The bench press exercise is crucial for developing upper body strength and stamina at any fitness level. When done properly, it yields improvement in far more than just your pecs and shoulders. In fact, the bench press works your neck, chest, biceps, and even your core. If you’re hoping to see some major gains in your upper body strength and toning, avoid making these common bench press faux pas.
Your shoulders hurt more than your chest.
Though the bench press is designed to work more than your pectorals, including your anterior deltoids, triceps brachii, and latissimi dorsi, you shouldn’t experience a painful, burning sensation in these areas post-workout, especially your shoulders. If this sounds like something you’ve felt before, you may be performing your bench press incorrectly. “You want to make sure that throughout the range of motion, your shoulders are retracted down and back,” says Tyler Holt, MusclePharm athlete, and bodybuilding coach. This helps your chest do more of the pushing rather than your shoulders taking over the range of motion.
Your elbows are out too wide or in too close.
Keeping your elbows at the correct angle can play a huge role in making sure your chest gets the right activation and to prevent injury, Holt explains. “When your elbows flare too wide, it brings the bar down closer to your collarbone, which can cause additional strain to the shoulder joint and rotator cuff,” he says. “If your [elbows] are in too close to your body, your triceps tend to take over the movement (which is OK if your goal is to train your triceps).” Instead, he recommends keeping a good distance between your elbows—ideally at a 45- to 75-degree angle, depending on what’s comfortable for you.
The barbell is bouncing off your chest.
If this is happening to you, it’s possible that your form is correct but the weight you’re lifting is too heavy. If you can’t gain total control over the weight, you may utilize the momentum of bouncing the bar off your chest to help get it back up, Holt says. This can quickly result in injury. “You can hurt your shoulders or pecs by not having control over the weight, and the bar could fall and hurt your rib cage or sternum,” he says.
To prevent this from happening, Holt recommends using lighter way. Make sure that you’re able to control lowering it to lightly touch your chest or hover just above. Then, lift it back up.
You don’t have enough contact with the bench.
When you initially lie on the bench, go through some checkpoints in your head. Make sure that all the necessary body parts are touching the bench—namely your head, shoulders, and glutes, says Nick Mitchell, fitness professional and CEO of Ultimate Performance (UP). The only small gap that should exist is between your lower back and the bench. Even if it feels easier, don’t let your butt raise off the bench. This can shorten the range of motion and make the press more difficult. “Raising your butt off also puts extra strain on the lower back, which should be avoided at all costs,” Holt says.
Your grip isn’t properly aligned.
Without the proper alignment on the barbell, you can torque your body into unsafe positions. You may injure your shoulders and wrists as a result, Mitchell warns. It will vary from person to person. But he recommends that your barbell grip be roughly one and a half times shoulder-width apart. An uneven grip, even a slight one, can throw off your entire balance. It’s important to properly set up your positioning before you begin your bench press.
Your feet aren’t flat on the ground.
If your feet come off the floor your form is incorrect and you may also injure yourself. “Being rooted into the floor allows power to come from the floor up through your legs and into your chest and back,” explains Rachel Weber, a personal trainer at Jack City Fitness in Boise, Idaho. “Losing this will result in less muscle activation and possible injury.” If you’re unable to lift the weight and keep your feet planted, she recommends checking your ego at the door and lifting lighter.
Your chest is bruised from the bar.
If you find bruises on your chest area, it’s likely because of a bench press gone wrong. You’re controlling the weight improperly from start to finish. “Oftentimes I see people in the gym load the bar up with tons of weight and just drop it on their chest in order to gain momentum for the push,” says Whitney Reid, National Sales Manager of BPI Sports. “The proper way to lower the bar is to … [pull] the bar down to your chest, pause at your chest for a second, and explode back to the top.”
You’re not breathing properly.
Proper breathing allows for maximum muscle activation as well as mind-to-muscle connection. “The easiest way to remember how to do this is to breathe out at the hardest part of the movement,” Weber says. This is typical while you’re pushing the weight away from your body. “Proper oxygen must be allowed to get to your muscles if you want to have the best results,” she adds.