6 common mistakes when you bench press for strength
These are my personal observations of the biggest mistakes being made when bench pressing for strength. Feel free to elaborate or add in the comments. I personally bench press 150kg at 88kg to 90kg bodyweight and hope some of the tips are useful or entertaining for you.
Grip too wide
What i commonly see when someone new walks into our local gym is that they have a „wide-ish“ grip for the bench press. This compared with fairly high weights (3 -5 reps a set) being moved points to a beginner’s misconception in my personal opinion.
A wide grip is fine for the purpose of bodybuilding. Gripping the bar at the further end rather than closer to the body and chest provides a better stretch to the chest muscles and therefore promotes more growth. It is also harder to move big weights with a very wide grip due to putting yourself at a disadvantage from a leverage perspective.
The main difference between a beginner and someone who purposefully uses a wide grip for stretch is that the beginner usually has his/her grip slightly narrower than you would actually have when optimising for pump knowingly. This is why a „wide-ish“ form is a giveaway that someone does not necessarily know why they are doing what they are doing. In combination with the second misconception of beginner’s that more weight per repetition moved = more strength gains in all cases can lead to some nasty injuries and stretch marks if not corrected in time.
For everyone who wants to optimise for strength gains, I personally recommend a grip that is about a thumb’s length into the inner knurl of the bar. Place the tip of your thumb at the point where the inner knurl starts, stretch it out and place your grip around the bar where your palm touches it. When your fingers are closed wrap your thumb around the bar to complete the grip. This way you will always place your grip at the same place of the bar at a good leverage point for power. This makes it repeatable to imprint good form for future without having to think too hard.
In case you want a big chest fast and strength is just a by-product for you, you might want to lean into wider grip variations and incline / decline bench presses. My main tip here would be to focus on using smaller weights to get into higher repetition ranges (8 – 12 per Set) and to focus on meticulous execution for pump. Still, this is not my main expertise, I have the biggest bench for my weight class in my local gym (150kg at 88kg – 90kg bodyweight depending on the day and dinner), not the biggest chest.
Variations on grip for strength purposes come in at a later point. If you are a beginner focus on the basics and ignore the theories of variation which are mainly promoted with the Westside method. This is a better fit for intermediate lifters who already can bench in their sleep and stall if they do not introduce a variety of motion.
Grip not tight enough
A second thing to observe is that the barbell often has too much leeway in the palm which leads to instabilities during the lift. The tighter the grip the more control you will have over the bar path and force development throughout the upwards motion.
Ideally, the barbell rests on your palm while your wrists are straight to provide the most stability. A good technique to ensure a tight grip is white knuckling. After you have wrapped your fingers and thumbs around the weight as described in the chapter before, squeeze the bar until your knuckles turn white. You are aiming to make the iron submit not to you not you submit to the iron. Beginners focus too much on moving the bar at all rather than paying attention to the setup before the bar even leaves the racking position. So get in position, press until knuckles are white and unrack the bar for further proceedings.
Not building an arch
Arching when doing a bench press is highly debated in terms of health. Some say it has no impact in your vertebrae, some say do. This is a different discussion to be had, but if you want to build a big bench press, you have to know how to build a stable arch to make the most out of the lift.
Most beginners lay flat out on the bench with their lower back fully touching the bench while performing the bench press. This is also OK and will lead to losing out about 10kg – 15kg on the bar from my personal experience.
As long as your tiny ass and shoulders are still touching the bench while pressing, you are within allowed territory for most powerlifting competitions in the world. Therefore building an arch with your back to create maximum force is desirable when you optimise the bench press for strength.
You achieve this by walking your legs in as close as possible to your head while still touching the bench. Most beginners have their feet far out front the power rack. You want your feet to be as closely in as you can possibly manage without snapping your spine. If you want to see some examples for setup Check out my YouTube channel Marathon-Crossfit.
Repetition range too high
Sometimes I see newbies doing a LOT of repetitions per set. Especially when they are a bit older (I don’t know why that is, but that is just my personal observation). If you do anything more than 12+ repetitions you are not optimising for strength anymore and getting into endurance territory.
As we are looking into strength optimisation for the bench press in this post I found the ideal range to be between 3 – 5 repetitions per set at 75% to 95% of your one repetition maximum for a given bench press exercise (incline, decline, narrow and wide grip bench press maximums vary considerably). This is backed up by most literature and anecdotal reference you will find on the topic.
For bodybuilding purposes, the optimum range seems to be at 50 – 75% of one repetition maximum for 8 - 12 repetitions. Personally, I can only comment on this based on a one-month German Volume cycle I did in which I put on 4kg of mass while not increasing my one repetition maximum. So based on this small sample, for me, it worked.
Most of my lifting is done in the 3 – 5 repetition range and I have increased my bench press from 100kg in 2013 to 150kg in 2016.
Using too much momentum
That is a pretty obvious one and relates to how the bench press is performed. If the movement is all over the place with one arm extended quicker than the other, the bar not touching the chest or the upward push being initiated at different points of the lift, you usually do not get the best results in terms of strength.
You should strive to build a full range of motion for the bench press. This means locking the elbows out at full extension of the arms as starting position. Lowering the bar in parallel to the chest from the starting position. Letting the bar rest on the chest for 1 – 2 seconds (also called paused bench press) to kill momentum. Initiating the upward push from the chest up to full lock out and repeating.
If you do touch and go presses you are only selling yourself short in the gym. When there is no attention being paid to keep the bar parallel to the chest you will ingrain imbalances in your body making one or the other hemisphere stronger. This leads to inefficiencies in the movement patterns that will make you lose pounds when you progress to higher weights. In addition, some spotters are not the brightest people on the planet and will grab the higher part of the bar to help. For elite lifters, this easily results and torn or ripped off chest muscles on the weaker side.
Have a clear, controlled, repeatable movement patterns which are efficient and effective. Learn these, automate them and then start to load them with more weight. Otherwise, the sticking points will show later and will be hard to train out as ambitions grow.
Having no safety setup
Most newbies do not set up safety pins at all or not at the right height. This has two drawbacks. The first, more obvious one, is that you can easily hurt yourself, especially when you are a beginner. The second one that you also will not push yourself to the limit as you are afraid to be pinned under the bar. Being pinned under the bar is embarrassing, but not as bad as you might think. The dangerous part is uncontrolled weight coming towards your face / chest. This risk is limited when you follow all of the tips in this post and set up the safety pins at the right height.
If you know how to build an arch it will be easier for you to set up the safety pins. The safety pins should be set at a height that is slightly beneath your chest when you arch and slightly over your chest when you exit the arch. This setup gives you the opportunity after a failed attempt to exit the arch, push the barbell forward and get out safely. Experiment a bit with an empty bar, as this varies from lifter to lifter and rack to rack.
In case that you do feel that you cannot complete the repetition stay calm and under tension. Lower the bar in a controlled way onto the safety pins or your chest, in case you have not paid attention to safety in the first place. If you have to lower to your chest stay where you are until help arrives and make yourself heard. It is better to be humiliated than getting injured.
If you are alone, try to get into a position where the barbell rests on your stomach and you can sit upright. Once that is achieved try to stand up while pushing the barbell away from you as if you wanted to unload a heavy piece of Ikea furniture for a hated ex-girlfriend of a lorry. This process will hurt, so do not prolong it unnecessarily by being a wimp.
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