Lots of guys know that the bench press is a great way to develop a Schwarzenegger-like chest. But what many guys don’t know is that this venerable exercise isn’t as simple as lying on a bench, unracking the bar, and pushing it from point A to B. If you really want to engage the muscle fibers of your pecs, you’ve gotta meticulously position your body, complete a full range of motion, and monitor your technique as you push that weight.
Make sure you avoid these seven mistakes—even though guys make them all the time—and you’ll be on your way to developing a bigger, more defined chest through superior strength and skill.
Mistake 1: Focusing Too Much on a 1-Rep Max
Too many guys are concerned with how much weight they can bench press for a single rep rather than for sets of 7-12, which is where muscle growth tends to be best stimulated. Unless you’re a powerlifter, stop maxing out every time you bench. Instead, focus on exhausting the muscle.
Mistake 2: Not Grounding Your Feet
For whatever reason, some lifters think that putting their feet up is more effective for building the chest than placing them flat on the floor. While lifting legs does have its uses, you’re better off keeping a solid base when bench-pressing because it centers most of your “neural drive” on the fibers of your pectoral muscles.
Mistake 3: Off-Kilter Position on the Bench
Properly positioning your torso throughout each set—every rep, beginning to end—is one of the most important factors in developing a big chest. A sloppy torso position will shunt some of the muscle load onto other parts of your body, cheating your pecs out of some gains and potentially even setting yourself up for injury.
Keep these five tips in mind when benching:
a) Keep your ribcage up high
b) Maintain a slight arch in your lower back
c) Squeeze your scapulae together
d) Keep your shoulders shrugged down and into the bench.
e) Keep your elbows near your body, rather than flaring them outwards.
Can’t seem to hold that form through the entire set? Decrease the weight until you can handle it with perfect positioning.
Mistake 4: Using the Wrong Grip
For a standard, straightforward bench press, space your hands about shoulder-width, or just slightly wider, apart. Most barbells have knurling (the rough patches) that can help guide you as a reference point.
Some guys will perform a narrow-grip bench press, but that’s a different exercise with a different form.
Mistake 5: Bouncing the Bar Off Your Chest
It is absolutely ridiculous—as in literally deserving of ridicule—that anyone thinks it’s smart to bounce a bar off their ribcage.
Even if bouncing lets you put more weight on the bar, everyone can see that it’s just a way to leverage momentum—not muscle strength—to complete the lift. Bouncing the bar will only rob you of the potential benefits of the bench press while greatly increasing the chances you’ll get catastrophically hurt. Your ribcage is pretty tough, but in a battle of bone against moving barbell, barbell wins.
You should be able to just touch the bar to your chest and sustain that weight there before pushing it back up. Imagine the middle of the barbell is covered wet paint. By the time you’re done your set, you should only see a hint of the paint on your shirt—not a slathering.
Mistake 6: Lifting Off-Tempo
No, it’s not salsa dancing. But if you want to get the most profound pec pump from a bench press set, you need to control the bar at all times, and over consistent durations, if you want to maximize your gains.
Try this tempo: Lower the weight over 3-4 seconds, hold the stretch position for 1 second, and then explosively press to the top. That will maximize your range of motion and ensure you develop major strength and size.
Mistake 7: Lifting Over a Small Range of Motion
Performing half-reps on the bench press is almost as bad as bouncing the bar off your chest. It’s easy to see why guys do this: They load up all kinds of plates on the bar, barely inch it along, and then brag to the whole gym about how much they can bench. Here’s the thing: No one’s buying it.
Instead, work out like you mean it. To recruit every fiber in your chest, lower the bar to full stretch on each rep—for most people, that means lightly touching the bar to your the chest or to your sternum—and then press the bar straight up to lockout, while consciously squeezing the pecs into a tight contraction.
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