From Dork to Diva: Bench press

The bench press is usually the gold standard of bragging rights, which is ridiculous because first, it’s often done wrong, and second, it can’t hold a candle to squats for difficulty. Still, you hear lots of gym goofballs yabbering about how much they can bench. Like most gym boasts, very few can back it up with good solid form.

This is the basic flat bench barbell press. It has many variations. It can be done with dumbbells, or using a swiss ball instead of a bench, or with the bench set at an incline. You can even press one hand at a time with dumbbells, twisting the torso slightly like a punch.

Each variation changes the exercise slightly so that different muscles are recruited in different ways. For example,  the closer to vertical the press is (think overhead press), the more the shoulders are involved.  Thus the incline press involves the shoulder muscles more than the flat press. The closer the elbows are held to the body, the more the triceps are involved. Thus a close grip press, with elbows tucked close to the ribcage, will involve the triceps more.  For grappling, I’ll even use a variation where I press a heavy punching bag off of me, to simulate pushing away an opponent who has me on my back and is trying to control my side.

All presses have a risk of shoulder injury in susceptible people.  However, I (and others) consider the flat barbell bench press to carry a relatively higher risk of shoulder damage relative to some of the variations. In part this is because the scapulae (shoulder blades) are fixed against the bench as your body presses down on them. Unlike dumbbells, a barbell doesn’t allow much individual movement from each arm, although a machine is worse as it may force you into an arc or even a straight line that may not be right for your unique structure.

No need to be scared of it, just be aware, be careful, and be mindful of any pain that emerges. Don’t keep pressing through it. And be aware that a potential danger of this lift is that you must exert the most force while your shoulder joint is in a stretched position, so keep things tight at the bottom of the lift and don’t allow the supporting “structure” to collapse or go floppy.

If you want to start with something gentler that involves a similar type of pressing movement, check out my article on pushups.


bad bench pressIn this pic I’m doing several things wrong.

  • My feet are on the bench (a temptation for those of us with short legs).
  • My back is arched off the bench (which presses my head into the bench, likely causing me to tense my neck muscles and give myself a helluva headache).
  • The bar is about to strangle me, it’s up so high.

People will often try to get extra leverage by bouncing the bar off their sternum at the bottom. That works great, until your ribcage cracks in half.

The only thing I’m missing is a buddy standing over me, hauling the bar off me with all her strength while screaming, “It’s all you, man!!”

You think this looks ridiculous? I’ve seen it, and worse!


In this series of shots, it looks as though the bar is traveling in a straight up-and-down line. In fact, the actual path of the bar looks more like an upside-down rounded J. The bar travels up and very slightly backwards in an arc, beginning over the sternum and moving in a vaguely semicircular path to finish above the head/neck.

bench press
Here is the starting position of your bench press. Notice that I have made sure in advance that my pins are at the lowest setting, so I don’t get the surprise of realizing that they’re too high and I can’t re-rack the bar.

My feet are off the bench (this bench has little rails for us stumpy chicks, but if the bench at your gym doesn’t have them, just put a plate or two on the floor underneath your feet, or one of those Reebok steps… after all what else would you use those things for?). Place your feet at a level where they’re lower than your hips, but not so low that you’re arching your lower back excessively. If you find you don’t have the hip flexor flexibility to put your feet on the floor, work on stretching those muscles.

My elbows are not locked, and the bar is approximately over my collarbone. My grip is fairly wide, to maximize recruitment of the pecs. The narrower your grip, the more you rely on shoulder and tricep strength to push the bar up.

This second pic shows the middle of the ascent or descent. I prefer to bring the bar to my sternum (mid-chest) since bringing it higher on my chest, closer to the collarbone, irritates my shoulder. My elbows are almost at right angles to my body. Find an angle that’s comfortable for you… to hit the pecs most effectively, bring the elbows as close to 90 degrees as you can, and to bring in more tricep and shoulder involvement, tuck them in a little closer, at maybe a 75 degree angle. Be aware that flaring the elbows out puts you at a higher risk of shoulder injury, so choose what feels best to you.
This final pic shows the bottom of the rep. The bar is brought right down to the chest, without bouncing it off my ribcage (watch for how many people give the bar a little extra push by smashing it into their sternum… you can bide your time till they crush their internal organs, and then laugh as you dial for the ambulance). Keep everything tight and resist the urge to relax the upper body when the bar is on or near the chest. Once you relax, you lose the residual elastic energy in the tissues, and that bar ain’t going anywhere. Keeping things tight will help you drive the bar up more effectively. In this bottom position, squeeze your shoulder blades together and push your chest up slightly. Then begin the bar’s ascent.