The bench press is one of the most technical lifts meaning it is vulnerable to many seemingly small mistakes that could be costing you a high price.
The top 19 bench press mistakes are:
- Not warming up
- Not using leg drive
- Not creating an arch
- Not retracting the shoulder blades
- Not keeping your butt on the bench
- Shifting your feet between reps
- Not touching your chest
- Bouncing off the chest
- Dumping the bar
- Heaving the bar
- Pressing in a vertical bar path
- Gripping too narrow or too wide
- Lifting your head off the bench
- Inconsistent landing on the chest (too high or too low)
- Flaring your elbows
- Bending your wrist back
- Not lifting off properly
- Not breathing correctly
- Losing tension on the chest
While not everyone will encounter all of these problems, it’s likely every lifter has at least made a couple of these as a novice, beginner or even as an intermediate.
It’s important to have a good sense of what your bench press looks like from all angles to determine where you might be going wrong and potentially holding yourself back from a strong bench.
In this article, we will go through each of the mistakes, why they occur as well as what you can do about it if you think it’s currently affecting your performance.
1. Not Warming Up
Warming up before any compound movement is an important piece of good performance however bench press warm ups in my experience seem to be more rushed than those for squats and deadlifts.
However, just because your upper body may be mobile enough to bench without a warm up doesn’t mean it should. You should not only bring up your core body temperature but you should also engage in dynamic stretches as well as activation exercises such as band pull aparts or scapular push ups to fire up the shoulder joint.
Not warming up will affect the way you perform the movement, potentially putting you at risk for injury as well as making weights feel heavier than they should because you have gone from 0 to full intensity far too quickly.
For more information on the best bench press warm-up check out our article: The Most Effective Bench Press Warm Up (Science-Backed)
2. Not Using Leg Drive
The number one beginner oversight in my opinion is not knowing to use leg drive and then subsequently doing it incorrectly when attempting it.
The bench press is considered an upper body movement and so it’s natural to not think to use your legs however there is a lot of power to be expressed through position and activating the legs properly.
Leg drive consists of pushing the ground down and away from you in a way where you feel your quads are about to do a leg extension exercise. Not only will it make the lift feel easier, but it will also allow your upper back to come into the correct position and establish an arch as well.
For more information on how to use leg drive check out The Proper Way To Use Leg Drive For Bench Press
3. Not Creating an Arch
While a very pronounced arch is pretty standard practice in competitive powerlifting, even the everyday gym goer who is working on bench press strength should still be creating a modest arch to help them move more weight.
The arch is avoided by many because it is thought to be dangerous, however that is a myth and in fact keeps your shoulders in a safe position for pressing.
If it is a mobility restriction preventing your from creating an arch, foam rolling and doing more upper back accessories can help.
Setting up an arch is fairly simple and can be done in 5 steps outlined in our article: The Bench Press Arch (How To Do It, Benefits, Is It Safe)
4. Not Retracting the Shoulder Blades
Retracting the shoulder blades is a crucial step when setting up the bench press because it keeps the shoulders safely locked into place and less likely to shift around and potentially cause injury.
Keeping the shoulder blades retracted can be addressed through various ways including, warming up the lats and shoulder blades, focusing on keeping them retracted throughout all reps, creating a stable arch as well as using leg drive.
Shoulders coming out of position only under heavy weight usually means that your pecs have given up and you’re trying to get your shoulder to bear the load, however, this is not what you want to happen and focusing on keeping them in place through a proper set up is key.
5. Not Keeping Your Glutes on the Bench
If your butt is rising off the bench during the bench press it may be a sign that there is an issue in the way you are harnessing leg drive.
Having your butt come off the bench in training may not be terribly detrimental, but it is cause for red lights in competitive powerlifting and should be avoided at all costs by those training to compete. It can also make you lose support in your arch and place stress on your lower back.
To avoid having your glutes lift-off, don’t push your feet into the ground, but rather push away, also try widening your legs or placing them further out in front of you.
There will be a sweet spot with your foot positioning that will anchor you in place and prevent this from happening but may require some trial and error.
Check out my article on the Top 17 Exercises That Will Improve Your Bench Press Strength.
6. Shifting Your Feet Between Reps
This is something that I have seen even well-trained athletes do out of habit, but it is something that should be avoided if possible.
The same way we try to keep the squat walkout as precise as possible to avoid losing any tension, the bench set up should be just as clean cut. Wiggling or shifting your foot after you have already set up your entire body may be something you don’t even realize you’re but it’s because you feel like your feet aren’t in the right position.
