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How To Bench Press Safely Without A Spotter

Posted by John Phung on Aug 14, 2013

John Phung, NSCA-CPT is a 5’4″, 200 lb fitness blogger and strength evangelist with a focus on building strength through barbell training. He has a simple, yet effective approach to strength training & nutrition using minimal equipment and a handful of exercises to achieve maximum results. John is training to get stronger and inspires others to do the same.

Visit John on his blog, Twitter, or Fitocracy.

The bench press is one of the most popular exercises in the gym, but it’s also potentially one of the most dangerous (if done alone without a spotter or performed outside of a power rack or squat rack).

If you think about it, the bench press is almost like a guillotine. You’re lying flat on the bench, and the only thing stopping the bar from falling on your face, neck, or chest are your arms and your ability to push the bar away from your body.

Throughout the movement (from unracking the bar, lowering it to your chest, pressing it up and re-racking) the bar travels over your face, neck, and chest. At any point, there’s the possibility of missing a rep. If you don’t have safety precautions in place, a failed rep during the bench press could lead to embarrassment (via the “roll of shame”), serious injury, or even death.

If you have a spotter, you minimize the risks while bench pressing. However, there are some drawbacks when using a spotter for the bench press.

Problems With Using A Spotter For The Bench Press

  1. You need someone who is strong enough to lift the bar with whatever weight you’re using.
  2. Unless you have a consistent training partner, it’s a hassle to find a spotter whenever you perform bench presses.
  3. If you ask a stranger at the gym to spot you, they may not know how to spot properly even when given clear instructions. For example, they may assist you during the lift, while simultaneously saying that, “it’s all you bro!”
  4. The spotter might be wearing high-cut shorts with large leg openings. Once you’re lying flat on the bench, you’ll be looking straight up while the spotter is straddled on top of you standing with both of their legs on either side of your head. The view can be a distraction.
  5. Even with a strong, reliable spotter(s), accidents can and do happen.

The solution to bench pressing safely without a spotter is to do it inside of a power rack or squat rack that has safety pins or spotter arms designed to catch the weight in the case of a failed rep.

Why You Should Bench Press Inside Of A Rack

The benefits of bench pressing inside of a rack include:

  1. The safety pins are usually designed to hold several hundred pounds upwards to 1000+ lb. This is much more than what an average gym member can safely hold.
  2. An attentive spotter who is strong enough and quick enough to catch the bar when you fail a rep is not required. If the safety pins are set up properly, they will catch the bar before it crushes your body.

A drawback of using a rack for the bench press is that someone may actually want to use it for squats! But if you’re training in a typical commercial gym, not many people will use the rack properly for squatting anyway.

How To Set Up A Rack For The Bench Press

All you need to do is adjust the safety pins or spotter arms of the rack to a height just above or level with the height of your chest while lying flat on the bench. This might take a few adjustments to get right.

To test if you have the correct height, get into your bench press arch, unrack an empty bar and lower it to the bottom position. If the height is correct, the bar should touch your chest without hitting the pins. While the bar is at the bottom position, relax your arch and flatten your back. The bar should be able to land safely on the safety pins of the rack.

Here’s what it looks like once the safety pins are set up inside of a power rack:

What If Your Rack Doesn’t Have Adjustable Safety Pins?

When I was training at a commercial gym, I used to bench press using their rarely used Hammer Strength squat rack.

The height of the safety pins were fixed, and whenever I benched the bar would hit the pins and not reach my chest. I solved this issue by placing a few plates underneath the bench. Increasing the height of the bench allowed me to perform bench presses with a full range of motion.

Watch this old video of me bench pressing inside of the squat rack to see what I mean:

If you look closely, you can see that there are a few plates underneath the bench that I’m using. Also, you can see when the bar is touching my chest at the bottom position. It’s only an inch or so from the safety pins of the squat rack.

What To Do When You Miss A Rep

If you ever fail a rep during the bench press and the safety pins catches the bar, roll the bar towards your feet. Once the bar is over your lap, you can sit up. Alternatively, you can leave the bar where it is (probably over your chest), and slide out from underneath, either by moving your body downwards towards your feet or by sliding your body off to the side.

Here’s a demonstration of me missing a rep during the bench press, and getting out from underneath:

The “roll the bar forward and sit up” method.

And here’s the “slide out from underneath” method.

Conclusion

Even if you have access to a reliable training partner to spot you, risk of injury still exists during a bench press. If you bench press alone and there’s no one around to run to your aid if you fail a rep, the safety pins of the rack could literally save your life.

Bench pressing inside of a rack is the safest option, allowing you to push the limit and attempt personal records without having to worry about getting pinned underneath the bar.

Spotting 101: How To Spot The Bench, Squat, And Dumbbell Press

As a young teenager who had just started training, I once asked for a spot from a world champion powerlifter—while I was deadlifting. That was wrong. He was nice and tried to accommodate me. A few months down the road, I dumped a bar in the middle of the gym because I didn’t ask for a spot when I should have and missed a squat attempt. That was wrong. Fast forward a decade, and I didn’t use the safety pins in my squat rack because I had a spotter, and I ended up stapled to the floor under 625 pounds. My spotter wasn’t paying attention. Also wrong.

It’s easy to believe that spotting is just a question of gym etiquette, like wiping down machinery or putting away weights. In other words, you’ll learn it over time, but never really give it much thought. But the truth is that spotting is where gym etiquette and safety intersect, and where things can turn from you’ve-got-it-bro to what-the-hell-just-happened instantaneously. I like to think that I made my plenty of screw-ups so that a few other people won’t have to make the same ones.

Just remember: Experience doesn’t make you immune to mistakes. Spotting is like wearing a seat belt. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you crash. So forget every time you ever laughed at a weightlifting fail video for the next few minutes, and let’s get serious.

What A Spotter Needs To Ask

Simply put, your job as a spotter is to make the lift safe. This might mean simply being there so the lifter feels safe, or it might mean something more tactile, like helping rack and unrack the weight. On occasion, you may be called to watch closely or help in max-effort reps or during overload work like dropsets or partial reps.

Given this range of possibilities, it’s important before spotting someone to discuss their expectations and make sure both of you are on the same page. What are they doing, and how do they want you to help? What are the cues? How many reps are they planning for?

One thing is always consistent, though: Your job is to pay attention. If someone asks you to spot for them, then do it. Don’t look at what someone else is doing, play on your phone, or allow yourself to be distracted in any other way. When I ask for a spot, I am asking you to help keep me safe.

If you train for long enough in a gym setting, there will almost definitely be a time when you need someone to spot you, and I doubt there are any regular gym-goers who have never been asked for a spot by a stranger at some point. However, it isn’t like you receive a little pamphlet when you sign up that teaches you how to do it properly, and as I have learned the hard way, relying on a poor spotter can be worse than not having one at all. So let’s review the three most common lifts and how to correctly spot them.

HOW TO SPOT A BENCH PRESS

Bench presses would be a lot safer if it was standard practice to include adjustable metal spotter arms on the bench, like the ones on a squat rack or power rack. Lacking this type of equipment, most of us can benefit from having an extra set of hands close by in case we fail with a barbell over our vital organs and bones.

“During the set, keep your hands near the bar but do not touch it.”

Prior to spotting someone’s bench press, you need to know if they want a “lift off.” This refers to helping them unrack the weight. It’s a common practice in powerlifting competitions, since the racked bar is located where the lifter is weaker, and it may require significant effort to bring out. If they wish for a lift off, take a grip on the bar with both hands on the bar inside of theirs. Wait for their count, and then give them significant help to bring the bar over their starting position. Once it’s there, gradually let off. Typically, a verbal cue lets the lifter and spotter know when the weight gets transferred. For example, my spotter knows to fully release the bar when I say “my weight.”

During the set, keep your hands near the bar but do not touch it. This is not a team lift! I recommend keeping one arm over and one arm under the bar, the latter providing a defense against a bar taking them in the neck or face. This “mixed grip” will also be quite strong in the event you need to take the whole weight.

WHEN TO HELP: There are only two situations where you should come in before the set is complete. To do so otherwise may result in papa bear getting angry. If the bar takes a sudden drop, then you automatically have permission to assist with full force to bring the bar back up. That is not permission to grab the bar if I slow down or struggle; only when I clearly failed and gravity is taking the bar a different direction. Read the last two sentences again to make sure you know the difference.

Additionally, if the lifter calls for aid, of course you’re expected to assist. In this situation, something a little different is expected of you. Only give the amount of help needed for the lifter to complete the lift. There is no need to fully take on all the weight unless they clearly want you to. Allow them to work on that last rep.

On a bench press you are generally expected to assist in racking the weight, particularly if they are at failure. A lot of mishaps happen during racking because the lifter is fatigued and might miss the J-hook, so once the bar is going that direction, feel free to be hands-on and guide it into the hooks.

