The barbell bench press is probably the most popular exercise on the planet, especially among guys.
Chicks (supposedly) dig guys who have a lean muscular chest, and guys constantly use the barbell bench press as the ultimate measure of strength and awesomeness. They often challenge their friends, claim to bench 100lbs more than they actually can, and almost always make it the first exercise of their first workout of the week without fail (which is why you’ll never find an empty bench on Mondays).
This popularity also makes the bench press one of the most argued about exercises there are, and for all kinds of different reasons.
Today I want to look at one specific reason… how low should you lower the bar?
Specifically, should you lower the bar all the way down until you touch your chest, or should you stop at some point before that? Let’s figure it out…
Should The Bar Touch Your Chest?
The very easy, very simple, and very generic answer to this question is often yes… you should lower the bar all the way down until it touches your chest.
That is, after all, the full range of motion for the how the barbell bench press is generally supposed to be done. All the way up, all the way down. You know… like how every exercise should generally be done. No bullshit half reps, no cheating, no nothing. Just a complete range of motion.
So yes, in general, lowering the bar until you touch your chest is generally the right recommendation.
As usual, very few aspects of weight training are ever that cut and dry even though countless fitness gurus and dumbasses on forums often act like it is.
The truth is, there are very few “everyone-should-always-do-things-like-this” recommendations that are worthy of being listened to, and how far down you should lower the bar when bench pressing is a fantastic example.
Why? Because everyone is different. Let me explain…
If your goal is to be a competitive powerlifter, or pass some kind of mandatory bench press testing for some kind of sport or activity, or do anything that puts specific guidelines on the way you bench press, then you are pretty much the only people in the world who may be REQUIRED to lower the bar all the way down to your chest when bench pressing.
But if you’re just the average guy or girl training regularly to look good (build muscle, lose fat, whatever) or possibly even improve strength or performance, then touching your chest is almost always NOT a requirement.
Still the “general” right idea? Usually. Required? Nope. Ideal? Maybe yes, maybe no. That depends on you. Here’s what I can tell you about me.
I DON’T Let The Bar Touch My Chest
Yup, it’s true. As I’ve previously mentioned in my article about how to avoid common shoulder injuries, I don’t lower the bar all the way down to my chest when bench pressing. Here’s why.
When I first started out, I always lowered the bar until it literally touched my chest on every single rep. According to everything I read and everyone I talked to, not going that far down meant you’re not doing the full rep, not going to build muscle or increase strength nearly as well, and were being a total “half rep pussy” (that’s a scientific term). This was how the barbell bench press was supposed to be done, and you’d be doing it wrong if you did it any other way.
Now like I said before, for a lot of people, this is in fact the right way to do it. But for me specifically… not so much. I don’t fit in that group. Instead, I’m in the group of people whose shoulders begin to bother them when they consistently lower the bar all the way down like this.
This group may seem like it’s the minority, but you’d be surprised at how many people are in it. You’d be even more surprised at how many of these people just don’t realize it and keep on bench pressing incorrectly and dangerously for their body anyway.
How Low Do You Go?
So, to avoid the shoulder issues I was experiencing, I started stopping each rep a few inches short of making contact with my chest. I’ve never actually measured the exact amount (it would be pretty hard especially when using my normal working weights), but I’d guess I stop about 1-3 inches before the bar touches my chest.
Go get a ruler so you can see exactly how big/small that difference is. This is by NO MEANS anything close to the typical “pussy half reps” you see many idiots in most gyms doing where they don’t even come down low enough for their upper arms to be parallel to floor.
Here the difference in depth is extremely minor in comparison, but the difference it makes in terms of comfort and shoulder health is major.
But Wouldn’t This Hinder Your Chest Development? HA!
If you’re wondering if such a change would lead to less than optimal chest progress, the answer is a huge NO. Not in the slightest. In fact, I’d say my chest is my most well built muscle group. Again, it’s just a tiny 1-3 inch difference in depth we’re talking about here (get out that ruler and see exactly how small that is).
The only thing this seemingly minor adjustment is doing is allowing me to bench press safely. If this adjustment wasn’t made, then shoulder injuries would likely be preventing me from bench pressing at all at this point, and that would hinder my chest development a whole lot more than anything else.
Not to mention, a side effect of this adjustment is that a more constant tension is placed on the chest muscles during each rep. The fact that you’re stopping a couple of inches short means it’s impossible to let the bar bounce off your chest at the bottom position (a common cheating method) or just let it rest there for a split second… both of which I see on an almost daily basis.
From a muscle growth standpoint, this could only be a good thing.
So How Low Should I Lower The Bar?
Well, if you’re one of those rare people training for competitive powerlifting or anything else that legitimately requires lowering the barbell until it touches your chest, then you should obviously lower the barbell until it touches your chest. Surprising, huh?
But if you’re like most people and are just using the bench press to build a strong/awesome looking chest, then there’s 2 possible answers:
- If lowering the bar all the way down feels perfectly fine for you, then feel free to keep bench pressing that way.
- If you’re someone who feels any pain, discomfort or awkwardness when going ALL the way down, then I’d highly recommend stopping 1-3 inches before the bar touches your chest. It will save your shoulders and, if anything, only improve your chest development in the process.
But What If I Can’t Decide Which Is Best For Me?
If you’re unsure of what to do, there are certain body types that are just naturally better/worse built for certain bench press techniques than others. Case in point…
People who are taller or just have longer limbs will have to go unnaturally low in order to touch their chest. Similarly, people who are thinner or have a smaller bone structure will have to lower the bar a much greater distance before it reaches their chest.
The real trick here is to look at the elbows in relation to the bench presser’s torso or the flat bench they’re laying on. Now, take a shorter and/or thicker person (Person A) and put them on a bench next to a taller and/or thinner person (Person B). Now have them both lower the bar until it touches their chest.
In every single case, Person B’s elbows will be significantly lower than their body/the bench compared to Person A, and that’s a damn good sign that Person B should have stopped 1-3 inches before reaching that depth. Person A on the other hand probably had no problems with that depth whatsoever.
The point here is that some people are just built for certain exercises more so than others, and the people who aren’t should make smart adjustments to compensate. I’ve personally been stopping the bench press 1-3 inches from my chest for about 7 years now for this very reason.
My chest has still grown just fine (better than the rest of my body in fact), and my shoulders are safer and healthier because of it.
So… we can either take the advice of idiots who think they know what’s always right for everyone, or we can make a small adjustment that makes things right just for us.
Hmmm, decisions decisions.