The bench press

Prima donna

Ah, the bench press! If the squat is the king of all exercises, then I would say the bench press would be the prima donna of all exercises. Guys always rush to do this exercise first, if not to show their strength, then to develop their chest muscles – their pecs – in order to look better shirtless. The pecs and the biceps are not called the t-shirt muscles for nothing. Many of you may be familiar with push-ups and may already be doing them religiously, but the bench press can take you further where push-ups can’t.

Get started

The bench press is performed lying flat on a bench with feet flat on the floor. Keep your back in its natural position with its slight curve. Grasp the bar wider than shoulder width.

Many people get the width wrong. If you have your hands too close, then you end up working your triceps more than anything else. Too far apart and the shoulders – the anterior deltoids – take over. The width of your grip should be such that when your elbows are bent, the lower and upper arms form an angle of 90 degrees.

After that the rest is easy. Lift up the barbell over you with arms straight. The barbell should be above your neck. This is your starting position.


Lower the bar to your nipples in a smooth controlled motion. This is where many beginners get it wrong. They jerk and they can’t control the strength in their arms so that one arm goes down faster than the other. Take your time. Anyway, after a few sessions, you will find it easier to control the bar. At the bottom of the eccentric phase, don’t let the bar bounce on your chest. Simply reverse direction and push it up again. The sticking point is usually half-way through.

You should finish in the same starting position, that is, with the bar above your neck once again. You will notice then that the motion is not a straight up-and-down but more of a J-type with the bar moving backwards a little at the top of the movement just before the end. This is normal.

Safety first

The bench press can be a dangerous exercise. Make sure the discs are secured into place. If you’re a beginner you might forget this. If you’re a beginner, you will probably also lower the bar unevenly with one arm lower than the other. Imagine what happens next. The disc slips off on one side; making that side of the bar much lighter. Your arm on that side which gave up first now shots up so that the disc on the other side slips off. If you’re lucky, the bar doesn’t spin off and neither weight nor disc disfigures you.

If you are going heavy, have someone behind you to take the bar up again in case you can’t. Imagine you can’t lift up the bar again. If you’re lucky like me, you will be able to rest the bar on your chest and then roll it off slowly. If not, it will rest on your neck and asphyxiate you. You won’t even be able to shout for help.


The bench press is an easy exercise to do and targets your muscles quite well. It is very rewarding to see yourself pushing off a bar laden with weight and that is also one of the reason it is so popular. But doing it over and over again makes it a victim of its own success. For a beginner no variation is necessary but I will include some here because I get tired of seeing the same people doing the same exercise.

First you can perform the same bench press using dumbbells. If you’re a new newbie, don’t do it. You need not only to be able to push up each dumbbell individually but also control its balance. Believe me, if you are not used to it, it can be quite hard. This exercise is called the flat dumbbell press.

How about the inclined press? You use the barbell on an inclined bench no higher than 30 degrees from the floor. The incline press targets the upper pec muscles. If you have highly developed upper pecs, they look great in a t-shirt. You can also do the same exercise using dumbbells – inclined dumbbell press.

How about declined press? Use a declined bench or a sit-up bench for that. This exercise works the lower pecs more. It’s not a very comfortable position to be as the blood rushes to your face. You can also repeat that exercise using dumbbells.

You can also repeat all the above exercises using a swiss ball instead of a bench. This makes all the exercises much harder but this is for intermediates. I just wanted to give you a taste of things to come. For now, you beginner, stick to the bench press like so many others.

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