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Bench Press Master Class

Build a bigger chest and maximize upper body pressing strength by fine-tuning your bench press technique. This article breaks it down, point by point.

squat techniques and tips

 

Bench Press Key Points

  • The barbell bench press is a foundational exercise for both building and measuring upper body pushing strength. It's also one of the best muscle-building exercises for the chest muscles (pecs), with the shoulders (deltoids) and triceps being secondary movers and also getting some mass-gaining benefits from benching.
  • When I teach proper bench press technique, I focus on "5 Points of Contact" – feet, glutes, upper back/shoulders, head, and hands. If these body parts are following proper protocol, you're setting yourself up for a stronger bench press that builds maximum muscle and minimizes injury risk.

Few, if any, gym lifts get more attention (at least by guys) than the traditional barbell bench press. Some people would say the bench press gets too much attention, but either way, it's still a great exercise for increasing muscle size and strength in the upper body "pushing" muscles – especially the chest. If done improperly, though, the bench press can wreak havoc on the shoulder joints. In this Master Class, I'm going to teach you how to get all the size and strengths gains of the barbell bench press while minimizing injury risk.

How to Bench Press

A more detailed description of bench press technique is covered below in the 5 Points of Contact section, but this condensed description will provide a good overview before we get into all the finer points of the move.

  1. Lie back on a flat bench with a rack, placing your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Grasp the bar with a grip width in accordance to your biacromial distance (see below under "Hands" in the 5 Points of Contact), carefully unrack the bar and begin with it directly over your upper pecs with your arms extended.
  3. Bend your elbows to slowly lower the bar toward your lower chest. Your elbows should be pointed forward with your upper arms at around a 45-degree angle to your torso. Keep both the back of your head and your glutes in contact the bench the entire time.
  4. Touch your chest lightly with the bar, then press it back up in a slight backward arcing motion so the bar ends up over your upper chest with your arms extended but not locked out.

What does Bench Press work?

The main muscles involved in the bench press are, first and foremost, the pectoralis major of the chest. Secondary muscles involved are the deltoids (front and middle delts) and triceps. Doing the barbell bench press on a regular basis will both strengthen and add size to all three of these muscle groups.

With the bench press, different phases of the movement target the aforementioned muscles differently. In roughly the bottom-third of the movement (from touching your chest to about 1/3 of the way up), you're getting maximum involvement from the pecs. In the second third of the movement, the shoulders are more heavily involved. And then, in the very top third, particularly when you're locking out your elbows, the triceps take over.

As you'll see below in the 5 Points of Contact section, however, there are a number of other muscle involved in pressing a bar off your chest – even the lower body! I wouldn't go so far as to say that the bench press is a full body exercise (as I might say for the squat and deadlift), but it certainly brings in more muscles than just the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Aside from the legs pressing off the floor in a powerlifting-style bench press, the muscles of the core are engaged when benching, and the back muscles play a major role in stabilizing the torso.

How to Properly Bench Press – 5 Points of Contact

One of the biggest misconceptions about the bench press is that it’s a “dangerous” exercise. Sure, if you do it improperly, you could get hurt. But you can get hurt crossing the street if you don’t pay attention to the crosswalk lights and oncoming traffic.

The bench press is no more dangerous than any other upper-body pressing exercise you do with dumbbells or even a machine. There are ways to do things dangerously and there are ways to do them safely.

When it comes to bench pressing safely, follow the below “5 Points of Contact” and you’ll be poised to make great gains in upper-body size and pressing strength, minus the injuries.

1) Feet

Your first point of contact on the bench press isn’t your hands on the bar – it’s your feet to the ground.

If you’re wondering what your feet have to do with a bench press, the next time you train, try to do the exercise with your feet up off the ground and your knees bent like some people do on crunches. Trust me, you won’t be nearly as strong this way, because not having a solid base beneath will rob you of power and strength, even in the upper body. The force you produce to press the bar up is not just coming from chest, shoulders, and triceps. Force is distributed throughout the body, moving from your feet, through your legs and hips, through the spine, and up to your shoulders and arms.

So where should your feet be? Most people say they should be flat on the floor beneath you, and this advice would seem to make sense for having a solid base. But if you really want to maximize your strength and power and push as much as weight as possible, you need to move your feet back as far as possible, somewhere below your mid-thighs or even your hips.

As for keeping your feet flat on the floor versus heels up, this depends on the length of your legs and the height of the bench. If you have long legs and/or the bench is

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