How to Bench Press the Right Way

THE BENCH PRESS is one of the all-time great strength training exercises. When you walk into a gym, whether it’s a powerlifting palace or the most basic big box franchise, you’re bound to see at least one group of guys gathered around a station, taking turns pushing heavy weight up and down off their chests and spotting their lifting buddies. For most guys, bench pressing means one thing: getting underneath a barbell loaded with as many plates as possible and eking out as many reps as they can. That can be one way to build a big, strong chest—but it’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not the safest, most effective way for everyone. If you really want to level-up your bench press, you’ll consider doing the exercise with dumbbells.

If swapping out your barbells for dumbbells sounds like gym heresy, you need to step back and think about why exactly you’re working out. And more specifically, why you’re including the bench press in your routine. Is a barbell bench press PR your ultimate goal? Do you have aspirations to enter a powerlifting competition? Or are you mostly working out with the aim to build massive muscles? Maybe even just healthy movement is your goal.

If your response to the first two questions is no (or even that you’re not sure), the barbell isn’t an absolute must for your bench press plan. You can train your chest muscles with the bench press using dumbbells, giving you a more forgiving implement to work with on chest day. Barbells force you to work from a fixed position, which might not be ideal for guys with shoulder issues or other anatomical challenges. You’ll give a little in terms of weight, but you’ll make that up with range of motion gains—which can be great for size and functional goals.

Let Men’s Health Fitness Director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., guide you through the subtleties of the dumbbell bench press, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.

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Read more: Best Weight Benches

The 2 Barbell Bench Press Styles

Not every bench press is created equally, and your reason for benching should drive your technique, says Samuel. “Are you looking to build chest muscle? Or do you want more overall power and to pile up reps?” says Samuel. “There are subtle differences in style for both goals.

The Powerlifting Style

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to bench pressing, both motivated by the purpose of the move. Powerlifters will frequently create large arches in their backs, glutes just touching the bench, chest driven high. This does two things. First, it allows for more space for the shoulder blades to move during the bench press. “Much like a pushup, you need your shoulder blades to squeeze together as you lower the weight,” says Samuel. “That doesn’t happen as easily if your torso is too flat on the bench.”

The large arch allows that to happens, and allows your lats to help push the weight upwards. It does another thing, too. “Your chest is higher, so it starts closer to the bar,” says Samuel, “and that ever-so-slightly reduces the range of motion you have to use on the bench. If you’re chasing max weight instead of total chest development, that makes the move slightly easier.” Translation: You can move more weight.

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The Bodybuilding Style

Those in pursuit of chest hypertrophy, often bodybuilders, arch their backs only slightly, keeping a flatter torso. “I’m keeping a bit more core tightness if I’m using this style,” says Samuel. “But I still have a slight back arch, because I want my shoulder blades to not feel pinned and restricted of movement.”

This setup does something else too: If you do it right, you’ll get a more well-rounded chest pump. “The shift to a powerlifting style can actively shift the angle of your torso to something similar to a decline press angle,” says Samuel, “depending on your arch. That shifts the focus of your chest development slightly. Avoid doing that, and you’ll focus on your overall chest a bit more.”

You’ll also insulate your chest against injury. “Arching your back too much shifts the angle and, if you’re not experienced you can shift into internal rotation at the shoulder joint,” says Samuel. “Under serious load, that can be a mechanism for shoulder injury.”

Which Should You Pick?

If you’re new to the bench press game, start with the bodybuilding style of bench press. “This will at least help you learn correct form and technique,” says Samuel. “You can play with other approaches later.”

Need more proof? Samuel points to the classic pushup and compares it to the bench press. “The bench press is, at its core, a more loaded version of a pushup,” says Samuel, “and you’d never ever arch your back on a pushup. Instead, you’d push for core and glutes tight. You need to mirror that on the bench press, at least to start, to get the best total-body results.”

A bonus of this approach: You’ll get underrated ab and glute work while on the bench.

The Rules of Bench Pressing

man bench pressing on a bench

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Whether you’re using dumbbells or barbells (or kettlebells!), you’ll want to set your body up to bench press for success. Follow these form cues, and you’ll be in proper position.

Feet Flat on the Floor

You’ll see a lot of people being lazy with their feet, or putting their feet on the bench — a lot of things they don’t need to do. “The action of your lower body is critical on a bench press, especially if you’re dealing with a barbell and pushing heavy weight,” says Samuel. “Take the time to learn that lower body action now and develop good habits.”

That means feet flat on the floor, driving through your heels. You want your glutes squeezed and contracted on that bench, too. Then tighten up your core; think about using your abs to pull your ribcage tight to your torso. That all sets the stage for a clean, aggressive bench that can help you grow a serious chest.

Shoulder Position

“This is critical,” says Samuel. “Shoulder injuries are common on the bench, and very often, that’s because of poor shoulder position.”

Start in the correct position; when the dumbbells are directly over your shoulders, thinking about driving your shoulders into the bench, and flexing your mid-back muscles. As you lower the dumbbells toward your chest, keep flexing those back muscles; it should feel like you’re pulling the dumbbells to your chest.

The approach works regardless of whether you use dumbbells or barbells.

