Benjamin Franklin guaranteed two things in life: death and taxes. If good old Ben had lived long enough to step inside a modern gym, he would have added a third certainty: dudes are gonna bench press on Mondays.
If you’re going to bench, do it right. Done properly, the Bench Press will help you build rock-solid pecs, delts and triceps and gain immense upper-body strength. But if you fall prey to common mistakes, you’ll spin your wheels and risk wrecking your shoulders. (Add up to 40 pounds in 10 weeks with the Bench Like a Beast training program.)
As a powerlifter who competes in the Bench Press, I’ve made almost every mistake in the book trying to add weight to the bar. Luckily, most of these mistakes are avoidable. Below I catalog 7 reasons why most lifters fall short of achieving their Bench Press goals.
1. You Bench Like a Bodybuilder
There’s rarely an absolute right or wrong way to perform an exercise, but there’s always an optimal way. Whether you want to build muscle mass or simply move more weight, benching like a bodybuilder (elbows flared and touching the bar near the collarbone) is not optimal.
A power-lifting technique can instantly add pounds to your press by improving stability, decreasing the distance the bar has to travel and putting the proper muscles in position to perform the lift. Try this:
- Lie on the bench with the bar directly in line with your eyes.
- Grab the bar as tightly as possible, as if you were trying to snap it in half, hands no wider than index fingers on the rings.
- Arch your back slightly and drive your shoulder blades together like you’re trying to put them in your back pockets.
- Scoot your feet underneath your hips, dig the balls of your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes.
- Fill your belly with air and unrack the bar by pulling with your lats as if doing a Straight-Arm Pulldown.
- Pull the bar down just below your nipple line with your elbows tucked at about 45 degrees in relation to your torso.
- Pause briefly and drive your heels into the ground as you press back up to lock out.
This technique will feel strange at first, but once you master the setup, you’ll unlock new-found strength and power.
2. Your Upper Back Is Weak
The upper back is the foundation for a strong press. Which house would you rather live in—one built on a cement foundation or one sitting on a pile of sand? Much like a house built on a flimsy foundation, your bench is apt to fall apart without a thick upper back to support it.
If your bench stalls, take a few weeks to build your upper-back strength. Perform exercises like Rows, Pull-Ups and Face Pulls twice per week and do Deadlifts and Snatches at least once a week until your upper back is up to par.
3. Your Triceps Are Weak
The chest and shoulders drive the bar off the chest, but the triceps finish the lift. Weak triceps leave you just short of lockout and short of reaching your goals.
You need more than Push-Downs and Kickbacks to build strong triceps. Push-Ups, Dips, Skull Crushers and Dumbbell Extensions can bulk up the backs of your arms to assist with the home stretch of the movement.
4. You Fail Too Often
Be honest with yourself. When was the last time you failed on a Squat or Deadlift? Probably not recently, due to the danger of decapitating yourself or herniating a disc. But when was the last time you failed on the bench? Probably the last time you benched.
For some reason, people have no problem benching to failure and beyond, grinding out rep after rep with their spotter yanking the bar off their chest. It’s like crashing a race car into a wall and continuing to punch the gas—it won’t help you go faster.
Stop each set a rep or two shy of technical failure when your form starts to break down. If a bigger bench is your goal, you should rarely wrestle with all-out, gut-wrenching sets that leave you trembling in a heap on the floor.
Don’t think this means you shouldn’t go hard and heavy. Just be smart about it. For example, doing 5 sets of 3 reps with your 5-rep max is a surefire way to build strength without going to failure. Most important, keep your form consistent; the last rep of each set should look just like the first.
5. You Don’t Bench Often Enough
Monday is chest day, so that’s when you bench, right? Only if you never want to get good at benching.
Like any other skill, the Bench Press takes lots of practice. If you wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, you would practice every day. You wouldn’t play once a week until your fingers fell off. You’d start slow, hone your technique and gradually improve. You need to take the same approach when lifting.
Benching twice a week is ideal for most people looking to build a stronger bench. You can go heavy one day and work on speed or reps the second day. Don’t be afraid to do the same workout twice each week, aiming to improve bar speed and technique each time.
6. You Bounce the Bar Off Your Chest
I’m surprised the Bench Press hasn’t cracked more ribs than a Ray Lewis blitz, the way some people bounce the bar off their chest. It’s tempting to dive bomb the bar off your sternum to get some momentum on the way back up, but that’s missing the whole point, which is to train the proper muscles and practice good technique.
Rather than bouncing the bar, pull the bar to your chest as if you were doing a Barbell Row. Tuck your elbows, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the bar down under control. Touch your chest gently while staying air-tight and crushing the bar in your hands. Drive your heels down and press back up, flaring your elbows when the bar is about halfway to lockout.
Learning to “own” the bar on the way down and staying tight when touching your chest will do wonders for your pressing power. Ditch the bounce and control the bar.
7. You Don’t Use Your Legs
A proper bench is actually a full-body exercise. If you only press with your upper body, you’re leaving out the huge muscle groups of your quads, glutes and hamstrings. Good benchers know leg drive is essential for moving big weight.
Slightly arching your back lets you scoot your feet under your hips, which puts your hips on stretch and stores potential energy. “Hugging” the bench with your thighs keeps your body tight and stable, and digging the balls of your feet into the floor anchors you to the ground.
Ever see someone’s feet dancing around when they bench? Chances are they’re not very strong. Keep your feet still and drive your heels toward the floor as you press the bar off your chest to smash through your sticking point.