HOW TO SPOT A SQUAT

Most spotters could probably wing it for the bench press and still keep you from eating the bar. Spotting someone who is squatting, however, is a bit more technical. This is especially true if the lifter actually needs a spot, in which case the spotter needs to know where to be and what to do. Here’s the difference in a nutshell: When helping out on a bench press, you are lifting the bar. When spotting during a squat, you are lifting the lifter.

Squat

You might think that no one should need your assistance in unracking the weight. However, I’ve seen more accidents occur during the racking and unracking process than during the lift. So always be in position before the weight comes off the hooks.

The strongest position for the spotter is with your arms hooked under the lifter’s arms, and your forearms along their lats. As they lift off and get into position, you step back with them and stay in place. Just as you don’t touch the bar during the bench press, don’t touch the lifter during the squat. Simply have your arms low and close them, keeping your hips back. As they squat, their butt will move back. Make sure you are out of their way.

WHEN TO HELP: Your spot can be a little “loose” at first, but pay close attention, particularly with max-effort lifts. If they slow down or start looking shaky, tighten up and be ready. Once the bar starts going back down or something else happens, get in there! Your arms will go under theirs and across the chest or shoulders. With good technique, assist them in completing the repetition.

In the event that the lifter goes down, which could happen for a number of reasons, your new job is to prevent them from getting squished. You should be lifting in a rack that will have either chains or pins as safeties, and you should ensure they are at the correct height before training. As a lifter, you can’t completely rely on a spotter, because if you bust up your knee, break your ankle, or pass out, they are not going to be able to save you. You might be able to dump the bar behind you, but don’t count on it. There is a chance you will end up—as I did—with the weight folding you up accordion-style. In cases such as these, the spotter can hopefully help you go down with some measure of control onto the safeties.

During heavy squats the spotter is expected to help rack the weight. If you had to assist them in their last rep, maintain positive control as you guide them into the front posts. Ensure that they don’t miss the J-hooks, and let them know when they are racked and can get out from under the weight.

HOW TO SPOT A DUMBBELL PRESS

This advice is applicable to any type of chest press or shoulder presses, but we will talk as though we mean the latter. Generally, the heavy dumbbells start on the knees with these movements and are rocked up into position. As a spotter, you should help them move the dumbbells into position for the first rep. From there, you should be hands off unless they need your help.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Occasionally, with particularly heavy weights, a lifter will request that you hand them one of the dumbbells after they’ve moved the other into position. If this is the case, keep your hands on the weight—never the handle—and exchange verbal cues when transferring the weight. Simply “Got it?” will usually suffice. When you take the weight away from the lifter after the set in this situation, a similar cue is needed.

Prior to starting the set, review all the normal information about reps and so forth, but also ask the lifter if they prefer an elbow spot or a wrist spot. Generally, elbows are the way to go unless they have a different preference. Either way, the lifter is expected to maintain their grip on the dumbbell, but you can either grasp their wrists or push their elbows up when needed. And just to be clear, you always push the weight up, not in.

WHEN TO HELP: As with the other lifts, don’t touch the lifter or the weight until you are needed to do so. Unless they are about to take a dumbbell to the head, you should only give enough assistance for them to complete the rep. They may even call for a couple of assisted repetitions, but ideally you would discuss this before the set begins.

They shouldn’t need assistance in returning the dumbbells to the floor. If they do, take your directions from the lifter.


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5 Spotting Techniques and Rules Everyone Must Know

Before we begin, there are a few things to note on spotting. If your lifter cannot get the weight up at least mostly by themselves, he or she should back off, lighten the load, and work up from there. When pride takes over and the weight is too heavy, form and technique will break down and this leaves the lifter highly prone to injury.

It is not beneficial for strength building when proper form is neglected. It is important to concentrate on technique first (even with lighter weights) in order to build, fire, and strengthen the correct muscles necessary for heavier weights and to stay injury free. Smart lifters and good coaches are far more concerned with (or at least they should be) a proper and technically-sound lift than a dangerous desperate effort to “just get it up” any way they can. We can push a lifter safely and without sacrificing form by using proper spotting techniques.

Spot-On

The idea behind spotting is not to lift the weight for the lifter (that defeats the purpose completely,) but rather to be there to support proper form as you allow your lifter to “struggle” through weights that he or she might not be able to manage safely alone. As you spot, let the lifter fight through the “sticky spots” a bit and do not lift anything for him or her. You can assist when he or she actually does get stuck or slow a great deal in several ways. This relationship between the spotter and the lifter is in fact is the biggest benefit to the lifter’s strength building and is your biggest role.

Nonetheless, as a spotter it is important to be prepared for anything. If he or she fails or begins to fail and you cannot spot any further, bail. Always bail. Never try to save the bar, just your lifter and yourself.

The Spotter Stance

Spotters should use a widened split stance to create a larger base of stability. To do this, you set one foot in front and the other one staggered behind. Maintain a tight and upright trunk and core, and adjust your hand placement according to the lift. Make sure both you and your lifter know what you are about to do by establishing the rep range and the goal ahead of time.

Spotting Techniques and Rules

1. Back Squat

There are two ways to spot a back squat. You can spot by the sides of the bar (one person on each end and outside of the rack) or from behind the athlete. I am a huge proponent of spotting from behind the lifter. In addition, squat racks with sidebars are a great benefit with and without a spotter as they catch any failed rep or falling bar and thus save the spotter and the lifter from injury.

Let the lifter back away from the rack and settle into the starting stance or set up. Stand behind your lifter and follow him or her down (in a similar motion as the squat itself). Have your hands up and under the armpits and on or near the chest (not touching unless necessary). Your role here is to help the lifter maintain a raised chest as the tendency when fatigue sets in is to collapse the core or trunk forward over the quads. By your guiding that chest up, the lifter has the advantage of maintaining form while still fighting for those last important strength-building reps. Also, help the lifter re-rack the weight by guiding the bar back with him or her into the proper rack position and securing it into place.

2. Dumbbell Press (Overhead or Bench)

The proper spot here is to rest your hands right under the elbows. I see many people try to help the lifter by grabbing on to his or her wrists or even the weights themselves. You can slide your hands up along the outside, from elbows to wrists, to guide the wrists at the top – but never grab the wrists of the lifter.

There is also no need to touch the elbows unless your lifter is gassed and there is nothing more to lose except for form. You can lightly guide the motion, but allow the lifter to do most of the work. At failure, you can assist by pressing the elbows up from underneath. Be ready to move out of the way when it comes to spotting dumbbells, as these are often best dropped after the final rep and your feet do not need to be their cushioning.

3. Bench Press

Spotters, stand behind your lifter here. You might want to ask him or her first if they need a “lift-off” (an assist lifting the bar off the rack before the first rep begins). Many lifters like to save energy and strength for the lift itself rather than the un-racking of heavier weight.

From there, let the athlete lift and when you see him or her begin to struggle, the proper spot to use is placing fingertips or palms of the hands under the bar. If you know you might need to pull the bar for (or off) your lifter when using heavier weights, a reverse grip (one overhand and one underhand) is a solid and secure grip. Spacing of the hands should be just inside (towards the middle of the bar) of your lifter’s hands. You do not need to go so low with the movement as to touch the lifter’s chest at the bottom, but be there as he or she begins to press up.

Strength is built by fighting through these sticky spots – and we all have them. Often a little assistance (even the slightest) will allow the struggling lifter to get unstuck momentarily and thus allow him or her to continue. Most of the time, once we push through these spots, we find that we have more in the tank. You can help your lifter dig themselves out with even just a little guidance, but always be ready to give more. Don’t go away – always stay with the lifter until the bar is re-racked safely.

4. Pull Ups

I talk about this a lot because spotting pull ups is done so poorly and so often almost everywhere I go. Spotting someone during pull-ups by the foot is not helpful – for anyone. Bands aren’t ideal either and especially not when you actually have someone in the gym who can help you. Put your training partners to work and get the most out of your full-range, full-body, proper pull up. (And stay posted for my next article covering everything you could ever want to know about learning and improving pull-ups.)

The proper spotting technique here is spotting by the hips or by the trunk and obliques. The same methods apply here as in spotting other movements, as you want to give your athlete the minimal help possible. Sometimes as a spotter, you are just there to keep the athlete moving more than anything. Having a person instead of a band or a machine is helpful as a spotter can judge the athlete’s fatigue and adjust assistance accordingly. Your athlete might be able to knock out one or two alone, but might fatigue around the third or fourth rep. So that is where you can help out a little more and “take a little weight off.” Still though, let the athlete do as much of the pull as possible on his or her own.

5. What Never to Spot: Power Exercises

I suppose this goes without saying, but I will say it here anyway. The great thing about spotting the exercises we have discussed is that they help build many foundations (strength especially) essential for performing power exercises. The two Olympic lifts are a great example (the clean and jerk and the snatch) of instances where no spotter can or should be used. Build up the fundamental and foundational strength, technique, and skills and then apply them to power exercises and other athletic movements that meant are to be done unassisted.

