The bench press is everyone’s favorite lift, and for good reason - it fricking rocks. If you want to build a big and strong chest and triceps, the bench press is the lift for you. It’s probably the most popular lift of all time, because every bro in the world (myself included) wants to look good from having a big chest.
At the same time, it’s easy to make a lot of major bench press mistakes if you haven’t spent years learning everything there is to know about it. So I’ve decided to compile a list of all the biggest mistakes and weak points I see when it comes to training bench, as well as fixes. If your bench is struggling, you may need to try one of these.
Range of Motion
One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of beginner guys making is that they’re not going through a full range of motion. While partials can have their usage, particularly if you’re trying to train a specific weak point, in general it’s best to lift through a full range of motion. That means bringing the bar all the way down to the chest, which is something a lot of guys seem to skip. Ditch the partials and make sure you’re hitting a full range of motion with each rep.
You may have to use less weight than you were used to, because you haven’t been training through a full range of motion and that means you’re relatively weak in that last bit of motion around the chest. You’re going to have to get over that and toss your ego in the trash. Don’t hesitate to take some weight off the bar. In the long run, it’s going to lead to much better joint health, muscle, and strength.
Touchdown is the point on your chest where the bar touches down during the lowering phase of the rep, just before you reverse the direction and begin the push. When it comes to touchdown, many touchdown much higher on the chest, just above the nipple region or even closer to the neck.
This technique may or may not be useful, depending on your training goals. If you’re training to gain muscle, it may mean you’re pushing your arms through a slightly larger range of motion, potentially leading to more muscle built. At the same time, this form is usually criticized because it may for some be awkward and create or exacerbate shoulder issues. If this is the case, or if you’re training for strength, you may want to ditch the high touchdown and start using a lower one.
In this case, you’ll want to stick to the nipples or lower - to the end of the sternum. (That plate of bone that connects your ribs at the center.) You can’t go too low, but going a bit lower often helps keep the elbows a bit closer in to the body and thus less likely to cause shoulder issues. Additionally, this is usually preferred for those who lift for strength and don’t mind the slightly reduced range of motion that may come with it.
I’ve seen lots of kooky bar paths in my day, including some in which the bar actually moved further away from the head as it got closer to completion. However, for most, a bar path in which the bar moves slightly closer to the head is normal. This means that you shouldn’t be trying to push straight up - instead, you should be looking to push up and closer to the head.
Greg Nuckols breaks down a lot of the science behind it here, and I don’t want to steal his thunder. Essentially what it breaks down to is this - world class lifters almost always tend to push up and closer to the head simultaneously, while novice lifters tend to lift more straight up and down. Instead, aim to focus on improving your bar path by pulling the bar back over your eyes as soon as you can get it off the chest, which will put you in an ideal position for pushing.
Grip is no magical fix, but sometimes varying the width of your grip slightly may help a lot. Some people may naturally find they bench more easily from a wider or narrower grip. Whatever you do, even small adjustments can be helpful. Typically, going too narrow or too wide will be detrimental, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in between.
Another thing you can do is try purposefully varying or altering your grip position from month to month or cycle to cycle to allow you to train the involved muscles differently. This can help you prevent stagnation by ensuring a small amount of variation to provide novel stimuli to your muscles.
Many will train close grip versions of the bench press alongside their regular grip in order to help build the triceps more. The extremely narrow grip of the close grip reduces the range of motion that the pectorals have to work through, so it correspondingly increases tricep activation. This may make a close grip bench a useful accessory exercise for your standard grip bench.
Incline, dumbbell, and other variations
Many people train almost exclusively with the flat barbell bench, which can be a problem if it leads to stagnation. Consider adding in some variety by also training the incline bench, particularly if your gym has an incline bench setup. Dumbbell variations of the bench press and incline bench may be a bit easier on the shoulders and help train stability a bit more. The decline bench is also an option but may be difficult for some due to the way that the shoulder blades are pinned during the exercise - if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.
Most people don’t think of the bench press as being a super form-intensive exercise the way that an Oly lift, squat, or deadlift can be. But at the same time, stance can be crucial for the bench press.
If you’re training to powerlift, understand that federation rules typically require that your butt remain in contact with the bench throughout the lift. Thus, you’ll need to work out a way to approach a one rep max without popping your hips up, a common move that helps your body move a bit more weight by potentially forcing you into a slightly more mechanically advantageous position. This can mean lots of practice with heavy weights to make sure you can move it without causing that infamous butt pop. Of course, if you’re not aiming to compete, you can potentially allow it to help you move more weight, but you’ll want to be careful. From personal experience, I find it’s easy to accidentally strain my lower back when I let my back pop up like that - all the force from the bench press forces me to compress my spine a bit too much, particularly if I’m struggling to complete a super-heavy weight.
