The bench press needs almost no introduction.
After all, it’s the one exercise that most guys will be familiar with.
And while squats and deadlifts are great for building whole-body strength, the bench press focuses on the upper body.
It’s easy to learn, can be done by pretty much anyone, and the weight can be incrementally increased by as little as ½ pound each time.
Why? Because using progressively heavier loads is essential if we want to get stronger.
That’s one of the reasons why the barbell is the best strength-training tool there is.
And while bench pressing isn’t difficult, there’s a bit more to it than simply flopping down onto a bench and moving a barbell up and down.
Get the technique right, and your bench press will improve pretty much instantly.
Now that’s the kind of result we like!
Of course, some folks may claim that you shouldn’t bench press because it’s not a “functional exercise”.
So let’s start by tackling that.
Why Bench Press?
First off, what’s a “functional exercise”?
Well, here’s the best definition I’ve come across.
A functional exercise is a normal human movement pattern that can be performed under a scalable and incrementally increasable load
After all, everyone sits down and stands back up again, and we all pick stuff up from the floor.
But bench pressing?
I mean, how often do you have your back to a floor or wall, and push something heavy away with your arms?
Almost never happens, right?
But in spite of that, the bench press is still a really important exercise.
• It uses a lot of muscle mass (chest, shoulders, triceps) to move the weight
• Done right, it also uses muscles throughout the whole body (legs, back, abs) to keep the trunk braced
• Because it uses a lot of muscle mass, we can use heavier weights
• Thanks to that, we can keep getting our bench press stronger for many months and years
• A stronger bench press translates to a stronger standing press (itself a functional exercise)
The bottom line is if you want to build incredible upper-body strength, the bench press is your friend.
So let’s figure out how to do it.
How to Bench Press
1. Lie face up on a bench, with your eyes directly under the bar
2. Feet are flat on the floor
3. Take a firm grip on the bar with hands a palm width wider than shoulders
4. With locked elbows, unrack the bar and move into position directly above the shoulder joint
5. Take a big breath, and lower the bar to your chest at nipple level
6. The instant the bar touches your chest, drive it back up to the start position
7. With locked elbows, breathe out, take another giant breath, lower the bar to the chest, and drive it up again
8. At the end of the set, rack the bar with locked elbows
Here’s what a bench press will look like when performed with a spotter:
- Don’t watch the bar, watch where the bar is going to end up (the same way you watch the ball when you play tennis, not the racquet)
- Keep the shoulder blades pinched together tightly throughout the set (see below)
- Keep the back arched and the chest up (think about squeezing your chest up to meet the bar)
- Keep your butt in contact with the bench
- Everything below the shoulders braces and supports the tight “chest-up” position
- A big breath held (the Valsalva maneuver) helps to keep everything tight – remember, “air is support”
- Always keep the elbows locked when moving the bar over your chest/throat
Bench Press Safety
Safety is paramount, so make sure you always bench press either:
1. With a spotter (as in the video), or
2. In a correctly set up power rack (like below)
(That means with the safety bars (safeties) set at a height that’s below the level of your chest when you’re in a tight, “chest up” position, but higher than your chest when you’re lying relaxed)
But if neither of those is available and you absolutely have to bench press then:
• Don’t lift heavy weights
• Stay away from failure (leave 1-2 repetitions in the tank)
• Don’t collar the bar (you can then dump the plates off the ends if the you-know-what hits the fan)
You can see why this is not the kind of place where you can bench press safely.
How Much Weight is Enough?
Start off with the empty bar for two or three sets of 8 repetitions.
Focus on technique – a big breath held, squeeze everything, and get tight.
Then add 15-20 lbs to the bar, and do another set of 8.
Keep adding 15-20 lbs for a set of 8 until the last repetition of the set starts to slow down noticeably.
Rest 2-3 minutes, then perform another set or two of 8 repetitions with that same weight.
The next time you bench press (which could be part of your quick and awesome whole body workout), add another 5 lbs to the bar.
Adding small increments of weight is essential for getting stronger, and it accomplishes two important things.
1. It demonstrates that you’re now stronger than you were previously, and
2. It provides the stimulus for a further strength increase
Always keep in mind that strength is something we coax just a few pounds at a time.
The great news is you don’t need any special personal equipment to bench press.
A good pair of lifting shoes is always a good idea for barbell training – I’m wearing the now-discontinued Rogue Do-Win in the video.
My current favorite is the Nike Romaleos 2, this is available in a range of colors, and makes your feet feel like they’re bolted to the floor.
I went for the lurid “Volt”color, and they look and feel awesome.
As far as personal equipment goes, that’s pretty much it.
Don’t bother with gloves – effectively, you’re adding diameter to the bar which will actually make it harder to grip.
If your hands get sweaty or start slipping on the bar, use chalk or liquid chalk instead.
Go Get It!
Pretty much anyone can learn how to bench press.
Use safe and correct technique, add consistent small increments of weight to the bar, and you’ll build incredible upper-body strength, fast.
Results are guaranteed.
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