How to Bench Press Without Pain
Below is the breakdown of how to perform a barbell bench press. I’ve included some variations such as different grip widths and movement speeds and the reasons why they would be good for you to do. I start at the feet and work my way up just to keep it in some sort of order. I also mention common aches, pains, and injuries that may affect the lift and how to improve those issues.
There is some range of normal here so we can get away with quite a lot. Feet on the floor will be best and if you can get your feet flat, great. If not, pushing through your toes works just as well. Where this comes in key is for your leg drive during the movement. It’s common to see people sliding all over the bench but with some upward pressure from your legs, you can stabilize yourself quite a bit. The upward pressure is easy to achieve. Once you lie down, just act like you are trying to push your body up off the bench in the direction of sliding your head off the bench. To me, I liken this to “taking the slack out of my back.”
Now, a common variation in foot position involves having your feet up on the end of the bench or up slightly in the air. This is an “accessory version” and it decreases the amount of weight you can lift by decreasing the amount of arch in your back and removing the ability to have the leg drive I mentioned above.
In a few cases, there may be some irritation in the front of the hips when you pull your feet very far back and have a lot of arch in your back. This may be from the amount of extension and pressure in your hips. A common fix for this hip pain, other than decreasing your arch and moving your feet forward, is to create a bit more ab contraction or “brace your abs”.
Hips and Back
The arch in your back is probably the most debatable point in bench pressing. Is it good or not? Well, at minimum, our hips and upper back should be touching the bench pad. In between, there is some range we can use. Side note: Some people like to lift their head off the bench slightly when pressing, but my personal preference is to keep it down (and in some lifting competitions your head must stay down). Competitive style bench press involves a larger arch for a few reasons which are mainly for moving the highest amount of weight in the shortest possible distance. If you aren’t planning to lift in a competition, then somewhere between a “natural” amount of low back arching (think of the amount your low back arches when in a standing position) and a comfortable to you amount of arch is fine.
The arch will help support the tension and pressure you generate while moving the weight, so some arch is more efficient than no arch at all. However, if you lift your feet up or put them on the end of the bench then your back will be flatter and you’ll decrease your leg drive that I mentioned above.
Now, if arching your back creates some back pain, you may be sensitive to spinal extension (leaning or arching backward). No worry, arch to your comfort level and then with some time and exposure, you may find you can increase your arch. If you do find yourself sensitive to spinal extension, the Press-Up or Cobra Pose is one movement you can do to improve your range of motion and decrease your sensitivity to the arch. To perform either, just push yourself upward until you start to feel the irritation begin, stop there and hold for a few seconds, and then return to flat. Repeat 10-15 times to see if the motion improves. If pain increases, try decreasing the amount you raise yourself up.
Upper Back, Shoulders, and Elbows
This may be the most difficult portion of the bench press to grasp initially, but once you get it - it makes all the difference in the world. The point of reference for this will be the shoulder blades and what to do with them. When you lay on the bench and as you grip the bar before you lift it off the rack, we need to make sure you have your shoulders “down and back”. Anatomically, this is pulling your shoulder blades together behind you and then down slightly toward your hips (think the opposite of a shrug movement). This allows the ball and socket portion of your shoulder to move easier and keeps your upper back tighter. When combined with the leg drive from earlier, this creates a stable back and allows you to focus more on moving the barbell than sliding around.
The other slight movement that has a bit to do with the entire arm, grip, and upper back is the torque applied to the bar. The more common cue for this is “break the bar”. Some take this as spreading the bar apart or trying to break the bar like you are holding a stick in front of you and trying to snap it in half away from your or up and away from you - see the picture for fancy arrows.
Depending on the width of your grip, this “torqued” position of your arms places your elbows in a position that in the bottom of the bench press your upper arm is in a range from approximately 15-80 degrees from your torso (your torso being 0 degrees and 90 degrees would be holding your arm straight out to the side). The wider your grip is, the larger the angle from your torso your elbows will be.
A common complaint with bench pressing is shoulder pain, usually on the front or side of your shoulder. Many times this can be fixed simply by making changes to your position and making some temporary modifications to your training program. Often, we’ll see elbows flared all the way out to the side and some internal rotation of the shoulder in the bottom position - this would be when you see the hands dropping below the level of the elbows if you’re looking straight down on the person bench pressing. Another common fault is missing the shoulder blade tuck which causes the bench presser’s shoulder to shrug up making it more difficult to control the bar and often creating some pinching on the front and top of the shoulder joint.
Hands and Grip
The grip is the first step I’ll cover here. In most cases grabbing the bar low in the palm with slightly inward rotated hands and thumbs wrapped around the bar is preferred. This allows your wrists to stay stacked and keeps the bar secured in your hands. Some variations are with the thumb more pinching the bar or thumbs over the bar. Don’t do these without a spotter or safety arms as the bar may roll out of your hands. It’s best to always bench press with safety arms or a spotter because unlike a squat that you can dump off your back or a deadlift that you can just drop the weight, the bar is coming for your chest and face if you drop the bar here. As your experience increases, you may find one of the grip positions is more comfortable to you than another. There are also underhand grip variations that some find is more comfortable when having shoulder or elbow pain and neutral grip variations that require a neutral grip or football bar with handles.
The width of your grip is a mixture of personal comfort, desired effects, and training style. In general, a narrower grip targets the tricep a little more and a wider grip targets the tricep a little less as you go wider. The difference isn’t a lot so in most cases I suggest just go with what is comfortable to you and then do accessory work to focus on specific muscles. If competition is your goal, widening your grip and a higher arch decreases the range of motion further and this is how most records have been set.
Bar Path and Speed
The path of the bar, when looking from the side, isn’t quite as straight as most people assume. It’s a bit more of a diagonal “down and down, up and up”. When the bar is unracked it should be with your arms perpendicular to the floor (remember to keep your shoulder blades back and down - this is when a lift-off from a spotter helps). As you lower the bar down to your chest, the bar should also drift down toward your hips slightly and touch around the bottom third of your pec muscles. In the bottom position, your forearms should be vertical under the bar (not on top of the bar). Your upper and lower arm length and grip width will determine the exact placement of the bar. Narrower grips are usually a little lower on the chest compared to wider grips.
The speed of the lift depends on your goals. There are 4 portions to the lift: the top (isometric), lowering (eccentric), bottom (isometric), and push (concentric) phases. If we assign a speed or tempo to that it would be: top-lowering-bottom-pushing. So a 1-2-2-2 tempo would be: top position for 1-second, lowering for 2-seconds, bottom position for 2-seconds, and pushing for 2-seconds, then you start over at the top position. Some examples of why we would alter tempo: a faster “push” portion will develop more power which can be important in sport performance. In powerlifting competitions, there is a definite pause at the top before you lower the weight and at the bottom before you lift the weight, so in training for a competition, you should definitely practice some longer pauses at the top and bottom positions. In rehab of tendinitis or tendinosis, it has been shown that Heavy-Slow Lifting is a preferred method of rehab with better outcomes than lighter lifting - contrary to what many people do. The usual tempo for that is 3 seconds up and down with a pause or isometric contraction close to the painful position. This would look like a 1-3-2-3 tempo. So in many cases, even a bench press can be used as a rehab exercise.
Most of the guidelines above can also be applied to dumbbell bench press - just realize you won’t be able to create the bar-torque since the bar isn’t there to connect your hands. Pushups aren’t too much different either, just no tucking the shoulders blades against the bench and you’ll need a more natural curve in your back instead of arching it against the bench. I hope you’ve found some information here that you find useful and if you have any questions or comments, please reach out!