Powerlifters will often talk about the value of hip drive in the bench - I’m not sure if this is valid, given how freakishly strong some paralympic benchers can be, but I can certainly admit that a good foot setup is valuable too. If your feet are too wide, it can compromise your ability to hold proper position. Experiment with your feet a little to figure out what you can do.
Another consideration is arch. Arching your body (akin to the butt pop discussed above) can help you achieve that more advantageous mechanical position, in addition to reducing the distance the bar has to travel to touch the chest. Provided you can get a solid arch without your butt lifting off the bench, this can be useful for powerlifters as well. Some freakishly flexible people can get a really crazy arch going, but for most of us it’s just a matter of a few centimeters or inches.
Bar Speed and Pause
Bar speed should always be high, as fast as you can keep it without compromising form. But frankly, many people compromise form quite easily when it comes to adding speed, so focus on making sure your form is nailed down before you really try to add more speed. This is the premise of lighter speed work seen in the Westside Conjugate Method. More speed equals more gains.
At the same time, many people do their reps way too fast - they overspeed the bar, bounce it off their chest violently, and use that momentum to help complete the next rep. This is a recipe for injury - as soon as you get strong enough to handle a decent amount of weight, you’re probably going to end up cracking a rib or something. This is why it often does make sense to tell people to slow down their reps. They need to gain control first, and then they can add speed only so long as it doesn’t compromise their control.
Another related topic is the topic of pauses. When you’re training for size, no pause is needed and you can easily do all your reps as what are called “touch and go” reps. This basically just means you’re touching the chest as normal and then pushing back up - like what would come naturally to you. With strength however, powerlifting federations often mandate the need for a small pause while the lifter waits for the judge to call push. Thus, training with a bit of a pause at the bottom of the rep is necessary in order to develop that skill so that you can perform well on the platform. Pause bench reps have other uses as well, which will be discussed in the weak points section.
Get a good program
This may sound like a silly point, but honestly a lot of guys out there are still doing their own little goofy “whatever the hell they feel like doing” program and aren’t sure why it’s not working out. If you’ve got the rest of the points in order and you’re still struggling to see good results, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a solid program for the results you’re looking for - either hypertrophy or strength. If you’re training for hypertrophy, don’t forget that you’re going to need to be thinking about your diet a lot too. There are plenty of good programs out there on the internet, just don’t try something like Smolov for bench on your first time around.
Targeting Weak Points
When everything else is taken care of, all that remains are weak points - natural deficiencies in the movement caused by gaps in our training or by physiological quirks of our bodies. There are considered to be three major weak points in the lift of the bench press: the start, the middle of the lift, and the lockout.
The start of the lift begins when you’ve finished the lowering phase and are now beginning to push off of the chest. For people with this weak point, they may be able to handle their one rep max just fine but then they can’t budge the bar off their chest just 5 or 10 pounds heavier. This is likely caused by weak front deltoids, so exercises which target the front deltoid, such as overhead presses or front raises, can help. You can also use pause bench presses to improve your strength in this position - this is one of the exercises I most commonly need to work into programs for my clients. However, with this, and with all assistance work, you’ll not want to consider it a replacement for standard flat benching - just an accessory movement to be trained concurrently. This one is common with raw lifters, but rare with geared powerlifters.
The middle of the lift occurs just a little bit above the chest, after you’ve gotten the bar moving but haven’t locked out the arms yet. In this position, the chest is doing a lot of work, so you want to focus on developing the pectoral musculature via other chest exercises, including bench press variations, pushup variations, flyes, and so on. You can also do reduced range of motion exercises such as the pin press or board press set to the point of weakness - this may help strengthen that specific range of motion. Like all reduced range of motion lifts, you don’t want to consider this a replacement for standard, full ROM flat benching, but instead a supplement. This weakness can be seen in both raw and geared lifters.
Lastly, the lockout of the bench press occurs when the bar has gotten a bit further off the chest and all that’s left to do is lock out the arms. This is primarily a tricep focused portion of the exercise, so you want to make sure that you’re training your triceps to improve it. This can include stuff like the close grip bench press as well as tricep isolation work. You can also use even further reduced range of motion pin presses or board presses, but again they’re not a replacement for full ROM lifts. This is most commonly seen in geared lifters, who often need to train specifically to improve their lockout.
Wrapping it up
If you’re struggling to develop your bench press, chances are you need to experiment a little and try something new. If so, this list of tweaks to try is your first go-to. Once you’ve exhausted all of the above, chances are that all that’s left is to do more work by increasing your volume above and beyond what you’re already doing. Get to it.