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The complete guide to bench press mistakes and how you can correct them

Der vollständige Ratgeber zu Fehlern beim Bankdrücken und wie Du diese korrigieren kannst

This article will cover the following:

  • What the most common bench press mistakes are
  • How to recognize a poor bench press setup and what you can do to correct it
  • Why your repetition form could be compromising your progress and how you can improve it and prevent injury
  • Which exercises can help you improve your bench press performance
  • How to warm up properly to maximize your work sets
  • The importance of planning, effort and patience and how to make your training sessions as effective as possible
  • Why mental strength plays a crucial role in your progress

Bench press - an overview

Bench press Monday is a global institution in pretty much every commercial gym around the world. The same goes for Bench Press Tuesday, Bench Press Wednesday, Bench Press Thursday...I think you know where I'm going with this. Recreational athletes and keyboard heroes act as if bench pressing 130 kilos is something that is easy for every other trainee. The reality is completely different.

Although statistics vary, most sources accept the fact that the average 80 kilo man will manage one repetition at around 80 kilos on the bench. The average twenty-something in this weight class will rarely bench press more than 115 kilos for a repetition (about 10% will manage this) - not to mention the 130 kilos that many brag about on the internet. Commonly used tables for relative strength standards describe 125 kilos for an 80 kilo man as advanced performance.

More observant gym owners will tell you that statistics are unnecessary, as they can see with their own eyes week after week how exercisers struggle with weight on the bench. Watching someone bench press 100 kilos safely without a training partner is rare enough. Seeing someone bench press 140 kilos is almost abnormal - it's that rare.

But why is the bench press an exercise that is so difficult to master when all it involves is taking the weight from the rack, lowering it to the chest and pressing it back up? Why is this (along with strict standing shoulder press) one of the exercises where exercisers are the first to get stuck weight-wise, and why can stagnation in bench press progress be something that lasts for years rather than months?

Perhaps it is because the vast majority of exercisers perform this exercise incorrectly. The first problem is the idea that the bench press is an easy exercise. In reality, as you will see below, it is one of the most technical of all exercises.

There are dozens of bench press mistakes that almost every exerciser makes. The few who master the technique and bench press regularly and consistently are those who bench press 130, 180 and 230+ kilos with impunity. In this guide, we will address the following points:

  • Technical mistake #1: the setup - why your approach is wrong and how you can correct this.
  • Technical mistake #2: The exercise execution - how your form is compromising your progress and why injuries are inevitable if you follow this path.
  • Support: Although the best way to improve your bench press performance is to train bench presses, this exercise is more of a full-body exercise than you realize.
  • The warm-up: Are your "easy" sets possibly holding you back?
  • Ineffective training: A high weight on the bench requires planning, effort and patience. Plan your attack or you'll be doomed to spend all eternity in bench press purgatory.
  • Mentality: Your mind needs to be in the right place every time you move under the bar. Mental strength promotes physical strength.

Technical mistake #1 - The setup

A cursory glance at the pitiful state of the bench press in almost any gym should be enough to reveal a myriad of mistakes that are widespread. However, because few people pay attention to the technical details, the same mistakes are made for years by the same person who wonders why they can never increase the weight on the bar.

Most people see bench pressing as a simple matter of lying down on a bench and getting to work. Of course, this is not the case and a large percentage of all exercisers make mistakes before they even lift the weight off the rack. Below we'll look at the litany of these setup mistakes and describe how they can be eradicated.

Do not reduce the range of motion

Rule #1 with any exercise - and especially the bench press - is to reduce the range of motion when you're trying to increase the weight you're moving. This is common sense: the shorter the distance you have to move the weight, the more weight you can move. Using a wider grip is a method of reducing the range of motion.

In many weightlifting circles, a shoulder-width grip is considered a "tight bench press" - so if you're guilty of using a tight grip, it's time to widen it. Placing your pinky on the outer ring of the bar is a good place to start. From this position, you can increase or decrease your grip width depending on your personal preference. However, it is important to note that a grip that is too wide can cause shoulder discomfort in the long run, which you should keep in mind if you are aiming for huge weights.