Photo 1 courtesy of Katie Chasey and RXBound.

Photos 2 & 4 courtesy of Becca Borawski.

Photos 3 & 5 courtesy of .

Beach-muscle vanity aside, there are functional reasons to being able to bench your body weight. Strengthening those chest and arm muscles means that all other pushing movements are easier — working a heavy bag, push-ups — and you’ll get a boost in power for everyday things, like moving the couch, throwing a baseball, or lifting your kids in the air.

Bench pressing your body weight takes slow and steady progression, but it’s a goal anyone can achieve. We recommend a 16-week progression, which allows time to toughen up tendons and strengthen and work the stabilizers of the shoulder joints. Start at moderate loads and higher reps, and taper down to higher loads at fewer reps until you hit your one-rep max, says Neal Pire, CSCS, exercise physiologist at HNH Fitness, a medical fitness center in Oradell, New Jersey. If you’ve been lifting regularly (at least twice a week), you can shorten the process.

Bench Press Form
Use the five-point body contact position: Head, upper back, and butt should be on the bench, and your right and left feet firmly on the floor in a wide stance. “This is the most stable position and allows you to elicit the most force,” says Pire. Your spine should be neutral, with a natural arch, on the bench. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. Lower the bar to your chest, in line with your nipples, and press up.

Body-Weight Training Plan
If you’re a bench press novice, start on Week 1. If you’re more experienced, try starting on Week 5. Perform the prescribed sets and reps twice per week on nonconsecutive days. Rest three to five minutes between sets. “Hit supporting muscle groups like delts, triceps, shoulder girdle stabilizers after you are done with your benching for the day,” says Pire. “Train them so they don’t become the weak link in your bench’s kinetic chain.”

Week 1: 5 sets x 10 reps at 60% of 1-rep max goal (120 lb for a 200 lb man)

Week 2: 5 x 8 reps at 65% 1RM

Week 3: 5 x 5 reps at 70% 1RM

Week 4: 5 x 3 reps at 75% 1RM

Week 5: 5 x 10 reps at 60% 1RM

Week 6: 5 x 8 reps at 70% 1RM

Week 7: 5 x 5 reps at 75% 1RM

Week 8: 5 x 3 reps at 80% 1RM

Week 9: 5 x 10 reps at 60% 1RM

Week 10: 4 x 8 reps at 75% 1RM

Week 11: 4 x 5 reps at 80% 1RM

Week 12: 4 x 3 reps at 85% 1RM

Week 13: 5 x 10 reps at 60% 1RM

Week 14: 3 x 8 reps at 80% 1RM

Week 15: 3 x 5 reps at 85% 1RM

Week 16: 3 x 3 reps at 90% 1RM

One-Rep Max Warm-up
On the day of your 1RM body weight attempt, line up a good spotter and be thoroughly warmed up with light cardio and lower-weight sets before attempting your max. “The key to this progression is taking enough rest time between sets,” says Pire. “The ideal warm-up is very personal. Some people need more warm-up sets than others.” Here’s a good pattern to start with:

Set 1: 8 reps at 40% 1 RM, 2 to 3 minutes rest

Set 2: 5 reps at 60%, 2 to 3 minutes rest

Set 3: 3 reps at 70%, 3 to 4 minutes rest

Set 4: 1 rep at 80%, 3 to 4 minutes rest

Set 5: 1 rep at 90%, 5 minutes rest

Set 6: One rep max

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Let’s get you comfortable using the bench press, starting today!

We specialize in helping people pick up barbells for the first time. Today, we’ll share with you the same lessons we teach our clients!

We help busy people just like you get strong. Learn more here!

Here’s what we’ll cover so you can start using the bench press:

  • How important is the bench press?
  • What muscles does the bench press utilize?
  • How to set up a bench press.
  • The most important bench press tip (keep tight).
  • Proper bench press form.
  • What’s a beginner bench press weight? (Determining your starting weight)
  • 5 common bench press mistakes.
  • How to ask for a bench press spotter.
  • How to bench press without a spotter.
  • FAQ on the bench press (including tips on getting started)

This guide is part of our Strength Training 101 series. I would encourage you to check out the rest of the articles if you’re just starting your weight training.

If you’re in a rush, you can download the entire guide for free when you enlist in the Rebellion (that’s us!), by joining our free bi-weekly newsletter:

Download our comprehensive guide STRENGTH TRAINING 101!

  • Everything you need to know about getting strong.
  • Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
  • How to find the right gym and train properly in one.

How Important is the Bench Press?

For the last 30-40 years, the bench press has become the universal lift for bros everywhere to determine how strong someone truly is.

The questions are things like:

  • How much do you bench?
  • Do you even lift?

As popular as it is, the bench press in its current form is really less than 100 years old.

Until the 1930’s, people did a movement called the “floor press”, which was similar to a bench press only done from the floor.

In fact, at first many people did a movement called a “belly toss” – where the bar would come down and bounce off the belly to help the lifter get it back up.

The three movements – bench press, belly toss, and floor press were all popular until the 40’s and 50’s, when the bench press started to become more and more popular, as bodybuilders liked how the bench worked their pecs (better than the other two movements).

As the bench press became more and more popular, powerlifting emerged in the 1970’s and separated itself from weightlifting as a sport of its own.

What Muscles Does the Bench Press Utilize?

The bench press is a great movement to have as a part of your strength program, and one move we consider to be a part of the “big 4” basic lifts.

The other three lifts?

  1. The Squat
  2. The Deadlift
  3. The Overhead Press

Some of the issues coaches have with the bench press (such as a tight chest creating bad posture) don’t come from benching itself, but come from bench being one of the ONLY movements in your program, and can disappear when incorporated as a part of a well-rounded strength program.

In other words, don’t JUST train using the bench press.

The bench press is widely known as a “chest” exercise, however, that’s definitely not all it is. The bench strengthens your:

  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Forearms
  • Lats
  • Pecs
  • Traps
  • Rhomboids
  • Plus pretty much every muscle in your upper body

However, the bench press doesn’t JUST use your upper body.

When you bench properly, you use your lower back, hips, and legs as well. Just like our other main lifts (the squat, deadlift, and overhead press), the bench press, while putting an emphasis on specific muscle groups, is a full body movement.

Think about it – while you’re benching, the rest of your body is not just lying there doing nothing.

Your entire body should be working – your shoulders are pinched together and your lats are engaged, while your back, hips and legs are tight, stabilizing your entire body to create a solid base and help you generate drive from the round.

How to bench press: The Setup

There are a lot of different ways to perform the bench press.

We’ll start you out with a standard and basic bench press variation, which we believe is the best (and safest) method for general strength.

Remember: just because you see someone benching a ridiculous amount of weight at the gym does not mean they are using proper or safe form.

They could be an advanced athlete who is making compromises to their form (knowingly or unknowingly) in order to bench higher numbers.

What do you need to perform the bench press?

  1. A weight bench with uprights:
  2. Barbell – the standard weight is 45 lbs, but this may be too heavy to start. No matter how strong you are, I recommend starting with a PVC pipe or broomstick to learn proper form.
  3. Spotter – once the weight gets heavy (we will discuss options later in case you just don’t have someone else to spot you)
  4. If you like to learn via video, please watch “How to Bench Press Safely” from Jim Bathurst, our lead coach from the Nerd Fitness Coaching Program:

How to Set Up A Bench Press

There are many different ways to set up for a bench press – as you’ll see by watching any powerlifting competition, or even by spending just 20 minutes in your local gym.

Some people get on the bench and curl themselves under the bar, some enter the bench from the back and slide in under the bar, and others just lie down and then get tight.

The key here is to set up in a way that helps you get your body tight and ready for the lift.

Before you begin, it might be a good idea to roll the bar forward on the uprights, as this is where you will be lifting it off from.

Having the bar in the same spot in the uprights will help you with a standard set up that is the same every time.

Here’s how to position yourself during the bench press:

  1. Squeeze your shoulder blades together (as if you were trying to hold a pencil between them), press your lats into the bench, and raise your chest up slightly towards the bar.
  2. While you’re doing this, squeeze your butt and plant your feet into the ground. Your entire foot (heels included) should be on the ground, on either side of the bench.
  3. Keep your entire body tight. The raising of your chest to the bar, squeezing your shoulders together, squeezing your butt, and driving your heels into the ground will create a tight arch in your back. (more on this later).
  4. Imagine you are a superhero and pretend you are sucking all the energy out of the room and absorbing it. As you the bar descends, absorb that energy and get ready to explode upward with the bar.
  5. Your shins should be perpendicular to the ground and directly below your knees. If they are out in front of you, your feet are too far forward and you won’t be able to generate proper drive.

When you look up, your eyes should be just north of the bottom of the bar – you should see the bar directly above your eyes. Your head, upper back, and butt should never leave the bench.

