How to bench press: Beginner bench press guide

Szczepan Widera performing the bench press

This text is aimed at people who want to learn the fundamental principles of bench pressing. At the end of the article, you will find a free beginner bench press e-book containing a complete training routine.

Barbell Bench Press Overview

Bench press exercise is one of the most popular upper body exercises. Being a strength coach for many years taught me that most people tend to care about the bench press more than about other exercises. In fact, when people find out I work out in the gym, one of the first questions they tend to ask is “How much do you bench press?”. Since this is one of the most popular topics in strength coaching, it is only to be expected that I create an article for people who want to master this lift.

If are a beginner and want to find out what muscles the bench press works, learn the basics of bench pressing, and build muscle fast, carry on reading and you won’t regret it.

What is bench press for?

The bench press is one of the most important upper body exercises. It will help you develop general upper body strength, increase your striking power if you’re a combat athlete, build big muscles if you’re a bodybuilder or improve your total if you’re a powerlifter.

The answer to this question is simple, if you want to be big and strong, the bench press is one of the most useful exercises for a large percentage of athletes.

What bench press works?

As a strength coach, I am often asked “What muscles bench press works?”. Flat bench press is often also called a chest press but this definition is far from complete. Flat bench press works mainly pectoralis major, anterior deltoids and triceps muscles. Having a strong bench press will help you build a strong upper body, big arms and even prominent and big shoulders.

What bench press is considered strong?

It is a very individual question and depends on your expectations but generally, a 3-plate bench press (140kg) is considered a pretty strong result for a regular, natural gym-goer, however, if you are aspiring to be a successful athlete, I would say that a 4-plate bench press (180kg) is very strong for a natural powerlifter, bench presser, or any other strength athlete around 100kg bodyweight. It’s not that this is an expectation but it is achievable naturally and since most people don’t get to that level, it can be considered a great achievement assuming you want to stand out from your competition and hold the title of the bench king.

The Set-Up

Andrzej Kolodziejczyk, National Bench Press Champion

Proper set-up for the flat bench press should be stable and tight. If you get kicked in the leg while bench pressing, your leg should stay where it is. You have to focus on tightness and stability if you want to build a strong bench press. Stability comes from tightness and vice versa. Plant your feet into the ground, take a deep breath and hold it in, tighten up your core muscles and use the leg drive to push yourself into the rack. This is how you achieve tightness. Practice it for a couple of weeks until you notice that your bench press has become so stable and tight that it becomes hard to breathe during the exercise execution.

Bench press set-up itself should be fairly quick. I have tried a lot of different ways of setting up the bench press and what I found is that it’s better to learn a simple set-up method which can be applied quickly and spare energy as all the fancy ones tend not only take a lot of time but also waste your energy.

Points Of Contact

Pay detailed attention to your feet, glutes, and shoulder blade as they are the points of contact. They will help you achieve greater tension and stability. If you want to build a big bench press, this is a must.

One of the most important things in strength coaching is teaching the points of contact in the bench press. It’s essential because points of contact are your base. If you want to learn more about stability and tension, I recommend you read about tensegrity. Tensegrity is about the integrity of tension. In a nutshell, the golden rule of tensegrity says that if you fuck up at one point, all the other points are going to be affected so remember to plant those feet into the ground and do the same with your ass and shoulder blades!

Shoulder Blades And Upper Back

If you want to know how to bench press, you gotta know how to take care of your shoulder blades. Big bench press comes from stability and that can be only achieved through training your antagonist muscles.

Controlling your shoulder blades will improve the stability of your entire body. It will allow you to bench press safely and get a stable starting position. Before you press, take a deep breath and explode up by pressing the bar straight up in a vertical line while pressing the shoulder blades into the bench. It’s important to press the bar almost in a straight line as it will allow you to engage your triceps and pec more but that’s not what this paragraph is supposed to be about. The point is that if you want to do that with good form and push through the sticking point, you must control your shoulder blades and you can achieve that by using exercises that include the abduction of the humerus in the transverse plane.

The upper back doesn’t include just the rear delts. You also have to train your rhomboids and middle traps. It is essential to keep the body tight. Chest muscles are important but so is the upper back. Your shoulder blades need stability and you can provide it by training your upper back. There is an old saying “You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe” and it explains why you need a strong upper back very precisely. It will help you avoid rolling your shoulders forward.