Once you've decided on a grip width, it's time to learn to retract your shoulder blades. When you pull your shoulders back, you automatically reduce the distance you have to move the bar. Even though your head, shoulder blades and butt need to stay in contact with the bench, arching your lower back is an excellent way to shorten the range of motion as your chest will come closer to the bar during the negative phase of the movement.

Pressing without building body tension

Many exercisers view bench presses as simply a chest and tricep exercise without really understanding the full-body nature of the exercise. The idea of building good body tension involves getting completely stiff before you even take the bar out of the rack. World-renowned powerlifter and strength coach Dave Tate says that he presses his knee against a lifter's knee or torso before the bar is removed from the rack. If the trainee moves even slightly, Tate decides to leave the bar in the rack. But how do you build up good body tension?

Footwork plays an important role. If you allow your legs to just dangle around while you press, then this will seriously limit the amount of weight you can move. If your feet are placed correctly on the floor, you can use the pressure from your legs to do an extra repetition or a few extra pounds on each repetition to increase your strength. There is no such thing as a single correct foot position. Some exercisers place their feet under the bench and push with their toes, while others spread their legs wide and push with their heels.

Experiment and find out what works best for you. Roll your chest up and press your heels (or toes if you're more comfortable with that) into the floor while pressing your trapezius into the bench.

A weak grip

To press huge weights on the bench, you need to grip the bar as tightly as you can before removing it from the rack. When you grip the bar firmly, you activate your forearms, hands and triceps, while at the same time stiffening your body further. Because the bench press takes place on a padded bar, it is often seen as a 'soft' exercise. However, the reality is that in order to move heavy weights, you need to feel quite uncomfortable when the time comes to lift the weight from the rack.

Lifting the bar from the rack

Finally! After all that technical nonsense, you're finally getting around to pressing, right? In reality, we're just getting started. Most exercisers simply push the bar out of the rack and start pressing. This is a mistake for a number of reasons.

When you push the bar up and out of the rack, you immediately lose the body tension you've worked so hard on. Your shoulder blades will be pulled apart and it will be impossible to return to your previous position after you remove the bar from the rack. Instead, pull the bar off the rack or have someone else do it for you. This is done in powerlifting competitions where it is known as a "lift off". Your eyes should be directly under the bar as you remove it from the rack.

You are not allowing the bar to settle

Pushing the bar straight up is a great way to undo all the progress you've made in your technical approach. With extremely heavy weights, it can be dangerous to push the weight up immediately as you may lose control of the bar. A better approach is to hold the bar steady in your hands for about 2 seconds.

During this 'waiting time' your elbows and trapezius will be compressed, pushing you deeper into the bench and giving your body more stability. You will also notice that the bar moves two to five centimetres further towards your chest without you having to bend your arms.

No correct alignment

Before you perform the first repetition, your forearms and wrists should be aligned with the bar. This will help you to push the bar up in a straight line, which is of course the shortest and most expedient route when it comes to strength. This can also prevent your wrists from bending backwards as you press, which can be extremely painful if you have hundreds of pounds on the bar.

Technical problems #2 - The execution of the exercise

For most exercisers, it's a matter of moving the weight up in some way. This is also the reason why you will see many exercisers bouncing the bar off the chest, pressing the bar at a 45 degree angle, training partners doing half the work and lifting the butt as far off the bench as possible. Not only does such artistry look silly, but it also contributes greatly to the lack of success with the bench press. Here are some common mistakes in the actual execution of the bench press.

No proper breathing pattern

This may seem like an odd item on a list of bench press mistakes. If you're doing more than three reps of bench presses, you still need to take a deep breath each time you lower the bar and exhale each time you push the bar up from the chest. For sets of less than 3 repetitions, take a deep breath into your abdomen instead of your normal chest breathing.

In other words, your shoulders should not lift when you take a deep breath into your abdomen. This will help you to keep your body stable under the stress of a max attempt. Exhaling during a max attempt will destabilize your body, which will cause you to fail the attempt.

Flared elbows

This is one of the most common bench press mistakes. Although it's not 100% wrong to point your elbows towards you during the press, it puts more stress on your shoulders and increases the risk of injury.