Note: Some people (including myself) find it easier to get tight in their upper back if they put their feet up on the bench, grab the bar, get tight in their upper back, and then place their feet on either side of the bench one at a time.

This is just another method and something you can try out after you get the hang of the bench!

Next, take your arms and put them straight up, and grab the bar. Your grip should be with your thumbs around the bar.

A thumbless grip is not to be used on the bench press, as it is unsafe, and often nicknamed the “suicide grip,” as it is far too easy for the bar to fall off of your hands and land on your body (warning: hard to watch).

When you hold the bar, it should be in the heel of the palm (the same spot in your hands as for the overhead press.) Your wrists will not be extended, and your forearms are under your wrists, forming a solid line of support.

If you hold the bar in the upper half of your hand or the fingertips, not only are you not in a strong position, but you could hurt your wrists.

Bench Press Grip

Bring the bar (or, preferably PVC as we are just learning) down to your chest. At your chest, the width of your grip should make your forearms straight up and down (as perpendicular to the floor as you can).

Get a friend to help you (as you won’t be able to see on your own), or tape yourself so you can see. Don’t stress too much about getting your forearms 100% perfectly vertical.

Once you get comfortable with the movement, you may change the width of your grip, as there is wiggle room for personal preference, but this is a great place to start.

Also, keep in mind that your grip may seem way wider or narrower than your friends based on the width of your shoulders. This is normal!

Why would people alter their bench press grip?

  • A wider grip is more pec-focused
  • A narrower grip is more tricep focused

You will see powerlifters use a super wide grip because it reduces the range of motion and therefore allows them to lift more weight in competition.

However, more weight does not always mean stronger, and our goal today is safety and strength!

Which is why we recommend a grip with your forearms in a vertical position, it’s the most well-rounded and safest version for overall strength.

If you’re worried about whether you have the right grip in place, record yourself and match it against the videos in this guide. If it’s close, you’re doing great.

Want an expert to offer feedback? Through our snazzy app a NF Coach (like myself!) can review your form, so you can hone your bench press technique and train safely.

Have a Nerd Fitness Coach check your form and lifting technique!

The Most Important Bench Press Tip (Keep Tight)

If you’ve set up correctly, your entire body should be tight.

Focus on the following when performing your bench press

  1. Think of your body as one single unit, not single muscle groups.
  2. Drive your feet into the ground, tighten your entire lower body and core, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and squeeze the bar. You should feel like one solid, single unit.
  3. When you tighten your body, your neck, upper back, and butt should be on the bench (and your feet and heels on the ground).
  4. When you drive your heels through the ground, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and raise your chest to the bar, it will form a small arch in your back – this is natural and what we’re aiming for.
  5. You don’t want to push your lower back into the bench to create a “flat back,” or try to not create an arch. If you have heard people talking about not using an arch in the bench press, they are most likely referring to the extreme arch used by many powerlifters:
  6. That is not what we are going for here – that is a way to help you lift more weight by reducing the range of motion, and is only safe to look into when you have been benching for a long time and really know what you are doing. For overall strength, we recommend benching with a full range of motion instead of trying to reduce it.

Now, feel how tight your body is? It is very important that you keep this tightness throughout the entire movement.

Proper Bench Press Form

Now that we are set up and have our hands around the bar, we want to think about having our elbows tucked in and not letting them flare out.

One way to do this is that when you grab onto the bar, think about trying to bend it in half upwards towards the sky.

This “upward bending” cue will also help you engage your lats, which doesn’t actually help you with the press, but do help you keep your body tighter.

We review how to bench press with proper form in this video (taken from the NF Academy):

Here’s how to perform the bench press:

#1) Unrack the bar and position the bar directly above your shoulders (without losing tightness – keep squeezing your shoulder blades together!).

#2) Continue to look up at the ceiling, unlock your elbows and lower the bar to your chest. Don’t just drop the bar to your chest – you want to pull it down towards you with control.

#3) At the bottom of the movement, you want the bar to touch a few inches below your clavicles. If it’s up by your throat or on your stomach, it’s in the wrong position.

#4) Once the bar touches your chest, press up to put the bar back to its starting position.

Note that unlike the deadlift and squat, the bench press movement will not be in a straight up and down motion.

Because of our anatomy, the bar will follow a slightly diagonal path down, and then follow the same path back up.

#5) While pressing, remember to keep your elbows tucked in, and don’t let them flare out.

Think about squeezing so that your biceps touch the side of your chest (though you won’t be close enough to have this happen), or try to get your elbows under the bar.

You don’t want to be too tucked though – the goal is about a 45 degree angle:

#6) As you press, the same parts of your body that were touching the bench before should still be touching the bench, and your feet should still be on the floor. Don’t let any part of you (the most common is your butt) come off the bench.

To help prevent your butt from coming off of the bench, instead of pushing up when you drive with your heels, think of pushing up and back, towards the front of the bench (where your head is).

#7) To re-rack the bar, move the bar backwards to the uprights and touch them with the bar, and then let go of the bar. Don’t look at the racks, you know that they are there! For beginners, it’s great to have a friend help you guide the bar back to the right position in the rack.

Your Nerd Fitness Coach can check your bench press form and technique.

What’s a Beginner Bench Press Weight? (Determining Your Starting Weight)

Okay okay, you’re wondering how much you should put on the bar as a beginner who is starting out with bench pressing.

This is a very important question, and for somebody that is trying to level up as quickly as possible, you’ll be tempted to put WAY more weight on the bar than you can probably handle.

In other words, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.

So here is what you are going to do.

Check your ego, and start with:

The bar. And ONLY the bar.

Your ego will survive. I promise.

As we cover in our extensive guide: “How Much Weight Should I Be Lifting?“, you should ALWAYS start every session with just the bar.

Hell, even veteran powerlifters who can bench press 500+ pounds will always start out by just bench pressing the bar.

You can too. Nobody in the gym cares. I promise you.

NOTE: The bar STILL weighs 45 pounds, which MIGHT be too heavy for you. That’s okay! You don’t go to show people how strong you are at the gym, you go to the gym to get stronger.

So start by making sure 45 pounds isn’t too heavy for you.

If you are even SLIGHTLY concerned that it might be, consider using dumbbells or finding a smaller/lighter barbell in the gym and using that to build up to the strength with the bar.

HOW TO BENCH PRESS MORE:

Now, if you can bench press the bar safely, great.

Do 3 sets of 10 on your first day in the gym.

When it’s time to bench press again, add 2.5 lbs (1.2KG) to each side of the bar, and repeat.

You’ll then be lifting a total of 50 lbs.

Each week, add 5 pounds total (2.5 to each side) to the bar. This will be “slow going” at first. However, even at a paltry 5 pounds per week, you’ll rapidly reach a point in the next 6-12 months where you’ll approach a weight you can no longer lift.

“BUT STACI, I CAN LIFT WAY MORE THAN THE BAR, WHY START THERE?”

Because you need to train your body correctly, and we’re looking to build momentum. When you practice perfect form with light weight, your body starts to learn the proper pathway for the bar. Your muscles, tendons, and joints all learn how to bear the load of a weighted bar.

And each week, you get slightly stronger.

Repeat this week after week, combine it with a diet to get stronger, and you will build muscle like a superhero!

Want a custom-built plan to grow stronger? Something that progresses and advances as you start benching more and more?

Our Coaching Program matches you with an expert who will guide your strength training practice, step-by-step, including how much weight to start lifting and when to advance to more.

Have a Nerd Fitness Coach guide your strength training practice!

5 Common Bench Press Mistakes

  1. Not keeping body tight – As soon as you lose tightness, you have the potential for missing the rep. Make sure even when you are warming up and the weight is light, that you keep your entire body tight.
  2. Butt coming up – make sure your butt stays on the bench at all times! It’s easy to let it come up off the bench once the weight gets heavy and you really start driving through your heels. Instead of thinking about driving upwards through your heels, think about driving up and backwards. If you’re struggling with your butt coming up, either try putting plates under your feet or re-evaluating your foot position (or lower the weight).
  3. Bouncing off your chest – when you come to the bottom part of the lift, don’t bounce! Lower the bar to slightly graze your shirt, and then press.
  4. Half reps – One of the most common faults I have seen in the gym! Make sure you are hitting full range of motion every single rep (down to chest!).
  5. Wrong starting, middle, and ending positions (pictured below) – we’ve learned in the past that a vertical line is the most efficient way to move a bar, but with the bench press, the safest is to move the bar at a slight curve. The bar will start and end above your shoulders, but the middle point of the bar will be below your clavicles. If your middle position is above your shoulders, in a vertical line, your middle position is too high.

How to Ask for A Spotter with the Bench Press

Spotting is a very important part of bench pressing – not only having someone spot you, but having you spot other people. It can be extremely dangerous to bench press alone.

A spotter’s purpose is to ensure the safety of the lifter – not to help the lifter with reps.

The spotter always watches every rep while staying out of the way.

