The bench press has a reputation among gym-goers for being the de facto upper body strength exercise, but its reputation among coaches tells a different story: It's the cause of numerous injuries because people take them too lightly.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
The first rule of Bench Press Club: never try to bench beyond your ability when you are alone, or don't know what you're doing. Always have a spotter, or basically someone who makes sure you don't get crushed. Aside from that, take notes on these common mistakes:
- You don't use your legs: It's clear the bench press works out your upper body, but it requires your whole body, including your legs, to make the exercise work. Your legs help you stabilise, but also, a lot of your power comes from you screwing your feet into the ground as you press up.
- You don't keep your body tense enough: That bench isn't the stable foundation you need for a safe press. Your tightly contracted body is. Kevin Mullins, a trainer at Equinox in Washington D.C., offers these cues: "Press the floor away with your feet at the same time you push the bar away from your chest and pull your shoulder blades together to "eat" the bench, which helps engage your lats."
- Your elbows are spread out too far from your body: This makes you more prone to shoulder- and elbow-related injuries. Mullins says, "Imagine making a directional arrow, not a T, with your head and elbow angle." This focuses more on your chest muscles, rather than stress out your shoulders.
- You let the weight simply drop to your chest: Ideally, you'd lower the bar slowly and with control. Slyvon Blanco of Von Blanco Fitness believes the lowering portion of the bench press is just as important as the pushing part. Not only is letting the weight free-fall dangerous AF, but you'd miss out on the additional strength benefits from the extra effort of controlling the bar.
A strong bench press means your whole body, from your feet all the way to your shoulders, needs to be tense and contracted to protect your shoulders and spine. If you're not familiar with any of this, check out our primer to the bench press.