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man doing a chest press with a barbell

It seems impossible to venture into a weight room without seeing someone chest-pressing a barbell or set of dumbbells. In fact, it’s a sight so common that it birthed the now-clichéd question, “How much do you bench?” 

As stereotypical as this strength move may be, supine pressing is a fundamental part of most workout programs because it challenges your chest, as well as the entire upper body. It works the full shoulder girdle and the tough-to-target triceps; pressing also improves stability in the core and joints.  

The only downside of this move is its association with pain in the front of the shoulder or in the lower back, both of which are often consequences of poor form and too-heavy weights. 

You can avoid this and make the most of each rep with a few simple setup fixes, a willingness to embrace new variations on the standard bench press, and the ability to let go of ego. 

1. Lie on the bench with the bar in line with the top of your head. Keeping your feet flat on the floor, take an overhand grip on the bar and lift it off the uprights. Inhale and brace your core, then slowly lower the bar until it contacts the lower part of your chest.

  • Tip: Position hands slightly wider than shoulder width, with wrists straight and thumbs wrapped under the bar. At the bottom, aim elbows out about 45 degrees from your body. 
  • Tip: With feet flat, press them evenly into the floor.

2. Squeeze your glutes and push your feet into the floor as you press the bar back to the starting position. Pause at the top, arms fully extended, and exhale. Keep your abs and glutes engaged as you release your breath. Take another inhale and repeat for desired rep count. 

  • Tip: Squeeze your glutes without letting them come off the bench.
  • Tip: As you press the bar at the top of the move, straighten your arms without locking them. 
  • Tip: Draw your shoulder blades together and keep them cinched beneath you throughout the move.
  • Tip: Allow your lower back to maintain a natural arch while pressing your shoulders and glutes into the bench.

3. Return the bar to the rack with control. If racking and unracking the bar is challenging or uncomfortable, as is common with heavier weights, ask a workout buddy or spotter to help you move the bar into position.

(Have you ever noticed someone benching with an arched back and wondered if it was safe? Though it may look odd, an arched back can actually enhance your bench pressing performance. See “Expert Answers: Arched Backs and Bench Pressing” and consider the ideas presented there if you want to consider changing up your form.)

4 Bench Press Variations

Incline Bench Press

This variation puts more focus on the chest muscles and takes some pressure off the shoulders.

  • Perform chest presses at an incline station or with a bench propped up at a 30-degree angle.

One-Arm Dumbbell Floor Press

This variation limits range of motion by allowing the triceps to come to a stop at floor level rather than dipping far past a bench, risking strained shoulders. 

  • Perform chest presses with one arm at a time while lying back on the floor.
  • You can bend the knees and plant the feet, or extend your legs for an added challenge.

Glute-Bridge Floor Press

This variation engages the glutes, adding a lower-body strength component while also taking pressure off the lower back and challenging stability through the core.

  • Perform chest presses with two dumbbells, holding hips high in a glute bridge throughout the set. 

Hollow-Body Press

This variation is an advanced move that challenges stability through the midsection and builds core strength.

  • Make sure you are comfortable holding a hollow-body position — with shoulders and legs off the floor, and abs drawn in to form a curve through the back — before attempting this variation. (Learn more about how to effectively perform the hollow-body hold here.)
Photography by: Kelly Loverud; Styling: Pam Brand; Fitness Model: Kenyon Erickson

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