The only thing they may help with is giving you a lift off, but after that, it is all you!

*A lift off is when you help the lifter take the bar out of the rack, and then let go of it when it is in the correct starting position.

You don’t need a spotter for your warm-up sets, but everyone should have one for their work sets.

How do you ask someone to spot you? “Hey, will you spot me real quick?” usually works (it’s really that simple!). I’ve never had anyone turn me down.

If you’re always at the gym at the same time as someone else, make friends and spot each other.

That way you’re not always nervous asking someone random to spot you.

If someone asks you to spot them, always ask:

  • How many reps they are going for?
  • Do they want a lift off?
  • How would they like to be spotted?

Some people don’t want you to touch the bar unless they tell you to; others want you to help them guide the bar up if they start to fail, and others want you to take the bar immediately if they fail the rep.

Some want a lift off, and some don’t.

When you ask someone else to spot you, they will probably ask you the same questions!

What if I don’t have a spotter? Can I bench press without a spotter?

If you don’t have a spotter, you can use the power rack to bench.

A power rack would look like so:

NF Coach Jim demonstrates how to bench press using a power rack here:

Just set the pins at a level just barely below your chest, so if you miss a rep you can get out.

If you don’t have a power rack, and absolutely don’t have a spotter – you can either not put clips on the bar, and then let the weight slide off one side at a time, or do the “Roll of shame,” where you roll the bar down your body, sit up, and pick up the bar.

However, both of these methods are dangerous and you’re risking injury by doing them. Please do not bench press alone – especially when just starting out. Even if the weight seems light, it’s very possible to injure yourself.

The best thing you can do is to ask someone at the gym to spot you.

There’s nothing weird about it all – in fact, it’s normal and expected!

If that’s not an option, consider dumbbell presses or another chest exercise until you can find a spotter.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Bench Press (Plus Tips to Get Started)

1) “I see people with their feet up on the bench – what’s going on?”

This isn’t technically correct – but it’s really a completely different movement than your standard bench press. It eliminates the use of the lower body in the movement, and can be good for people with injuries or as an assistance exercise.

I’ve seen it the most in bodybuilding routines. We recommend you stick to the bench press form we presented until you master the movement.

2) “If the bench is one of the ‘big 4’, why do some people not bench press?”

The bench press is a great way to build strength. But out of the big 4, it is the lift that has the most alternatives available.

While it’s hard to replace a heavy deadlift, you can easily replace the bench press with push-up and dip variations and continuously get stronger with just your own bodyweight for a very long time.

Push up:

Dip:

Here are the best 42 bodyweight exercises if you want to start training that way first!

I personally keep the bench in my program because I enjoy it, but also because it’s a competed lift in powerlifting.

Steve, however, has chosen to not bench press and replaces it with bodyweight variations of push-ups and a lot of gymnastics ring work.

3) “Okay, I get it! What do I do now?”

I’m glad you asked! I have three great options for you:

Option #1) If you want step-by-step guidance, a custom strength training program that levels up as you get stronger, and a coach to keep you accountable, check out our killer 1-on-1 coaching program:

Our coaching program changes lives. Learn how!

Option #2) Good at following instructions? Check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy.

The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.

Learn more about the Nerd Fitness Academy

Option #3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’ll help you start incorporating the bench press into your training:

Download our comprehensive guide STRENGTH TRAINING 101!

  • Everything you need to know about getting strong.
  • Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
  • How to find the right gym and train properly in one.

So that’s all there is to it! Next time you are in the gym, give the bench press a shot!

Start with just the bar, and add weight each time when you hit your weights. Just don’t forget to have a spotter!

So, what kind of benching questions do you have for us!?

-Staci

PS: Don’t forget to check out our other articles in the Strength 101 Series!

  • Strength Training 101
  • Strength Training 101: Equipment
  • Strength Training 101: Finding the Right Gym
  • Strength Training 101: Where do I start?
  • Strength Training 101: How much weight should I be lifting?
  • Strength Training 101: Inverted Rows
  • Strength Training 101: How to Squat Properly
  • Strength Training 101: The Deadlift
  • Strength Training 101: The Overhead Press

photo source: leg0fenris: legos, Alexander Danling: Benches, Christian Hernandez: Superman , Arch in bench press, LEGO bench press, Beam me up, please.

By Tim Henriques

You want a bigger bench, I want a bigger a bench, everybody wants a bigger bench. The only people that exercise but don’t want a bigger bench are those that aren’t good at it and they have convinced themselves the lift doesn’t really matter – but deep down they still wish they benched more. As a powerlifting coach, I have had lots of people come to me looking to add some poundages to their bench press. Here are 4 strategies that are sure to build your benching prowess:

Gain Weight

Talk with any big bencher and they will tell you getting big has helped their bench press. This is something that most “in the know” lifters are aware of but nobody seems to be clear on how it works. Some say it increases your leverage, others say it fills up your cells. None of that is the reason why your bench goes up when you gain weight. The truth is that your joints are very sensitive to their internal stability, we have proprioceptors inside our body that sense and detect things for us. Your body can detect when a joint is stable or not. When it is not stable, the body will inhibit (shut down) some of the muscle force that can act on that joint. You can see this very easily by performing a pull-up and then use one less finger each time to grasp the bar. Most people when they get down to 2-3 fingers are no longer able to do a pull-up. The weight didn’t change (your bodyweight), your lats didn’t change, but the stability did change and now you can’t perform the exercise.

What is the most flexible joint in the body? The shoulder. Because it is so flexible it isn’t very stable, and it relies on muscle and surrounding tissues to derive some of its stability. As you gain weight by adding muscle you will increase that stability. Honestly even adding fat will serve as a wrap which add stability to the shoulder girdle and thus increase the potential force that can cross it. I am not a proponent of them but this is one reason why bench shirts work so well, they surround the shoulder joint and greatly add to the stability which is one reason why they add so dramatically (about 30-50% if you can believe that) to the lift.

When I moved up from the 198 lb weight class to the 220 lb weight class (approximately a 20 lb increase) my bench went up by 50 lbs. I’d love to tell you I was benching 2.5 x bodyweight at the time but alas I can’t say that I was. The point being that the added weight didn’t just up my max, it even increased my relative strength at the same. Of all the competitive lifts, the bench is the most sensitive to changes in weight. The good news is that on the bulking cycle you can definitely expect to slap some more weight on the bar, the bad news is that as you lean up it is likely that your bench may go down, particularly if you are already at an advanced level. But if you are stuck on a plateau try gaining 10 lbs and see what happens to your lift.

Cluster Sets

A cluster set is where the lifter will perform one rep, they rest 10-30 seconds, and then they perform another rep. This continues until the desired reps are completed. Then the lifter can take a full rest and either repeat that or move on to another exercise. A cluster set is an intensity technique, most intensity techniques are beneficial for size because they force the lifter to train in a fatigued state. This technique actually manages fatigue – it is easier to use this method than to just perform a normal set. That in turn means the lifter can use more weight and can complete more reps, which is ideal for increasing maximal strength.

I have found that there are two ideal ways to incorporate cluster sets into your workout. The first is just to perform one big set which I refer to as a single cluster set. With this method you will take about 90% of your 1RM or a weight you know you can hit for 4-5 reps. Use this weight for your cluster set, rest 20-30 seconds in between each rep (actually rack the bar, sit up, take a few deep breaths, and then perform another rep). You can go for anywhere from 5-20 reps with this style, I have found that 10 reps is a good sweet spot. Hit your target reps and then stop. When you repeat that exercise again (likely the following week) add 5 lbs (2.5 lbs if benching under 200) and go again. Here is a video of this style of cluster set:

The second effective way to incorporate clusters is to do them volume style, which I refer to as multiple cluster sets. As the name implies you will perform more than 1 set like this. I have found 3-6 reps to be ideal with this method, combined with 3-5 total sets. Take about 85% of 1RM, perform one rep, rest 10-20 seconds, repeat for 3-6 reps. Rest 2-3 minutes and do that about 5 times. Just like the previous cluster set, add a small amount of weight when you repeat this workout. Here is a video of the multiple cluster set:

Clusters are fantastic and one of my favorite training methods for building strength. Like all strategies though, they don’t work forever, I like to use them in 6-12 week long blocks, adding weight each week. I have found them to be particularly effective for bench, front squats (back squats not so much), rows, pull-ups and curls.

Negatives

A lot of lifters will throw in a negative here or there in the workout but they never really systematically program them into the workout. Negatives are another effective strength building tool. With a negative you will perform a 4-10 second eccentric contraction – in the case of the bench press you will slowly lower the bar to your chest. Unlike traditional negatives where you simply complete a set and then make that lest rep a negative, this time the entire set will consist solely of negatives. However, we are not performing 8-10 reps, negatives are very damaging to the muscle and will leave you sore and fatigued in a hurry. I have found that 2-4 sets of 2-4 reps works very well, 4 sets of 3 is probably my favorite arrangement.

