Most Common Bench Press Mistakes
by Jim Vaglica
As soon as I walk into any gym I start critiquing every lifter. I can’t help myself. “Those are some great half reps buddy” or “lady, if those dumbbells were any lighter they’d float away.” Sometimes “pal, I have no idea what the Christ you’re trying to do.” Obviously I don’t say these things out loud or I’d spend more time fighting than lifting. One of my “unwritten gym rules” is I never give unsolicited advice. Sometimes this rule tortures me especially when I see common mistakes with the bench press.
What does Jim know about bench pressing?
At the top of my list of qualifications is the fact that I’ve completed in about ten bench contests, spread out over several years. I’m not one to do anything “half assed” so I did my research, read the books, watched the videos and experimented with different methods in preparation for my contests. I formed a bench press team and took the lead as captain. We traveled the New England area competing and our results were published in Powerlifting USA magazine. I have many official lifts over double body weight (and in one strange contest I benched my bodyweight for 29 reps) When you spend hours at a bench contest watching hundreds of lifters making thousands of attempts you can’t help but analyze their form and critique their mistakes.
The following is my list of the Most Common Bench Press Mistakes
If you want to press some heavy weight you need to use your whole body and you need to start with a solid base. I’ve seen guys straining for another rep and their feet are kicking like they’re being strangled. Even worse than that is putting both feet up on the bench. Unless you’re practicing to walk a tight rope there’s absolutely no benefit to that position.
After you lie back on the bench you should bring your feet straight back toward your head to the point where your heels are about to come off the ground. Your heels should stay in contact with the floor forming your solid base. If you’ve got long legs your butt may tend to come off the bench. You could avoid this by widening your feet. On the initial drive, off your chest, you should drive your heels through the floor and hold that position until you rack the weight.
Where you grip the bar determines what muscle groups will have the most influence on your lift. Use the power rings as a gage and obviously your grip should be exactly the same on both sides. Whether you generate more power from your chest or your triceps you should start out with a placement that tends to use both equally. Here’s how to determine that placement:
You will need someone to help you with this. Lie back on the bench and take an equal grip on an empty bar. Lower the bar to your chest and hold. Have your helper stand either directly behind your head or directly in front of your feet. They may need to squat down to your chest level. They need to determine if your forearms are exactly vertical and perpendicular to the floor. Your hands should be directly over your elbows. If you hands are flaring out you should narrow your grip or vise versa. If you’re interested in power and you believe most comes from your chest, you can widen your grip. If you feel like your triceps are your big movers you can narrow your grip but I’m talking about an inch or two at most.
Do not use a false or “thumbless” grip. It’s dangerous and it tends to keep your elbows in tight to your body forcing your front delts and triceps to do most of the work.
Allowing your wrists to bend back
When you grip the bar don’t let your wrists sag back. The bar should remain directly in line with your forearms. Allowing your wrists to sag will lead to wrist problems and you’re not in the direct line of power. Hold your wrists tight as if you were punching a heavy bag.
Don’t shrug your shoulders
When you lie on the bench your shoulders should not be up by your ears. In the shrugged position you’re not getting the full benefit of your pecs and you’re taking your lats completely out of the lift (yes your lats assist in your bench press)
You should flex your lats and drive your shoulders down toward your hips while squeezing your shoulder blades together. This should create an arch in your lower back but your butt should always stay on the bench. Only your upper back should be pressed hard into the bench. Always look straight up and do not press your head into the bench, which could cause a neck injury.
Perform full reps
Who said it was OK to stop six inches above your chest? Are these the same people parking two feet from the curb? The bottom portion of the bench press is where your pecs are heavily activated. If you don’t touch the bar to your chest you’re only cheating your pecs out of a lot of good work.
If you’re doing these partial reps to inflate your numbers, be advised: Any rep that doesn’t touch your chest, followed by a complete unassisted lockout, is not a rep and cannot be claimed when a fellow gym rat asks “How much do ya bench?”
Partial bench reps are acceptable in certain training programs but the topic of this article is the standard bench press.
Your chest is not a trampoline
Thankfully I don’t see this much anymore but ‘back in the day’ guys were bouncing the bar off their chest like it was a bell ringing contest. It’s just another form of cheating, it’s counter productive and it’s dangerous. I know a guy who never benched without bouncing. The first contest he entered he had to pause the bar on his chest and his pec ripped like an old gym towel.
One problem I still see is guys dropping the bar on the descent and then coming to a quick stop. You’re cheating yourself out of the negative portion of the lift, which is just as effective, in building muscle, as the positive portion. Your descent needs to be controlled as if you were compressing a heavy spring. When the bar touches your chest you should explode up, powering your way past the sticking point.
“Are you benching or are you assisting your spotter with upright rows?”
If you’re doing a set of eight with a weight you can only get for two reps “lighten up buddy.” One or two assisted reps, after you perform at least five on your own, is all you should need for assistance. And if you’re spotting someone don’t let the bar stop. Always keep the bar moving up and level.
I just needed to get that off my chest
If you’ve spent enough time in the gym I’m sure you’ve seen these mistakes and many others, but this is my list of the major ones and how to correct them. I hope this article has helped you in your quest for a “big bench” but now on to more pressing matters.
Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Team Labrada Athlete, Jim from Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible, Police Sergeant, SWAT Operator, Owner of JimVaglica.com
About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com