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Columns: Do It Right

The Bench Press Exercise

Ronai, Peter M.S., ACSM-RCEP®, ACSM-CEP®, ACSM-EP®, EIM III, CSCS, FACSM

Author Information
ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 11/12 2018 - Volume 22 - Issue 6 - p 52-57
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000432
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EXERCISE TYPE

The barbell bench press is a compound, multiple joint upper body pushing exercise intended to increase strength and development in muscles within the chest, anterior (front) shoulder girdle, and posterior elbow joint (1).

BENEFITS OF THE EXERCISE

The barbell bench press is often performed as a means to assess as well as enhance upper body strength, power, and endurance for athletic, occupational, and functional performance as well as muscle development (2–8).

INTRODUCTION

The bench press exercise is a basic multi-joint upper body exercise that can be performed by athletes and nonathletes alike for improving strength of the chest, anterior shoulder girdle, and elbow extensor muscles. It is one of three lifts (bench press, squat, and deadlift) performed in the sport of competitive powerlifting (7) and is used as a tool to test strength, power, and endurance in competitive athletes and in nonathletes alike (2–4,6–8). It is a relatively simple exercise to teach and learn, is appropriate for athletes and nonathletes, can be adapted for use by most clients, and is often taught during initial stages of a strength enhancement program. Because of its multisegmental nature, maintaining good posture and exercise techniques and receiving proper teaching and supervision are warranted. Lifters should be free of pain in their neck and upper extremities, and clients with a history of pain in these locations should consult their health care provider and receive clearance from them before participating in a strength enhancement program. The barbell bench press exercise appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
The barbell bench press.

PRIMARY MUSCLES ACTIVATED

The pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, pectoralis minor, coracobrachialis, and triceps brachii are most active during the barbell bench press (4). In addition, Krol et al. found significant activation of the latissimus dorsi muscle in 20 recreationally trained weightlifters who used loads that were equivalent to 70% to 100% of each of their individual one repetition maximums (1-RM) (5). Figure 2 depicts an anterior and posterior view of muscles activated during the barbell bench press exercise.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
A and B, Anterior and posterior muscles activated.

TEACHING AND SAFETY POINTS

The barbell bench press is a two-phase exercise consisting of the downward lowering and upward pushing phases. The lowering and pushing phases of the barbell bench press are preceded and followed by the starting and ending positions in which the barbell is safely raised from and then lowered and returned to an overhead safety support or rack, which is approximately full arms’ length and at forehead level in a controlled manner. To enhance safety and effective learning, lifters unfamiliar with performing the barbell bench press should use either unloaded or lightly loaded bars with safety collars to learn how to balance the bar and develop the right body position and exercise technique. Unlike the explosive weightlifting movements (clean and snatch and their derivatives), the barbell bench press exercise is directly spotted because the bar is raised and lowered above the lifter’s head and face and also poses minimal risk of injury to the spotter. Clients should be screened for and free of musculoskeletal injuries before performing this exercise and demonstrate proper technique and control before increasing the amount of weight to be lifted. Please refer to Video 1, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A94, for demonstrations of the barbell bench press.