If you pull your elbows towards your body, the bar will usually touch your chest slightly below the nipples. Flared elbows offer a lower lever arm than elbows pulled towards the body, with the latter shifting the load to your triceps and protecting your shoulders. This also ensures that the bar moves in a straight line.

Inconsistent repetitions

This refers to where the bar touches your chest, as well as the depth of each repetition. In terms of the latter, the bar should touch your chest on every repetition. You will occasionally see strong bodybuilders performing partial repetitions, but you better believe they have trained for years with repetitions through the full range of motion before they have reached this level of development.

You need to find a groove where the bar touches your chest in the same place every repetition. This can involve keeping your ego in check, as you need to reduce the weight you are pushing at the moment in the name of your future progress. One tip is to apply some chalk to the center of the bar and do a few reps in a row. If there's a straight line on your T-shirt afterwards, then you're on the right track. If you have the ability to hit the same spot on your chest on practically every repetition, you will have a good groove that will save you energy.

Bounce the bar off the chest

This is a favorite habit of most exercisers who seem to have competitions to see who can bounce the bar the highest. The theory is that you can bounce the bar off your chest with a quick downward movement to gain enough momentum to complete the next repetition. Of course, this is all complete nonsense.

The muscles and connective tissue go through a stretch reflex that gives you the feeling that the bar is bouncing off your chest. At the point of movement reversal, the bar will probably sink into your chest a little as it is quickly lowered and then moved back up at high speed.

In short, bouncing won't really happen and this effect will only occur if you try to push the bar up explosively. A bench press repetition performed in this way is a repetition where you do not have full control of the movement. Allowing a weight that is too heavy to bounce off your chest will obviously lead to injury. You need to lower the bar at a controlled speed, allow it to touch your chest and then push it back up explosively.

The lowering

Lifting the butt off the bench

When you see exercisers lifting their butt off the bench, it's clear that the weight they're trying to push up is too heavy to control. They are assuming a more biomechanically advantageous position and it's a natural instinct that you need to fight to keep your lower back healthy. If you press with your butt off the bench, you can press more weight than with your back arched, but arching your back won't lead to the same problems if you do it correctly. There is no way to press correctly when your butt is off the bench.

If you bench press heavy weights with your butt lifted, your discs will be subjected to excessive compression. If you are currently struggling with this problem, the best way to correct it is to lower the weight on the bar until you get used to a new and safe technique.

Bench press with raised feet

We've already covered this in the section on body tension, but we should mention again here that your chest cannot be more isolated than when your feet are elevated. While you will engage your upper stabilizers more when you lift your feet, this will do nothing in terms of strength and little or nothing in terms of mass or definition. Pretty much the only reason to push with your feet in the air is if you have a lower back problem and feel pain when your feet are on the ground and your back has a natural arch. If this is not the case, then place your feet firmly on the floor and start moving some serious weights!

The magical training partner

No list of bench press failures would be complete without the legendary magic training partner. You should already know the scene: The exerciser bounces the bar off his chest with his elbows out while his training partner does an unnecessary rowing workout and yells "all you, all you!". Let's be clear: having a good training partner will contribute significantly to your bench press training. This is someone who will help you lift the weight off the rack and give you a small amount of assistance on the last repetition or two of your heavy sets. And "help" means giving the exerciser some guidance at the point where they are stuck on their repetition.

What actually happens is that the trainee gets a false sense of their own strength. After 2 repetitions, he is no longer able to complete the repetitions to the end, but he "manages" 8 "repetitions" because the training partner pulls the bar upwards with each repetition. And then the same trainee wonders why, when he trains alone, he is at the end after 2 repetitions with 105 kilos, although he managed 8 repetitions with 100 kilos and a training partner the week before.

If you are the training partner, then do the trainee a favor and put the bar in the rack if the trainee can't do any more repetitions. Otherwise, they will just keep putting weight on the bar, working towards a bench press injury and will soon hit a wall in terms of their progress.

So much for today. In the second part of this article, we'll take a closer look at supporting muscle groups and the actual training.


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