The bench press is one of the most widely used and known movements in all gym settings. Whether you’re a dedicated strength athlete, or a recreational gym-goer, then chances are you’ve bench pressed at least once in your lifetime. And believe it or not, there’s more to the bench press than meets the eye.
The bench press is often thought of as an introductory movement for many, which it is in a lot of respects, but it’s also incredibly complex. The average bench press rep lasts between 3-4 seconds and in that time frame a ton of things can go wrong. That’s why it’s incredibly important to spend some extra time dialing in the perfect bench press form.
And once you’ve conquered the form and understand the movement, then learning about additional things like the bench press commandments can help. This article will focus on the opposite of form, and that’s on the common mistakes or areas where the bench press can go haywire.
1. Elbow Flare
Elbow flare is an interesting topic in the bench press because there are multiple view points on what the elbows should be doing during the press. In reality, extremes with flare or tuck can be haphazard method when it comes to efficient pressing, but in comparison a lot of flare is often seen as a larger issue (directly compared to tucking).
Elbow flare can be problematic for two major reasons. First, you won’t be pressing efficiently. This will most likely present itself as poor bar path, which will result in the joints and muscles not working in unison to press, and that leads us to our next point. The second problem elbow flare can cause is increase risk of injury. Excessive below flare can disengage scapular retraction and produce extra stress on the shoulder joints (glenohumeral and AC joints in particular).
Keep in mind, the elbow will naturally flare a bit when performing the concentric — this section is discussing extreme cases.
So what is right? Well, that’s much more complex than simply saying “tuck your elbows”. The right amount of tuck will relate to how you press and what feels the most comfortable. In addition, your elbow flare will also relate to your ability to set up on the bench press and maintain proper points of contact. A good idea is to start with a 45 degree tuck in the elbow, then work from there to improve and find what works best.
2. Wrists Rolling Back
The wrists are most often an issue with newer lifters and don’t receive the attention they deserve. Relaxed wrists are problematic in the bench press for two reasons. Number one, it can cause dissipation of pressing strength and power, which will make your bench press less than ideal (due to lack of stacked joints). Think about it this way; you’re not going to press a heavy rock away from you with completely relaxed wrists, why would you do the same with a barbell?
In a 2018 narrative review published in the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine journal, researchers suggested that losing control of the barbell left athletes more prone to injury, which is something relaxed wrists could potentially cause (1).
Number two, it’s probably very uncomfortable and can lead to wrist pain. Placing a barbell in an extended wrist while trying to bench press can create a high level of discomfort, which is not normal, so if that’s the case for yourself, then it’s worth exploring this issue.
Much like elbow flare, wrist position will come down to personal preference. If you’re a competitive powerlifter, then how you press will influence your wrist position (and there are exceptions). Although, for the recreational lifter, then it’s a good idea to aim for the barbell to sit in the meat of the hands. This will allow the barbell to sit over the elbow joint when at the bottom of the movement promoting pressing efficiency.
3. Bar Hitting Too High On the Chest
More than likely, if your bar is hitting too high on the chest, then there are multiple areas where your press is going wrong, but let’s only address this issue in this section. If a barbell is hitting too high on the chest, then a lifter will have a tougher time properly stacking the joints and will have the primary pressing muscles firing less than optimally (pec major will most likely not be as engaged as they could).
If you’re finding that the bar is hitting too high on your chest, then assess your elbows first. Extremely flared elbows can result in high bar placement.
A good bet to begin with when considering the bar’s placement on the chest is to aim for the bottom of the pec or towards the bottom of the sternum. This may look slightly different for everyone, but these anatomical landmarks are great starting points when aiming to fix your bar’s placement. In reality, we want the bar to hit an area that allows our elbows to properly align under it for maximal pressing power.
4. Grip Width
Note, grip can be synonymous with wrist position, too, but for the sake of this article we’re going to talk about the two as being separate entities and focus specifically on the grip’s width. Bench press width will vary between athletes and this comes down to how a lifter is built (shoulder & torso width), if they compete (ex: powerlifter bench width will most likely look different), and what feels the most comfortable.
A grip that’s too narrow could cause stress on the lateral sides of the wrists, while a grip that’s too wide could cause dissipation of power. One thing to note, if you’re a powerlifter and you’re trying to move the most weight possible, then your grip will again, most likely be different than the general recommendation below.
As mentioned above, ideal grip width will look slightly different for everyone, but a good idea to begin with is finding a width that allows the wrist to be directly (or closely) over the elbow at the bottom of the press. For many, this will be a grip that’s slightly wider than the shoulders. A 2007 study from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning suggested that wider grips led to more shoulder injuries compared to slightly narrower grips (2), so for the recreational lifter, then a standard grip of slightly wider than shoulders will work just fine.
