The Different Ways To Bench
The notion that there is one way to perform a bench press is just not valid. If you are bench-pressing for a competition, then the "proper" form is dictated by the rules of that event. Power-lifting has a set of rules that describe exactly how a bench press should be performed, and in the context of that sport, there really is only one proper way to do it - the way that keeps you from being disqualified!
For general training, however, there are many variations that serve different purposes. So let's get started. The traditional flat bench press involves lying on a flat bench and grasping the bar slightly outside of shoulder's width. The bar is unracked, then lowered slowly to touch the chest. In a bench press competition, the bar may have to sit there for a specified period of time. The person benching then drives the bar upward and completes the repetition with arms perpendicular to the floor and locked out or just slightly bent.
For power-lifting, which requires moving a very heavy weight, the bench press is more than just a chest exercise. Any type of bench press movement will involve the shoulders and triceps to a certain extent. During a power-lifting repetition of the bench press, the lower body also comes into play. The legs are used to drive the torso into the bench for stability. The shoulders are retracted and the back is flexed to further keep the torso stabilized and also to provide more surface area against the bench to support the load. A slight arch in the back is not uncommon as the entire body is used to drive the bar upward.
Some people focus on the bench press as a chest exercise - the goal is to increase mass in the chest. They wish to minimize the involvement of the shoulder and triceps and even the lower body. For this variation, you can lift your legs off the ground and keep them bent or crossed in the air, to eliminate their involvement with the movement. Biomechanics tells us that the best grip to target the chest will place your wrists over your elbows when your upper arm is parallel to the floor. In other words, your arms should form a perfect right angle when your elbow is level with your shoulder.
The bar at this position may be slightly above your chest, and you would not need to go below this point (doing so increases involvement of the anterior deltoids or front of the shoulder and triceps). You would start with your upper arms parallel to the floor, then drive the bar upward, pausing just short of lockout, then return to the start position. Avoiding lockout and not bringing your upper arms below parallel will maximize chest involvement, minimize shoulder and triceps involvement, and maintain constant tension on the chest (when you lockout at the top, the tension shifts to your elbow joint and off of the chest).
By elevating the bench that you are pressing on, you shift emphasis to your shoulders. As the bench becomes more inclined, more tension is placed on the deltoids. While this means more shoulder involvement, it also means less chest involvement. Lowering the bench to a decline will shift tension lower on the chest. Keep in mind that, as a muscle, the chest cannot "selectively" contract the upper or lower portion - the entire muscle performs work against tension. The change in angle, however, can shift more tension overall to the chest, by reducing the tension that is handled by stabilizer muscles or other secondary movers. Since the chest is stronger than the shoulders, most people can press the heaviest weight in a decline. The load that can be handled decreases as the bench moves into a sharper incline.
Grip has an important function with respect to bench press. When you grasp the bar at exactly shoulder width or less, you are forcing most of the angle of motion to occur in the elbow joint rather than where your upper arm meets your body. This means that more tension is shifted to the triceps muscles. A close-gripped bench press is often considered a triceps exercise, even though the chest is still somewhat involved (any movement of the upper arm with respect to the torso will involve the chest).
| Flat Barbell Bench Press
| DB Pullovers
Keep in mind that with an extremely narrow grip, it might be beneficial to rotate the arms so that the elbows stay close to the sides. This minimizes tension on the elbow joint - many people performing narrow grip bench presses find that they feel tremendous stress in their elbow joint. Keeping the elbows close and arms rotated slightly (the bar will be above the abdomen rather than the chest) will reduce some of this stress.
Grasping the bar with a reverse grip also changes the way that work is distributed during the movement. Many believe that a reverse grip bench press places more tension on the triceps, and can serve to build the "belly" of the triceps muscle. Since your arms move through the same range of motion as a traditional bench press, most of the same muscles are involved. The reversal of the grip, however, shifts the emphasis through phases of the lift, and therefore involves the triceps through a larger range of motion. Keep in mind that a reverse grip makes it extremely difficult to manage the bar when it is over your head. You should always have a spotter unrack the bar for you when performing this movement, or load the bar onto a rack and lift directly from the rack or pins.
Dumbbells vs. Barbells
Using a dumbbell rather than a barbell will require your body to stabilize the dumbbells. This will involve more muscle groups and therefore provides a different stimulus than a barbell bench press. It is always good to balance dumbbell movements with barbell movements.
The dumbbell movements help work stabilizer muscles and improve coordination, while allowing imbalances to be addressed - for example, if the left side of your chest is larger than the right side, you can perform one armed bench presses to work on correcting that imbalance.
Barbells eliminate the involvement of many stabilizer muscles and require less coordination, so a heavier load can be used to place more tension on the chest muscle. The dumbbell will also allow a fuller range of motion - but be warned, the lower you allow the dumbbell to travel, the more torque you place on your shoulder joint (stress) which can be dangerous, especially for someone with weak shoulders.
As you can see, there are many variations to the bench press. So which one is right? It depends on your goals! Incorporating a variety of movements is the best way to stimulate all muscle groups that are involved in the bench press. It also forces your central nervous system to constantly adapt to the new stimulus, which will help avoid plateaus. Alternating between dumbbell and barbell movements allows all aspects of the bench to be perfected.
Remember, however, that in order to perform an exercise a specific way, you must practice it that way. If you are benching for a competition, you must include presses that follow the competition guidelines in order to maximize your ability to execute that variation of the movement.