STARTING POSITION

Proper alignment in the starting position is fundamental to performing all supine (lying face up) or seated lifting exercises. The head, shoulders, and hips should maintain contact on the bench, and both feet should be placed shoulder-width apart and rest firmly on the floor. The bar should be grasped with a pronated (overhand) hook or power grip, and the hands should be spread apart slightly wider than shoulder width or approximately a little wider than 1.5 times the biacromial width (9). Wider grips (equivalent to ≥2.5 times the biacromial width) can in some instances increase loading forces on the distal clavicles at the acromioclavicular (A–C) joint in some individuals and seem to be greatest during deeper positions of the lowering phase (10). Elbows are at near but not full extension with wrists held rigid and aligned directly over the elbows. While keeping the head and neck aligned with the trunk by focusing eyes directly overhead and the lumbar spine and torso rigid, the bar should be lifted off the safety supports by extending the elbows and protracting the scapula with concentric actions of the triceps brachii and serratus anterior and pectoralis minor muscles, respectively. Next, the bar is positioned directly above the eyes. All repetitions begin and end in this position. Common errors include placing the bar too low or too high for efficient and safe bar lift-off and replacement or racking in the safety supports or rack, arching (hyperextending) the low back, pushing off against the bench with the back of the head, and placing the hands too far apart for comfortable shoulder positioning. Verbal teaching cues for this stage of the exercise include the following: “keep back flat,” “hold the chest up and out,” “squeeze the shoulder blades together,” “look straight up at the bar,” and “grip the bar firmly.” Figures 3A and 3B depict the starting position and the proper technique for lifting the bar off the safety supports, respectively.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
A, Starting position for the barbell bench press. B, Proper technique for lifting the bar off the safety supports/rack.

SPOTTING CUES

A lift-off should be provided by a spotter and may reduce the likelihood of shoulder injuries during removal and return of the bar from the safety supports or rack (11). During the bench press, the spotter should maintain an upright stance and be very close to the head of the bench without distracting the client. They should place their feet shoulder-width apart with their knees slightly flexed while grasping the bar with a closed, alternated grip inside the client’s grip. The spotter should assist with moving the bar off the supports at their client’s signal and guide the bar to a position over their client’s chest and release the bar smoothly. Full attention should be given to the client during each repetition and through the entire set. The spotter should keep his or her hands close to the bar with an alternated grip (one forearm pronated and the other supinated) without touching it and follow the bar path during both the lowering and upward pushing phases by keeping the torso rigid and upright and by flexing and extending the hips and knees, respectively. When finished, the client will signal for assistance in racking (safely returning to the safety rack or supports) the bar. The spotter should maintain grip of the bar until it is racked. Figures 4A to G depict proper spotting techniques during the assisted lift-off, lowering, bottom and top positions of upward pushing, and racking of the bar during the barbell bench press exercise. Please refer to Video 2, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A95, for demonstrations of proper spotting techniques during the barbell bench press.

Figure 4
Figure 4:
A, Spotting during the assisted lift off. B, Spotting when lowering the bar. C, Spotting at the bottom position. D, Spotting during the upward phase. E, Spotting during completion of the upward phase. F and G, Spotting when racking the bar.

THE DOWNWARD LOWERING PHASE

The head, neck, and torso maintain the same alignment as previously described during the starting phase, and after inhaling, the bar is lowered downward and slightly forward toward the feet in a controlled manner by eccentric action of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, pectoralis minor, coracobrachialis, and triceps brachii as the scapulae, shoulders, and elbows retract, horizontally abduct, and flex, respectively (1). A speed of 1 to 3 seconds is appropriate (12,13). The bar is lowered until it touches the lower chest at approximately nipple level with the upper arm abducted to approximately 45 degrees at the shoulder joint (5,10,11). Bouncing the bar off the chest, shoulder horizontal abduction with the elbows at or near 90 degrees of shoulder abduction and allowing the back of the upper arm to extend beyond or behind the midaxillary line of the trunk should be avoided, respectively, to prevent potential chest, rib cage, and shoulder joint injuries (10,11). Verbal teaching cues include the following: “keep the chest high and the trunk motionless,” “lower the bar with control, don’t drop it,” “keep the elbows below shoulder height,” and “inhale while lowering the bar.” Figure 5 depicts the bottom position of the lowering phase of the barbell bench press.

Figure 5
Figure 5:
The bottom position of the lowering phase of the barbell bench press.

