By KINSEY MAHAFFEY
The ability to perform horizontal pushing patterns, like a chest press is an essential component of anyone’s movement capability. Perhaps one of the most utilized methods for practicing this movement in the gym setting, aside from the pushup, is the bench press.
However, before worrying about the variety of programming options, loading parameters, and multiple ways to incorporate a bench press into a client’s resistance program, you must make sure a client can perform the bench press with proper form.
The information presented in this article references the NASM-CPT course and the NASM-CES curriculum.
3 COMMON BENCH PRESS FORM ISSUES
Perhaps the most common factors preventing good bench press form is:
(1) A lack of knowledge of the exercise technique
(2) Misguided or miscalculated acute variable selection
(3) Muscle imbalance
Not every client struggling with ideal bench press form can attribute it to these issues, but the factors discussed in this article are a great place to begin the troubleshooting process.
#1 LACK OF KNOWLEDGE OF TECHNIQUE
While there are many possible causes for disrupted bench press form, perhaps the most common reason relates to the client’s existing knowledge of form and overall understanding of the exercise’s ideal posture and movement technique. Insufficient knowledge of form would be a prevalent issue for beginning clients with limited experience or little exercise instruction.
It may seem obvious, but the most basic step for assessing a client’s knowledge of form would be through a combination of discussion and demonstration. A preferred method for teaching bench press form would be to “Tell. Show. Do.” In other words, describe the proper setup and execution of the bench press (Tell), then demonstrate an example (Show), and then have the client perform a few reps, providing cues and feedback to enhance their execution of the movement (Do). A client’s knowledge of performance can increase when they are provided information about the quality of their movement (Ambler-Wright et al, 2021).
The bench press exercise can be divided into two phases: the preparation phase and the movement phase. During the preparation phase, the client should lie flat with their back on the bench, feet flat on the floor, and toes pointed straight ahead. If the client’s legs are too short to reach the floor, it is ok to place a step or small platform under their feet so the client may maintain a neutral spine and pelvic tilt. The forearms should be perpendicular to the resistance with the hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, in-line with the chest, using a neutral grip, which means the wrist should be neither flexed nor extended.
During the press (concentric) portion of the movement phase, the client should extend the arms and contract the chest until the elbows are fully extended. During the lowering phase (eccentric phase), the client should lower the weight towards the chest by controlled bending of the elbows, while keeping the forearms perpendicular to the resistance. The exact distance the client will allow the weight to move during the eccentric portion of the exercise will be determined by the client’s ability to control their form and alignment without compensation. Common compensations to watch for during the bench press would be a lower back arch, the head lifting off the bench, excessive elbow sway, or rounding of the shoulders.
The form will be the same for any chest press using a bench; however, there will be some differences depending on whether the client is performing a bench press with a barbell or dumbbells. The barbell bench press is a bit more stable than the dumbbell bench press due to the exercise’s closed-chain nature (hands fixed on the bar), whereas the dumbbells allow for greater freedom of movement, adding to the difficulty to stabilize the load. Another difference between the barbell and the dumbbell bench press is that the dumbbells allow for a more neutral forearm than the barbell, which requires greater forearm pronation to align the client’s grip with the direction of the bar. The fixed distance between the hands while using the barbell also limits the client’s ability to keep their forearms perpendicular while fully extending the elbows.
Additionally, the bench press form can be modified for using fitness/stability balls for a less stable version of the dumbbell bench press, ideal for training intended to enhance stabilization and endurance. The ideal time to address a client’s knowledge of bench press form would be during phase 2 of the OPT model, the first introduction of the bench press exercise. Additionally, the fitness/stability ball dumbbell press exercise during phase 1 resistance training should serve as a foundation for the client’s bench press form.
#2 MISCALCULATED ACUTE VARIABLES
Another factor that commonly impacts the ability to execute proper bench press form is the miscalculation of acute training variables, such as intensity, i.e., how much weight is being used, and volume, i.e. how many sets and reps are being attempted. It is easy to overestimate the appropriate intensity for a bench press. The amount a client can press is often confused with what a client can press well without compromising form.
