Step-by-Step Bench Pressing

If you’ve been in the iron game for any period of time, you’ve probably been asked the following question:

“Hey bro (or broski, or brosef) – how much ya bench?”

We can argue about the efficacy of bench pressing ‘til we’re blue in the face.  While I’m apt to say that a big squat or deadlift is a more impressive feat of strength, the fact of the matter is people are obsessed with improving their bench press.

I, personally, am not the world’s greatest bench presser.  My best bench press in competition was 335 pounds at a body weight of 198.  Before you discount my post because I’m not the strongest bench presser in the world, think about this.

Magic Johnson was arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  But when it came to coaching, he left a lot to be desired. On the other hand, more mediocre players like Jeff Van Gundy or Phil Jackson turned out to be great coaches.

I’d like to think that my personal struggles with the bench press have made me a better coach.  I’ve read and tried just about everything in an effort to bring up my numbers.

I’m no Magic Johnson (or Jeff Van Gundy, or Phil Jackson), but I’m hoping this post will help take your pressing to the next level.

Below is a step-by-step guide to bench pressing in the safest and most effective manner.  Keep in mind, though, that this is a guide to benching the heaviest weights possible – not trying to sculpt, pump or tone your pecs.  If your goals are more aesthetic in nature, this article may not be as applicable for you.

Finally, there are inherent risks with lifting heavy things, and I just want that to be clear before moving forward.

Clear?

Good – now let’s talking about pressing the heavy iron.

Step #1 – The Initial Set-up

The first thing we need to do is work on your initial set-up and body position. Set-up with your feet on top of the bench and grab either the top of the bench, the bar, or the supports of the bench with your hands.

Initial Set-up

Step #2 – “Walk” Up the Bench

The next thing we need to do is set your feet. With your feet on the bench, use your arms to pull your torso up so that your weight is on your upper back. Now, try to “walk” your feet back towards your hips.  This helps me set the arch in my upper and lower back, and set-up high on my upper traps (more on this later).

You should feel an immediate increase in tension in your upper back after doing this.

"Walking" Your Feet Up the Bench

Step #3 – Set Your Feet

The next step in our set-up is to figure out where to place your feet.  The real key here is to find that position where you feel the most stable.

I’ve provided three different positions below; feet way out in front, feet moderately tucked and flat on the floor, and feet really tucked and heels off the floor.

Setting Your Feet - Feet in Front
Setting Your Feet - Feet Moderately Tucked
Setting Your Feet - Feet Really Tucked, on Toes

Keep in mind that if you are going to compete, you need to make sure that your set-up is in-line with what is acceptable in your lifting federation. Most federations require that your feet be flat on the floor, so the third option may not be acceptable.

Step #4 – Push your body BACK

Once your legs and feet are in position, think about pushing your entire body BACK towards the supports so that your eyes are underneath the bar.  This simple tip should really ramp up the upper back and leg tension, along with getting your body into an optimal starting position.

If your eyes are out in front of the bar, it’s going to make for a rough hand-off. You’ll end up having to pull into place to get it into the right starting position.

If your eyes are too far behind the bar (which you see all the time at the local big-box gym), you’re going to risk pressing back into the racks and screwing up your groove.

Step #5 – Dialing in the Upper Back

Once your eyes are underneath the bar, it’s time to really dial in your upper back position.  This could be the key to benching bigger weights, so don’t slack off here!

Begin by ensuring you’re set-up high on top of your traps (the big muscles on top of your shoulders).  If you set-up high on your traps, you’ll not only increase the extension through your upper back, but decrease the range of motion you have to press the bar.

This is basic physics here:  Work equals force times distance.  I’m lazy and prefer to do as little work as possible.  You might not be able to reduce the force, but you can definitely reduce the distance that you move that bar!

Bottom Line? Less work = Heavier weights

Now, think about pulling your shoulder blades back and down as hard as you can.  Again, stability is the name of the game – the tighter and more stable your set-up, the more weight you’re going to move.  So set-up with those shoulder blades pinched back and down and don’t let them move!

Step #6 – Ridiculous Leg and Hip Tension

Your legs should already be tight at this point in time, but go ahead and make them a bit tighter.  I always think about driving my feet down into the ground as hard as possible to really get my legs tight and ready to press.

Now your upper back and legs are tight, it’s time to get your hips tight. The easiest way to do this is to think about squeezing your glutes like you’re doing a glute bridge or hip thrust.  If your feet are out a bit wider, it may help to think about pushing your knees out to the sides as well, just like you would when you squat.

