How To Properly Do A Bench Press Lift Off (Step By Step)

step by step on how to properly do a bench press lift off

Many lifters are starting to unrack the bench press by themselves in training and in competition settings. But what is the proper way to self-unrack without wasting energy? And, are there benefits to doing this?

Here are the 4 steps on how to properly do a bench press lift off:

1. Choose The Correct Rack Height

2. Assume Proper Scapular Positioning

3. Set Up With The Bar Over The Mouth

4. Externally Rotate The Arms To Lock In The Elbows

5. “Pull” The Bar Out Of The Rack

The bench press lift off is a key component to lifting heavier weights in the bench press, because it determines what position a lifter will be in for the rest of the lift.  If performed incorrectly, it could jeopardize the lift. 

In this article, I’ll discuss the right way to self lift-off, the benefits and the potential negatives.

How To Do A Self Bench Press Hand-Off: 5 Steps

1. Choose The Correct Rack Height

choosing the correct rack height is an important step when unracking the bench press ourselves

Choosing the correct rack height is an important step when unracking the bench press ourselves, because if its not set at the right height we will not be able to get the bar off the pins (if its too high) or it will be inefficient and waste energy (if its too low).

The correct rack height is the one at which we are able to unrack the bar without hitting the lip of the pins or losing scapular positioning by having the bar too high. We should also be able to unrack without performing a skullcrusher, and exhausting our triceps by having the bar set too low.

You’ll know you have the correct rack height if there is just a slight bend in the elbows.

2. Assume Proper Scapular Positioning

use the bar to help set the scapula in position to create a stable base to press from

After the bar is set at the correct height, we want to ensure the bar is rolled so that it is in contact with the lip of the pins. This is to minimize bar displacement and ensure the correct positioning of our body under the bar.

We want to use the bar to help set the scapula (shoulder blades) in position to create a stable base to press from. This position is accomplished by squeezing back (scapular retraction) and down (scapular depression), which creates tension in the upper body and maintains a safe position for the shoulders.

To learn more about scapular positioning and the bench press arch, check out our article for everything you need to know about The Bench Press Arch

3. Set Up With The Bar Over The Mouth

we should align ourselves so that the bar is directly over the mouth or chin area

With our scapular positioning set, we should align ourselves so that the bar is directly over the mouth or chin area. The reason for this is that this limits the distance the bar has to travel from the rack into the start position and therefore is easier to unrack. 

By setting up in this position we are able to conserve energy and avoid losing our scapular position by having to punch the bar out of the rack.

Wondering when to breathe in the bench press? Check out our step-by-step article on How To Breathe Correctly In The Bench Press.

4. Externally Rotate The Arms To Lock In The Elbows

externally rotate the arms to lock in the elbows

The next step is to lock in the elbows and engage the lats by trying to externally rotate the arms. The elbows should be slightly inside the grip and we should feel tension in the arms. 

The purpose is to create tension through the upper body that we can then apply to the bar to unrack more easily, as well as ensuring the elbows are not flared outwards and compromising the safety of our shoulders.

I like to use the bench press cue “bend the bar in half” to lock the elbows in place.  Read more about bending the barbell in the bench press in my other article.

To learn more about the elbow positioning of the bench press, check out our article answering if Elbows Should Be In or Out For The Bench Press

5. Pull The Bar Out Of The Rack

pull the bar out of the rack

With tension created in the previous steps, we want to pull the bar out of the rack -we should be pulling the bar out, more than pressing the bar out of the rack. This is accomplished by applying tension to the bar by engaging the lats first and engaging the triceps second to unrack. 

This causes the bar to pop out of the rack (over the lip) more effectively, with slightly engagement of the triceps rather than performing a full tricep extension to lift the bar or having to flare the elbows and losing upper body tension. This was one of the things I mentioned in my article on the Top 19 Bench Press Mistakes.

