The bench press is a fundamental exercise for developing real upper body strength. However, it’s also the most dangerous exercise in the gym and hundreds of people get seriously hurt every year by bench pressing with improper form, while a few dozen get killed by dropping the bar on their face, throat or chest.
While there are plenty of creative ways to get killed when lifting, the bench press remains the king of deadly exercises, not because it’s a dangerous exercise by itself, but because many people don’t care about form. Yet when it comes to the bench press, there are no excuses for bad form and ego lifting. If you want to ensure good progress and maintain your health (read stay alive), read this article to learn the deadliest bench press mistakes and how to avoid them.
#1. Using The Thumbless Grip to Bench Press
The thumbless grip means holding the bar with the thumbs on the same side as the fingers. As cool as it sounds, there is a good reason why this grip is also called ‘the suicide grip’. Just think about it – why on earth would anybody want to hold a heavy barbell over their face without wrapping their thumbs around the bar, when that makes it way too easy for the bar to slip out and fall on their chest, throat or face?
Because Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman did it and got away with it. We understand that every bodybuilder feels the urge to mimic the styles and techniques of his bodybuilding heroes, but keep in mind that not everything the pros do can be applied to your training, and some of it is just plain wrong, like not using your thumbs to hold the bar on the bench press. And the only benefit of the thumbless grip is that it feels more comfortable and causes less strain on the wrists. If the bar rolls mid-set, you won’t have thumbs to stop it from falling out of your hands and the consequences can be life-threatening.
The best case scenario is that you’ll end up breaking a few ribs, while the worst case scenario is that you’ll die from a crushed skull, throat or massive internal bleeding. Keep your bench press safe by using a full grip by wrapping your thumbs around the bar and squeezing it hard so that it can’t move. If your wrists hurt, just put the bar lower in your hands and closer to the wrists.
#2. Bench pressing without a spotter/power rack
This is perhaps the stupidest thing you can do in the gym. Many guys do their bench press without a power rack or a spotter for years without a problem. But it only takes once, and you can be sure that that day will come.
If you fail to lift the weight, there are two options – you will either get pinned by a heavy barbell on the bench without enough strength to push it back up, or the bar will drop on your face, throat or ribcage and you’ll die. While most people bench press safely, every gym has a few foolish or ignorant lifters without any regard for their safety. Some of them think that if they fail, they can save their ass by rolling the bar to their stomach or tilting it to one side. Well here are the bad news: rolling a super heavy bar to your stomach will crush your abs and cause internal bleeding that can kill you before the help arrives. And the tilting only works if you didn’t put collars on the bar. If you’re dealing with a heavy, collared bar, your only help is that someone will react and help you before your clock runs out.
Therefore, the safest option is to always bench press inside the power rack where you should set the horizontal safety pins slightly below your chest so that you don’t hit them on good reps but they will catch the bar if you fail, or ask someone to spot you. Finally, only bench what you know you can bench and know when you’re truly capable of attempting that final rep or adding extra weight on the bar.
#3. Raising Your Butt off The Bench
When you lie on the bench, make sure your butt, upper back and head are all in good contact with the pad, and keep it that way all throughout the movement. The weight will be easier to bench press if you raise your butt off the bench a couple of inches, but this is also a great way to hurt your back. If you raise it too high, your lower back will hyperextend and squeeze your spinal discs, which is a common source of serious back pain.
Raising your butt on the bench press is also generally considered as cheating and it’s forbidden in competitions, but some people do it because it allows them to lift more weight and it makes them feel stronger than they actually are, which is kind of beyond the point. Shortly put, raising your butt off the bench during bench press is like leaning back during a barbell curl. It doesn’t hurt to know your limitats – if you can’t press the weight with proper form, don’t bother at all, because reps performed with a raised butt simply don’t count.
This mistake shortens the range motion and sometimes even turns the bench press into half reps which means you get only half the gains you could be getting if you performed the movement the right way. So keep your butt glued on the bench and push yourself away from the bar. However, if your butt keeps coming off the bench, the bench might be too short, so check its height and perhaps put some plates flat under its legs to raise it.