The takeaway is to train your upper back because it’s essential to get into the right position, lower the bar under control, and press firmly a heavy weight back up.

Wide Grip Or Narrow Grip

A narrower grip width helps you keep the elbows tucked and builds more base strength in the bench press movement. It allows you to lower the bar with more control and ensure you press with the proper bench press form by increasing the TUT (Time Under Tension) as when the movement is too short, you end up with less time to familiarise yourself with it. It also teaches you how to push through all the way and activate more triceps. Many experts claim that the Bench Press depends on your triceps strength. A narrow grip can help you increase it.

On the other hand, pressing with a wide grip differs in the technique. It’s less stable and doesn’t allow you to lower the bar with as much control. Although wide grip shortens the ROM, it’s a bit like doing half reps. Sometimes, it allows you to press more weight but you end up with less overall volume. At some point, you will simply hit the wall and you will be forced to grip the bar with a narrow grip and build some foundations before you get back to the wide grip. It’s important to know its limitations if you want to be a world champion someday.

P.S. You can also press with a suicide grip if you know how to grip the bar tight enough and control it all the way down and back up. Some lifters say that a suicide grip helps them activate the triceps even more and alleviate shoulder pain but you gotta know how to grip the bar tight enough so it doesn’t fall off because it’s very dangerous.

Get A Grip

Squeeze the bar as hard as you can. This will help your increase the tension through the kinematic chain. It happens so because of a phenomenon called irradiation. It simply transfers the tension from the actively contracting muscle groups to the others through the kinematic chain. Also, consulting my coach and mentor, Josh Bryant, confirmed that he is benefiting a lot from squeezing the bar (and so are his other athletes such as Julius Maddox for example) as hard as he can as well. Call it simple advice but when grabbing the bar, focus on squeezing it so hard as if you were trying to crush it and I promise, it will make your bench press skyrocket!

If you’re struggling with gripping the bar, you can also use wrist wraps. Wrist wraps will aid you in squeezing the bar and this, through irradiation, helps you to squeeze your shoulder blades. Wrist wraps are a helpful tool if you want to keep your body tight and press the most weight on the flat bench. They are useful not only in the Bench Press but also in other upper body exercises.

Flat Bench And Incline Bench

If you want to develop upper chest muscles, a standard bench press isn’t enough. Your upper chest muscles are just as important as the rest of your upper body and they will help you complete the entire movement in the full range of motion. Bench press is not just a lower chest exercise as other muscles also play a role. The upper chest is no exception to this regardless of your body weight and muscle mass.

The incline bench press will aid you in building upper body strength. It’s just as important as the grip width. The thing with grip width is that using a narrower grip (shoulder width for example) can stimulate other motor units to a greater degree and it’s the same with the Incline Bench Press.

The instructions here are very similar to the standard bench press. Grip the bar tight, squeeze your shoulder blades keep the elbows tucked, lower the bar under control and press up. The technique should be similar regardless of the weight so even if you are warming up with the empty bar, you are to go through all these steps just as if you were pressing a heavy weight. Same technique, same path of the bar every time.

Training your upper chest can help you avoid shoulder pain, press the most weight possible and will also transfer to the Overhead Press (and the Overhead Press is often being labelled as 1 of the 5 most important exercises, similarly to the Bench Press).

How To Bench Press

Bench press form is very important. Bad bench press form will be detrimental to your overall bench results, therefore you have to make sure that you pay attention to technique. The best advice I can give you in this article is to set up in a stable manner, generate a lot of whole-body tension by pushing the legs into the floor, squeezing the bar as hard as you can and focusing on where does the bar land and where does the movement end.

There are a lot of articles recommending using the widest grip possible, pressing towards the power rack but after coaching 12 national and 2 world champions in strength sports, I can tell you I instruct my athletes to use the medium grip rather than the wide one and to press the weight almost straight up so it’s the chest and triceps muscles that do most of the work, not the deltoids.