Elbow Position

Never let your elbows become parallel to your shoulders when you bench. Think about keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle, lower than your shoulders. This will help protect your shoulders and rotator cuffs in the long term. And that’s not it.

“Think about turning the pits of your elbows toward your head,” says Samuel. “This will turn on your lats, and it will further protect your shoulders. And it’s critical if you want to showcase a strong, potent bench press.”

Hand Position

Whether you’re using a barbell or dumbbells, the width of your hands is a critical bit on the bench press. Your goal: Keep your forearms perpendicular to the ground for the entire life of each bench press set.

“This is key,” says Samuel. “If your hands get too close, you’ll lose this angle, and that places more stress on the elbows.” If your hands are too wide, there are other issues: You’ll place stress on your shoulders and fail to get the aggressive chest contraction you really want.”

But how do you find your hand position? Samuel says it’s different for everyone. And the best way to do it: Start from the bottom. “It’s easy to have your forearms perpendicular to the ground at the top of each rep, but you have to maintain it at the bottom. So if you’re unsure, start with an unloaded barbell or a pair of dumbbells at your chest, and find the right position that allows your forearms to be perpendicular to the ground at this point,” says Samuel. “Then you’re good to go.”

Do You Need to Barbell Bench Press?

physical athlete doing dumbbell bench presses

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Back to the dilemma we posed at the top of the story. We have to admit that the barbell bench press is the gold standard of bench press variations, challenging you to press a heavy single bar over your chest. And yes, it can drive serious chest and triceps development.

It also might not be the lift you need most. “Barbell pressing is great,” says Samuel, “but it’s also the most advanced form of the flat bench press, and it requires a bit more than pressing the bar. You also need to twist the bar aggressively, something called ‘breaking’ the bar, to do it safely.”

Not everyone needs to do that, and it’ll depend on your fitness goals. It also isn’t one or the other, says Samuel. “You can prioritize your training around barbells and insert dumbbells here and there. Or you can do it the other way around. It helps to know both tools, but the one you build the majority of your training around should be carefully selected for your training goals.”

Why You Should Build Around Barbell Press

Max Strength. If you’re chasing pure strength and power, you’ll want the barbell press in your arsenal. Over time, you’ll be able to move heavier loads with a barbell than you can with the dumbbell. So if the goal is to eventually set a bench press PR, you want to involve barbells. If your bench press max matters to you, you’ll need this tool.

Competition. If you’re planning to enter a powerlifting competition at some point, you’ll be working with heavy barbells in that situation, so you’ll need the practice in your own training.

You Want Uncommon Amounts of Muscle. If you aspire to be a pro bodybuilder in a heavyweight class, you’ll need serious strength and muscle. And that means you’ll need to integrate barbells into your training in a big way. Why? “You can go heavy with dumbbells, but point blank, you’ll get more chances to move serious weight with barbells,” says Samuel. “And if you want mountains of muscle, you need that load to grow.” Additionally, training heavy builds a reservoir of strength and power that can serve you well even when you’re aiming to focus on hypertrophy with lighter weights.

Why You Should Build Around Dumbbell Press

Shoulder Safety. If you’ve had shoulder issues, the dumbbell press is the way to go. Yes, you’ll have to learn to manage the instability of the dumbbells, but they’re less restrictive than the barbell, too. “If you move a bit differently on one side of your body than the other, the barbell isn’t friendly to that,” says Samuel. “A pair of dumbbells can be friendly to any natural asymmetries you may have.”

Core Tension. Using dumbbells to press can do plenty for your technique, including challenging your core and other stabilizing muscles. “Take advantage of this,” says Samuel. “Your smaller shoulder stabilizers will fire to keep your arms stable in the dumbbell press.”

You’re New to the Gym. “The dumbbell press is the best way to learn to press,” says Samuel. The reason: You get to work on controlling your stabilizing muscles and finding your most natural arm position. “If you start on the barbell, you can easily develop bad habits, or let the bar dictate your arm position,” says Samuel. “Dumbbells force you to figure out how to get stabilizing muscles working, and find your proper forearm slot.”

Bench Press Variations

Once you’ve mastered the basics of the bench press, there are a host of variations you can play with. Try some of these to spice up your training, and to add challenge without necessarily adding weight.

Incline Press

Doing dumbbell or barbell presses on an incline press forces a slightly greater range of motion and can help develop your upper chest.

preview for Incline Bench Press | Form Check

Floor Press

You can work with even more weight without worrying about the shoulder joint issues you might struggle with on the bench. The floor provides an immediate end to that range of motion—just make sure you don’t bounce your arms off the ground to power your reps.

preview for Dumbbell Floor Press | Form Check

Eccentric-Focused Mixed-Style Incline Press

This bench press variation mixes unilateral and bilateral dumbbell presses to build ab strength as it carves your chest and challenges your shoulders. You’re also using different tempos to keep your mind engaged as you press.

preview for Eb & Swole: Eccentric-Focused Mixed-Style Incline Press

Single-Arm Incline Double-Explode Press

This bench press variation can be done on either a flat or incline bench. It’ll challenge your core as well as your abs as you work to keep hips and shoulders square.

Headshot of Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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