When it comes to the bench press, I see it almost all the time. Everywhere I go it seems like there is at least one person doing the bench press, or variations of it, all wrong. I’ve seen the issues that I’m about to detail below almost everywhere, from the large commercial gyms where everything is a free-for-all to the friendly and smaller confines of our own gym. At least in the latter, I have the opportunity to coach and fix up these bench press errors as soon as I see them for our new members!
I can completely understand why people get the bench press wrong, however. At its core, the bench press is a horizontal pushing exercise that works the pecs, arms, and triceps. But it is actually so much more; it is really a multi-joint compound exercise that works the entire body, putting it more in line with movements like the squat and deadlift.
That being said, it is an exercise with a lot of technical components that ideally, would improve over time. As with other exercises in the gym, as technique improves, so should the amount of weight you can bench. It still boggles my mind that, particularly in the commercial gyms I frequent on my off days, I see people using what looks like 15 pounds on bench press exercises throughout their workouts without even a hint of improvement over the course of many months–in technique, weight, or otherwise.
There are many ways to bench press, but as a starting point, here is what they should all generally look like:
I intentionally chose these videos to show that variations in grip, equipment used, bench angle, and lifting style are all fair game. However, I want you to watch all these videos again, and from them you’ll see that the following 3 errors are common when it comes to benching, and that their technical corrections apply throughout the continuum of bench pressing variations.
Mistake #1: Flaring your elbows (not maintaining a 45-degree angle between the torso and elbow)
This is a mistake we see not only in the bench press, but in push-ups as well. For some reason, I’ve seen many people make a concerted effort to keep their elbows in line with their shoulders as they bring the weights down to their chest, or as they bring their bodies down towards the ground in push-ups.
This actually results in an unsafe position for the shoulder joint. As you can see in the image below, there is a lot going on in the shoulder joint and not a lot of space–and that’s putting it mildly. When you flare your elbows, the humerus (or the upper arm) wants to ride up in the shoulder joint towards the acromion. This closes off the space above the humeral head, which can result in shoulder impingement.
In practice, flaring the elbows will look like you are bringing the weights to your neck rather than your chest. Instead, you should think about pulling the barbell/dumbbells down to your chest, and maintaining a 45-degree angle at your elbows, like in the videos above. This is a much stronger and better supported position to push from.
As a side note, there’s a time and place to “flare the elbows” in your bar path coming off the chest when you’re already strong. This phenomenon actually helps powerlifters bench more. However, it’s the result of good bench pressing technique, and NOT the cause of it. You can read more about that here: 3 Tips to Boost Your Powerlifting Total.
Mistake #2: Turning the bench press into a tricep extension (not keeping the forearms straight throughout the exercise)
In a bench press, you shouldn’t bend your arms past the point where your forearms go past vertical on the way down. This is a mistake I commonly see on dumbbell variations, because they have more freedom to move. In practice, this bench press mistake looks like you’re just bending the elbows rather than letting the dumbbells down towards your chest. It will look as if you’re intentionally trying to touch the inside edge of the dumbbells on your chest.
That above is a dumbbell tricep extension, not a bench press. Unfortunately though, I’ve seen bench press technique that vaguely resembles that. Instead, think about keeping your forearms straight throughout the bench press, and don’t let the elbows bend or the forearms to break vertical: this is key to making sure that your bench press is working the pecs, and not just your triceps.
Mistake #3: Not using the legs at all (not using or learning how to use leg drive correctly)
On the big bench variations, especially those of the barbell, you should use something called leg drive to create tension that transfers up the chain and allows you to bench press more. This is a difficult concept to grasp, and it definitely takes a while to get right.
What I want you to look for in your bench press is something that you can see in all the videos shown above. Notice how the feet and legs are positioned in all the bench press variations. It almost seems as if the lower body is ready to push off the ground hard in all the videos; this is exactly what leg drive should feel like. The legs stay rooted to the floor, and they are ready to push. Getting into this positioning is the crucial first step towards utilizing leg drive effectively–and thereby turning the bench press into a true multi-joint exercise.
Here’s how to practice and get leg drive right after you understand the importance of positioning:
Sunday’s #QuickTip: Stretch your hips…to bench press more! — Counterintuitive? First, watch as Staff Coach @jrlaukinetics demonstrates the proper way to mobilize the hip flexors in a half-kneeling position. It doesn’t look like much, but by squeezing the glute and bracing hard to maintain a neutral torso position, you will feel an intense stretch of the hip flexors without much forward movement at all. There should be a straight line from the shoulder down to the knee. Now, notice the position of the legs in the bench press. This is the optimal position to utilize something called hip drive to press more weight. Look carefully, and you can see the hips “twitch” as the bar comes off the chest. That’s because hip drive involves squeezing the glutes to extend the hips and push into the floor with your feet hard. Without good hip flexor mobility, you won’t be able to get into position, let alone utilize hip drive effectively. Fortunately, these are factors you can address in a proper hip flexor mobilization. Give it a shot! — #fitness #fitspo #fitfam #nyc #gym #gymtime #personaltrainer #privategym #halevylife #powerlifting #performance
Using leg drive properly and at the right moment is basically timing an explosive–but practically immobile–“push” of the legs into the floor during the barbell’s ascent. This push creates tension that transfer up your body that gives you the extra boost you need to finish off a heavy bench press.
Even in scenarios where a big bench press isn’t relevant or even desirable, these technical cues about leg drive are still important, as you must have the proper positioning to bench press correctly–and use weights that are actually heavy enough to elicit gains in strength and fitness.
The bench press is one of the most oft-butchered exercises that I’ve seen in the gym, and because of this, many people are not unlocking their full potential when it comes to this valuable exercise. If you’re making these mistakes, you’re probably stagnating on this crucial movement as well. Fix them up with the tips outlined here, and you’re well on your way to making your bench press suck less. Happy benching!
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.