Bench Press

The bench press is a weightlifting event and weight training exercise that uses arm and chest muscles and  focuses on the development of the pectoralis muscles, anterior deltoids, middle deltoids, serratus anterior, coracobrachialis, triceps, trapezius, biceps and forearm muscles. The motion especially challenges the muscles of the chest. The bench press is one of the three lifts in the sport of powerlifting. The lifter lies on his/her back on a bench while pushing up and lowering down a weighted bar directly above the chest.

Scott Mendelson World Record Raw Bench Press: 715 pounds New England Bench Press Classic (May 22, 2005).

The Bench Press Lift Technique
Specific form during action of the bench press helps reduces the chance of injury and provides optimal performance technique. A barbell bench press’ starting position is with the athlete supine lying on a bench. There are two segments to the bench press: (1) the initial liftoff from the support and (2) the raising and lowering of the bar for one or more repetition(s).

Lie supine on the bench with your head rested on the bench slightly footward from the support pins. you don’t want to have to overreach to upright the bar over your chest. Feet should be flat on the floor. The bar is gripped with hands equidistant from the center of the bar — about shoulder-width — and the elbows beneath the wrists.

Lift Off
The liftoff is often assisted by a spotter or spotters, especially with heavy weight. Take in a deep breath before you lift. Movement starts by lifting the bar off of the pins, bringing it to perpendicular over the chest and lowering it until it touches the chest. The liftoff muscles used are slightly different than the actual benching muscles used. In the liftoff there is more work from the pectoralis muscles, serratus anterior muscles and the long head of the triceps to get the arms from the non-perpendicular arm position above the head to the perpendicular arm position that is used during the performance of the repetition.

The Descent
The actual bench press repetition uses more force output from the triceps controlling elbow flexion. Of course, the pectoralis muscles are still primary movers. As the bar is lowered, the shoulder blades (scapulae) should be retracted (middle borders brought together … some call it upper back arch) to minimize joint motion at the glenohumeral joint and lengthen the pectoralis muscle fibers to optimize the length-tension configuration of the muscle fibers for maximum force output. The retraction of the shoulder blades or scapulae during lowering, causes motion on the scapulo-thoracic joint (a gliding motion) and minimizes motion, stress and potential strain of the glenohumeral joint and rotator cuff muscles tendons.  Your feet should be firm and grounded (sending reaction force to the floor and earth).

The buttocks should always maintain contact with the bench to prevent arching and strain on the back. Some individuals put their feet on the bench to help keep the back from hyperlordosis (excessive arching). However, this should be avoided with heavy weights because the narrow positioning of the feet disables the feet and legs from helping with stabilization if the bar drifts downward on one side, which could cause lateral tipping and loss of control of the bar. The weight is still gripped with hands equidistant from the center of the bar (about shoulder-width apart) and the elbows beneath the wrists. The weight is then pushed off of the chest, and raised until the elbows are extended and straight (careful with hyperextension or locking out). Push even harder from your feet — grounding reaction forces into the earth. If another repetition is performed, the weight can be lowered again and the cycle is repeated for reps. After the desired number of repetitions, the bar is returned to the supports or pins.

Because of the heavy weight that can be used and the position of the bar that poses a risk to the lifter, one or more spotting partner(s) is necessary for exercise safety. If full-failure accidents happen, they happen fast with very little chance for the spotters to actually catch the weight to prevent impact on the chest. However, the spotters can minimize the full force of impact. Spotters are also helpful and necessary to with partial failure so that they can help return the bar to the supports. Spotters are also used to help with forced reps.

Variations are available for the bench press and are intended to work different subgroups of muscles, or work the same muscles in slightly different ways:

Variations in the Bench Press
Bench Angle – a bench press can be performed on an incline, on a decline. The incline-version shifts some of the stress from the pectorals to the anterior deltoids and gives a greater stimulus to the upper pectorals, whereas the decline allows more weight to be lifted while using nearly the same musculature as the traditional bench press.

Bench Press accident from using the suicide grip or “thumbs-under grip, which caused the bar to slip and fall and impact the lifter’s chest.

Hand position – Varying width grips can be used to shift stress between pectorals and triceps. A wide grip will focus on the pectorals because there is less work done by the triceps via elbow extension. A narrow (shoulder width or less) grip will cause more force output on the triceps. Under-thumb or Suicide Grips should be avoided because the bar can slip and fall and impact the head, neck or chest.

Type of weight – Instead of a bar, the bench press can also be performed with dumbbells which incorporate more use of stabilizer muscles because there is more degrees of freedom motion. Dumbbells may be safer to use without a spotting partner, as they may be dropped to the side with less risk of injury.

Variation in angle and exercise may not promote significant performance increases, but can assist in building stabilizer muscles and serve as a long term foundation to achieving an increase to an individual’s one rep maximum.

Other exercises can be done to superset the bench press, such as dumbbell flys, to hit a different angle and motion for the same muscle groups.

Some people perform the press on a stability ball. Bench press or dumbbell presses or flys with heavy weight should be avoided on a stability ball because inflation failure of the ball could cause injury. If these exercises are done on a stability ball, there should be pre-planning and plenty of clearance so that the dumbbells can be ejected to the sides without hitting any people of equipment. Barbell presses are not recommended on the stability ball because the 45-pound bar would have to be carried down during the collapse.

Bench Press Records have different categories of lifts: Assisted (with a special shirt that allows heavier weight to be lifted) and unassisted (raw, now special accessories).

Possible injuries

Incorrect form may lead to multiple types of injuries including:
torn ligaments/tendons in shoulders.
back injuries due to bridging. Bridging is the arching of the lower back which turns the bench press into the decline press. To prevent bridging, compress
the stomach muscles to force the lower back down, or bring legs up and flat onto the bench.
injuries to the trapezius muscle.
elbow/wrist strains.
cracked or broken ribs, usually the result of bouncing the bar off of the chest to add momentum to the lift or a loss of strength causing the bar to fall onto the chest.

More information … | Scott Mendelson