Chest Exercise: The Bench Press

What is it for?

The Bench Press (a.k.a. the chest press or barbell press) is an exercise that is often used as a true measure of strength. The exercise itself has been around for a long time and is a favourite amongst gym enthusiasts and novices alike. It focuses on the Pectoralis Major muscles (the Chest muscles) and particluarly on the Triceps (back of the arms).

Increase Your Strength: Decrease Your Body Fat

It is not the best chest or triceps exercise, but it is a good one and also being in competition with your peers is a great motivational tool to push yourself further. The chest and triceps help us with anything involving pushing. These days not many of us need to push much more than a door, but there are sports people out there who will be truly helped by this form of exercise. For those of you who do not play sport and do not have a manual job where the extra strength can help, don’t think for one second that this exercise is no good for you. The chest muscle is one of the largest muscles in the body and by training it you can increase your metabolic rate, which in turn can reduce your excess body fat.

Technique

For this exercise you will need the following pieces of equipment: a barbell, a bench and preferably a stand to place the barbell on when you are not using it. If you fail to get hold of a stand you can get yourself a training partner instead to pass you the barbell.

First select a weight that you know you can lift for 15 repetitions. You can select a heavier weight later when you feel confident with the technique (the Olympic barbell may suffice on its own as it weighs in at 20kg).

Lie with your back on the bench, your feet on the floor and obviously your head at the end where the barbell and stand are. Having your feet on the floor gives you extra stability during the exercise although it also has the disadvantage of making it easier to do the wrong technique, so be careful.

Grab the barbell with both hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Lift the weight off the stand and with your arms straight (a slight bend in the elbows) bring the weight down your body line until the bar is directly above the lower end of your chest muscle. A common mistake is to have the bar too high up, which is the body’s way of cheating by bringing in the shoulders to help.

Now you need to lower the weight down slowly and in control, keeping the bar in line with the lower portion of your chest. This movement should take no less than 1 second and ideally it should be more like 1.5 to 2 seconds. By doing this you are working your muscle on the way down as well as on the way up. This will give you many more advantages with muscle, strength and fat loss.

Beginners should stop the bar about 3 to 4 inches (about fist-width distance) before the bar touches the chest. If you are fit and consider yourself well trained and exercised then you should allow the bar to come down to touch your lower chest before you begin the upward movement. At this lower level your forearms should be in a perfectly vertical line to be in the safest position.

The push up needs to be completed in no less than 1 second and preferably 1.5 to 2 seconds. This again will give your muscles the most benefit. The only time on the way up it should be less than 1 second is if you are training power into your chest. Power being the combination of speed and strength and would be needed most by athletes. The finish position is to stop just before your arms are completely straight, don’t lock your elbows out (the straightest your arms can be)

Don’t lock your elbows out

There is a bit of a debate about whether to do this or not. The way I see it is that this is a primarily a chest workout and by locking your elbows out you are not adding any extra movement in the chest. In actual fact by locking them out the weight will now travel through the bones of the arm and give the chest a small rest. Locking the arms out will give a little extra squeeze on the triceps which in my opinion should be saved for a triceps exercise. Finally by locking the arms out you lose some of the control you had and this can lead to an accident or an injury. So my advice is be careful and don’t lock your elbows out!

Is That Weight Too Heavy?

During the movement if the weight becomes a bit heavy there will be a temptation for you to arch your back to aid the movement. Don’t do this as you will cause yourself an injury. Pushing yourself to increase the weight is one thing, but picking a weight that you are not ready for is dangerous. Put the weight down and go to a lighter weight that still pushes you but allows you to keep a perfect technique throughout. To help you keep your back flat on the bench draw your stomach muscles in (like you’re at the beach) this activates your core muscles which will give you added strength. Failing that, pick your feet off the ground and have your legs in the same position as if you were seated (so your legs are now in the air) this helps reduce the amount you can arch your back but it also reduces stability, so make sure you have someone there to take the weight if you lose balance.

Don’t forget to breathe throughout the exercise, I would exhale on the way up and inhale on the way down. However as long as you’re breathing deeply it doesn’t matter too much.

Diagram

You should be able to see from the diagram that the weight is positioned perfectly over the lower chest. The movement from this position follows that vertical plane. You will also notice that the figure has chosen to take the raised leg position for added back protection.

Diagram showing bench press technique

The Do’s

Keep your forearms vertical at the lowest point
Tighten your core muscles
Keep the movement slow and controlled
Stop if you lose technique
Breathe
Hold the bar slightly wider than shoulder width
Keep the weight in the vertical line of your lower chest
The Don’ts

Don’t pick a weight that is too heavy
Don’t have the bar too high
Don’t lower the bar all the way to your chest if you are a beginner to exercise
Don’t lock your elbows out
Don’t hold your breath
Don’t arch your back
Don’t move too fast
In your Program

Whatever your goals you should always select a weight that pushes you but allows you to complete all repetitions within a set with perfect technique. Strength training exercisers should look at completing 1 to 8 repetitions per set, muscle gain exercisers should look at doing 8 to 12 repetitions per set and toning and weight loss exercisers should look at completing 15 repetitions per set. How many sets you do is really down to how your routine looks as a whole and is far to big a subject to cover in a paragraph.

As a general rule you should always start your weight exercises with the larger muscles and finish with the smallest. So this would mean that you would start with legs then go to chest and back then shoulders followed by arms and finishing with abs. So the chest press should be near the start of your workout.

I personally have the chest press as the first chest exercise I do because it is the bench mark for my strength gains and by having it at the start I have the most energy to do the exercise and thus get the best results on it (how vain! – .)

And a Warning…

As I have already mentioned it is very important during this exercise that you have someone to spot you (watch you ready to take the weight if you get in trouble). The weights used can be very heavy and the bar sits above some very vital organs and your neck, which I can guarantee will not take the weight of a bar. Be very careful and don’t push yourself too hard!