All You Need to Know About the Barbell Bench Press

By Molly Galbraith

In the list of exercises that can make someone feel powerful while seeming a little intimidating to those not familiar with them, the barbell bench press is certainly in one of the top positions!

Do you have questions about the barbell bench press? Not sure of the benefits or of how to perform the exercise?

We’ve got you covered!

What Are the Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press?

Exactly how you choose to use the barbell bench press is highly dependent of your overall technical ability and experience, how much weight you’re using, the set and rep scheme you select, where you place the exercise in your workout, what other exercises you do and what your rest periods are.

In general barbell bench presses can be used to do any or all of the following:

  • Increasing upper body strength, primarily in the chest, shoulders and triceps.
  • Increasing upper body strength in the biceps and the musculature in the upper back.
  • Increasing core strength.
  • Building muscle.
  • Fat loss (if your diet and exercise routines are conducive to fat loss).
  • Conditioning (if used as part of conditioning circuits).

Who Can Perform Barbell Bench Presses?

In and of itself, the barbell bench press is more of an intermediate lifting exercise. This means that you should wait until you have experience doing push-ups and the dumbbell bench press before progressing to the barbell bench press.

As you start working on the barbell bench press, keep in mind that a standard barbell weighs 45 pounds. If this is still too much of a load for you, you may want to stick with the dumbbell bench press until you’ve built the strength required to use a conventional barbell.

Alternatively, some gyms have fixed-weight preloaded barbells that are shorter than a traditional barbell, and usually start around 20 pounds, going up in increments of 5 to 10 pounds.

When Should One Place the Barbell Bench Press?

Where the barbell bench press goes in your workout will depend on the workout itself. If you’re doing an upper-body pushing workout, you should place the barbell bench press somewhere in the first half of the workout, when your muscles and nervous system are fresh.

If you’re doing a full-body workout, you can pair the barbell bench press with a lower-body compound movement, or an upper-body pulling movement.

To make the barbell bench press more challenging, you can of course add resistance to it. Another way to increase the challenge is to change the tempo of the exercise, by slowing down the eccentric (or lowering) part of the movement. You can also add a pause at the bottom of the movement, where the barbell is closest to your chest.

What’s the Proper Technique?

When it comes to your bench press technique, you must determine what your goal is. For instance, if you are a powerlifter and are looking to lift as much weight as possible, your bench press form will look very different from that of a bodybuilder, or the general population who is just looking to add muscle, get stronger, and feel good. If you are looking to develop your triceps, you will use a slightly narrower grip.

Set Yourself Up

  • Lie on the bench and position your body so your eyes are directly under the bar. Your feet should be in a shoulder width stance, or possibly a bit wider, and should be flat on the floor.
  • As for the setup of the bar, it is important that the bar is positioned not too high up, but also not too low down as this will make it tougher to lift up the bar to get into the starting position.
  • Grab the bar so your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and your wrists should be straight. This grip width seems to work best for most.

Prepare to Move

  • Before you press up the bar to the starting position, take a deep breath into your belly (360 degrees of air around your spine).
  • Stiffen your core (I like to pretend that I am about to block a soccer ball with my stomach), lightly tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), tighten the muscles in your upper back and draw shoulder blades together and down (towards the opposite back pocket in your pants), and squeeze your glutes.
  • Once you’ve unracked the bar, it should be directly over your shoulders and your elbows, forearms and wrists should be in a vertical position. Your shoulders should remain packed (keep your arms in their sockets).

The Movement

  • Before you lower the bar down in a controlled manner (you can think of it as a rowing motion rather than letting the bar drop), take another deep deep breath into your belly, stiffen your core, lightly tuck your rib cage towards your hips, tighten your upper back, squeeze your glutes, and lower the bar.
  • The bar should touch between your sternum and mid-chest, your elbows should remain at about a 45-60 degree angle with your body, and your forearms should remain vertical.
  • Once the bar touches your sternum to mid-chest, press the bar away from your body so it returns to the starting position (just over your shoulders), and lock your elbows at the top (but do not hyperextend them).
  • Drive your feet into the floor for the duration of the exercise as this helps engage the muscles in the lower body, and also provides additional stability to your entire body. The bench press is a full body exercise.
  • Unless you’re doing more of a powerlifting bench press, make sure that your back is not excessively arched. A slight arch is OK. Do not allow your hips to leave the bench.
  • Reset and repeat for the desired number of reps.

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About the author:  Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, a global movement of 800,000+ folks passionate about women’s health, fitness, and empowerment. She’s also the creator of the The Girls Gone Strong Academy, home of the world’s top certifications for health and fitness pros who want to become a Certified Pre-& Postnatal Coach or a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.   The GGS Academy is revolutionizing women’s health and fitness by tackling critical (and often overlooked) topics like body image struggles, disordered eating, menopause, amenorrhea and menstrual cycle struggles, PCOS, endometriosis, osteoporosis, pre- and postnatal exercise, incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, postpartum recovery, and much more.   Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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