A Beginner’s Guide to the Bench-Press
The bench press is notorious for building upper body strength. Your chest, shoulders and triceps in particular will see gains in size and strength from benching.
For a beginner, however, just entering the weight room for the first time can definitely seem scary. And even if you’re not a newbie, the “gym anxiety” can be all too real. At CA, our fitness team believes lifting should be empowering, rather than intimidating.
To help you safely increase your strength (and confidence) with this class chest-builder, CA personal trainer Keith Oelschlaeger shared his best tips for proper form!
Proper bench press set-up
According to Oelschlaeger, the objective of the bench press is straightforward. Basically, it involves lying down on a bench and pressing a weight upwards. Strong bench=strong upper body!
Mastering the bench press is great for beginners because it translates over to other movements and equipment, such as an incline bench, push-up and press machine.
The first thing to focus on is your set-up, because it’s critical to your safety and effiency. Without a strong foundation, you won’t be able to get the most out of your benching efforts, and may even put yourself at the risk of injury.
Before we get a little more technical, here’s a basic overview:
- Lie flat on your back on the bench.
- Grip the bar tight, with your thumbs around the bar. Grip widths vary because we all have different bodies, but you’ll generally want the hands just wider than shoulder-width apart with your pinkies on the rings.
- Make sure your eyes are positioned directly underneath the bar.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades back and down. This elevates your sternum and protects your shoulders.
- Find your leg positioning. Just like with grip, our leg positions vary. The standard is to tuck your heels beneath or behind your knees, so pull your feet in and slightly out to keep your heels down on the ground.
- Now, everything is locked in and you have a sturdy base of support. Time to take a deep breath!
- With the help of a spotter, unrack the bar with a tight squeeze.
- On your inhale, bring the bar slowly down to your chest with control. On your exhale, push up. There you have it…one full rep complete!
When it comes to injury prevention, Oelschlaeger emphasized that step #4 is extremely important.
“If your shoulder blades are relaxed while pressing, it creates a compensation. The intent is to get stronger, so you want to stabilize your shoulders as best as you can,” he says. “When your shoulder blades retract and press firmly down into the bench, you have a great foundation and less wear and tear on the shoulders.”
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Common bench press errors
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive a little deeper to fine-tune your form. Below, Oelschlaeger shares the most common mistakes he sees in the weight room.
1- Ego lifting
Let’s be real: Prevention is so much easier than the cure! Don’t let your ego sway you into lifting more than you can handle. Commit to learning the fundamentals so you can stay safe and prevent injury in the long run. Always lighten your load if the weight compromises your form.
2- Hips coming off the bench
It takes a conscious effort to keep the hips flush to the bench, but doing so is integral to keeping your lower back safe. If you’re having trouble, change your foot positioning. For those above 6’3”, this will require even more self-discipline.
3- Lack of control
This issue can be traced back to mistake #1. Be careful not to lift so much weight that you’re bouncing the bar instead of moving with control the entire time.
4- Uneven grip
Oelschlaeger most often sees this mistake when people rush. Take your time so that everything is safe, even and balanced. Be consistent with your grip width so you can accurately measure your progress.
5- Not setting the shoulder blades
Imagine pushing your shoulder blades into your back pockets to stabilize them.
6- Moving the feet
The feet should remain anchored to the ground throughout your lift. Push through them to create tension in your hamstrings and glutes. While you may see the pros bench with their heels off the ground for competition purposes, beginners should definitely start with their heels on the ground.
Final tips for beginners
If you’re an absolute beginner, Oelschlaeger advises preparing for the bench press with pushups and then practicing a dumbbell press. The bench press requires strong lats, so these movements help build that strength.
One you feel ready to bench press, Oelschlaeger advises beginners to try five to eight sets of three reps each. That way, you can really zero in on your form and focus on a few reps at a time. In between your sets, get some water, relax or do some dynamic stretching.
As you progress and become proficient, you may feel a cramp in your middle lat. This is completely normal, and shows that the technique is effectively teaching you to use your lats.
“Just rack the bar and let it subside if this happens,” he says. “You can also sit on the edge of the bench and reach under both legs to get a stretch!”
Finally, it’s also essential for beginners to enlist a spotter. It’s not a sign of weakness; the whole point of a spot is to have an extra layer of safety. Plus, they can help make sure you’re not sacrificing form or technique.
Communication is the key to a successful spot, so first tell the spotter if you prefer help with the lift-off (it’s just a matter of preference) and how many reps you’re attempting to do. Then, the spotter should stand behind the bench. If you want help with the lift-off, they’ll take an over-under grip with their hands inside of yours. Then, if something goes awry, they’ll be right there to quickly react.
Maximize your bench press with personal training
CA has more than 30+ skilled personal trainers that can help you pick up barbells for the first time and achieve your fitness goals. The ultimate goal of a personal trainer is to help you grow and become independent so you can feel confident on your own. It can be as short-term or long-term as a commitment as you prefer.