Critical Technique Elements – Part 4: The Bench Press

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | May 14, 2024

lifter preparing to bench press

Many lifters bench press incorrectly despite its wide popularity and relative technical ease. There are many ways to bench press, but there is only one model that incorporates the most muscle mass over a long effective range of motion which facilitates lifting the heaviest weight to get stronger. The four critical elements of this model are the touch point on the chest, the top position which includes the grip width and internal rotation of the hands, the non-vertical bar path, and the active use of the stabilizing muscles.

Top Position: Grip and Shoulder Blades

The grip starts about one hand wider than the press grip. This is a good starting place but can be modified if does not produce the correct forearm position when the bar touches the chest. The thumbs must be around the bar. The hands must be internally rotated to load the forearms more effectively without excessively bending and stressing the wrists: see Figure 5-11. The lift starts by unracking the bar and holding it directly over the shoulder joint.

The shoulder blades should be retracted (pinched back) – do not shrug forward with protracted scapulas. The contact with the bench will pin the scapulas inhibiting free movement, so as soon as the bar is picked up, the shoulder blades will ideally be in their final lifting position for the remainder of the set. If the muscles responsible for this rigidity relax during the set, they must be actively contracted again. At the top of each new rep, take a new breath, re-pinch the shoulder blades together, then start the next rep.

Touch Point at the Chest

The touch point is in the middle of the sternum, inferior (toward the feet) to the shoulder joint: see Figure 5-14. This should produce vertical forearms at the bottom. If not, the grip width must be adjusted.

Touching mid-sternum prevents shoulder impingement – the trapping of soft tissues between the scapula and humerus. Trapping and pinching the soft tissues can damage them, so it’s better to deliberately bench press with a non-vertical bar path which is less efficient, but safer. As an unintended consequence, this reduces the range of motion of the lift, because a lifted chest will produce a higher touch point than touching directly over the shoulder joint. At the bottom, the chest will be angled upward (think “chest up”) with an arched back and the lifter’s butt in contact with the bench. The butt must stay on the bench for the sake of consistency and control. The arch puts the shoulders closer to the touch point while still preventing impingement – this returns some verticality to the bar path.

The most common problem with the bottom position is getting the touch point right. Lifters will accidentally touch too high and then too low, or don’t even know where they are touching. Tactile cue yourself if you are inconsistent with your touch point. Poke your chest at the correct contact point before you begin your set. You may have to poke hard or grind your finger into your skin a little. The sensation should persist at least until you finish your first rep giving you a tactile target for the bar to touch.

Bar Path

Although the bar path is not vertical, it will still be straight. The bar will touch mid-sternum and then travel upwards and superiorly (toward the shoulders) until the elbows are locked out with the bar directly over the shoulders. There are two most-typical errors regarding bar path: 1) getting the bar past the shoulder joint at any point or superior too early and 2) pushing the bar inferior (toward the belly) of the touch point.

If either happens, first check the grip, shoulder blade position, and feet position. All the basics need to be correct first. If the bar is getting back too early, think about pushing the bar straight up in a vertical line off the touch point on the chest. This won’t actually happen, but it can be helpful to think about it this way. The bar will go up in a diagonal, straight, and correct path to the top. “Scooping” the bar toward the belly after touching the chest is usually the result of the chest not being lifted correctly with a rigid arch of the back. Make sure this is correct, and if the problem persists, think about getting the bar back to the shoulders early. Visualize this as a diagonal line to get back to the shoulders and then a vertical line up. In reality, the result will be a correct bar path.

Look up at the ceiling at a single point before unracking the bar, and stare at it for the whole set. Eye gaze is a critical part of bar path. The bar can be seen in the peripheral vision referencing the stationary ceiling instead of watching the moving bar.


Prime movers are the muscles responsible for direct movement of the load. The prime movers in the bench press are the elbow and shoulder muscles which includes the pecs. These muscles will shorten and lengthen under tension throughout the lift. The stabilizing muscles do not change length and support the prime movers by transmitting force effectively. The stabilizing muscles are essentially everything inferior to the shoulder joint: the rhomboids which retract the scapulas, the legs and hips which force a strong arch and rigid back, and the abs which stabilize the spine and also produce a rigid torso.

Any loss of contraction in these muscles will destabilize the lift reducing the force production against the bar. Focus on body position when setting up before unracking. The lifter’s shoulder blades should be pinched back. The chest should be elevated with the back arched, and the feet should be pressed against the ground driving the torso back and supporting the arch.

Another aspect of stability that frequently produces problems is the control of the elbow position. The elbows must be in a position at all times to produce vertical forearms in the side view. The elbows cannot cave inward or flare outward. The bar should be over top of the elbow joints at all times.

The bench press has many technical components, but in terms of the big picture, make sure the grip, touch point, bar path, and stability are correct, and you’ll be very close to the model of an ideal way to bench. The grip should be internally rotated with a width about a hand wider than your shoulders. This standard width will typically produce vertical forearms at the bottom position when you touch your chest mid-sternum. You may have to adjust the width to ensure vertical forearms. The chest should be pointed upward with an arched back and feet pressed into the ground, and the shoulder blades should be pinched back to maximize stability. Keep the elbows directly under the bar as it travels, and get your bench heavy. A heavy bench makes a big difference in upper body strength.

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