“How much do you bench?” Nobody asks you what you curl or what level you use on the Stairmaster. It’s the bench press that matters…to men, at least. Like clockwork, one of the first sounds I hear upon entering a gym is the familiar roar of a man trying to draw attention to himself as he performs a bench press. It’s all part of the often-illogical quest for size (not to mention the unappetizing use of “bench” as a verb). I know all too well about gym free weight areas and cannot calculate how many men I’ve known stricken with Bench Press Syndrome. So, until they find a cure, my mission is to at least talk about safety. If you insist on doing a barbell bench press, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself, especially your back and shoulders:
Get a spot. Have someone you know and trust stand behind you to help get the bar on and off the rack, and make sure you can safely complete your set. There is no need for straining and contorting.
Use collars. It is unsafe for you, your spotter and anyone in the vicinity to execute a bench press without collars on the barbell. In many gyms, this is a rule.
Lie flat. Never take your back off the bench. If you’re willing to sacrifice a few pounds off that lift, it’s best to bring your feet up on the bench, with knees bent as in a crunch position.
Do not lower the bar to your pecs. Only bring it down until your elbows reach a right angle. Anything beyond that is a dangerous stress on your shoulders. Of course, if your chest is so big that the bar hits it when your elbows are at 90 degrees, fine. Just don’t bounce it off your pec muscles.
Use dumbbells. Not nearly as macho, I know, but by doing a bench press (flat, incline or decline) with dumbbells, you have better control of the weights and your dominant arm cannot help your weaker arm. As with the barbell press, be sure to keep your back flat and never lower the weights beyond a 90-degree elbow angle.