What you’re getting yourself into:
5-8 minute read time
1. “Tuck your elbows” is generally a bad cue for the raw bench press. Even though your elbows should end up in a somewhat tucked position, most people will over-tuck if they focus on tucking their elbows.
2. “Flare and push” is a much better cue.
3. Benching in this manner will help you use your pecs more effectively and gain strength faster.
For me, the bench press is sort of like a pet dog. Dogs are the best thing in the world for self-esteem. Every day when you come home from work, they act like they haven’t seen you in a year, and they could not possibly be more excited to hang out with you. If you treated a friend like you treat a dog – lock them in your house for hours at a time when you aren’t there, feed them the same crappy food every day, ignore them most of the time when you ARE around them, discipline them for perfectly normal behaviors like pooping on the floor, and lock them in a crate to sleep in – that friendship probably wouldn’t last long. Also, you’d probably be arrested for kidnapping.
I’m not particularly kind to my bench press. I really don’t like benching. It’s not uncommon for me to just skip bench work for a few months at a time. Most of my bench press workouts are halfhearted at best, and a lot of times I’ll just swap out a bench press session for an extra squat day, rationalizing it by reminding myself that squats are a larger percentage of your powerlifting total anyways.
However, just like a pet dog, the bench press is damn loyal to me.
I’m sure there are several contributing factors – relatively short arms, a barrel chest (thank you Irish ancestors), probably good muscle insertions, blah blah blah. But one of the biggest factors: I’m a very good technical bencher.
I figured, “Since I already hate this lift, if I eek every last bit of efficiency out of my technique, then I can get away with benching less often and still put up respectable numbers.” Accordingly, I want to delve into an important aspect of bench press technique that allowed me to bench four wheels while looking like I barely lifted.
Just to address a criticism up front that I know I’ll get: “Bro, I’m just trying to bench to get jacked. Why would I even care that you could bench a lot while looking like Twiggy? I’d rather look huge than ego lift a ton of weight.”
Valid point. This is an article about tricking out your bench press technique so you can dominate on the powerlifting platform. Powerlifting is a sport about who can lift the most weight, not necessarily who’s the strongest – a small but important distinction. Even if you don’t want to compete, it’s still useful information for another, very important reason: being able to give a respectable answer to the most important question you’ll ever be asked about training – “How much do you bench, bro?”
Exhibit A: This is how you win an IPF medal and the ire of bros on the Internet who couldn’t even unrack that weight:
What is this little tweak that’s given me so much bang for my buck? Proper elbow position.
A hefty percentage of people over-tuck their elbows in the bench press.
This is a problem I see most (at least 2/3) of the time in the first form check video new clients send me.
A lot of people have it in their mind that they’re supposed to tuck their elbows a TON when they bench. I think this originated from two sources:
- Powerlifters wanting to distinguish themselves from bodybuilders who bench with their elbows flared, and the bar touching high on their chest.
- Equipped bench pressing.
The first issue (distinguishing powerlifting technique from bodybuilding technique) is just an example of a small difference that people want to treat as a big difference, with a dash of elitism sprinkled in there. Powerlifters are quick to point out perceived deficiencies in bodybuilders’ bench press form (bar not touching the chest, combination of keeping the bar over the upper chest + extreme elbow flare making you more prone to shoulder impingement) and just assume that EVERYTHING is bad about it.
If bodybuilders don’t touch their chest, then we must pause every rep on out chest in training! (Nevermind that really strong dudes like Eric Spoto, Brandon Lilly, and Fred Hatfield do some of their training reps without the bar touching their chest.)
If bodybuilders touch the bar high on their chest, then we must touch as low on our stomach as humanly possible! (Nevermind that doing so gives your shoulders a longer moment arm to work against. The strongest position will probably be around the sternum for most people.)
If bodybuilders flare their elbows, then we must tuck as much as we possibly can!
Tucking the elbows excessively (and touching really low on the stomach) got another boost with the rise of equipped bench pressing. A bench press shirt primarily works via the material stretching across your chest as you lower the weight, storing elastic energy to aid in lifting the bar. However, as bench shirts got stronger and stronger, lifters had a harder and harder time getting the material to “give” enough for the bar to touch in a normal position. To get around that, they started tucking their elbows more and more (so the chest plate wouldn’t have to give as much) and touching lower on their stomachs (again, meaning the material wouldn’t need to stretch as much).
