The bench press is one of the most commonly performed exercises in gyms. Powerlifters contest this lift while bodybuilders use it to build chest muscle mass. To get the most out of this exercise and minimize your risk of injury, make sure you use proper bench press form. It's also imperative to use a spotter so that an uncompleted rep does not end in a chest-crushing disaster.
The Set Up
A strong set up position can make or break your bench press. You need a solid base from which to press otherwise the bar will wobble and you will waste valuable energy.
Lie on your back with your eyes just under the bar, so that when you lift it clear of the bench hooks, the bar will not get caught. Bend your legs and place your feet flat on the floor. If you cannot reach the floor comfortably, place your feet on a stack of weight plates or some other low platform. Your shins should be roughly vertical. Arch your lower back slightly and lift your chest up toward the ceiling. Your butt should stay in contact with the bench at all times and your shoulders should be down and back for added stability.
Getting a Grip
Your hand position will affect which muscles do the most work in the bench press. A narrow grip emphasizes your triceps while a wider grip emphasizes your chest. Most bodybuilders favor a medium grip as it offers a good compromise between triceps and chest recruitment and is arguably the most comfortable position. Reach up and grab the bar so your hands are placed evenly. Wrap all your fingers and your thumb around the bar for a secure grip. The actual width of your grip depends on the length of your arms but your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor when the bar is touching your chest. Use the rings in the barbell's knurling for reference. Grip the bar tightly and re-check your feet, back arch and lifted chest.
The Lift Off
The lift off can be tricky as you are raising the bar from an awkward position. If you find the lift off especially challenging, ask a spotter help you unrack the bar. With or without assistance from your spotter, inhale to maximize intra-abdominal pressure and enhance spinal stability, press the bar up and off the bench hooks and hold it directly over your chest. Keep your head on the bench and fix your eyes on the ceiling. Brace your abs, exhale and inhale again and prepare to lower the weight to your chest.
Some lifters make the mistake of lowering the bar too quickly. This shortens the length of time each rep takes, which allows more weight to be lifted but also means that some muscle-building stimulus is lost. Always lower the bar smoothly and under control to maximize the effectiveness of this exercise. The descent should take two to three seconds.
With your lungs full of air, bend your arms and lower the bar down to the highest point of your chest. Touch the bar lightly to your chest -- imagine there is a pane of glass between your chest and the bar. Some lifters will pause with the bar at chest-height for a second or two while others "touch and go" and push the bar straight back up. The pause method makes the exercise more demanding but the touch and go method allows for heavier weights. Experiment and use the method you prefer best.
Never bounce the bar off your sternum. Not only does this make the exercise easier by using your ribcage like a spring, you also greatly increase your risk of injury. Push the bar up faster than you lowered it to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and therefore the bodybuilding effect of this exercise. Once the bar has lightly touched your chest, push it back up to full arm extension, exhaling as you pass through around halfway up to prevent an unnecessary increase in blood pressure. Some bodybuilders will stop the rep slightly short of full arm extension to keep the tension on their chest muscles. Try this method and see if you can feel a difference. Inhale again and perform another repetition.
Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor so you are pressing from the most stable base possible. Lifting your feet or otherwise moving them will rob you of much needed stability. Imagine you are pulling the bar out and apart as you lower and lift it to maximally recruit your triceps muscles. Try to keep your wrists as straight as possible and imagine you are punching your knuckles up toward the ceiling.