Although a client may feel great about lifting an amount that is likely too heavy, and blissfully unaware of their compensatory movements and loss of form, lifting with poor movement patterns should be avoided as they have the potential over time to lead to injury.
Fatigue is another common issue that would impede proper bench press form. As a client’s muscles fatigue and their ability to produce force is diminished, their movement will become compromised to complete the task of bench pressing for better or worse. Fatigue can become an issue if the client exhibits poor recovery habits. Fatigue can manifest if the training volume is higher than what the client can adequately recover from and adapt to and/or the amount of rest time before sets of bench press or after other exercises is inadequate or some combination thereof.
To avoid using too much weight for a bench press, it is best to perform proper strength assessments such as the upper extremity 1RM strength test, which utilizes the barbell bench press. The results from the 1RM estimation will help to more accurately program the proper intensity for each client. Additionally, the NASM OPT Model provides the recommended acute variable ranges appropriate for each phase and goal. Sticking to the NASM OPT Model will reduce the use of acute variables outside of what is appropriate for the client and their strength-related goals.
#3 MUSCLE IMBALANCE
Muscle imbalance is an issue that is highly prevalent in today’s society and requires a bit more work to correct than the simple knowledge of form or the tweaking of acute exrcise variables (Clark et al., 2018). Muscular imbalance is the alteration in the lengths and relative activity levels of muscles surrounding a given joint. With some of these muscles being short and/or overactive and others being lengthened and/or underactive, movement compensation occurs and consequently decreases neuromuscular control.
When a muscular imbalance is severe enough to restrict a joint’s range of motion, the client may no longer possess the ability to perform a bench press with proper form due to the lack of mobility required to perform the movement without compensation. The easiest way to determine whether muscle imbalance impacts bench press form would be to assess the client’s movement quality beginning with the overhead squat assessment.
Suppose the client exhibits arms fall forward or an excessive anterior pelvic tilt (lower back arch). In that case, the next assessment should be the “hands-on-hips” modification of the overhead squat assessment to better determine whether the observed compensations stems from the shoulder complex or the hips, pelvis, or core. If the anterior pelvic tilt improves with the hands on the hips, then the shoulder complex will likely need to be addressed, particularly the latissimus dorsi.
Optionally, if deemed safe and appropriate for the client, the standing push assessment is a loaded assessment that requires the client to perform a horizontal push with both arms. The standing push assessment is especially warranted if a client struggles to maintain bench press form and the trainer suspects muscle imbalance as a likely culprit. Shoulder impairment during the standing push assessment may present as scapular elevation or winging. Additional compensations such as an excessive low back arch or forward head movement may also occur.
Next, to better isolate the primary cause of the client’s movement compensations you should perform mobility assessments for the thoracic spine, cervical spine, shoulder, elbow, and wrist to determine which of the kinetic chain checkpoints may be restricted and consequently impacting bench press form.
Mobility assessments account for more than just flexibility and account for the entire available range of motion at a specific joint and the body’s neuromuscular control during movement (Ambler-Wright et al., 2020). The following mobility assessments are recommended to determine further the most likely source of compensation for the shoulder and thoracic spine:
• Thoracic extension
• Thoracic rotation
• Cervical rotation
• Cervical lateral flexion
• Cervical flexion and extension
• Shoulder flexion and extension
• Shoulder internal and external rotation
• Pectoralis minor length test
If a client demonstrates restriction at the shoulder, thoracic spine, and/or cervical spine, it is also likely to affect mobility in the arms, and vice versa (Ambler-Wright et al., 2021). For this reason, the trainer should perform the following elbow and wrist mobility assessments as well:
• Elbow flexion and extension
• Wrist flexion and extension
• Forearm pronation and supination
Depending on the severity of compensations and mobility restrictions uncovered during the assessment process, a client may require additional corrective programming and some time in phase 1 of the OPT model until mobility and more ideal movement quality is restored correctly before returning to the bench press.
