If you're looking for a good chest exercise, consider the bench press: A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise showed that the bench press is tops for isolating your chest muscles. But if you aren't using proper form or have back injuries, you might find yourself in unnecessary pain.
Check Your Bench Press Form
Any time you feel pain or discomfort during or after an exercise, your very first stop should be reducing the amount of weight you lift and checking to make sure you're using proper form.
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Correct form starts with having the right equipment: Your bar should be set up on a rack over a flat bench and loaded with an equal size and number of weight plates on each side. The weight plates should be secured in place by weight collars so they won't shift as you lift.
To do a proper bench press:
- Lie face-up on the bench, then scoot up until your eyes are nearly even with the racked bar.
- Place your feet flat on the floor to either side of the bench — if you can. If your feet don't reach the floor or if this position causes you discomfort, you've already identified the problem — or at least one problem. More on fixes for that in a moment.
- If your feet do reach the floor and being in this position doesn't cause you discomfort, reach up and take the bar in an overhand grip. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar off the rack and swing it forward so that it's over your chest and has room to clear the rack.
- Bend your elbows as you lower the bar toward your chest, letting your arms naturally flare out to the sides. For a conservative range of motion, follow the American Council on Exercise recommendation to stop when your elbows are just below the level of the bench.
It's very easy to be totally unaware of your own bad habits, especially if you've been focused on pushing your limits.
So, if you can't spot what's causing the bench press back pain yourself, it's well worth buying a session with a fitness professional to suss out the issue. Failing that, ask a buddy to offer outside input, use a strategically placed mirror, or use your smartphone or tablet to video yourself in action from different angles.
Read more: The Best Combination Chest and Leg Workouts
About Your Body Position
When powerlifters settle in for a bench press, they deliberately position their body in an exaggerated back arch, with their feet tucked back to encourage this positioning. If you're lifting for general strength and fitness, you don't need to assume this exaggerated position — and, in fact, if you're not conditioned to it, this could be the cause of your back pain.
The solution? Shift your feet forward so they're flat on the floor under your knees, and let your lower back assume its natural, neutral arch as you lie on the bench. Spreading your feet apart a little bit gives you a wider base for better stability, which might, in turn, reduce the stress on your back. You may find it harder to lift the bar from here, because this torso position doesn't give you the same mechanical advantage — but if the shift eliminates your back pain, it's worth it.
Here's another trick for protecting your back in this more neutral position: Keep your abs contracted — imagine you're pulling your belly button in toward your spine, or your spine toward the bench — and squeeze your glutes. Together, this will help stabilize your spine and keep you from unknowingly falling into hyperextension.
Still uncomfortable, or maybe your legs just aren't long enough to reach the ground? Creating an elevated platform for your feet can help: Place plyo boxes or lower benches beside your weight bench, and rest your feet on those. If that doesn't work, see if you can get a lower bench to do your presses on. If the appropriate barbell rack isn't available for that bench, you can switch to a dumbbell press instead.
Read more: Neck Pain Caused by Bench Press Exercises
Did you warm up before you worked out? Taking five to 10 minutes to warm up before doing any strenuous exercise can improve your performance, reduce your risk of injury and help limber up stiff muscles that might be causing you discomfort.
How Are Your Hip Flexors?
Your hip flexors cross the front of your pelvis and work to bend your legs at the hip — and when they're too tight, your lower back may hurt even when you're not bench pressing. Assuming the hip-extended position of a bench press can put even more strain on your lower back.
Sitting a lot can contribute to tight, short hip flexor muscles — and according to a study published in the May 2015 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease, modern workers may not realize just how long they spend sitting in a chair. Researchers analyzed self-reported surveys from 3,597 adults in New York City; the subjects also wore pedometers. On average, the adults self-reported sitting for 423 minutes per day. The pedometers showed that their sitting time was closer to 490 minutes, or about eight hours.
Placing your feet on an elevated platform — or doing your presses from a lower bench — will help take some of the strain off your hip flexors. But stretching them helps even more. Flexibility is an often under-appreciated component of fitness, helping reduce your risk of injury and lengthening your pain-free range of motion.
Choose your favorites from the following stretches and try to do them at least three times a week, preferably after warming up or at the end of your workout. Hold each stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat two or four times on each side.
Move 1: Bench-Hip Stretch
- Lie back on a weight bench.
- Place your feet flat on the ground to either side of the weight bench.
- If your hip flexors are extremely tight, this might be enough to stretch your hip flexors. If not, try another variation.
Move 2: Lunging Hip Stretch
- Stand with your feet together, hip-width apart; then take a long step forward with your left foot.
- Bend both knees enough to drop your center of gravity a bit.
- Tuck your pelvis underneath you, as if your hips are a bucket full of water and you're trying to pour a little bit of water out the back of your body. This should create a stretch down the front of your right hip.
- Repeat on the other side.
Move 3: Quad and Hip Stretch
- Stand next to a wall, chair or another piece of sturdy furniture or fitness equipment you can use for support.
- Shift your weight to your right foot. Lift your left foot off the floor, bend it at the knee, and reach down to grasp that ankle with your left hand.
- Stand up tall and keep your knees close together, left knee pointing down, as you gently press your hips forward and draw back on your left leg. Stretch only to the point of mild tension in your left hip and thigh — not pain.
If you can't reach your ankle, try looping a yoga strap or towel around your ankle and using that as a handle.
Troubleshooting Bench Press Back Pain
Does your back still hurt when you bench press? It's worth repeating: Don't lift through the pain. Instead, you should reduce the amount of weight you're lifting, check your form and double-check your body position. If your back pain continues, stop lifting and see a medical professional for help determining the cause of your pain.
If you do have back pain, you're far from alone; according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 80 percent of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, and more than a quarter of adults surveyed have reported experiencing back pain in the last three months. Just a few potential causes of that pain include sprains and strains, arthritis, herniated or ruptured discs, traumatic injuries and skeletal irregularities like scoliosis.
Seeing a doctor or physical therapist and acknowledging that something is causing your pain doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop lifting. In fact, sometimes the solution is doing more physical activity, even though it might not be heavy bench presses. Your medical team will work with you to find the best lower back pain workout plan for your body. If you don't keep bench pressing, you might find yourself doing alternative exercises such as push-ups, dumbbell presses, the chest press machine and cable flies.
- American Council on Exercise: "Chest Press"
- ExRx.net: "Bench Press Analyses"
- Preventing Chronic Disease: "Self-Reported Sitting Time in New York City Adults, The Physical Activity and Transit Survey, 2010-2011"
- American Council on Exercise: "Flexible Benefits"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Low Back Pain Fact Sheet"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"