The key to making negatives effective is the concept that the bar never free falls during the lowering portion. Imagine if your workout partner yelled out “Hold it” on the negative, you should be able to stop the bar at the moment and hold it for a second or two. If you can’t you are not doing it right. The other key point is don’t waste your energy at the top. You are very strong in the top portion of the bench, so don’t waste your time going super slow there. You can move through the first quarter of the ROM pretty quickly and then lower it under control. For negatives to help your bench, the form on the negative needs to mimic your form when you lower a real bench press. Wrists straight (or at least close to this), elbows tucked 45-60 degrees, normal bench set-up, and make sure the bar path matches your normal bench and that the bar lands in the right spot on your chest (usually right at the nipples or just below – not below the bottom of your sternum).

For this start with about 95% of your 1RM, so here we are going heavy. If you are using this with the clusters mentioned above, then make this 10-20 lbs heavier than that single cluster set. Lower reasonably slowly, I like to count to 6 in my head. One downside of this method is that you will need a good spotter(s) for this method. You are NOT pressing the bar up, as soon as the bar hits your chest the spotter will lift it up for you. You can press about 50-60% of the weight and the let the spotter do the rest, this is not the time to see if you can press it, save that for the max out. I have found once you are using about 350+ lbs on negatives you may want to move to 3 spotters to make it easier to lift up. On my very last rep of my very last set I often like to do an extra slow negative – I’ll shoot for a ten count in my head to really establish control of the bar.

Negatives build strength and they can help lifters overcome mental blocks with the bench press – sometimes a lifter is so excited about benching 3 plates that the weight seems kind of scary. Females really benefit from this training as well as their body gets used to handling heavier and heavier weight. I have had lots of females bench their bodyweight or more in a competition (which is a nice bench for a female) using these methods. Here is a video of negatives in action:

Two-a-days

the last strategy is to take a page from the football players and other serious athletes and incorporate 2-a-days. Workout twice a day and train the bench each time. You might think that on the second workout you’ll just be destroyed and it will have to be a light, machine-based endurance workout but I found that not to be the case. If you just completely smash your chest for an hour with 5 exercises, 6 sets each in traditional bodybuilding fashion then that may be true, but if you train with reasonable volume and a pretty high intensity (30-60 reps on the bench, none of them until true failure) in the first workout you might find that you are just as strong if not stronger on the second workout and you can go even heavier.

I like to rest at least 2 hours, preferably 4-5 hours between the first and second workout. Eating once is key, twice is optimal, to promote recovery. Your endurance may well be a bit limited on that second workout, but you may also find that your nervous system is still primed from the previous workout and you are ready to dominate some weight. Make the workout short and sweet, 10-25 really productive reps on the bench is all you do need for this second round. You’ll likely find the additional practice time refines your technique and makes you feel very comfortable when benching heavy weight.

The 4 methods described above are some of the strength building strategies I use with my powerlifting team and my personal training students and they never fail to deliver results. I cover their implementation in more detail in my book All About Powerlifting. The next time somebody asks “How much do you bench?” wouldn’t you like to say “more than I did 3 months ago.” That is, after all, what this game is all about.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Henriques is the Director of the National Personal Training Institute of VA/MD/DC. NPTI is a 600 hour, 6-12 month long school for people who wish to become personal trainers. Tim is also a competitive powerlifter and he is the coach of his powerlifting team – Team Force. Apart from powerlifting, he has competed in armwrestling and strongman competitions. Tim set the USAPL VA state record for the deadlift with a lift of 700 lbs at a bodyweight of 198 lbs. He regularly gives presentations, writes articles, and lectures on strength and fitness and he authored the comprehensive book All About Powerlifting which is now available. He is lifetime drug free.

Website: http://www.nptivirginia.edu

Website:: http://allaboutpowerlifting.com


Like this. Photo: Beth Skwarecki

Lifting weights is often about the challenge: can I really lift this much? Or, I already lifted this for eight reps, but can I do a ninth? So you need to prepare for what happens if you fail.

If you’re following along with our bench press challenge, then you probably want to try to push your limits—but safely.

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With barbell bench press, if you fail, the weight could crush your chest, neck, or face. That’s why people often do this exercise with a spotter, a friend who can help you get the weight back up if your arms start to buckle. But what if you’re friendless, or you’re just not sure if you trust anyone with this life-saving job?

You can avoid the situation entirely by pressing dumbbells instead, like we discussed last week, or by using a machine that mimics the bench press movement (like a Smith machine, or a chest press machine). But if you want to do a genuine barbell bench press without the help of a human being, all you need is a power cage with adjustable stops.

How to Set Up a Cage for Bench Press

The first time I tried this, it seemed impossible. You want to bring the bar down to touch your chest when you bench, but if you set up stops above your chest, how is that possible?

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The trick is to bench with an arch in your back. Powerlifters can take this to an extreme, doing what looks like a yoga cobra pose turned 90 degrees. But to bench safely in a rack, you just need a few inches of arch.

Don’t forget that the bar should touch your sternum (right under your boobs, if you have boobs) on each rep—not your upper chest or your shoulders.

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So you set the stops where they are even with the surface of your chest when your back is flat, and then you arch your back so your chest is just slightly above the stops.

  • First, drag a bench into the rack. (This isn’t always easy, but look for a rack with wheels on one end. Pick up the other end and it will pivot and steer nicely when you hold it almost-vertical.)
  • Then, set the stops a chest-width above the bench, and the rack to hold the bar a few notches above that.
  • Lie down on the bench to check positioning with the empty bar. You should be able to easily grab the bar with bent elbows, press it up so your arms are straight, and lower it down to touch your puffed-out chest.
  • Try escaping from under the bar: let it rest on the stops, and flatten your back and try to slide out from under it. It’s fine to slide or roll the bar toward your hips so you can comfortably sit up.

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Once you have everything adjusted properly, jot down which notches you used so you can set up quickly next time. Some racks have numbered settings, but with others you’ll have to write, say, “fourth one from the bottom and then six notches above that.” Do what works.

If you need a visual, this video breaks it down nicely. (Fair warning: the beginning of the video shows the narrator dropping 315 pounds on his chest without a rack, but he doesn’t die. Skip to 0:42 if you don’t want to see that.)

So, how are you feeling about your bench press? Ready to try it with a barbell, or ready to ditch your spotter for some metal bars that will be less likely to get distracted when you’re in your moment of need?

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If you don’t have a spotter, you might head straight to the Smith machine to bench press. But ever wonder why it’s so much easier to bench heavy weight on it than it is with a standard barbell?

The Smith automatically balances the bar and restricts your range of motion, so you only have to focus on pressing the weight—not stabilizing it.

This may make for a heavier bench, but according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the trade-off is less overall upper-body muscle activation.

“The Smith machine forces you to bench in a straight up-and-down line, only activating your chest muscles,” says BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S, creator of Men’s Health StreamFIT. “But real bench-pressing occurs in an arc, which activates your chest and your shoulders.”

And when you activate your shoulders you can exert more control over the weight and build more total upper-body muscle and strength that translates to other exercises too.

Instead of hitting up the Smith machine when you’re sans spotter, Gaddour recommends the band-resisted pushup. According to a study in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the exercise is just as effective for building your chest and arm strength as the bench press.

“You’re using your chest and shoulder muscles to push against a good amount of resistance—your body weight plus the band,” explains Gaddour. “You’re also using your core and glutes to keep your body in a straight line from head-to-toe.” That means you’re activating even more muscles while getting the same benefits as the bench press.

Here’s how to do it: Grab a continuous-loop resistance band. Hold one end in each hand with the rest of the band resting on your mid- to upper-back. Assume a pushup position. Your body should form a straight line from your ankles to your head.

Lower your chest until your body nearly touches the floor. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Perform two to three sets to just one rep short of failure. Rest one to two minutes in between sets.

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The Surprising Reason Why You Should Always Use a Spotter When You Bench Press

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With 225 pounds on the bar and a new rep max on the line, you lie down on the bench.

The first five reps move as expected. Trouble starts around the sixth rep with a noticeable drop in bar speed. Seventh rep? Sloooow. Number eight is a struggle, and you can barely lock out the ninth. Being the stubborn risk taker you are, you refuse to rack the bar just yet. Screw it! You’re going for number 10. Ten reps at 225 would be a personal best, after all.

But you have run out of gas. After a momentary fight in which the bar remains stagnant just a couple of inches above your chest, no matter how hard you will that damn weight to move up, you realize it’s over. Failure is imminent, so you lower the bar on the safeties and crawl your way out from underneath it.

Instead of going with a pair of safety pins to bail you out, had you gotten yourself a human spotter, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have botched that last rep.

At least, that’s what a recent study concluded, which investigated how spotter presence affects Bench Press performance.

The Bench Press Spotter Study

In what was the first study of its kind, British researchers compared how using a pair of spotters affected the number of successful Smith Machine Bench Press repetitions.