If you’re readjusting your grip and trying to find what is ideal for you, then begin adjusting your grip by using the metal ring on each side of the bar. Start with the pinky in contact with the ring, then adjust inwards or outwards accordingly using your fingers and the metal ring as a gauge.
5. Protracting the Scapula
Retraction of the scapula is a huge key to success on the bench press when it comes to moving weight efficiently, protecting the shoulders, and ensuring synonymous reps (aka not having to reset each rep). Before bringing weight over the body, the scapula should be retracted, or “pulled back” on the bench. Think about squeezing a pencil between the scapula without having them hike up to properly achieve this.
At the top of the press if you find that your shoulders are rounding inwards (internally rotating), or even coming off the bench, then chances are you’re protracting your scapula, which can lead to a handful of problems.
Ideally, you want to keep the scapula pulled back throughout the entire bench press. The protraction at the top can disengage your upper back’s point of contact, which will usually result in reps that lack movement quality. Yes, movement quality is a vague description, but in this respect we’re referencing reps that don’t resemble the rep prior to them, or a rep that pulls the upper body out of placement.
6. Relaxed Feet
Why is your bench press stalling? It could be your feet. The feet are one of the main points of contact that create a strong base for benching. If you’re a powerlifter, or weathered strength athlete, then you probably already know the importance of creating full body tension with feet in the bench press. Not to mention, leg drive is an incredibly important part of creating a strong bench press.
If you find that your feet are moving underneath you when benching, or that they’re lifting off the ground, then it might be time to reassess your set up.
The feet’s position are going to come down to one’s personal preference in respects to what feels comfortable and what can keep tension throughout the movement. It’s worth noting that your setup should reflect how you compete if you’re a competitive powerlifter. Some federations allow the heel to be off the ground while others require a flat foot.
Check out the video below with world record holder Jen Thompson discussing the importance of leg drive.
7. Butt Coming Off the Bench
Have you ever been to the gym and witnessed someone bench pressing with their hips shooting up off the bench? I think we’ve all been guilty of this. This is an indicator of two things and can impact your bench press in a couple ways. First, this indicates that the weight may be too heavy, as hips shooting up usually is a result of needing extra power. Second, bench press form needs to reworked. If the hips are not maintaining contact, then you’ll be missing one point of contact and for those who compete — earn red lights.
Hips coming off the bench can not only lead to an increase in injury due to the lumbar spine being forced into excessive loaded extension, but it can also completely take away from the movement’s goal of building a stronger upper body. Mind you, arching the thoracic is not hips coming off the bench.
For this point: An arch is okay, and an arch does not mean hips are rising off the bench. Ideally, your setup will allow for the hips to maintain contact the whole time, the feet to produce power through the press, and the upper body to remain tight. These will all have an impact on hips rising off the bench, so if you’re struggling with this aspect, then check your others points of contact, too.
8. Bouncing the Bar Off the Chest
If you’re going through a bench day and experiencing bruising or soreness on what feels like the skeletal structure of the chest, then you may be guilty of this point. Quick eccentrics are not the problem here, it’s the fast lowering of the bar with no attention given to packing the muscle and absorbing force, aka letting the sternum act as a bone sling shot. For example, a study in the Journal of Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise found that elite lifters had a quicker eccentric, but didn’t directly reflect this to higher rate of injury (3).
The act of bouncing the bar is really not that beneficial for any reason. Firstly, it can teach poor bench mechanics by engraining that the eccentric portion of the movement isn’t important. Secondly, it can cause you to lose upper back tightness, which will decrease your ability to produce power. Thirdly, it’s kind of dangerous when you consider that you’re bringing weight to the torso with lack of control. Lastly, any form of “heaving” is red light material in multiple powerlifting federations.
I’m not here to provide the perfect eccentric tempo, in fact, that’s going to always change in respects to your lifting style, rep scheme, and intensity. This portion is to simply advise paying attention to your form during the eccentric. If you’re losing upper back tightness, or even finding that your bar path is a little wonky, then you may be guilty of lacking eccentric control. If you’re new to lifting, then think about lowering the bar for 3-seconds, this will be a good bet to help you learn control and tempo.
The bench press is both a simple and complex movement. It takes a lot more than simply laying down and pressing weight to be efficient with this movement, and perfecting your form won’t happen over night. More than likely, if you’re falling victim to one of these common bench press mistakes, then there are more factors probably going wrong.
When in doubt, ask a coach, film from all angles, and spend the extra time breaking each area to pin point struggle areas.
1. Bengtsson, V., Berglund, L., & Aasa, U. (2018). Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 4(1), e000382. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000382
2. The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and… : Strength & Conditioning Journal. (2018). LWW. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
3. T, M. (2018). Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 22 October 2018.