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Rookie Mistakes: The Bench Press

Perfect the upper-body move to see maximum gains.
Rookie Mistakes in Bench-Press Technique
Beth Bischoff
The Bench Press

It’s easy to think you’re doing the right thing in the gym, but you may be dropping the ball. Certain exercises are more technically demanding than others, and learning their major cues just once may not cut it in the grand scheme of things. Getting “comfortable” with certain movements can sometimes allow a lifter to “slip” into form that’s less than perfect. Not to worry, we've got your back. The Rookie Mistakes series serves as a call to action for lifters of all experience levels to practice perfect form on the road to achieving fitness success.

The bench press is often glamorized as the most popular movement in men’s training. Whether it should be is an entirely different story. Nevertheless, it’s practiced enough to warrant a technical review. Make sure you’re not making one of these costly mistakes when you’re benching.

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Mistake 1: Your setup sucks
The strength of your lift is always going to come down to how solid you are at the start. Having a good setup can make a world of difference when it comes to a strong (and safe) bench press. Don’t listen to generic cues that say to keep a flat back on the bench, the knees at 90 degrees, and a shortened range of motion. Get your shoulders pulled back, mildly arch the back, and pull your feet in under the bench for traction. Tightness is key, and your body should be stiff.

Mistake 2: Your grip is too wide
Many lifters use the ring markings on most Olympic bars to identify where the hands belong on the bench-press bar. The most common cue I’ve personally heard is to line up the middle fingers with the rings. The truth is, when it comes to the classic, standard bench press, hand placement really depends on two things: arm length and shoulder health. If your arms are shorter, a grip that’s too wide may put your body into a mechanical disadvantage, since your elbow angle will exceed 90 degrees while lifting. Also, if you have a history of shoulder problems, a wider grip will encourage a flared elbow, which puts the shoulder at a higher risk for joint stress. Instead, use a slightly narrower grip and keep the elbows closer to the body. Your body will thank you.

Mistake 3: You’re pressing over your chest
We all know the bench press is to be performed by lowering the bar to the chest (the nipple level is usually the common cue there). But where you press it to finish the lift is important. Pressing the bar in a straight line so that it finishes over the nipple isn’t ideal, because the bar’s force (due to gravity) is coming down over an empty space. Be sure to press the bar slightly backward toward the top, so that it’s over the shoulder in the finish position. This ensures the entire arm is under the bar to support it.

Mistake 4: You’re not using the floor
Press the bar and squeeze your chest and triceps—that’s a given. But remember that the bench press is a press that moves the bar away from the ground. With that said, applying traction into the ground will only make your lift stronger. On every push, drive your feet into the floor. It doesn’t mean you have to raise your hips and make the movement unsafe. Rather, apply solid tension through a tight body and reap the strength benefits.

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