Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

New Lifters and the Bench Press

by Phil Meggers, SSC | August 24, 2021

new lifter on the bench press

If you are a new lifter (or perhaps you’re coaching one), you may notice two interesting phenomena regarding your bench press. First, there’s a chance it might be heavier than your squat for your first few workouts, which may seem odd given that your legs and hips are much stronger than your arms and shoulders, and second, your bar path may be rather wobbly at first. Let’s examine these phenomena in turn and also discuss how we can improve these situations.

Why your bench might start heavier than your squat

Most people will start with a squat that is immediately heavier than their bench, but there are a few reasons why your bench might actually be heavier than your squat when you start training. First, you are lifting only the bar when you bench press (yes, you’re lifting your arms too, but they don’t weigh much), whereas when you squat, you’re lifting the bar as well as your bodyweight (yes, we know you’re not lifting your feet, but let’s not be pedantic). For example, when you bench press 50 lb, you’re lifting 50 lb, but when you squat 50 lb, you’re lifting the 50 lb on the bar as well as most of the weight of your body. If a new lifter is quite weak, simply squatting down and standing back up without a barbell can be challenging, so it’s understandable that the bench press might be heavier than the squat for the first few workouts. There is nothing wrong with being weak when you start – you started training because you didn’t want to stay weak, and you recognized the importance of getting stronger, so don’t worry about the discrepancy between the two lifts. Eventually, your squat will catch up to and then surpass your bench press.

Additionally, the bench press has a shorter range of motion than the squat and is easier to learn than the squat, and these advantages can contribute to having a bench that is initially heavier than the squat for the new lifter. Again, this too shall pass, so don’t dwell on it too much.

Why your bar path might be wobbly at first

In the squat, deadlift, and press, you are required to balance yourself over your feet. Sure, there is a barbell involved, but all three of these lifts still require you to not fall over while standing on your feet, and as you’ve been doing your entire life, you’ve gotten reasonably good at this. However, the bench press is a different feat of balance in two ways: first, you are balancing a barbell – not your body, and second, you are balancing that barbell over your shoulders, not your feet. These differences create some potential problems for balance and therefore the bar path in the bench press.

Balance (and thus imbalance as well) is detected with three systems: your vestibular system, your visual system, and your somatosensory system, or more simply, your inner ear, your eyes, and your sense of feel, respectively.

Inner ear

Your inner ear tells you when you’ve started to tilt forward when standing up, and it also tells you when you’re falling because your head (and therefore your inner ear) is moving under these conditions. With the bench press, however, your inner ear remains motionless since it’s not attached to the barbell (it would be rather strange if it were), so if and when the bar becomes out of balance, the inner ear provides no help at all.


Your eyes help you maintain balance because you can simply see whether or not you are moving. This is especially true when you are focusing on a specific spot as we do when we are lifting – focusing on a specific, immovable point gives you a very good reference point. You still focus on a specific point when you bench (i.e., a spot on the ceiling), but your eyes must now keep track of that point as well as a moving barbell’s relationship to that point. It’s not an impossible task, of course and you’ll improve quickly, but at first, it’s still a task with which you have little experience, and this factor can also contribute to bar path issues.


The sense of feel provided by your muscles, joints, and skin helps your sense of balance immensely when you’re standing on your feet. You can sense when you’re balanced on the mid-foot versus the balls or heels of your feet, but in the bench press, you’re attempting to balance something over your shoulder, and you have little experience balancing something over that joint. In addition to this, your shoulders and back don’t interact with the bench as rigidly and efficiently as your foot interacts with the ground, so that doesn’t help matters either.

All of this is mitigated to some extent as we purposely retract our shoulder blades during the setup for the bench press, which creates a flatter, more rigid, and more stable interface with the bench, as opposed to the somewhat concave and therefore unstable interface we have with the bench when we don’t retract our shoulder blades. We also drive up the bench with our legs, and our stance provides us with additional lateral (i.e., side-to-side) support when benching.

In summary, we can’t do anything about the inner ear’s lack of contribution to the bench press, but we can do something about the contributions provided by our senses of sight and feel:

  1. Focus on a point on the ceiling directly above you, note where the bar is relative to this point (using your peripheral vision) when it’s locked out, and press the bar to that same point every time, creating the same picture at the end of each rep.
  2. Retract your shoulder blades hard during the setup for the bench press, keep them pulled back throughout the entire set, and drive up the bench with your legs throughout the entire set as well.

Lastly, and equally as important, keep training the bench press on a regular basis. Your bar path will improve quite rapidly since your training will provide plenty of opportunities for you to practice the correct bar path. You don’t need to go home and practice with a broomstick or anything like that. Remember the points mentioned above and keep training. Just keep training – it’s a pretty good motto.

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