With the greatest risks often come the greatest rewards. When Columbus sailed for America, he knew he could be sailing off the edge of the Earth, or discovering an untapped land of riches and wealth. He got on his ships and led his crew into the sea, and as a result, left his place in history. For every success story like this, there are a dozen not-so-happy endings about people who took massive risks and ended up a historical footnote, or worse.
The most successful risky endeavors are the ones which are researched carefully and continually monitored for potential areas of improvement, so that the greatest chances of success can be found. When you’re hitting it hard in the gym, the bench press is one movement which fits this description perfectly!
If you’ve been training for more than a year or two, then you have probably developed a clear understanding of what the bench press is, and what it isn’t. This exercise isn’t an ego lift, and it isn’t a measurement of your masculinity. If anything, it’s often a measure of weakness for athletes who are able to naturally build up strength in the deadlift and squat quickly, but take years longer to improve benching strength due to structural limitations.
The bench press will grow your upper body and improve overall strength and mass throughout the body, but can also wreck you joints and leave you with torn muscles, if done incorrectly. Let’s take a look at five of the most common bench pressing mistakes made in the gym, and find ways to avoid making these errors!
Going too heavy
Lifting for ego is what immature, inexperienced lifters do. And the gym is packed with people doing precisely that. They grow stronger, sure, but along the way they also incur a number of injuries and bad habits which can plague them for a lifetime. While it does feel good to boast about a new personal best on the bench press, it feels better to celebrate a month, a year, a decade, or even a lifetime of training hard without incurring any injury.
Use an adequate amount of weight which you can control without the use of a spotter or “body English”, and complete your 5 to 12 repetitions using the muscles of your body – and not the joints at tendons. Your numbers will be less impressive, but your physique will look much better as a result… and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Letting your elbows flare
The best bench press position begins with the lower back. Letting your elbows flare toward the top of the movement is a tool frequently used by lifters to push out the weight once the chest has handed over the workload primarily to the triceps and shoulders. Keep your shoulders tucked behind you, and your sternum high. Many powerlifters will flare the elbows from the very start to move more weight.
Doing so will pull the effort of the movement away from the chest, transferring it to other parts of the body. You’ll move more weight, but you will be under-stimulating the pectoral muscles as well. Assuming the goal of your workout is to build muscle, flaring the elbows early is counterproductive to your efforts.
Leg drive errors
The leg drive is a common piece of bench pressing methodology, and one which can allow you to move a bit more weight. Just as a top NFL quarterback will drive his leg into the ground to develop the power to throw the ball 60 yards, a good bench presser may drive the legs into the ground to push the traps into a position where they stabilize and provide additional strength for the bench press. This moves from useful to sloppy, however, if the lifter allows his or her glutes (your butt!) to leave the bench. Keep it in contact with the bench, and the leg drive is useful. Boost up from the seat and you’re placing yourself at risk.
Ignoring the Press Arc
When correctly bench pressing, there is a slight arc which the barbell travels as you press it upward. You start with the barbell over the lower chest, and it naturally arcs upward toward your head as you press it, arriving safely at a point round mid-chest. This allows you to fully work the pectorals, while at the same time keeping your shoulders safe. You’ll dodge the vulnerabilities which arrive anatomically, and make the most of your strength muscle groups – the upper back, shoulders, and of course, the chest.
Failure to warm up
The bench press is one of the most popular exercises known to lifting man. Therefore it is also one of the most used exercises. This means, on any given day, your gym is likely to be packed with lifters who are hitting that bench press station, early and often. As a result, you may be tempted to just jump in and go heavy the moment you are afforded that first opportunity, skipping the cardiovascular warming (treadmill for 5 minutes is fine) or even lighter warm up sets on the bench.
This is a huge mistake which can lead to injury. Always take the time to knock out 3 to 10 minutes of light walking to move blood throughout your body, and start each workout with 2 light sets, allowing you to acclimate the muscle groups for the upcoming heavy sets.
All in all, the bench press can be one of the most rewarding movements you will face in the gym. On the other hand, it can also lead to devastating injury and keep you away from training for months, if done incorrectly. It’s up to you, like it was Columbus, to ascertain the risks involved with such a risk, then make continual adjustments and modifications to your path to ensure you have the greatest chance for success. Good luck!