However, suppose compensation exists but is minimal. In that case, it is ok to address these issues while still utilizing the bench press in training if the acute variables and bench press range of motion depth are modified to the point that the client can maintain proper form with minimal to no compensation.
For additional information on improving shoulder function with sample routines, check out Dr. Thomas West’s article Shoulder Function: Enhancing Scapular Stabilization.
*IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT BENCH PRESSING AND THE OPT MODEL
It is important to note that this article addresses improper bench press form assuming that the client has already progressed to the strength phases of training with respect to the NASM OPT Model, initially free of compensation (or was otherwise minimal), and generally speaking adequately prepared for strength training.
Typically, most of the issues we’ll be highlighting are avoided by following NASM’s integrated training model, properly assessing client movement quality, and using the Corrective Exercise Continuum and Phase 1 of the OPT Model.
This will adequately address existing muscular imbalances and limitations in joint control and stability, before utilizing the bench press in more strength-focused phases.
It is not unusual for a client to re-develop muscle imbalances and stability issues over time, especially when the client is exposed to repetitive patterns of stress, such as working at a computer for extended periods, and/or lifting, training, or performing activities the same way day in and day out. In this case, the client is likely to need a corrective routine or an extended warm-up routine to improve muscular balance before training to prevent a backward slide in movement quality.
When the bench press is performed correctly, it serves as a safe and effective exercise for strengthening the upper body. However, if the bench press is performed with less than ideal form, the client will experience diminishing returns for their efforts and increases their risk of developing muscular imbalances and overuse injuries.
Common issues preventing good bench press form include a client’s lack of knowledge about proper form and quality movement technique;, improper acute variable selection s such as excessive intensities, and volume, and, less-than adequate rest;, and pre-existing muscle imbalances causing movement impairment at one or more of the kinetic chain checkpoints involved in the bench press. Fortunately, most of these issues can be easily identified and addressed.
• Client knowledge can be improved by providing a client with exercise cues and understanding of bench press performance to educate them more thoroughly and promote better form.
• Excessive intensity, volumes, and inadequate rest times can be avoided by sticking to the OPT model and ensuringe the client’s physical readiness for strength training.
• Muscle imbalances and their related movement impairments can be identified using the overhead squat assessment and other loaded movement and mobility assessments.
While it is not unusual for a client to re-develop muscle imbalances and reduced joint stability and control over time, a corrective routine or an extended warm-up routine to improve muscular balance before training may prevent a backward slide in movement quality. Additionally, through regular assessment and proper utilization of the integrated NASM Optimum Performance Training (OPT) Model and progression through its different phases of training, many factors that commonly affect proper bench press form can be addressed and mitigated.
The bench press exercise is typically easily accommodated in most fitness settings, easy to learn, and conveniently programmed and adapted for various strength-oriented goals.
The bench press is frequently utilized as both a resistance exercise and a standard performance assessment, such as the upper extremity one-rep max (1RM) test for determining the proper intensity for strength-specific goals (Clark et al., 2018). When the bench press is performed correctly, it serves as a safe and effective exercise for strengthening the upper body.
However, if the bench press is performed with poor or less than ideal form, the client may experience sub-optimal neuromuscular efficiency. A reduction in neuromuscular efficiency means the body’s ability to optimally recruit muscles to produce, reduce (eccentrically control), and stabilize forces is impeded, leading to compensatory or compromised movement and an overall decrease in performance, and by extension, results.
Ambler-Wright, T., Annaccone, A., Behm, D. G., Brager, A., Cheatham, S. W., Clark, M., Fahmy, R., Frederick, C., Le Cara, E., Miller, K., Richey, R., Sorenson, E., Splichal, E., Stull, K., & Titcomb, D. A. (2020). NASM essentials of corrective exercise training (2nd ed.) (R. Fahmy, Ed.). Jones & Bartlett.
Clark, M. A., Lucett, S. C., McGill, E., Montel, I., & Sutton, B. (Ed.). (2018). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Jones & Bartlett Learning.