To accomplish this, the researchers used a deceptive strategy. Each of the 12 recreationally trained male participants performed three sets to failure at 60% of 1RM under two different conditions, 3-7 days apart.

In one of the two trials, spotters (one on each side of the bar) were visible. In the other, they were hidden from view behind an opaque shield, making their presence unknown to the lifters—this was the deception part. To mask the true nature and aim of the study, participants were told the shielding was there to reduce the chances of peripheral distractions and the purpose of the study was to assess the test-retest reliability of the lifting protocol.

So, what happened?

When spotters were visible, an average of 4.5 more total reps were completed over the three sets—an increase of 1.5 reps per set. In addition, ratings of perceived exertion were significantly higher in the deception (spotters hidden) condition.

While a slight increase in the number of reps completed when using a spotter isn’t that surprising, 1.5 per set is probably more than most of us would anticipate.

To put this figure into context, the mere visible presence of spotters gives you a bigger boost than playing your favorite training songs. You see, a similar study done by Italian researchers concluded that listening to self-selected motivational music produces about one extra rep in one all-out Bench Press set at 60% of 1RM.

What’s also interesting is that 11 of the 12 participants performed best when spotters were in plain view. The lone trainee who did not, performed identically in both conditions. This indicates that using spotters has no negative effect on your submaximal repping ability, and for the vast majority of lifters, it does indeed add to it.

How to Use This Info

This study offers a couple of practical takeaways.

First, as the researchers noted, a spotter acting as a social influence can elicit increased self-efficacy. Simply put, we tend to perform better in the active presence of others. Whether this happens due to increased self-confidence or wanting to impress others is anybody’s guess. But whatever the reason, the effect is very real.

On the flip side of the coin, there’s also the embarrassment and danger factors to take into account when you get stapled without a helping hand. Nobody wants to be that person stuck under a weight with the rest of the gym watching, until someone finally snaps out of their reverie and rushes over to lift the bar off your chest.

So, it’s normal to cut your set short before failure occurs on a rep you think you might get but don’t want to risk it. With a spotter, you can take that gamble. Should you miss a rep, your training partner will simply guide the bar back into the J-hooks without anyone else around being wise to what’s going on.

It’s crucial you pick a spotter who knows what they’re doing. An experienced spotter will give you a solid lift-off and be able to determine whether their help is needed during the set with great accuracy.

If you have ever worked with a bad spotter, you know the exact opposite is true. They will hand you the bar in an unstable position (or worse, pull you out of position) and be too eager to intervene when you start grinding those last few challenging reps, grabbing the bar when no assistance was required.

In such a case, you’re actually better off forgoing a spotter and opting for a pair of safety pins. But if you have a reliable teammate or training partner available, take advantage. It doesn’t require any conscious effort on your part, but could be the psychological boost you need to crank out an extra rep or two.

If you want to be capable of providing a spot that will make other people more confident and successful under the bar, read STACK’s six keys to spotting the Bench Press.

Photo Credit: gilaxia/iStock

  • New Bench Press Study Finds Surprising Results
  • STACK’s Bench Press Homepage
  • How to Provide a Spot for the Bench Press

Table of Contents

I don’t want to die, trapped under a barbell, alone in my garage.

Now that I’ve sufficiently brightened your day, let me explain. The pessimist in me always assumes the worst. Very often, I find myself daydreaming about unpleasant outcomes and things gone wrong. When I decided to build a fully equipped home gym in my garage, that was no exception.

One of my biggest fears is suffering an injury mid lift and having a fully loaded barbell come crashing down on top of me. If you’ve ever had your back go out on you, you can relate. You know that no matter how careful you are, bad things can happen. Those bad things become worse things when heavy weight is involved!

Keys to safe solo weight training
  • The primary goal should be safety, not PRs
  • Choose safe movements
  • Train with dumbbells
  • Use a rack with safeties
  • Choose an all in one home gym
  • Don’t train to failure
  • Use lighter weights and higher reps
  • Concentrate on perfect form

Sometimes You Don’t Have a Spotter

One of the reasons I wanted to start working out at home was that, to be blunt, I had grown tired of most of the other people I had to share a gym with. I didn’t like waiting for the squat rack. I didn’t like having to wipe other people’s sweat off of the benches. I wasn’t there to socialize. I could go on, but as someone reading a website dedicated to building your own home gym, I’m guessing you can relate.

While moving your training regimen to the comfort of your home has many more benefits than it does drawbacks, it still creates a few obstacles. One of the most glaring, ironically, is the lack of other people.

While other people were the main reason I didn’t like working out in a big box gym, they did serve the occasional purpose. Not the least of which is safety. Want to try to max out your bench press? You can’t do that safely alone. Trying a one rep max with your deadlift? Having someone there in case you hurt your back is critical.

Having another person in the gym with you has numerous positive benefits with regard to safety. Almost enough to make it worth wiping those other people’s sweat off the equipment you need to use…. Almost.

Thankfully, with a little planning and forethought, along with a lot of common sense, we can all lift safely by ourselves. Working out alone is extremely rewarding to me. It’s one of the high points of my day. Following just a few simple guidelines has allowed me to do it safely for quite some time. I hope that by sharing these tips, I can make working out at home as safe and enjoyable experience for you as it is for me.

Let’s do everything we can to avoid a trip here!

Safety First

There are a couple of overarching principles that need to be addressed before we get to the safety guidelines. Working out at home safely requires a few minor modifications in how some of us approach weight training. It starts with looking at what it takes to build muscle.

There is a long running debate in training circles about how much weight it actually takes to build muscle. One camp says that low reps (1-5) with heavy weights is the fastest road to gaining strength. Another camp says that lower weights with higher reps (12-20) is the proven track to hypertrophy.

I am not here to side with either of them. For the purposes of our discussion today, we are approaching things with the attitude that no strength gain or hypertrophy can happen if we are injured. When working out at home alone, I’m going to pick the rep range with the least chance of injury!

The single fastest way to gain strength and build muscle is to avoid injury at ALL costs.

There is another long running debate as to how much effort is needed for strength gain and muscle growth. One side of this debate will tell you that you must train to failure. Leave nothing in the tank. Push yourself until you are puddle on the floor. The other side says that you can achieve great results training sub maximally. That is, always finish your sets with 1-2 perfect reps left in the tank.

Again, I have to reiterate that it doesn’t really matter to me which side is right. At 46 years old, and having recovered from a total of 4 bulged discs in my back, I only care about safety. And that is the point of this article… Safety. That means that once again, I’m going with the method that leaves no room for injury!

With that said, let’s take a look at 7 key training habits that you can implement to significantly reduce your risk of injury when working out alone.

Exercise Selection

The clean and jerk looks really fun. Overhead sumo squats would be cool to learn to do. Knowing what my max bench press is would be nice.

What do those three things and many more have in common? They aren’t things I’ll be doing by myself in my garage. Not in a million years.

When you are considering how to stay safe when lifting alone, exercise choice has to be the number one consideration. That choice has to be driven by safety, not preference. If you want to build a program around Olympic lifts, that’s great! You just shouldn’t do it at home by yourself.

Luckily, we live in the age of the internet! Combine that with the fact that people have been lifting weights much longer than you or I have been alive, and you have a wealth of weight training information at your fingertips. That means that no matter what lift you want to perform, there is a safer alternative only a YouTube search away.

Sure, the alternate might not be as exciting. It might not work the muscle in exactly the same way or angle. But it DOES work the same muscle. Remember, the point isn’t to argue over what is the most effective. It’s about keeping you and I safe and without injury.

When it comes to our top priority of safety, alternate exercises that present less risk are the biggest tool we have.

Equipment Choice

Dumbbells

One of the best ways to make almost any exercise safer is to change the equipment you use to perform it. The king of all alternate pieces of equipment is the dumbbell.

My original garage gym set up.

Dumbbells are not only versatile, but they immediately remove much of the risk that their barbell counterparts inherently present. Bench pressing with dumbbells does not pose the danger that a straight bar does. Overhead pressing with dumbbells is much safer than pushing an Olympic barbell over our heads.

There is such a safety difference that when I built my home gym, the only weights I had for the first couple of years was a set of adjustable dumbbells. I’m definitely not advising that we should only have dumbbells in our garage or basement gyms. I am saying that they are much safer for many exercises.

Not sure what dumbbells would be good for your home gym? I wrote an entire article to help you decide that you can see by clicking here! You can also see all the gear I recommend for your home gym on my recommended gear page here!

Squat Rack

Want to push yourself more than you can with dumbbell workouts? Want to add a barbell (check out my complete guide on picking the perfect barbell)? You should! I love lifting heavy weights with barbells. Presses, squats, deadlifts and more are a huge part of my fitness routine. I can’t imagine weight training without them.

That begs the question, how do we make those things safe when there isn’t a spotter around? The answer, weirdly, is to get a spotter.

