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