Complete Guide To Bench Press Mistakes And How To Fix Them

October 4, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Posted in Fitness, tips, Weight Training | Leave a comment
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Bench Press

Bench Press Overview

Bench press Monday is a global institution in just about every commercial gym. So is bench press Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You get the picture. Weekend warriors and all-round keyboard tough guys commonly speak as if a 300 pound bench is easily performed by every other gym rat. The reality is very different.

Although statistics vary, most findings accept that the average 175 pound male will bench around 180 pounds for one repetition. The average twenty-something male of that size rarely ever benches above 250 for a single rep (approximately 10% in fact) let alone the 300 that is commonly boasted of online. Commonly used tables of relativestrength standards describe a 275 pound bench for a 181 pound man as ‘advanced’.

More observant gym goers will tell you that statistics are unnecessary as they can see with their own eyes the weekly bench struggles in gyms worldwide. Watching anyone confidently rep 225 without a spotter is rare enough. Seeing 315 for reps is almost an anomaly such is its infrequency.

But why is the bench press such a difficult lift to master when all it involves is unracking a bar, lowering it to the chest and then raising it? Why is it (along with the strict standing overhead press) one of the lifts that is first to stall and how come stalling on the bench press is something that can happen for years rather than months?

Perhaps because the vast majority of individuals perform this lift incorrectly. The first issue is the perception that the bench press is an ‘easy’ lift. In actual fact, it is one of the most technical of all lifts as you are about to see below.

There are dozens of bench press mistakes made by almost every single lifter. The few that master these techniques and utilize the bench press frequently and consistently are those who bench 315, 405 and 495+ with impunity. In this guide, we will explain the following points:

  • Technical Errors #1: The set up – Why your approach is all wrong and how you can fix it.
  • Technical Errors #2: The bench stroke – How your form is compromising your progress and why injuries are inevitable when you follow this path.
  • Assistance: While the best way to improve your bench press is to bench, this lift is more of a full body lift than you could ever imagine.
  • The Warm Up: Are your ‘light’ sets are actually holding you back?
  • Ineffective Training: A big bench takes planning, effort and patience. Plan your attack or you’re doomed to spend eternity in bench press purgatory.
  • Mentality: Every time you go under the bar, your mind must be in the right place. Mental strength begets physical strength.

Technical Issues #1 – The Set Up

A cursory look at the sorry state of bench pressing in virtually every gym should be enough to reveal a myriad of mistakes being made. However, since few people pay any attention to technical detail, the same errors are made for years by the same individuals who wonder why they can never add any weight to the bar.

Most people view the bench press as a simple matter of lying down on the bench, unracking the bar and getting down to business. This is of course not the case and a huge percentage of lifters make bench press mistakes before they even unrack the weight! Below, we will look at the litany of set up errors and how such errors can be rectified.

Not Decreasing The Range Of Motion

Bench PressRule #1 of any lift, especially the bench, is to decrease the range of motion when looking to increase the weight lifted. It is common sense: The less distance you have to press, the more you can lift. Widening the grip on the bar is one method of decreasing the ROM.

In many lifting circles, a shoulder width grip is deemed to be aclose grip bench press so if you’re guilty of a narrow grip, it’s important to bring it wide. Having the small finger on the outer ring of the bar is a good start. From there, increase or decrease the width according to personal preference. However, it’s important to note that TOO wide a grip can cause shoulder damage down the line so bear this in mind when chasing huge weights.

When you have decided on a grip width, it’s time to start learning how to retract those shoulder blades. When you pull yourshoulders back, you automatically reduce the distance the bar has to travel. Although your head, shoulder blades and butt need to be in contact with the bench, arching your lower back while under the bar is an excellent way to shorten ROM as your chestwill come closer to the bar during the negative portion of the movement.

Pressing Without Getting Tight

Many trainees simply view the bench press as a chest and triceps movement without really understanding the full-body nature of the exercise. The idea of ‘getting tight’ involves being completely rigid before the bar is even unhooked. World renowned power lifter and strength coach Dave Tate states that he pushes his knee against the knee or torso of a trainee before the bar is unracked. If the trainee moves at all, Tate decides that the bar is not to be unracked. So how does one go about ‘getting tight’?

Footwork plays a major role. If you allow your legs to merely dangle out while pressing, the amount you can lift is severely limited. When your feet are correctly set, you can utilize ‘leg drive’ to squeeze an extra rep or extra pounds on each lift thus increasing strength. There is no single ‘right’ place to set your feet. Some lifters like to tuck their feet underneath the bench and push off their toes while others are happy to spread their feet out wide and push off their heels. Experiment and find what works best for you. Roll your chest up and push your heels (or toes if that suits you) into the ground as you are driving your traps into the bench.

