How to Perfect Your Bench Press Setup
Written by Keith Hansen
January 22, 2018
The bench press is the most popular test of strength in the gym.
How many times have you heard, "How much do you bench?"
With the popularity of the bench press it is surprising how many people aren't setting up correctly.
A correct setup allows you to bench the most weight, at the heaviest weights, and the safest.
In this article I will cover how to setup your equipment and your body for optimal strength & safety.
For more on the bench press be sure to visit The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.
Most commercial gyms don't have rack height adjustments and this is just isn't fair. People vary in height, and they certainly vary in arm length. These two things necessitate the ability to adjust the rack height.
If your bench rack allows you to adjust the height (preferably in 1" increments) you want the height set so that at full extension of your elbows, while maintaining "set" shoulders (more on that in a minute), the bar is 2" off of the rests.
The firmer & wider the better. Most commercial benches are too narrow, and have too much cushion. The bench shouldn't be comfortable. It should be stable.
The bench press is very forgiving when it comes to bars, and at times I've used a 1.25" diameter PVC pipe with kettlebells suspended by resistance bands as a makeshift earthquake bar.
Any barbell will do.
If your rack's barbell rests allow for horizontal movement you should roll the bar out (the direction you feet will be) as far as possible when setting up.
Your body should be positioned so that your chin is directly under the bar when the bar is rolled away from the rack.
This is an important first step in your setup because it minimizes the likelihood that you will hit the barbell rests when performing the bench. This also minimizes the horizontal distance the bar has to travel when taking it from the rests to your start position.
You grip width should be the next part in your setup. I recommend a starting point between the beginning of the knurling and the powerlifting ring.
Another critical component of your bench grip is, well, the grip itself. When you grab the bar you should squeeze it hard.
This does two very important things:
- engages more muscle groups for a more stable bench (called irradiation)
- aligns the barbell vertically over your forearm, minimizing wrist stress
Here is an image of proper vertical alignment
One last note: don't use a thumbless/false/suicide grip. It is dangerous, and people have lost their lives because it doesn't secure the bar in your grip. A thumbless grip doesn't allow for as much irradiation (see above) which means you will use less muscle.
Wrap your thumb around that bar and squeeze hard. Ensure the bar is placed in your hand correctly as well.
It should be almost diagonal cross your hand so it nestles in the cradle of your hand. See below:
The image above shows correct placement in the hand.
The image below shows poor alignment of the bar with the bones of the forearms. This will set the bar behind the bones in the forearm. This will cause excess joint stress.
Achieving external rotation (think proud chest, or the posture you would assume to enter a room with your chest first) in the shoulders is the most commonly missed setup cue.
Setting your shoulders by externally rotating them creates stability in the shoulder joint and this translates to more controlled bar paths. Safer reps, and more of them.
Setting your shoulders properly achieves two things:
- it puts your upper back into a flat posture that allows more surface area to make contact with the bench
- it achieves a natural arch in your low back
These two things create stability & shorten the distance the bar has to travel. This allows you to bench more weight safer.
The low back arch does not need to be excessive, and shouldn't be painful, but it should be present.
Legs & Feet
Your feet should be directly under your knees to form a degree angle at both the ankle and knee joints.
Feet should be turned out slightly.
Your feet should never leave the ground, and your entire foot should be in contact with the ground.
The last part to this section is leg drive.
Effective leg drive forces your entire body in the direction of you head and puts pressure on your upper traps.
Effective leg drive is constant, unwavering, and begins before you unrack the bar.
Effective leg drive doesn't end until you've returned the bar to the rack to finish the set.
Summing it up
When I coach people on bench press I always teach a checklist setup. It goes like this:
- Roll the bar out
- Position your chin under the bar
- Set your grip
- Set your shoulders (this typically archest the back naturally)
- Initiate leg drive
- Now bench
Click on this link to find our bench press playlist on YouTube for visual aid.
After be sure to check out The Seriously Strong Beginner Program. The free guide has everything you need to start your strength training journey. Click the link below to download it and get started.
Be sure to head over to the Serious Guide to the Bench Press if you need more information about the bench press.