You can see in this video how you have to fight against the shirt to get the bar to touch:
So, roll together the (misplaced) bodybuilding-phobia in the powerlifting community with the fact that geared lifting ruled powerlifting when information about the sport started REALLY being distributed across the web in the mid-2000s, and you wind up with a lot of people hearing, “You gotta tuck your elbows to bench big, bro.” There’s usually no reason to do so provided; if there is, it’s just the admonition that so-and-so who benches a lot (usually in a bench shirt) said so.
So people end up benching with their elbows in front of the bar, hindering their arms from really using the pecs properly.
And, just to point out some irony: Geared benchers, while saying to tuck your elbows, are also adamant about keeping your elbows under the bar. They just touch the bar low enough on their stomach that their elbows ARE still under the bar when they tuck their elbows. Letting your elbows in front of the bar when you’re trying to bench 900 in a shirt is a great way to snap a forearm. I’m not going to post any videos, but you can search on YouTube if you’re curious how that looks.
Elbows in front of the bar
Problem 1: Extraneous moment arm for the triceps.
Your triceps have to work hard during the bench press anyways. There’s no need to add extra work for them to do. With your elbows in front of the bar, you turn the movement into a press/triceps extension hybrid. The bar should be directly above your elbows at all times.
Not only does it mean extra work for your triceps; it also means you can’t use your pecs as effectively in the movement.
Problem 2: Not taking advantage of your pecs
Let’s take a peek at the pecs:
As you can see, most of the muscle fibers are situated longitudinally, running more-or-less straight across from the sternum to the humerus. Muscle fibers pull in a straight line. The more closely the orientation of the fibers matches the direction of the movement, the more force they contribute to that movement. With extreme tucking, only a few of your upper pec fibers are optimally aligned to contribute to the movement. With more of a flare, the larger, meatier part of your pec can get in on the action to a greater degree, meaning the pecs can help more with the initial drive off your chest.
In some cases, over-tucking can contribute to elbow discomfort as well. As you tuck your elbows, your shoulders externally rotate. (If you’re standing with your arms by your side, external rotation is rotating at the shoulder so your elbows are facing the wall behind you. Internal rotation is rotation at the shoulder so your elbow is facing the wall to your side.) That’s naturally going to put your hands in more of a supinated (underhand) position. However, you need to grab the bar with a pronated (overhand) grip to bench press.
The more external rotation you have at the shoulder, the more pronation you need to get from your forearm to compensate. If you can’t quite pronate your hands enough, then your body will look for that last little bit of rotation elsewhere, and there’s only one other place to look: the elbow.
The elbow is supposed to just function as a hinge joint – flexion and extension only – no abduction, adduction, or rotation. So when you place that stress on it – trying to find that last little bit of pronation to meet the demands of a pronated grip and external rotation at the shoulder – some tenderness on the medial side of the joint is often the result. This certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but almost every time someone tells me they have elbow pain benching, the first thing that jumps out on video is excessive tucking, with their elbows in front of the bar during the eccentric and reversal. A lot of times, this applies to people who notice that benching with a thumbless grip is more comfortable for their elbows. Without wrapping your thumb around the bar, you don’t have to pronate your hand quite as much because the bar can sit at more of an angle across your hand, so there’s no need for your body to try to get that last bit of rotation from your non-rotating elbow.
How you should do it:
The cue I like to use is “flare and push.” When you flare your elbows, you don’t have to touch the bar to your upper chest the way a bodybuilder would. You should try to touch the bar in the same position you generally would when tucking your elbows, but do it with your elbows flared as much as possible; that will keep your elbows right under the bar, rather than allowing them to wind up in front of the bar. If you focus on this cue, your elbows will generally wind up tucked to the appropriate position, not over-tucked as is common when people concentrate specifically on tucking their elbows.
MOST (80%+) people who have been over-tucking and give this a shot hit small PRs right away. It’ll be a slightly different technique for those people than what they’re accustomed to, but it doesn’t have a very steep neural learning curve because it’s not a very major change. All of a sudden, the movement is easier for their triceps, AND they can get their pecs into the movement better. When people make the switch and focus on flaring their elbows while still touching where they usually would, they generally start making faster bench press progress as well. The movement starts training their pecs (a prime mover left relatively neglected with their old form) more effectively, and a bigger chest means a bigger bench. Until pretty recently, I had fairly small arms (refer to pic above) but managed a double bodyweight bench on the back of solid technique and some larger-than-average pecs.
Just remember: Flare and push. Once you nail that, the rest of your form generally falls into place.
Now, I leave you with one of the best exemplars of this form (and a strong advocate of flaring your elbows when you bench): The great Jennifer Thompson.