Poor Bar Grip

To have a big bench press, you need to grab the bar and squeeze it for all it’s worth before unracking. When you squeeze the bar, you activate the muscles in your forearms, hands and triceps while also reinforcing your body’s overall tightness. As the bench press takes place on a padded bench, it is seen as a ‘soft’ exercise. The reality is that to bench big weights, you have to be fairly uncomfortable when the time comes to unrack the weight.

Unracking The Bar

Finally! After all that technical nonsense, you get to press, right? Actually, we’re only just beginning. Most trainees simply push the bar out of the rack and start pressing. This is a huge mistake for a number of reasons.

When you push the bar up and out of the rack, you instantly lose the tightness you strived so hard to attain. Your shoulder blades will be pulled apart and there’s no way to regain your previous position now that the bar is unracked. Instead, pull the bar out of the rack or have someone do it for you. This occurs in powerlifting competitions where it is known as a ‘lift off’. Your eyes should also be directly under the bar as you unrack it.

Not Allowing The Bar To Settle

Pressing the bar straight away is a great way to undo all the progress you’ve made in your technical approach. With extremely heavy weights, immediately pressing the weight can be dangerous as you may not have control over the bar. A better approach is to allow the bar to settle in your hands for approximately 2 seconds.

During this wait, your elbows and traps will compress, pushing you deeper into the bench thus giving your body greater stability. You may also find that the bar will move an inch or two closer to your chest without your arms bending.

Not Being In Line

Before you press the first rep, your forearms and wrist joints should be in line with the bar. This will help you push the bar in a straight line which is of course the shortest and most expedient route when it comes to strength. It can also help prevent your wrists from bending back as you press which can be an extremely painful sensation when you have hundreds of pounds on the bar.

Bench Press

Technical Issues #2 – The Bench Stroke

For most trainees, it’s a matter of benching the weight by any means necessary. This is why you’ll see exhibitions of bar bouncing, bars pressed at a 45 degree angle, spotters doing half the work and butts being raised as far off the bench as possible. Such antics not only look foolish, they contribute greatly to your lack of bench press success. Here are some commonplace errors when it comes to the art of the bench stroke.

No Breathing Pattern

This certainly seems to be a strange addition to bench press mistakes doesn’t it? When benching for more than three reps, you still need to take a deep breath on the bar descent and exhale each time you push the bar off yourchest. For sets under 3 reps, take a large belly breath as opposed to the normal ‘chest’ breath.

In other words, your shoulders shouldn’t rise when you take a belly breath. This helps keep your body stable under the strain of a maximum effort attempt. Breathing out during the attempt will destabilize your body and may cause you to miss the lift.

Flared Elbows

This is one of the most common bench press mistakes. While it isn’t 100% ‘wrong’ to allow your elbows to flare out during the press, it does place a greater amount of strain on your shoulders thus increasing the risk of injury.

When you tuck in your elbows, the bar will touch the chest just below the nipples in most cases. Flared elbows provide less leverage than tucked elbows which transfers the load to your triceps and protects the shoulders. This also ensures that the bar travels in a straight line.

Inconsistent Reps

This refers to where the bar touches on the chest as well as the depth of each rep. In the latter case, each rep should see the bar touching the chest. You may see strong bodybuilders doing ‘partial’ reps but you better believe they spent years doing full range of motion reps before progressing to that level.

You need to find a groove where the bar touches the chest in the same place for every rep. This may involve checking your ego as you drop the weight you’re currently pressing in the name of progress. One tip is to chalk the middle of the bar and hit several reps in a row. If there is one straight line on your shirt, you should be good to go. When you have the ability to hit the same spot on your chest with virtually every rep, you will have a nice groove that preserves energy.

‘Bouncing’ The Bar Off The Chest

This is a favorite of the majority of gym rats who almost seem to have competitions where they see who can bounce the bar the highest. The theory is that by allowing the bar to descend rapidly, you can bounce it and gain enough momentum to complete the rep. However, this is complete nonsense.

The muscles and connective tissues combine in a stretch reflex which makes it appear as if the bar is bouncing off the chest. At the point of reversal, the bar is likely to sink into the chest due to the fact that the bar is lowered then raised at a high speed.

In a nutshell, ‘bouncing’ the bar doesn’t really occur at all and the effect only happens when you attempt to explosively push the bar upwards. A bench press performed in this manner is one where the lifter does not have full control of the weight. Allowing a weight that’s too heavy for you to smash off your chest is obviously only going to lead to injury. You need to lower the bar at a controlled speed, allow it to touch your chest and explosively press it back up.

Read the rest of this article at Muscle&Strength 

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