The nuance that makes all the difference in the world is that the spotter you will get is not a person. It’s a big piece of metal.

When deciding on what kind of squat rack I was going to put in my garage gym, one of the main things that made me lean towards a full size rack was the ability of that rack to be my spotter for a variety of lifts. The safety straps (or pins or bars, I go over all the differences in an article you can see by clicking here) on either side of the cage can serve as a non human spotter in a variety of exercises. Most commonly, they are my spotter for the barbell bench press and the squat.

Lifting inside the rack, safety straps in place, I can perform a good number of the larger barbell lifts that would normally require another human present to be safe. Combined with the strategies I review below, I feel totally safe lifting without a spotter and without someone in the gym with me at all!

For those of you using a Titan Fitness rack, they recently releases very high quality straps for all of their racks. Check them out on Titan Fitness here!

Looking to add a squat rack to your gym? Check out my article here where I outline everything you need to know to pick out the perfect squat rack for your home gym. Or you can just go to my recommended racks page here for specific model recommendations based on your budget and size needs!

All in One Home Gyms

The last equipment choice I want to review that can significantly add to the safety of your lifting routine is the self contained “home gym”. These can take several forms, but basically they consist of a machine in which there is a loading mechanism. That can be weight plates, or it can be oddly engineered rods or springs as you’d find in the late night infomercial star, the BowFlex home gym.

I used to rail against these machines. I had an uppity attitude that they didn’t really qualify as weight training. I’ve owned two (yes, two) BowFlex machines in my life. Both ended up being very expensive places to hang my clothes. For the longest time, I completely disqualified this type of equipment as being effective. I was wrong.

A while back, I started traveling relatively often. Because of that, I ended up using numerous hotel gyms to get in a workout while on the road. That meant that I ended up using quite a few different all in one cable type gyms. And you know what? I always found a way to get in a solid workout on them.

Aside from space savings, hotels choose this type of setup over free weights for a very important reason. Liability.

When it comes to providing facilities for the general public to use, liability is often the very first concern. In the litigious society we live in, protecting your business from lawsuits is always a priority. That’s why hotels choose the all in one gym for their fitness centers. They provide the lowest risk of injury of any of the possible alternatives.

Many a fit body has been built on gyms like these. Those bodies have been built safely, in a limited amount of floor space, and without ever lifting a free weight dangerously over their head. If safety is a concern, and it always is, this type of gym might be the perfect solution for you.

Safe Lifting Strategies

Once you decide on your equipment of choice, whether it’s dumbbells, barbells, or a complete home gym, it’s now time to look at using that equipment safely. Anything can be dangerous if used improperly. With a few things kept top of mind, though, we can all lift safely on our own.

Don’t Train to Failure

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m not concerned with finding the utmost effective training method if it is also not the safest. When overhead or bench pressing, the simple matter of things is that doing reps to failure isn’t safe without a spotter.

Don’t lift until you end up like this!

The very definition of training to failure is that your form will fail. Your muscles, at the end of the set, will have zero ability to get you out of trouble.

I can think of no worse places to be that stuck under a bar that I couldn’t physically get off of me. Not to mention, the absolute worst place for your muscles to fail and not be able to lift the load you’ve given them is when there is a good amount of weight over you.

Very plainly put, training to failure with heavy weights in exercises that put you in a compromising position isn’t part of lifting safely solo. Not to mention, most current training programs advise against lifting to failure anyway. Just cut it out all together!

This point also pairs up nicely with my earlier point of picking your exercises wisely. Going for your one rep PR when you have a spotter is great. Doing it at home by yourself is dumb.

High Reps, Low Weight

One way to mitigate the danger you put yourself in when training to failure is to use lighter weights for higher reps. Grinding out sets of 3 with a very heavy weight, suspended directly over you, isn’t going to be the best idea. Performing the same exercise with a much lighter weight for sets of 15 is going to put you in a much safer place.

It’s not just about picking your exercises smartly, it’s about choosing your set and rep scheme wisely as well. Doing both of those things will set you up nicely to lift without a spotter and not risk a problem.

This is another place where the dumbbells I already mentioned come into play. Backing off on weight and increasing reps combine nicely with the lighter weights that dumbbells can offer. This will not only keep you safer, but you might be surprised at the effectiveness as well!

Practice Perfect Form

It’s interesting to me to watch other people lift. I often see people sacrifice proper form in order to hoist up heavier weight. Those same compromises in form are the culprits behind many an injury.

I thought it important to mention that in addition to smartly choosing your exercises, sets, and reps, it is critical to perform those reps with as close to perfect form as possible.

Proper form will do several things. Among them is reduce the weight you can do an exercise without it. Don’t get attached to the number. Get attached to the process. Using proper form will actually make the exercise more impactful with less weight. As discussed above, that increases the safety factor significantly.

Perfect form will also inherently keep you safe. People don’t get hurt because they squat. They get hurt because their form broke down during that squat. If all of your lifts are done with perfect form, you will significantly reduce any risk of injury while lifting alone!

A Final Word

I’ve lifted on my own with no spotter for quite some time. Other than neighbors walking past my garage door and wondering what the strange grunts coming from inside are from, I’ve managed to avoid people in almost all of my training sessions.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve also avoided accidents and injury the entire time. I hope that by using the techniques outlined above, you too can achieve the same results. Nothing else matters if we don’t stay healthy.

As a last reminder of why all this is so important, I leave you with this rather disturbing, kind of funny video record of the dangers of lifting with no spotter.

Happy training!

How To Bench Press: A Simple, Step-By-Step Guide

The bench press is one of the best exercises for developing overall upper body strength.

It works your entire chest, your shoulders, and your triceps.

However, although it can seem pretty simple, there is more complexity to the barbell bench press than many people realize.

If your approach to the bench press is to simply lay down flat on the bench, grab the bar, and start pumping out reps, then you’re definitely not maximizing the potential of the exercise…

What’s more, if you don’t get your initial set up right with this, and have a really good handle on the proper form, then you can put yourself at risk of injury – especially once you start pushing heavier weights!

Not too worry, though, because in this guide I’m going to walk you through exactly how to bench press effectively and safely.

This way, you’ll be able to focus on steadily progressing with your weight and reps, building strength and muscle, all while protecting your shoulders and joints.

Let’s dive right in.

How To Do A Barbell Bench Press Properly

When learning how to do a barbell bench press, it helps to break things down into a series of basic steps. You should become familiar with each of these 5 steps before actually getting under the bar and attempting to bench press.

Step 1: Get Into Position

Lay faceup on a horizontal bench, with your butt on the bench and feet flat on the ground.

Step 2: Grip The Bar

Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip wider than shoulder width (typically your ring fingers or pinky fingers will be placed on the rings).

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Step 3: Brace Your Body

Tuck your shoulder blades behind your back – this will help keep your elbows from flaring out too much. Also, press on the floor hard with your feet – this will create a slight arch in your back, with your weight of your body resting on the back of your shoulders and your butt.

Step 4: Lower The Weight

Inhale, lift up the bar and lower it to the center of your chest, in a controlled movement, maintaining pressure on your feet the entire time. Note that the bar should travel in a slight arc forward, in order to reach the center of your chest.

Step 5: Press The Weight Back Up

Once the bar touches your chest, press the weight back up explosively, and exhale at the end of each rep.

Here is a video that demonstrates exactly how to barbell bench press with perfect form, so watch it several times carefully before attempting to bench press yourself.

Bench Pressing Safety

If you are bench pressing alone, or without someone that you trust to spot you, you should consider using a power rack, instead of the standard bench press equipment.

When you bench press in a power rack, the safety arms will catch the barbell if you get stuck and are unable to complete a rep, serving as an important fail-safe when you’re lifting heavy weights.

To do this, simply position the safety arms slightly above your chest height when you are lying completely flat on the bench.

When you actually come to do your set, you’ll be slightly arching your back, which should position your chest just above the height of the safety pins.

This way, you’ll be able bench press with a full range of motion (barbell touching your chest for each rep), without the barbell banging into the safety pins – but if you are unable to complete a rep, you can just lie down completely flat on the bench and let the safety pins catch the weight.

Ready To Start Bench Pressing Properly?

This pretty much covers the basics of a barbell bench press.

If you internalize and follow these simple steps, you will already be bench pressing with much better form than the majority of people that you see at the gym!

However, if you’re like many people, you may find that you still end up making some of the common bench press mistakes, even when you feel like you’re benching correctly – so it pays to be mindful of your form each time you get under the bar, never getting complacent, and always doing your sets with deliberate focus.

Finally, as you become more familiar with bench pressing, you may want to make further refinements to your form as you go along.

If so, I would strongly recommend checking out these more definitive guides on how to bench press properly – one from StrongLifts and another from Stronger By Science.

Both are truly excellent, comprehensive resources, which I would fully stand behind.

Do you have a question on how to bench press properly? Let me know in the comments below!

Bench press with spotter

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