Another important technical piece of advice is to use your legs and work on that leg drive! By pressing your feet into the floor, you can create a lot of tension but if you press your toes into the ground at a reflex speed when you initiate the movement, you can transfer the energy through the whole kinematic chain and actually use it to support your prime movers in the concentric portion of the lift so next time you bench press, remember to initiate the movement with your legs!

Bench Press Tips For Beginners

Coach Daniel Domardzki training the bench press
Daniel Domaradzki, Strength Coach

As a strength coach, I am aware that (as most people reading this article) you are probably a novice. As I love to encourage people to join the gym and start working out, let’s focus on a couple of useful pieces of advice that can help beginner strength athletes understand what the bench press is about and hopefully attract more people to the beautiful sport of powerlifting!

The context of these tips is a bit extensive and I will only describe them briefly but if you want to learn how to apply them correctly in more detail, it’s all described in my beginner bench press e-book.

What bench press weight to start with?

The weight you are to use should be fairly comfortable. You should not be feeling any discomfort, pain or experiencing any technical breakdown. The cue I like to use is to “feel the muscles working”. If you manage to sense your chest and triceps contracting all the way, you are probably doing it at least somewhat correct.

What is a bench press board?

A bench press board is a board that shortens the range of motion and allows you to use bigger weights. It is often used by geared lifters, that is by people who use bench press equipment such as special shirts or slingshots. As these devices assist you in lifting the weight during the bottom phase the most, it is only natural that it’s harder to finish the lift and lock out the weight. Using the board can help you work on the lockout phase which is the end phase of the lift.

What is a bench press block?

Bench press block serves the same purpose as the board, but it can be attached to the barbell. Bench press boards have to be held by your partner. Bench press blocks are usually more convenient because you can use them even if you train all by yourself.

What is the decline bench press?

Everybody knows the incline bench press but what about the decline? Decline bench press is a bench press variation where your head is lower than the rest of your body. It allows you to focus more on the lower chest fibres and usually lift more weight. Most people also describe it as a bit more triceps dominant movement because it resembles the weighted dips exercise to a degree.

Do rows help bench press?

Rows help the bench press as they strengthen the opposing muscle groups. Strengthening the antagonists can help you equalise your structural balance and strength rations. By doing so, you decrease the risk of injury and allow for the progress to continue for longer (your shoulder joints will thank you for that). If your opposing muscles are too weak, your CNS (Central Nervous System) might not give you a green light to produce the maximum force and you might be unable to progress further despite possessing strong enough prime mover muscles.

Another thing about rows is that they help you to press in the straight line by coding the correct bar path into your mind. Rowing is a movement opposite to the Bench Press and the more you row with good technique, the easier it is to press the bar in a similar manner.

Bent over rows also strengthen the lower back. Even if you don’t deadlift, it will help you create more stability on the flat bench. The equation here is simple. Want to press a lot on the flat bench? Try implementing bent over rows to strengthen both your lats and spinal erectors.

Keep the feet flat

Keeping the feet firmly pressed into the floor and flat allows for more ground contact area and more stability. If you are a beginner, press in a straight line, keep the feet flat and lower the bar slowly. Since this paragraph is about foot placement, I’ll cover some examples of how it affects the bottom position below.

Where the bar touches your chest depends on your arch. Even if you are using just the bar, pressing the bar from the balls of your feet creates more tension. By putting your whole feet on the ground, you can’t arch as much and it will affect the bar positioning. With your fee flat, you will utilise more of your upper body strength just as in the Floor Press. The thing with the Floor Press is that it limits the engagement of your lower body, thus forcing the upper body to do more work.

Pressing from the balls of the feet can help generate power but you achieve this by throwing more of your lower body into the equation. Want to generate power with no effort? Learn how to do it without so much help from your lower body and then, you will be able to produce a lot of force quickly even in the most demanding positions.

How To Master The Bench Press

Karol Prawdzik, European Bench Press Champion

Since you already know the basics of bench press, let’s know focus on some advanced tips. These tips will help you to achieve mastery in the bench press by learning about the secrets that advanced athletes were discovering for ages. Reading through this part of the article will spare you years of trial and error and help you get stronger faster.

If you want to increase your bench press even more and learn a couple of useful, advanced techniques not mentioned in this article, I recommend you get my advanced bench press e-book which contains more advanced strategies, all the explanations and an adjustable bench press routine.

