press is an aggressive lift and while I want you to be in charge and in control of the weight right from the start, it’s all out go-time once you’re ready to press: shove that bar as hard as you can. Like you hate it and can’t wait to get the bar away from you (even though you love it).
Unlike the descent, I do want you to flare your elbows slightly outward on the way up. Pushing them outward as you shove the bar away from you will help get your elbows between your shoulders and the bar faster, making your shove all the more effective. Now that you know what to look for, you can just catch it in my own training video from earlier this year:
There you go! After you give these tweaks a try head back here and tell me all about it in the comments. I want to hear everything.