Try practicing getting the right set up the first time around so you don’t risk losing tension and potentially sacrificing some strength and power during your set.
I compare 9 bench press variations to determine which one is the hardest. Take a look at my article on Which Bench Press Is The Hardest?
7. Not Touching Your Chest
A common mistake made by novices is not touching the bar to your chest on every rep.
Oftentimes it is just a result of misinformation or lack of education and can be fixed pretty quickly just by learning that the bar should touch the chest for a proper bench press.
There are bench press variations where the bar intentionally doesn’t touch the chest like a pin press, spoto press or dead press.
However, a full range of motion, competition-approved lift requires the bar to make contact with your chest.
8. Bouncing off the Chest
Bouncing off the chest is another novice mistake that tends to happen once someone has been instructed to touch the chest with every rep and it’s misunderstood as hitting the chest and quickly running through each rep.
This is not a practice that will benefit you when it comes to building strength in general and especially won’t transfer well if you’re a powerlifter looking to compete. You are missing on important time under tension once you reach your chest and through the pressing portion of the lift since you are using the bounce to help propel the barbell upward.
This technique lacks control and is not recommended for most.
To read more on touch and go bench pressing check out Touch and Go Bench Press: Should You Pause or Not?
9. Dumping the Bar
Dumping the bar is the result of losing control of the barbell’s weight right as you land on your chest. It’s like you’re crushing your chest or just transferring all it’s weight out of your upper body.
There are a couple reasons this can occur, one being that you are touching down too low on your body or perhaps you struggle with maintaining tension near the chest due to a weakness. This can be overcome by either adjusting your bar path or integrating a tempo bench with a slow lowering phase or t-shirt presses to practice building strength off the chest.
Finding your bench press is weak off the chest? Check out our article here: Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest? Try These 6 Things
10. Heaving the Bar
Heaving the bar is a lesser known mistake and something you may not be watching for especially as a beginner but it’s something you should avoid getting into the habit of doing.
Heaving the bench press is when you sink the barbell into your body and rely on your legs ability to propel your chest up to get the bar off your chest.
This is a problem for a few reasons:
- In a powerlifting competition, you may get called for the bar sinking on your chest after you have received the press command
- You are more susceptible to having your glutes come off the bench
- You are not building strength off the chest
This issue can be worked on through longer paused bench press, t-shirt press, and building your pec strength through accessory movements.
11. Pressing in a Vertical Bar Path
Most people will tell you that benching is just about pressing the bar up and down; however, the ideal bar path for the bench press is actually a “J” shape where you press slightly horizontal as well as vertical.
A straight up and down vertical bar path is inefficient and it can be a result of multiple factors such as landing too high on the chest, flaring the elbows, over-reliance on shoulders to get the weight up and just lack of information.
To learn all about the proper bar path in the bench press and what changes you can make to fix it, check out our article “What Is The Best Bench Press Bar Path”
12. Gripping Too Narrow or Too Wide
Where you grip the barbell is important because it will allow or hinder your ability to activate the right muscles.
While a more narrow grip will focus your efforts on your triceps, a wider grip will place emphasis on your pecs.
Beginners will sometimes grip too narrow and not be able to recruit their pecs well enough while powerlifters will opt for a generally wider grip, but it’s also possible to be too wide where you are no longer able to activate your triceps well enough.
A good place to start is about shoulder-width apart and if you wish to widen it from there go about 1-1.5” outside of shoulder width apart.
Want to more details on why you may want to widen your group? Check out Wide Grip Bench Press: Is It Better? (Definitive Guide)
13. Lifting Your Head off the Bench
It’s not uncommon to find everyday gym-goers lift their head during reps of bench press as the bar comes down to their chest.
As a competitive powerlifter this is not allowed as the head has to remain on the bench for the lift to be counted, additionally this can impede on your ability to maintain a proper bench set up and put your neck at risk of injury.
To avoid this, actively press your neck into the bench as you’re setting up your arch and shoulder blades and work to maintain it while you lower and press the bar up.
14. Inconsistent Landing on the Chest (Too High or Too Low)
Choosing the right touchpoint for the bench press can be tricky and choosing one that is too high on the chest or too low on the chest isn’t uncommon.
Landing too high will cause you to use your shoulders too much and potentially put you at risk of injury, while landing too low will cause you to dump the bar and lose tension on the way down.
Additionally, an inconsistent landing on the chest just causes you to have to reset your pressing technique each time and will hinder your ability to become proficient.