Range of motion

Range of motion in the bench press itself should be always full but there are also variations, such as Spoto Press, that call for the shortened ROM. There is no correct range of motion when speaking of bench press variations and accessory exercises, the only thing you have to monitor is how well it transfers to the main lift and your one rep max.

What bench press is best?

There is no best bench press variation. All of them serve a purpose and some might work now but stop working later. You have to constantly monitor how do they transfer to your maximum strength. All those exercises are to aid you in the main lift so don’t focus on them too much and remember that your main goal is to be better at bench pressing, not to beat the world record in some fancy movement that doesn’t translate to what you’re trying to achieve.

How to bench press effectively?

If you want to bench press effectively, you have to focus on CAT (Compensatory Acceleration Training). CAT method allows you to produce maximum force with submaximal weights by accelerating the weight as hard as you can throughout the whole range of motion.

Force = mass x acceleration

This means that if you aim to press the same weight faster, you will have to produce more force to achieve higher speeds. It all comes down to accelerating the bar all the way up and not stopping until the end. Using accommodating resistance such as bands and chains can help you learn this motor skill.

Dumbbell, Barbell Bench Press Or Machine Bench Press?

Dumbbells, barbell or machines? In the barbell bench press, muscles work differently than in the dumbbell bench press. The same goes for the machines. If you want to master this exercise, I recommend you do them all because they all have unique advantages.

Machine bench press

Machine bench press takes away the stability demands and flattens the strength curve. It allows you to focus solely on muscle contraction and build muscle mass fast. By implementing the machine bench press into your routine, you can benefit by increasing your basal strength levels as it will help you pack on some rock-solid muscle that can be later used to bench press more weight. Be careful though, the machine bench press should be only performed in addition to the regular bench press, not instead of it!

Dumbbell bench press

Dumbbell bench press will help you work on your coordination and allow you to throw in a couple of additional components that are impossible to achieve with a barbell such as rotating the dumbbells. One of the pectoralis major (the chest muscle) functions is humerus internal rotation and this can be achieved by using the dumbbells (as in the Poliquin Press exercise named after Charles Poliquin). I recommend you do not strain from the dumbbells as they can help you gain technical proficiency and attack your chest muscles from different angles but again, do it in addition to your regular bench press routine, not instead of it. Remember that the bench press is a motion that includes producing force with both arms pushing simultaneously so the dumbbells won’t allow you to build maximum strength.

Bench press – free weights

Bench pressing with free weights transfers more to the raw, brutal strength as it calls for stability and tightness more than the machines. Also, when pushing a heavy object, you usually do it with both arms rather than one and you usually don’t press against two heavy objects at once. This is why the barbell bench press transfers to hypertrophy (muscle mass), strength and everyday life so well. It simply is a natural movement that we were built for!

Unracking And Re-Racking

I recommend you rack the weight on your own until you get past 3 plates. It will help you learn how to do it properly without the help of others. There might be times when spotters are not available and you will have to deal with the weight on your own. Unfortunately, life is not perfect and sometimes you will have to deal with your shit alone. Learning how to unrack and re-rack the weight by yourself might come in very handy if you have to be prepared for anything!

It’s All About The Mindset!

Mindset is a game-changer in this sport. You have no idea how important it is to stay in the zone and concentrate during the workout. Even old-school bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger used to highlight the importance of mindset and visualisation. Modern science also seems to agree with that.

For example, if you treat the movement as a chest press, you will engage pecs more. If you focus on bringing the elbows together (towards each other, medially), you will activate the triceps more. If you focus on squeezing the bar as if you were trying to crush it, it will increase the neural drive and produce more force. Even solely focusing on your breathing can increase the whole-body tension, stability and force production.

As there is strength training, there is also mental conditioning which focuses on the mental aspects of self-improvement, growth and a goal-oriented mindset. Staying focused and improving your concentration skills might help you gain access to some of the most immense talents that remain undiscovered by the general public. Just as you train your body, you can also train your mind to become a better athlete.

Nevertheless, if you wish to learn more about mental conditioning, I recommend going through the meditation section on my blog as these techniques have many more uses than just relaxation.

