Setting Up for a Big Bench Press

bench-pressEvery Monday around 5 pm, gyms across America are inundated with the following question:

“Yo bro – how much ya bench?”

It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. And at least if all the bros are benching, we can have the squat rack or the deadlift platform!

All jokes aside, I know that people love to bench. And over the years, I can’t say I’ve necessarily come to love the bench press, but I definitely respect it.

If your goal is to bench big, there are certain things you must do when setting up to make yourself more efficient. In this article, I’ll do my best to give you a step-by-step guide to improving and dialing in your set-up.

But First, A Disclaimer…

The article below is a great guide on how to bench for raw lifters or athletes.

If you’re a powerlifter who wears a powerlifting shirt, this will not apply.

This is also not a great article if your goal is to arch as much as humanly possible. While there are ways to make this safer, again, this is not the route I’m going with this article.

(I also cover this more in my Bench Press and Step-by-Step Bench Pressing articles, so refer to those if your goal is to push the limits of competition benching).

The goal here is to get you set-up properly for a big bench, yet still more moderate in nature than competition bench pressing.

And with that out of the way, let’s get into it!

Setting up to Bench

Bench Set-up Tip #1 – Lie on your back with proper alignment

The first step to benching big is to get your body aligned properly. That not only means taking stress off your back, but making your sure your head and torso are in the right position.

One of the big issues you see with newbie lifters is that they start with their head either too far back or too far forward relative to the bar.

If your head is too far back, you’ll inevitably fatigue at some point and end up pressing back into the racks.

No bueno.

On the other hand, if your head is too far away, it’s going to make getting the bar out uber awkward. Either your hand-off guy is going to kill himself getting the bar out to you, or you’re going to be doing the equivalent of a barbell pullover to get the bar into position.

To fix this, set-up by placing your eyes directly underneath the bar when setting up. This will ensure you’re in a great position to not only unrack the bar, but rack it easily upon completion of the set.

You’ll also want to make sure your feet are set-up appropriately. If you have shorter legs (or the bench is too high, wink wink), consider putting plates underneath your feet.

This will reduce any excessive curvature in the lumbar spine, which will make the lift more comfortable.

Bench Set-up Tip #2 – Proper arm placements

The next step is grabbing the bar at the appropriate width. For most raw bench pressers, I like to see a moderate grip width.

Going to narrow is a sure-fire way to blow up your wrists, and extremely wide benching should be left to those with bulletproof shoulders, or someone who is using a bench press shirt for added support.

A good general rule while lying on your back is to set your arms and shoulders to a 90-degree angle relative to your body, and then simply press the arms up to reach the bar.

It sounds incredibly easy, but this is a sure-fire way to not only set your arms at the same position each time, but to find a position that’s shoulder friendly as well.

Bench Set-up Tip #3 – Grab the bar correctly!

Too often, people grab the bar very close to the base of pointer finger. This makes for a long lever at the hand and wrist, and if you’re rocking 6’3/4″ wrists like yours truly, you need to do whatever you can to get the bar in a better position!

Instead, grab the bar as close to the base of your thumb as possible. The term I like to use is getting the bar “deep” to your thumb.

The closer your can get the bar to the base of your thumb, the more in-line the bar is with your forearm, and the more control you’ll have over your wrist joint.

Bench Set-up Tip #4 – Screw the shoulder blades into place

The next step in our set-up is to get the shoulder blades/scapulae set. If these guys are flailing around all the time, there’s no way you’re going to be stable and maximize your pressing performance.

With the bar deep to your thumb, think about “screwing” your shoulder blades and arms back and down.

If you’re having a hard time visualizing this, follow along:

  • Lift your right arm out in front of your body like you’re going to bench. The palm should be down.
  • From this position, subtly turn the right hand clockwise, so that your shoulder blade locks down.
  • Once you’ve got the feel on the right side, try doing the same thing on the left side. The only difference is that you will turn your arm counter-clockwise to set it into position.

Screwing the shoulder blades back and down will lock in the upper back, and help you get super stable before pulling the bar out.

Bench Set-up Tip #5 – Exhale and legs tight!

The next step is to dial in your set-up from the core down. To do this, I start by exhaling a bit – not only does this help turn my abs on, but it takes more out of any extreme arching I may have through my lower back.

(Personal aside: When powerlifting I used to arch so hard when I was bench pressing that my back would be more sore from a bench workout than it ever was from a squat or deadlift workout.)

Once you’ve exhaled and those abs are turned on, think about actively driving your feet into the ground. Many beginner and even intermediate lifters discount how important the lower body is for benching big weights, so if you want to push some heavy iron you need to be tight and stable from top-to-bottom.

Now you’re 95% of the way there – but this last step is arguably the most crucial.

Bench Set-up Tip #6 – PULL the bar out

The final step is critical. When you’re underneath the bar and everything is tight, the last thing you want to do is lose your shoulder position.

All too often, someone will push the bar up and out of the racks. Doing this allows the shoulder blades to move, and it compromises stability.

The second those shoulders move, you’ve lost your stability for the set.

Instead, think about “pulling” or “dragging” the bar out of the racks using your lats. This will help you keep the shoulder blades back and down, and it will also cue you to “pull” the bar down using your lats when you’re actually bench pressing.

This is a win-win.


Of the three powerlifts, the bench press has always been my nemesis.

The benefit to you, though, is that I’ve spent thousands of hours learning to bench press effectively.

Use the tips above to dial-in your set-up next time you hit the gym. I guarantee dialing in your set-up will unlock your performance, and you may even hit a PR or blow through a sticking point in the process.

Good luck and good training!


(Lead photo courtesy of ISAF Media)


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