“How much do YOU bench?”
Let’s face it: a large chest and a strong bench are the #1 way we compare ourselves to other guys in the gym…
But the truth is that your bench numbers don’t mean shit if your form is not on point! It doesn’t equate to true strength. And it’s probably a big reason your chest isn’t growing.
By “fixing” your bench press form, you’ll recruit more muscle fibers in your chest (and your triceps and shoulders) and you’ll induce more muscle growth as a result. Not to mention that you’ll avoid a lot of common shoulder injuries in the process.
Take a few minutes to browse the 10 common bench press mistakes below, identify anything you’re doing wrong, fix it, and watch as you start smashing through plateaus.
#1: Incomplete Range of Motion
The barbell should touch your chest on every single rep.
Failing to lower the barbell all the way down to your chest is cheating. It doesn’t count as one full rep. Not only will this fail to efficiently recruit all of your pectoral muscles (and cause less muscle growth)…
…but it can also put your shoulders at risk for a rotator cuff injury.
Note: Reduce the weight by 20% while you experiment with any form changes. Lifting with correct form may be harder at first, but you’ll make fast progress once your form is on point.
#2: Bar Bouncing
The barbell should never “bounce” off of your chest at the bottom of a rep.
This is also cheating. When you bounce the bar off your chest, you’re using momentum to lift the weight. This means that your muscles are actually doing LESS work, and this will also result in less muscle growth and strength development.
Not only this, but if you’re using heavy enough weight it’s actually possible to fracture your sternum or your ribcage if you come down with too much force in the wrong spot.
To fix this, slow down when you’re lowering the weights and imagine touching the bar to your t-shirt rather than your chest (a very slight mindset shift, but it tends to clean this up).
#3: Flaring Elbows
Your elbows should be slightly tucked in towards your ribcage, not flaring directly out to the sides.
Imagine that you were a football lineman, pushing an opponent with all of your force. Would you push them with your elbows flaring up to the level of your shoulders (like the red line picture above)?
Hell no! Your elbows would be closer down to your sides. Not only are you stronger in this position, but bench pressing with flaring elbows can also lead to shoulder impingement (inflammation of rotator cuff tendons).
If you’re struggling to make this adjustment, you may need to narrow your grip a little bit.
#4: Loose Shoulder Blades
Your shoulder blades should be pinched together, so that they’re the only part of your upper back in contact with the bench.
This creates stability and allows you to move more weight. It also raises your chest slightly off of the bench, reducing the distance that you have to move the barbell (and making the lift slightly easier).
To do this correctly, retract your shoulder blades and plant them firmly into the bench before you even get started. It may help to grab the bar with a narrow, underhand grip while you’re setting up. This will allow you to “pull” your shoulder blades back as you’re lying down.
This adjustment will also put your shoulder girdle in more structurally-sound position. And this further helps to prevent injury.
#5: Happy Feet
Your feet should be planted firmly into the ground… and they shouldn’t move during the entire set.
Just like retracting your shoulder blades, planting your feet will create more stability and allow you to bench more weight.
You should bring your feet back slightly behind your knees, and then press your feet into the floor. This will contract your quads and strengthen your base of support. However, be sure to push your feet downwards and FORWARDS, as opposed to directly downwards (see the arrows above)…
…because when your press directly downwards, your butt tends to shoot up. And this completely destroys the stable base that you’re trying to create here.
#6: Sloppy Grip
You should be gripping the bar EXTREMELY firmly, without letting your wrists bend back.
A lot of guys use a loosey-goosey grip when they bench press. This causes their wrists to bend backwards, sacrificing tension in the forearms, and ultimately losing strength. You should be squeezing the shit out of the bar throughout the entire set!
Note: This tip goes for every exercise – when you fully contract your grip strength it helps you get full contractions from the other muscle groups involved in the lift as well. I don’t have a study to back this up, but I’ve seen this simple tweak make a HUGE difference for countless guys.
#7: Incorrect Bar Path
The bar should start directly above your shoulders, drop down to your lower chest, and then return to exactly where you started.
You can find the proper starting position by holding the bar above your shoulders with straight arms. Next, move it forwards and backwards until you find the point where it feels “weight-less”.
From here, drop it down to your chest, so that it lands at about nipple level (or a little bit lower). This should naturally happen if you’re making sure to keep your elbows slightly tucked as your lower the weight (see #3).
Now here’s the most important part: be sure to push the bar back to where you started… NOT just up directly upwards in a straight line. If you push it straight up from your chest, you’ll be following an inefficient bar path, sacrificing strength, and ultimately sabotaging your muscle gains.
#8: Weak Breathing/Core Tension
You should inhale deeply into your abdomen before starting your set, and maintain a braced midsection throughout the entire set.
This is known as diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing). When combined with bracing your abs, it creates a lot of tension in your midsection (and this creates more stability for your bench press). You can practice this by lying on your back and breathing so that your belly rises and fall with each breath.
Now, be sure to take a huge breath into your belly before you start your set, making sure to contract your abs and brace your core at the same time. As you complete each rep, let out a small burst of air through your mouth, maintaining tension in your midsection. Be sure to inhale through your nose to fully fill your belly back up with air before the next rep.
#9: Poor Chest Activation
You should “feel” you chest contracting at the top of each rep.
If you struggle to “feel” your chest working, then perform a few VERY LIGHT sets of chest flies right before you bench. Focus on feeling your chest muscles contract with each rep. After doing this, it should be easier to replicate the process, and contract your chest muscles at the top of each bench press rep.
#10: Not Overhead Pressing
You should be doing plenty of overhead pressing to further strengthen your shoulders, triceps, and upper chest.
And by strengthening these 3 key muscle groups, your bench press will also get stronger in the process.
The overhead press is also important for maintaining healthy shoulders. If all you do is bench press, it will create an imbalance in your shoulders that can lead to bad posture and rotator cuff injuries.
Why Your Chest Isn’t Growing
The reason your chest isn’t growing is probably because your bench press form is not on point (or you’re not eating enough).
If you’re not doing the exercise correctly, you won’t be activating your chest properly. And then your chest won’t grow. It’s really that simple.
So take a step back and evaluate your bench press. As you can see above, a large part of building a stronger bench press is setting up correctly and creating a stable base before you even un-rack the bar.
You may have to drop some weight initially to accommodate the changes. It sucks, I know. But the benefits you’ll get from doing it right (a bigger chest, more true strength, and less risk of injury) are more than worth it.