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If your clients are looking to get the most out of their gym membership and their time at the gym, you will want to program workouts and choose exercises that will challenge more of their body in a shorter amount of time. The bench press is one of the best movements to perfect for this reason. When done properly, the bench press is a full-body exercise that will help everyone looking to increase strength, stability, and power.
Knowing how to complete the bench press correctly is key to reaping these benefits, whether working with a personal trainer or training on your own. This article discusses the basics of the muscles recruited and how to execute a proper bench press considering all of the kinetic chain checkpoints. Bench press variations and tips and accessory exercises to improve the bench press will be explored in later posts!
Need a quick review of the kinetic chain and why it's so important? Jog your memory with this great guide to the kinetic chain!
The bench press, or barbell bench press, is acknowledged as one of the original weight training movements. It has shown to aid not only athletes with athletic performance, strength, and conditioning by preparing athletes for standing push force production, but the average gym-goer as well. Gaining chest muscle strength can improve the strength of other movements like push-ups, overhead press, and biceps and triceps single-joint movements like curls and extensions.
The bench press provides a number of benefits, including:
Increased upper body strength and muscle mass
Improved chest and tricep definition
Improved shoulder stability and mobility
Increased power and explosiveness
Improved athletic performance in upper body movements
Improved posture and upper body appearance
Enhanced mental toughness and confidence
It is also a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups at once, making it an efficient and effective way to build upper body strength and muscle mass.
A proper warm-up of the entire body, as well as the target muscle groups, is always advised before beginning a workout. Whether 10 minutes on the cardio equipment to get the heart rate up and blood flowing or a specific resistance band series to get the blood moving in the chest and shoulders—make sure it gets done! Help your clients tailor a warm-up that fits their ability level and needs to prevent injury and enhance their workout.
A good bodyweight or resistance band series for the bench press will get blood flowing in the muscle fibers and promote full range of motion through the shoulders and back as well as the chest.
Try movements like a simple push-up, a dumbbell or resistance band overhead press or lateral raise, resistance band pull-aparts, and resistance band external and internal rotations. These movements will increase blood flow and get your client ready for this big movement.
The bench press recruits the pectoralis muscles (major and minor), the deltoids, and the triceps as the prime movers. The muscles of the core and the latissimus dorsi are synergist muscles in the movement as well. When done on a weight bench, regardless of the angle, the entire body, from feet to head, plays a role in a stabilized and strong muscle contraction and eccentric loading.
The bench press essentials your client should master include:
Positioning the feet
Elbow and shoulder position
Let's dive right into setting up and completing the movement. Always set up your client from the bottom up.
Select a bench, load the desired weight plates, and have your client lay on the bench face-up for their starting position. Ensure their hips and head are both on the bench. The bar should be racked overhead where it can be reached. Feet should be firmly planted on the floor at the bottom of the bench about hip-width apart or slightly wider.
DO NOT extend the leg or plant feet on the toes. Leg extension overextends the hips and placing the feet underneath or on the toes arches the back off the bench. These common errors will disrupt the movement pattern and prevent full force production.
To properly breathe and engage the core, also known as bracing, during the bench press, the hips play an important role. Instruct your client to squeeze their glutes to support and steady the hips and lumbar spine and assist in engaging the core for bracing. This will prevent another set of common errors: arching the back or lifting the hips off the bench during the press. Similar to the feet, these errors will prevent full force production and even limit the recruitment of the pectoralis major and minor during the lift.
Grip width can affect the performance of the bench press and muscle worked. Wide grip on the bar is ideal to focus on the chest, triceps, and deltoids, with the main focus being the pectoralis muscles. A close grip bench press will focus on the chest and deltoids but place greater focus on the triceps during the press. We will focus on the wide grip here.
Hands are placed about a thumb's width outside of the shoulders. Ensure hands are evenly spaced using the architecture that is built into the bar. There is a smooth area and a rough, diamond-cut grip on the bar. The wrist should not be hyper-extended. The bar will sit neatly on the heel of the hand with the thumb wrapped underneath and the fingers over top.
A firm but not cinched grip is best. The knuckles shouldn't turn white. Poor wrist position or over-gripping the bar can lead to forearm fatigue or pain. If your client complains of these, check their wrist placement and grip first.
Externally rotate the elbows, which means they're about 45 degrees from the side of the body. The external rotation will naturally relax the shoulders in the socket and away from the ears. This is important to prevent the over-recruitment of the trapezius or neck muscles. This will also flatten the shoulder blade on the bench and stabilize the upper body before lifting the bar.
Lift the bar from the rack and center it over the middle of the chest. Ensure they keep the scapula (shoulder blade) flat on the bench and the chest high. Lowering the weight down is not as passive as it may seem. The latissimus dorsi contracts to control the movement of the bar and stabilize the shoulder as the weight is lowered in a controlled manner, with an inhale, to the chest. Avoid letting the bar drop to or bounce off of the chest. Wrists and elbows stay in place and shoulders stay down and packed in the socket, chest high.
Once at the bottom of the movement, the bracing takes effect. They will not exhale to begin the concentric movement but at the end of it. Have your client drive their feet into the ground, glutes and abdominals engaged. Their back should not arch off the bench. As they press the bar upward, flexing the triceps and the chest muscles, the exhale begins about halfway back to the top. The brief pause in breathing stabilizes the core and hips, and aids in the force production of the push.
Clients working for strength training and hypertrophy will use a slower tempo up AND down. Clients aiming for power will use a slower tempo down and an explosive, quick tempo up.
Repeat the movement of the bar for the desired repetitions. For strength and power, the reps will be 8-10 per set. For muscle growth, the reps will be 4-8 per set aiming for 80% or more of the 1 rep max weight.
Each person will be different and there is no set weight everyone should begin their bench presses with. Some clients may be completely new to exercise and others may be starting out with a previous injury to the shoulder joint or elbow. It's important to focus on proper form, avoiding injury, and gradually building strength over time. Bench pressing a heavier weight than you're comfortable with can lead to injury.
Some common bench press mistakes include:
Arching the back
Flaring the elbows
Lifting the hips off the bench
Bouncing the weight off the chest
Not engaging the core
Locking out the elbows
Not using a full range of motion
Lifting too much weight with improper form
Remember, it's important to focus on proper form, starting with lighter weights, and gradually building up weight over time to avoid injury and maximize effectiveness of the exercise.
The bench press takes time to perfect. Once your client has mastered the form, it's time to start adding more weight to build your bench press strength. Chest press can be performed 1-2 times per week with ample recovery in between. Ensure you're tracking your client's recovery so they do not over-train their smaller muscle groups like the triceps. Doing so will lead to poor strength and muscle recruitment when needed for movements like the chest press!
For more bench press tips and variations, read these ISSA articles:
Thinking about adding an exercise bench to your home gym but not sure if it's worth it? There are more exercises you can do on weight benches than just the standard flat bench press exercise. Especially if you have an adjustable weight bench (from flat bench to incline bench). Consider a bench press variation or other bench exercise from this list to maximize your workout bench:
Dumbbell bench press
Incline bicep curl
Incline bench press
Bulgarian split squat
If you are interested in proper movement patterns and helping your clients achieve their goals and avoid injury, explore the ISSA's personal training course! The satisfaction of sharing knowledge while working with people in a fun and engaging environment is the best career move you can make.
Start your dream career completely online! Take the course, pass the certification final exam, and be guaranteed a job - or your money back!
Wagner, L. L., Evans, S. A., Weir, J. P., Housh, T. J., & Johnson, G. O. (1992). The effect of grip width on bench press performance. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics, 8(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsb.8.1.1