#4. Flaring Your Elbows When You Bench Press
For many bodybuilders who have trained with free weights for a long time, flaring the elbows at the bottom of the bench press comes naturally, while powerlifters have been doing it for decades now. On top of that, back in the 80’s Vince Gironda convinced us all that this style is the best way to stimulate spectacular chest growth. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
When your elbows are flared 90 degrees at the bottom of the bench press, your upper arms become perpendicular to your torso, which forces the bar to move in a vertical line to your neck. And since a proper bench press involves moving the bar diagonally from your mid-chest over your shoulders instead of moving it in a vertical line, the flared elbows become a recipe for a nasty shoulder injury. Every time you lower the bar with flared elbows, the top of your upper arm bone squeezes your rotator cuff tendons against your AC joint, which over time contributes to an inflamed rotator cuff and shoulder impingement.
Some guys try to fix that by performing half reps, but this approach will cause the triceps to steal the work from the chest. To avoid shoulder pain and ensure maximum results, tuck your elbows 75 degrees at the bottom of the movement and don’t try to stretch your chest by flaring your elbows out. This is the safest and most effective way to bench press heavy. In addition, avoid using the Smith Machine for the bench press, because it also forces the bar to move in a vertical line, resulting with the aforementioned shoulder impingement. Don’t forget that shoulder injuries can be very difficult and can cost you months of hard earned progress.
#5. Racking The Bar Wrong
Taking your time to unrack the bar properly before can save you from deadly injury. The right way to unrack the bar is by first moving it over your shoulders, then lowering it to your chest.
Keep the distance between your shoulders and the power rack short and lie on the bench with your eyes under the bar – if you lie lower you’ll have to move the bar further to unrack it and you have less strength when the bar is behind your balance point. Keep in mind that your shoulders shouldn’t come off the bench when you unrack. But if you unrack the bar out of the uprights straight to your chest, this will move the bar over your head instead of shoulders, which makes it harder to hold the bar.
In addition, you have almost no balance when the bar is behind your shoulders and it could easily slip out from your hands and fall on your face. The same thing applies for racking the bar after you’ve finished your set. Instead of pressing it straight into the uprights, which increases the risk of dropping it on your face, lock it over your shoulders first, then move it back against the power rack and bend your arms to rack it into the uprights.
#6. Not Locking Your Elbows At The Top
The benefit from not locking your elbows at the top of the movement is that your muscles stay tensed and you have a better chance of achieving hypertrophy. However, this can be very dangerous.
When you bench press heavy or approach the point of failure, the unlocked elbows make it more likely for you to lose the bar and drop it on your chest, especially if your muscles are tired. Contrary to that, locking your elbows at the top makes your skeleton hold the weight and increases the safety of the exercises, as well as giving your muscles a short break so that you can perform more reps with more weight. Also, the only way to achieve a full range of motion is by locking your elbows, while not locking them will take work away from your muscle and hinder your gains.
There are many people who claim that locking your elbows leads to joint and elbows problems, but that isn’t true. Your joints and elbows suffer the most from hyperextension, which happens when you take your elbows past their normal range of motion, and this is not the right way to lock your elbows. Instead of hyperextending the elbows, stay within the normal range of motion of the joint. Finish every rep by locking your elbows at the top, and also lock your elbows when you rack the bar in and out of the uprights. This will make the weight more secure and you’ll be less likely to suffer the horrible consequences of dropping the bar on your face.
#7. Bench Pressing with Your Feet In The Air
When performing a bench press, there are several acceptable foot positions, all of which require your feet to be firmly planted on the floor. You can choose what works best for your anatomy, but never ever raise your feet in the air. Why? Let’s break it down into simple physics.
When your feet are in the air, you’re less stable and less able to produce the required tension and force, which defeats the purpose of lifting in the first place. Lately, there’s been a lot of fuss about performing the bench press with your feet in the air, and it’s most vocal proponents claim that it’s safer because it flattens the lumbar spine and that it can better isolate the pecs and produce greater chest growth. This, of course, it complete bullshit. Besides making you less stable and less capable of producing significant force, having your feet in the air can make you lose balance and fall of the bench, dropping the bar on yourself, which as we mentioned above, can have some devastating consequences.
In addition, this style is very ineffective for heavy weights because the legs can’t be engaged and your shoulders will suffer from your chest and back being kept in a flat position. So instead of making things harder and more dangerous, always keep your feet planted firmly on the floor, heels included. That being said, in order to ensure optimal stability, it’s best to position your feet directly under your knees or slightly behind. Also, you should never bench press with narrow feet or feet placed in front of your knees.
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This article was originally published on stronglifts