Once your upper back, legs and glutes are all tight, you’re locked-in and ready to press maximum weights.

Step #7 – Gripping the bar

When gripping the bar, one of the most common mistakes I see in beginners is not gripping the bar evenly. 

Always use the smooth rings as a guide! For most newbies we’ll start them off with their pinkies on the rings and adjust from there.

When it comes to biomechanics, you guys know I’m all for reducing work.  With regards to benching, this would equate to a wider grip – after all, a wider grip would reduce the bench press stroke, making for less work.

And while this is normally true, you have to let common sense prevail. Going too wide makes us more unstable.  I tried for years to use a max grip width (index fingers on the rings), with little to no progress.  Once I slowly started moving my grip width in, I saw an immediate improvement in my numbers.

When you move that grip in even a little bit, you’re essentially trading more range of motion for more stability. Move the hands in and you’re more stable, but you have to move the bar a bit farther. Move the hands out and you’re less stable, but you don’t have to move the bar as far.

I tell people to find a comfortable grip width where they feel the most stable and work with that.  If we need to tweak things down the line, we can always do that.

Step #8 – Big breath, get tight!

Let me make one thing brutally clear here – moving big weights is not Yoga or Pilates.  I ‘m not focused on “proper breathing patterns,” “inhaling on the eccentric, exhaling on the concentric,” or any of that other nonsense.

(Side Note: I’m not discounting the value of Yoga or Pilates; they have a place.  But this article is about moving heavy weights, and breathing isn’t always a part of lifting heavy weights. Keep the hate mail to a minimum, please.)

When you’re lifting heavy iron, you need to take a big breath and lock your body down.  Again, stability is the name of the game.  And I hope this goes without saying, but if you have blood pressure problems, check with your doctor before taking these methods for a test drive.

Take a big, deep, belly breath and make sure everything is still tight – upper back, legs, hips, everything.  You should feel like every muscle in your body is flexed.

Tight?

Ready?

Awesome – let’s bench!

Step #9 – “Pull” the bar out of the racks

The hand-off could be one of the most critical components of the bench press.  While we’ll briefly cover it here, be on the lookout for a full article on the topic in the near future.

Once your whole body is set, a good hand-off is integral.  In a perfect world, your hand-off guy lifts the bar just high enough to clear the rack, but no higher! He shouldn’t be doing an upright row with the weight; he should be gliding it out to you in the straightest line possible.

"Pull" The Bar Out of the Racks

On your end, you should not be pushing up on the weight! All you have to do is clear the racks – you do not have to press up and out! Failure to heed this advice will result in an immediate loss of stability through your upper back.

Instead, think about using your lats to “pull” the bar out of the racks.  If you’ve ever done a pullover before, it’s the same feeling.  Use your lats to pull the bar out of the racks and into the appropriate starting position.

This simple step can make or break a max effort bench – be sure to do it right!

Step #10 – Set the bar where you want it to finish

Step 9 and 10 work together – as you’re pulling the bar out, make sure to set the bar where you want it to finish. This may require a bit of coaching for your hand-off guy as well – many will have a tendency to clear the racks and then just let go of the bar.

I actually had this happen to me in a powerlifting meet several years ago.  Not only did the guy jerk the weight up and out of the racks, but then he just let go with the weight right over my face!

If the bar is too low (towards your belly) or too high (towards your face) it’s going to make for an awkward and inefficient line of movement.

I like to set the bar  above my lower chest, just below the nipple-line.  This allows me to tuck, stay tight, and minimize my range of motion.

Setting the Bar

Step #11 – Tuck!

Once the bar is in position, it’s time to actually move the weight.  Finally!

Initiate the motion by “pulling” the bar down.  For years I tried to control the weight with my pecs and triceps, versus pulling the bar down with my lats.  Now I’m not only more stable, but have better bar control as well.

As you’re pulling, tuck your elbows as well.  If the elbows flare on the way down, you’re in big trouble. You want to start using your triceps to bench, not just your pecs and anterior delts.

Think of this as you would any back exercise – tuck the elbows and pull the bar down to your chest.

Two other quick tips to help you out:

1 – Maintain your bar speed!

This isn’t a 10 second eccentric! If you’re trying to move max weights, think about a fast but controlled eccentric motion. Too often when the weights get heavy, the eccentric (or lowering) portion of the lift slows way down. Don’t let this happen to you!

2 – Keep the knuckles pointed upwards.