Bench Press Form Tips

Strength coaching does not rely solely on giving tips but since I can’t evaluate your technique right now, it’s always better to know more than to know less. Read on to find out a couple more useful tips that help you increase your bench press.

Avoid bad bench press form

Your bench press form should be closely monitored each session. Make sure that you use only the weights that allow you to maintain proper technique. As bench press form is very important, pressing with bad form will make you compensate with other muscle groups and it will not carry over to your 1 rep max under competition conditions, therefore good form is essential and bad form is to be avoided.

Bad bench press form – how to help it?

You can prevent bad bench press form by implementing volume phases, technical periods and working with a strength coach. Strength coaching is an essential element of the game, so make sure you have a good strength coach that you can rely on.

Another tip is to do a lot of warmup sets to make sure you learn the technique quicker. Each warmup set should be treated seriously and technique should be maintained so you can learn the good bench press form faster as it all comes to practice!

How Many Reps? Is One Bench Set Enough? How To Program A Bench Pressing Cycle?

Aleksander Sobierajski 170kg Bench Press
18yo Aleksander Sobierajski bench pressing 170kg with ease

How many reps you are supposed to do depends on what are you trying to achieve. Personally, I am a fan of the concurrent periodisation model and I like to cover all the rep ranges. To give you a brief idea of how I structure the bench pressing routines of my athletes, here are some general guidelines.

I use a single bench set if it’s conducted with maximum effort. If I want to build up the volume, I usually program multiple sets with a bit of reserve.

1-3 reps build absolute strength and power if you execute them explosively.

4-6 reps build base strength that you can use to peak later.

7-10 reps is more of a hypertrophy range that builds muscle mass.

Depending on what I program for, I focus more or less on certain rep ranges and also ROM types. For example, if I want to build more muscle mass, I focus on the full range of movement by implementing exercises such as Close Grip Bench, Dumbbell Bench etc. Regardless of the goal, I pay a lot of attention to making sure that my athletes do not leak strength by keeping their entire body tight, especially in the starting position.

If I want them to build raw strength, a full range of movement is not a priority anymore and I use the exercises that allow for most weight to be used. Another tool I use to build raw strength is the neutral spine. I deliberately prohibit my lifters from arching too much during base-building periods and tell them to keep a neutral spine because this way, they are forced to use more brute strength rather than technique. This tool allowed me to create many strong benchers in no time so if you want to include another bench press variation in your routine, add a Neutral Spine Bench Press to your exercise toolbox.

If I am helping them build a competition bench, I make sure my athletes unrack the bar themselves at the beginning of their strength cycle as this allows them to build more work capacity. This is usually performed in the power rack. It’s safe because the power rack allows for the safety pins to be mounted so the bar doesn’t fall down on their chest. Bench Press is a compound exercise where you unrack the bar, lower the bar to your chest, press the bar up and re-rack it upon receiving the appropriate command so don’t forget to learn how to unrack the bar by yourself as later, you might take this component away and gain more strength just before the competition.

If I want my athletes to work on their stability, I use the Olympic barbell (a bar designated for Olympic Weightlifting) as it’s more wobbly than the Powerlifting bar. Not as much as the bamboo bar so it still allows for a lot of weight to be used but it makes the lift more demanding. Not many people talk about it but using the Olympic barbell increases stability demands.

P.S. Putting plates back all by yourself (especially by using just a single arm to grab the plates) can strengthen your grip which is very important for producing maximum force!

To teach people the proper bench press form, I often use the empty bar and instruct them to lower the bar slowly and to press the bar slowly in a vertical line. Even though there is no weight, you can still produce a decent amount of torque by using CTT (Compensatory Tension Training). In order to do that, squeeze your shoulder blades as hard as you can, contract your pecs and triceps and use your lats to lower the bar to your chest. Then press up by releasing the tension from your lats. It is a very powerful tool and it also teaches you how to stay tight and maintain the right position when the bar touches your chest. Press up in a vertical line by releasing the tension from your pulling muscles, maintain proper form with just the bar, use CTT and gradually use more weight to become a champion in no time.