Securing the perfect point can be the result of some trial and error, but a quick way to ensure you are landing in the right spot is by recording your bench press from the side and checking to see if your wrists are stacked directly on top of your elbows.
15. Flaring Your Elbows
Flaring of the elbows means sticking them out to the side so they become almost in line with your shoulders.
This is not good bench press technique, particularly when you are lowering the bar. Some flaring on the pressing portion of the lift is acceptable.
Your shoulders should be slightly pointing downwards while the bar is coming down and once it lands on your chest. This will allow you to activate your chest muscles and get maximum strength out of the lift.
To read more on where your elbows should be while benching read the article: Should Your Elbows Be In or Out For Bench Press?
16. Bending Your Wrists Back
Holding the bar in the correct spot on the hand may not pose a problem early on when you first start benching, however, as the weights get heavier, having wrists that bend or cock backward will take a toll on your joint health.
It’s an extremely common mistake and happens to the best of us when we aren’t being intentional with how we grip the bar.
The bar should be pretty low on your hand and tucked right into the crease of your thumb when you grab it rather than cutting across the middle.
Another way to practice not letting your wrists bend back is using a bulldog grip, perhaps just as a drill. The bulldog grip is where your thumb is wrapped around but your finger tips are pinching the bar rather than wrapping around.
This may not be a grip you keep long term, but can still be a way to get your wrists used to the proper alignment with the bar and your forearm.
If you need extra support, purchasing a pair of wrist wraps can also be helpful. Check out 8 Best Wrist Wraps for Powerlifting in 2021 (Top Picks)
17. Not Lifting off Properly
The lift off of a bench press is the phase where you unrack the bar and get it to the start position.A lift off that is not done well can throw your start position off balance and affect your performance.
Unfortunately, sometimes we are subject to poor lift-offs from friends and other gym-goers, there is also a right and wrong way to give yourself a lift-off as well.
You first want to ensure the rack height is perfect where you don’t need to use much strength to get the bar up and off the rack itself. Then you should set your shoulders and the rest of your body in position before externally rotating your arms before pulling the bar off the rack.
One thing that has helped me get more strength with the lift-off is not setting my glutes on the bench until the bar has been lifted off and has reached its starting point.
This will allow you to lift off heavier weights by yourself through the strength in your leg, that way you don’t need to rely on others and risk a potentially terrible lift-off from an inexperienced friend.
For more details on the bench press lift-off check out How To Properly Do A Bench Press Lift Off (Step By Step)
18. Not Breathing Correctly
Breathing in the bench press is important because it is directly tied to bracing which, in the bench press, is important for keeping your chest up and maintaining stability throughout the lift.
Breathing can be done wrong in a number of ways including breathing normally as if you’re not lifting, holding your breath too hard, or exhaling and inhaling at the wrong times.
You should inhale at the start of the lift before you initiate the lowering of the barbell, this will help you puff up your chest, reduce the range of motion and prepare to receive the weight. You then should brace your core and hold your breath while also allowing a small and controlled breath to come out throughout as you work to press the weight.
For more information on how to do this properly check out How To Breathe Correctly In The Bench Press (Step by Step)
19. Lowering the Bar Too Slowly
The speed of the bar on the eccentric may change throughout your lifting career, but for good reason.
As a complete novice you want to maintain a level of control as you learn to activate the right muscles, work on different cues and just learn to do the lift itself. However, as you become more proficient it’s not actually in your best interest to take a very slow descent to your chest.
This is because you are wasting a lot of energy and spending too much time under tension and reducing the amount of strength you will be able to harness to actually press the weight.
This can easily be fixed just by consciously thinking about speeding up on the way down or counting a tempo in your head and ensuring it doesn’t take you more than 1-2 second to reach your chest.
Want to learn about the best tempo for bench press? Read our article on Bench Press Tempo: How Fast Should You Bring The Bar Down?
Mistakes with the bench press can often go unnoticed since many of them aren’t always easily visible unless you are looking for them.
However, as small as they may seem, a little adjustment on the way you land on your chest, set up your upper body or form tension throughout your legs will in many cases be just the thing your bench needed to get to the next level.
Curious to learn about other mistakes that are made in powerlifting? Check out the following resources:
- 17 Squat Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- 19 Deadlift Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- 55 Powerlifting Mistakes Competitive Lifters Make
Doing everything right and still struggling to improve your bench? Check out our 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau (Definitive Guide)
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.