I don’t enjoy bench pressing. I do it regularly because that’s part of this whole strength athlete deal, and more importantly, I believe in practicing what I preach. I’d rather squat any day, but when it’s time to bench, I find a bench and a bar and get to work. I may even focus more on the bench because I know it’s not my best lift and I want to see it get better, even if it’s not my fave.
When I’m reviewing client videos of their bench press – or scrolling through Instagram – I see some common form mistakes that with small tweaks, will go a long way towards improving the bench press.
But, before we get into how to improve your bench press, let’s talk about the set up. If you set up any lift well from the beginning, you stand a better chance of the actual lift being a success. It’s not just lying on the bench or getting under the bar of the squat rack. Your set up is where the magic happens. You’ll find your own rhythm, but all of these things should happen when you set up to bench press:
Bench Press Set Up
- Lie down on the bench – the bar should be across your eyebrows. Pull yourself under the bar to get into the correct position, then adjust as needed.
- Make sure the J-Hooks are set at an appropriate height – you should be able to take the bar off the rack with minimal liftoff. You don’t want to use up energy just getting the bar into your hands.
- Feet are firmly pressed into the floor – you use the legs in a bench press, too!
- If you’re on the shorter side like me, grab weight plates or foam blocks to create that flat foot action.
- Grab the bar wider than your shoulders
- Play with where you like your hands; Use the knurling (the “bumpy” part of the bar) as your guide; I like my grip about two thumbs’ distance from the knurling; Some people like it closer, some wider.
- Roll the bar to the front of the J-hooks.
- Engage your back and chest – squeeze your shoulders together and down, bringing the chest up.
- Engage your glutes and feel the feet pressing into the floor.
- Take a breath, hold the air, and bench.
A couple more things – always have a spotter, or at least have someone nearby that can help in the event of a failed lift, particularly when going heavy. You don’t want to get pinned under the bar! You can also ask someone for a “liftoff” if the j-hooks are at an awkward height and/or the weight is heavy. You will get set up the same way, but the only difference will be someone helping you unrack the bar. I like to get under the bar and get mostly set, count down from three, and have my spotter help me lift off at one.
Now, let’s talk about how to improve your bench press.
Perhaps the most common mistake I see in benching is rushing the bar off the hooks. People grab the bar, lift it out of the hooks, bang out their reps, and put it back, all in one motion. You can usually get away with this when the bar is light, but when the weight starts to creep up, it gets harder to pull this off. Get set under the bar, roll the bar to the front of the hooks, engage and squeeze all the right muscles, lift the bar off the hooks, pause to take a breath and give those shoulders one last squeeze. Then, bench. Consider this part of that good set up I talked about.
Watch Your Wrists
I also see a lot of “broken wrists.” I’m personally famous for this one and have spent a lot of time correcting it. By “broken wrists” I mean letting your wrists bend, typically backward, but once in a while, I see them bend forward.
Think of your arms as a lever. When the hand is wrapped around the bar and you’re going through your reps, your lever is the strongest when the wrist is straight. The bar travels a clean path. When your wrist “breaks,” you lose some of your strength and the bar path is no longer a clean line. It’s harder to press off the chest when the wrists are bending towards or away from you and you’re pushing up at an angle (even if it’s just slight) than when they’re nice and straight and strong.
Bonus Tip. While wrist wraps helped me, I didn’t want to rely on them to keep my wrists straight, especially as I need strong wrists in other lifts, like the clean-and-jerk. One trick that improved my wrist position is benching with a low tension loop band around my wrists. The mechanics of it worked together to keep the flexion out of my wrists and I saw a world of difference. I do still wear wraps, especially on heavy days, but can bench without them without too much breaking.
A good way I’ve found to check wrist position is where the bar lands on the descent. It should hit at your bra line. If it’s hitting higher on the chest, your wrists could be bending back. Lower, they could be bending forward. Of course, there are other reasons the bar path could be off, including a poor set up off the rack, but this is one consideration.
Check out my girl Annie’s recent post on wrist position on the bench press – she’s got some great demos on this!
When you first take the bar off the rack (and pause before benching!) get your chest up. Engage your back and chest by squeezing your shoulder blades together. I recommend trying this with an empty barbell to see the difference. Bench one rep without engaging the chest. Bench another with the shoulders squeezed down and the chest and back fully engaged. You should feel the difference immediately. When your chest is up, you’re able to use those bigger back muscles. As my former coach likes to say, we don’t work those back muscles for nothing!
Squeeze The Bar
Don’t let the bar casually rest in your hands. Squeeze it. A good squeeze on the bar will create intramuscular tension and further activate the muscles of the arms, rotator cuffs, shoulders, upper back, and traps. I’ve found squeezing the bar really gets my triceps to fire. Triceps may not be very big muscles, but they can contribute a lot to the bench press when asked to step up to the plate a little more. More tension gives you more control of the bar, and a better chance of lifting heavier.
I bet you’re not thinking about your breathing when you’re lifting weights, are you? Don’t worry – most people don’t, at least not at first. But, breathing is a big deal (obviously) and the right breathing pattern will help your bench. If you google breathing patterns for benching, you’ll find a few arguments out there. My personal preference – and what I’ve seen coached in other places as well – is to inhale at the top of the lift, then hold that breath through the full rep, exhaling at the top of the press. I then either go for another rep or pause, inhale, and go again. There’s an intricate science behind breathing, intra-abdominal pressure, and generation of force that some of the elite powerlifters subscribe to, but if you’re simply benching a few sets at the gym and not working towards a heavy single, inhaling, lowering the bar, then exhaling at the top of the ascent will suffice.
How else can you improve your bench?
Just benching – even with correct form – will only get you strength gains to a point. You also need to put in time with accessory work. Exercises like chest press, lateral pulldowns, and cable rows will help. I also recommend focusing on building the triceps. Tricep dips, ring dips, and dumbbell rollbacks are a few of my favorites.
But one of the best – and maybe simplest – exercises you can do to improve your bench press (as well as your strict press, pull-ups…) are old school push ups. We recently did a push up challenge at my CrossFit – 50 push ups a day for two weeks. I did five sets of ten every day. You could do all 50 at once, 5 reps throughout the day until you hit 50, whatever works. After the push up challenge, I PR’d my bench press for the first time in months. I’ve also gone from being able to do no pull-ups in March to being able to knock out several (although still not strict – we’re getting there!) in a row.
Got questions about your bench press? Ask away! You can also send or tag me in a video of your bench for a form check. I love this stuff, and I’m happy to peep your press and give some form feedback! I’m @SarahWyland on Instagram!