THE UPWARD PUSHING PHASE

While rhythmically exhaling, the bar is forcefully pressed upward and backward in an arc-like configuration (5). This motion is accomplished by concentric actions of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, pectoralis minor, coracobrachialis, latissimus dorsi, and triceps brachii muscles as the scapulae, shoulder joints, and elbows are protracted/abducted, horizontally adducted, and extended, respectively (1,5). A cadence of approximately 1 to 2 seconds is appropriate during the upward pushing phase (12,13). Proper alignment and technique should be mastered before loading the bar. The torso remains rigid and motionless with the head and neck, shoulders, and hips held firmly against the bench. The feet maintain a shoulder width stance and are held firmly against the floor (1). Verbal teaching cues include the following: “take a deep breath to fill the chest with air and engage the core to prevent the back from arching,” “keep wrists rigid and directly above elbows” and “drive the bar up and slightly back forcefully,” “avoid bouncing the bar off the chest,” and “exhale towards the top of the lift.” Common errors include arching the back, rapidly dropping the bar and bouncing it off of the chest to gain momentum, pushing against the bench with the head and neck, failing to complete the lift at the top with full elbow extension, and holding the breath during the entire repetition. Figures 6A and 6B depict the starting and ending positions during the upward pushing phase of the barbell bench press exercise.

Figure 6
Figure 6:
A, The starting position during the upward pushing phase of the barbell bench press. B, The ending position during the upward pushing phase of the barbell bench press.

Loading intensities expressed as percentage of the one repetition maximum (1-RM), number of repetitions, and sets as well as rest period durations should reflect the specific objectives of the overall training program, which can include hypertrophy, strength, endurance, or power (12).

EXERCISE ALTERNATIVES AND MODIFICATIONS

As an alternative, the barbell bench press exercise can be performed in a seated position with selectorized or plate-loaded machines, supine position with a Smith machine, or in either a seated or standing position with cable column-based machines (not depicted). The use of a spotter is still warranted when performing the bench press on a Smith machine regardless of the fact that the weighted bar moves up and down on a guided track.

Clients with a previous history of shoulder pain who have been medically cleared to resume upper body resistance training can reduce the stresses to their shoulders by avoiding the “high five” position and by using a hand grip spacing of no more than 1.5 times biacromial width, keeping the humerus at approximately 45 degrees of abduction, and preventing more than 15 degrees of humeral extension when the bar is at its lowest position. Placing a 4- to 6-inch-thick towel roll on the chest can limit the amount of shoulder joint extension occurring during bar descent, and using a narrow width grip can limit shoulder abduction angles to 45 degrees or greater, which can both reduce the chances of pain and of incurring an injury (10,11,14). Figures 7A and 7B depict the “high five” shoulder position and the modified position. Please refer to Video 3, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A96, for demonstrations of proper hand spacing and use of a towel roll. In addition, the barbell bench press can be performed with dumbbells while lying supine on the floor (please refer to Video 4, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A97), on a training bench with a barbell and a narrow “reverse grip” (please refer to Video 5, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A98), or with a barbell on a decline bench (not depicted). The bench press also can be performed in a seated position with a number of selectorized and plate-loaded machines and with cable columns. Digital video 6 and digital video 7 depict the bench press performed in the seated position with two different selectorized machines. The seats are raised high enough to maintain shoulder abduction below 90 degrees. The handles are adjusted to limit shoulder extension by preventing the arms from moving beyond the midline of the torso and rib cage during the lowering phase (please refer to Video 6, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A99; and Video 7, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A100). Video 8 depicts the bench press performed in the seated position on a selectorized machine with the seat raised, and the arm handle range reduced to limit further shoulder extension during the lowering phase. This modification is similar to that of using a towel roll and a narrow width grip (please refer to Video 8, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A101).

Figure 7
Figure 7:
A, The “high five” shoulder position. B, The modified shoulder position.

SUMMARY

The barbell bench press exercise is one of a number of exercises used to enhance strength and muscle development in the chest, anterior shoulder girdle, and elbow extensor muscles in the upper arm. It is often taught relatively early in a strength and conditioning program because of its relative simplicity to perform and the variety of ways it can be modified. Its utility as a safe and effective strength development tool is predicated on sound instruction, effective supervision, and proper execution.

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