As many people lower the bar and get close to their chest, you see the bar rolling backwards in their hands.  Instead of keeping a strong wrist and their knuckles pointed upwards, their wrist gets bent back. This can not only  irritate your wrist (DUH!), but it’s an energy leak and will decrease your poundages as well.Maintain a strong, neutral wrist throughout by focusing on pointing your knuckles towards the ceiling.

Elbows Tucked, Knuckles Up

Step #12 – Drive!

You’ve lowered the bar down to your chest, now there’s only one thing left to do…

Push it back up!

One of the biggest issues you’ll see when benching is flaring the elbows and pushing back too soon. Keep the elbows tucked and initiate by driving straight back up.  As the bar starts to slow down a bit, let the elbows flare a bit and push slightly back towards your face.

If you read all of that, you’re definitely a trooper.  Let’s recap here quickly with bullet points:

  1. Grab the bar, the bench, or the supports and set your feet on top of the bench.
  2. “Walk” your feet up the bench.
  3. Set your feet in one of the three positions outlined (in front, moderately tucked, or extreme).
  4. Push your body back, eyes underneath the bar.
  5. Dial in your upper back – shoulder blades back/down.
  6. Get your hips and legs as tight as you can.
  7. Set your hands – wider for less range of motion, narrower for more stability.
  8. Take a big breath and get tight!
  9. “Pull” the bar out of the racks – use your lats and don’t push up on the bar!
  10. Set the bar where you want it to finish.
  11. Tuck the elbows and pull the bar down.
  12. Drive the bar back up.

Random Tips and Tricks

Now that you have a firm grasp of what good technique looks and feels like, here are a few more ideas to really help your bench take off.

The upper back is critical!

Every super-strong bench presser I know has a ridiculous upper back. Don’t neglect your big, heavy back movements like chinning, rowing, etc.  This article should help in that regard.

Lift Heavy Things!

Even if you have no desire to compete in a powerlifting meet in powerlifting gear, heavy assistance work like board presses, reverse band bench presses and the like can still be used with great success.  Getting confident with really heavy weights in your hands simply can’t be duplicated.

Summary

There you have it – 12 steps to help ensure bench press success.

Anything I’ve forgotten? Or follow-up questions you might have? Leave them in the comments section below!

As well, if you know someone that’s struggling with their bench, please forward the link on and help spread the word.  I appreciate it!

Stay strong

MR

(Many thanks to my good friend and IFAST client Steve (aka Little Stevie) Gabrielsen, who allowed me to use him as my model for this post.  Good luck next week buddy!)

37 Comments

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  1. Great article on the often ignored technical aspects of how to do what I consider the most complicated lift there is – even moreso than the oly lifts – correctly.

    But the article underscores exactly why I ditched the lift over 6 months ago and haven’t looked back…10 steps before you have even initiated a rep! Does anyone else find this a bit ridiculous? The set-up takes more time than an entire set does more often than not!

    Now obviously if you intend to, or currently compete in powerlifting, bench your heart out – your success depends on it.

    But for the average client, and even athletes – I just no longer see the application. IMO the push-up in superior in just about every aspect for reasons already mentioned here and many other places.

    As you said, we can argue the efficacy of the lift until and beyond we are blue in the face. In the end people are going to do what they are going to do, might as well show them how to do it correctly and with the least chance of injury.

  2. Great Post Mike! I was intrigued by the bench since the age of 13 when I was asked the famous question. “Hey little guy, How much do you bench?” It took critically examining every part of my bench to be able to finally bench 370 at a weight of 175. I was not interested in gaining much weight as I was playing defensive back at the time. Increasing my back strength and deloading were the strategies that made the biggest difference for me.

  3. This got submitted to Fitmarker so I had to drop by and say, it’s a truly kick-ass bench guide. Looks like you didn’t leave a single thing out from what I can tell… I’m a fan of completeness. Looking forward to seeing more of you work.

  4. I can’t fathom ditching one of the best movements around for size and strength because it takes a few extra seconds to set up than it does for other exercises. Push-Ups are, of course, a great assistance movement.

    • I’m not surprised. It’s a sacred cow of sorts. I , too, took a long time to let it go.

      “Best” is always a subjective term. It would depend on your goals. As I said, if you are a powerlifter, and perhaps a bodybuilder – then I can see the use. But even some bodybuilders argue it isn’t necessarily the greastest exercise for pec development and will prefer certain isolation excercises instead.

