The bench press is among the most popular gym exercises, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. “If you’re not using correct form, you can put a lot of stress on the shoulder joints,” warns Mike Fantigrassi, NASM-CPT and Master Instructor. “The shoulder has the most mobility of all joints,” he adds, “which makes it less stable” and more vulnerable to injury. Try Fantigrassi’s tips to make the most of your bench press exercises:

Prepare with pushups. This exercise requires stabilization of the shoulder joint and bodywide tension, both of which are vital to a safe bench press. Progress to plyometric pushups for added challenge.

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Strive for safety. To maintain good balance during the bench press, feet should be flat on the floor, not on the bench. The barbell should rise directly over the chest, not the neck, and a spotter should be used for nonmachine presses. Also, watch the wrists: Don’t let them bend back. Grip with the thumb around the bar, not over it. A false (thumb-over) grip makes it easier to drop the weight on yourself.

Keep it controlled. Simply put, a successful bench press includes unracking the weight, bringing it down, letting it touch the chest without bouncing off it, then pressing it straight up and racking the weight again. Don’t use momentum; movement should be controlled throughout.

Use supersets. The bench press works great in supersets based on Phase 2 of the NASM OPT model,

in which you alternate between a strength exercise and a stabilization move. Try supersetting a plate-loaded chest press and a pushup (with a proprioceptive demand) or a machine press and a standing cable fly.

Balance it out. As part of your overall program, be sure to include a pulling motion, such as a type of row (see American Fitness, Summer 2018) to work the antagonistic muscles. It is also a good idea to perform rotator cuff exercises before the workout and to include foam rolling and static stretching afterward to maintain good range of motion in the shoulder joint.

“It’s okay not to bench press, too,” adds Fantigrassi, who usually skips the exercise owing to a torn rotator cuff. “There are lots of good chest exercises—dumbbell incline press, standing cable press, different types of flys and pushups. If you’re dreading the bench press or it doesn’t feel good, do something else.”

Sample: Chest Workout

For better gains and lower injury risk, Fantigrassi advises against doing the same bench press routine each week. He suggests using the NASM OPT model for progressions, then cycling through the phases every 4 weeks. Here’s a sample plan. Note: For Phases 1–3, rest 1 minute between sets.

PHASE 1: STABILIZATION

For both: Do 12–15 reps, slow tempo.
Dumbbell chest press (3 sets, 50%–70% 1RM)
Pushup, hands on stability ball (2 sets)

PHASE 2: STRENGTH ENDURANCE

Do 3 supersets for A and B, 8–12 reps, with A1/B1 at moderate tempo and A2/B2 slow.
A1: Barbell bench press (70%–80% 1RM)
A2: TRX® pushup
B1: Incline chest press (70%–80% 1RM)
B2: Standing incline cable fly (50%–70% 1RM)

PHASE 3: HYPERTROPHY

Descending pyramid bench press (4 sets: 12, 10, 8, 6 reps)
Incline chest press (3 sets, 6–8 reps, 75%–85% 1RM)
Machine chest fly (3 sets, 8–12 reps, 75%–85% 1RM)

PHASE 4: MAXIMAL STRENGTH

Use fast but controlled tempo, with 3-minute rest between sets.
Bench press (5 sets, 5 reps, 85%–100% 1RM)
Incline barbell bench press (3 sets, 5 reps, 85%–100% 1RM)