To improve the starting position, I first teach my clients how to keep their entire body tight and lower the bar slowly, with proper form. I tell them to get in the power rack, lower the bar slowly and press up explosively while keeping the tension and maintaining technique. I do this preferably with a shoulder width grip so they can engage more triceps when they press up from the starting position and then gradually widen the grip until they are able to repeat this with their competition grip. Another method to improve the starting position is using exercises that allow for more force to be produced there. That could utilise exercises such as the Dead Bench Press from the pins in the power rack or Isometric Bench Press against the pins in the power rack.

Barbell Bench Press Variations

Below, you can find a list of useful bench press variations. The list is not exclusive but it can serve you as a basic guideline on what certain exercises do and how can you implement them into your routine.

  • Incline Bench Press will help you strengthen your upper pecs and shoulders. It can also be helpful if you’re weak in the middle range of motion.
  • Decline Bench Press helps develop lower chest fibres and strengthens the triceps. It is also useful if you’re weak in the middle range of motion. It’s good to note that it shortens the range of motion so if you’re using it as a mass builder exercise, you can slightly narrow the grip to make up for it.
  • Close Grip Bench Press engages more triceps and makes the range of motion longer which teaches you how to push all the way through. If you’re suffering from lockout issues, it might be worth implementing this exercise.
  • Spoto Press calls for a pause an inch above the chest where chest muscles can contract a bit harder. This exercise was popularised by Eric Spoto, hence the name. It will help you build strength just above the chest.
  • Dead Bench Press will help you build starting strength. It can be done inside a power rack and is best used when you perform it in a cluster set manner (with a little rest between each repetition) to dissipate all the kinetic energy and make sure you stop completely before each rep.
  • Banded Bench Press will help you gather more tension and maintain it through the lift as the bands will push you down more than the sole barbell (it’s called overspeed eccentrics) and it will teach you how to keep accelerating the bar all the way up as tension on the bands grows exponentially.
  • Reverse Grip Bench Press is a good exercise for people with shoulder issues (it forces your humerus to externally rotate which alleviates the pain people suffer from pronation) and it also engages the triceps differently by activating the medial head to a greater degree.
  • Partial Bench Press is simply a bench press performed in a partial range of motion. Executing multiple repetitions close to the chest (without locking out) will aid you in chest development. It can be also done in a 1 +1/2 manner where one rep is full and the other one is a partial
  • Seated Shoulder Press can help you overload the shoulders and it transfers well to the flat bench press because it is also performed in a seated manner, which increases the specificity. Use it when you notice your deltoids lack strength.
  • Bench Lockouts will overload the CNS (Central Nervous System) and teach you how to play around with supramaximal weights (more than you can lift in full ROM). On top of that, it overloads the stabilisers, develops tremendous lockout strength and strengthens the triceps. It is worth mentioning that triceps muscles, due to their architecture, might grow more if you use more weight, partial movements, and a shorter range of motion.
  • Cambered Bar Bench Press uses a special, bent bar that can be lowered further than a regular barbell. It makes the bench press harder and stretches shoulder and chest muscles more. It can be very useful when building the base, especially for people who are weak close to the chest.
  • Football Bar Bench Press allows for a neutral grip to be incorporated. The grip can be also widened or shortened on this bar. By holding the bar with a neutral grip, you increase the stability demands on your wrists and isometrically train them to prevent wrist deviation. This grip also spares the shoulder joint and is more natural. It’s a very useful exercise for people suffering from shoulder and stability issues.

Bench Press Summary

The bench press is an extremely technically complex movement and it’s very hard to master it through reading a single article. If you want to become highly proficient in the sport of powerlifting and become a great bench presser, I recommend you hire a strength coach. However, if I was to give you one final piece of advice, I would say that you focus on the bench press proper form, aim to achieve the highest bar speed possible in your top sets, and be observant to ensure you maintain your technique all the time.

P.S. Before you go, also remember this one, secret trick: Periodise your training by varying the volume, intensity, and frequency and rotating your auxiliary exercises from time to time to ensure you expose your body to fresh stimuli. If you are not sure how to periodise your workout regimen, you can check out my professional bench press templates with complete base-building and peaking bench press training routines.

If you liked this article and feel that it was helpful, I highly recommend you subscribe to my newsletter and collect your completely free beginner bench press e-book!

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