      Plenty of guys have built impressive, large, and strong physiques long before the bench press was around. You would be hard pressed to not build an impressive physique with a steady diet of weighted pull-ups/chins/dips, MP’s, DL’s, squats, and push-ups. Oddly enough , I have had more guys comment on how much I must bench after I stopped.

      I also choose to not view push-ups as only an assistance exercise, as they can be loaded in many ways. Hell, at least 75% of the injury-free grown men that come in here can’t do a single bodyweight push-up off the floor in good form. We haven’t even gotten to elevating the feet, incorporating jump stretch bands and/or chains, plyometrics, weighted vests, un-even push-ups, etc. etc. So again it depends on the population you are working with and their goals and orthopedic history.

      And for me from a coach/trainer standpoint, it takes much less time to coach up a person on a good push-up than it does to get them benching correctly. Your are talking 5 minutes, to maybe 5 sessions – so the cost/benefit comes into play for me there.

      But that’s why I am glad Mike did a post to at least address the proper way of doing it, as I bang my head daily in the facility I work watching people butcher it and many other lifts.

  5. Great post, Russ. There’s definitely more than one path to the waterfall.

    I’m not a bodybuilder or powerlifter, just someone who likes to train to get strong.
    I also love loading push-ups with chains, bands, sandbags, plates, and whatever else I can find. You’re right, so many people butcher the Bench, it’s nice to see Mike go through the technical aspects in an extremely detailed way.

  6. It’s amazing how this exercise promotes such an emotional response, the best looking bodies generally don’t have that heavy chest look. I suppose if your comfortable with your body being big and heavy and very anterior chain dominated it’s fine. The guy in the pictures typifies a heavy bencher to me, blocky, and dense a physique out of time. As some of the comments state the movement is complicated, productive, too a point but can easily bite you on the ass and destroy you shoulders and shape. I spent most of my formative years benching and the tweeks, squeaks, pops and tight anterior chain testify to this. Training offers so much more now the TRX push up is powerful and add a weight vest on single leg etc and that’s bang for buck, global movements are the future. If you want the droopy chest of the bodybuilder or powerlifter, Moobs by any other name stick to the “King of Exercises” , if not think bigger and create the total physique.

    • Peter –

      I’m really struggling with your post – a big part of me wants to delete it, because I feel like you’re pushing your thoughts and views on others.

      Perhaps more importantly, you’re being disrespectful to a large portion of my readers.

      The guy in the picture IS a powerlifter – and he’s damn proud of it. More importantly, he’s a great kid and one of my best friends.

      This guy busts his ass in the gym to get as strong as he can. He’s not on here telling people how to train, or how their physique should look.

      I would recommend if you’re going to continue posting to be more cognizant of the other people who read this site, and try to be a little bit more accepting.

      Saying someone has moobs or a droopy chest isn’t the best way to develop an adoring fan base.

      Best
      MR

    • I am the guy in the picture. The fact of the matter is. Don’t judge a books by it’s cover. I am not a bench person. Any day of the week I would rather squat or deadlift. What you fail to realize is, that if you saw me. I am definitely not what you would call have a “benchers” physique.

      You won’t meet another person in this world that is more comfortable with being how big they are. I take pride in my huge bone structure and being as big as I am. You can say I have moobs, you can say whatever you want. You can call it whatever you want to call it but that fact is, I lost over 40lbs of fat in the past 2 years and have changed my body comp dramatically. I’ve worked my ass off. So to say things like you are is not only hurtful but insulting to me and all the hard work I have done.

  7. Good article. I’m not sold on the squeeze shoulder blades as tight as you can. I used to do that, but now a nice arch with upper traps on the bench seems to do well without the possibility of disrupting my humeroscapular rhythm.

    Keep them coming Mike.

    • Andrew –

      Talk to just about any big bench presser and they’ll tell you this is important.

      While you want your scaps to move during a push-up, you want them tucked and stable during a bench press. Allowing your scapulae to move around while benching heavy weights is a sure-fire way to get yourself injured.

      MR

    • Mike,

      I can’t speak for Andrew, but he may be trying to say you can also squeeze too much to the point where it makes everything that follows a mess. Just as you could over-arch etc. There is a continuum – and it is best to find your individual sweet spot.

      Thoughts?

    • If you ask any big bencher, I think they would agree that upper back stability is critical. Not sure that you can be too stable.

      MR

    • Yeah, these posts take a while – which is why I struggle getting more than 1-2 pieces of content out each week 🙂

      MR

  8. Mike, great article. The only thing I would add is to do a simultaneous hip drive as you explode the bar off your chest.