It should be noted that some athletes prefer to keep the hips elevated when performing a self lift-off, as it can help them to complete the lift-off more effectively. The reason for this is that they are able to use the legs to apply tension into the bar, and reduce the angle between the bar and the shoulders – which can make the unrack easier.

Once the bar is pulled out of the rack, the feet should be locked in and the glutes should be in contact with the bench before the lifter braces for the commencement of the lift.

To learn how to engage the legs properly in the bench press to lift more weight, check out our article on The Proper Way To Use Leg Drive In The Bench Press.

What Are The Benefits Of A Self Lift-Off?

performing a self lift-off in competition is a benefit because it allows the athlete control over the position of the bar

Consistency In A Meet Setting

Performing a self lift-off in competition is a benefit because it allows the athlete control over the position of the bar, and they are more likely to maintain scapular positioning and tension. 

If a lifter has to rely on a lift-off from one of the spotters at a meet, there is a chance that they could receive a bad hand-off (ex: pulls them out of position, aggressively lets go of the bar) which increases the odds of the lifter missing the lift, unless they can effectively recover and assume their ideal positioning. 

It is better not to rely on hand-offs from other people, because these people are volunteers and they may have never given a hand-off before. To ensure the best results, we should be able to perform a bench press lift off on our own.

What are the requirements for the bench press in a competition? Learn all about the Powerlifting Rules For The Bench Press in our complete guide.

Self-Reliant In Training

Another benefit to being able to unrack the bench press by ourselves is that when we are training, we will be more self-reliant. This is important especially if we train alone, because we will always be able to perform the bench press without needing another person to help us unrack the bar.

If we were not able to perform a lift off by ourselves, we would always need help from another person in order to complete our training for the day. If no one was available to help, then we would most likely end up skipping the session which could set us back in our training plan.

What Are The Potential Negatives Of A Self Lift-Off?

Increased Risk Of Hitting The Pins

A potential negative for unracking the bench press by ourselves is that we need to set up close enough to the rack with our mouth/chin in line with the bar, and therefore we increase the odds of hitting the rack during the press. The optimal bar path for bench press is to press up and back, but we must account for the position of the pins when doing so.

If we hit the rack, it will affect the bar path and perhaps limit our ability to lockout the lift in training and in competition. We do not want hitting the rack to be a limiting factor for not getting 3 white lights in competition, and we do not want it to limit our ability to perform our prescribed reps in training.

Inefficient Technique Leading To Fatigue

If we are not able to lift the bar out of the rack without struggling, we may be wasting energy that we could be using in the bench press itself. If we are not applying the steps discussed previously effectively we may be limiting our ability to bench press by fatiguing the triceps before we’ve even begun the lift.

If we are incapable of lifting the bar off by ourselves without losing tension and overexerting then maybe it is worth considering getting help in the lift-off. At the end of the day  the most important thing in powerlifting is the amount we are able to lift, so if this is a limiting factor then we are better off relying on help with the lift off.

Wondering how often you should bench press? Check out our article for How Many Times Per Week You Should Bench Press

Limited By Gym Equipment

At a commercial gym, the rack heights may not be ideal for adjustments and therefore may not line up with where we need the bar set in order to unrack the bar by ourselves without compromising position or pre-exhausting the triceps.

If we were to get a lift-off, we could work around these limitations presented by the equipment. However if we do decide to go with a self-unrack, I recommend that in this situation we put the bar lower rather than higher. The reason for this is that it is “better” to be pre-fatigued, rather than having the bar set too high in the unrack and losing scapular positioning.

If we are fatigued, obviously our strength level for the lift could be compromised but at least our shoulders would be in a safer position, and we could maintain more tension throughout the lift which would decrease our risk of injury.

Struggling with a bench press plateau? Try these 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau

Final Thoughts

Learning how to unrack the bench press by ourselves is an important skill that I think all powerlifters should learn, because we are able to be more independent in our training sessions and can ensure consistency on the platform. It is important to follow these steps to ensure we are not wasting energy, and are achieving the optimal start position for the bench press.