    All the best,

    Adam

  9. Mike I must apologise this was not meant as a personal slight against your friend and his commitment to his sport. I do appreciate the time and effort you put into your articles and was only expressing an opinion upon the exercise not the athlete. My comments were maybe coloured by the thoughts and words of Vince Gironda and how he believed the Bench was a compromised exercise. I will try to be more concise and less frank in future postings.

    • No worries Peter – I understand where you’re coming from, it’s hard to tell people’s “tone” from the Internet some times.

      Thanks for clarifying!

      MR

  10. Every time I try to get my bench up by arching and bringing the bar to the lower chest, my chest feels nothing.

    If you are into bodybuilding, power lifting bench style may not be the best. I guess that’ the trade off.

    Nice article.

  11. Good article Mike. Along with driving with the hips like Adam C. says, squeezing the bar like you want to hurt it also helps. When you talk about having everything tight, you should mean EVERYTHING. Also, when taking the bar from the handoff, let it set there for a couple seconds to drive your shoulders into the bench before starting the eccentric phase. This also makes for a slightly shorter lift which equals less work.

  12. Great info, Mike! I’m going to pass on a tip I learned from an article by Dave Tate. Right after your hand-off, let the bar settle. This will further drive your shoulder blades into the bench, making you even more stable and reducing the distance you have to push the bar. This will also assure you don’t jump the “Start” command if you’re in a meet.

  13. This is really great information Mike.

    I was re-taught how to bench last January by a top coach who trained at Westside BB and your article reinforces what I learnt, so I’m happy.

    Thanks

  14. Mike,

    Thank you for this article. The description of tucking the elbows and using the lats on the eccentric makes so much sense when comparing it to back movements. I’ve trained people who tend to flare their elbows and I think a great cue now will be to tell them to think about their positioning in the bent row. Everyone seems to naturally tuck their elbows nicely in a bent row, which when turned upside down becomes an ideal bench position.

    Tom

  15. Hey Mike

    Thanks for the article, I was just wondering if we arent trying to lift for max weight on the bench press in addition to changing our breathing pattern would we want to perhaps eliminate our lumbar lordosis and lock our ribcage down if their ROM allows to engage more proper core activity. We obviously wouldnt be able to lift even close to as much, but from a health and injury standpoint for training bench press with non-powerlifters what would your recommended changes for total body position on pressing movements.
    Thanks for all the great info

  16. Thanks for the article, Mike! Keep writing great stuff!

    One of the lines caught my interest, because I don’t fully grasp it yet. It was this:

    “Keep the knuckles pointed upwards.

    … Instead of keeping a strong wrist and their knuckles pointed upwards, their wrist gets bent back. This can not only irritate your wrist (DUH!), but it’s an energy leak and will decrease your poundages as well.”

    Why is it bad from energy standpoint to extend wrists? Maybe you could address this from anatomy&mechanics standpoint if you have some time.

    • One the issue with extending the wrists is that you create another lever you have to work against, which takes energy and is hard on those smaller structures. You’d rather position the bar more directly over forearm; not only does this reduce an unnecessary lever, but it creates a more solid-feeling connection to the bar and the upward drive is more effective.

  17. Mike,

    First of all, I’m a big fan of yours. I especially like the Two Month program you published back in 2011.
    A very helpful post – thanks. I often try to help young lifters with their form and technique on bench as almost none of them do it correctly and therefore fall far short of what they are capable. It’s good to be able to direct them to this so they can see it step-by-step. I also really emphasize having the lifter flex their lats as that seems to help them get the idea of overall core tightness. One suggestion I would have for the sequence of photos that you have is that although in steps 1-8 you emphasize getting the feet back and in position for good leg drive, this suddenly falls apart in the photos for step 9 and onward where the feet are back way out in front in exactly the position the lifter shouldn’t have them. I know this is an older post, and you might have already heard this before. If so, I apologize. However, I thought it might be confusing for lifters trying to follow the sequence of events in the photos.
    Keep up the good work,
    -Edwin

  18. Thanks for all the great info on your site, I am new to it and loving all the info and am now realizing how clueless I was about weight training and what a science it has become.

    Question, I work out alone in my home gym and bench in a power rack where I am forced to press the weight up out of the hooks for my own liftoff, any advice for best way to do this and maintain ideal form?

    Thanks,
    Jon M. (Sorry if I posted twice, first one did not seem to work).

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