Barbell Bench Press – Should The Bar Touch Your Chest When Bench Pressing?

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.

However…

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:

  1. If lowering the bar all the way down feels perfectly fine for you, then feel free to keep bench pressing that way.
  2. 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.

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39 Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for finally confirming something I’ve felt was right for me for so long but feared might hurt my chest results if tried it. Good to know im just being smart and not a “half rep pussy”. :)

    • says

      I think that’s one of the big problems people have. They hear something “always” has to be done a certain way, so they never try it a different way.

      But in cases like this, that different way is how it sometimes should be done.

    • Jarod says

      I used to strength train and build for strength and muscle mass. I have shoulder issues as well. I always lowered the bar to about 2 or 3 inches above my chest and my shoulders felt better when I did that. I got up to a 400 bench press for my one rep max. It took me a year of straight training to get there and my pecs got bigger and felt the pump really good especially working out with 315 pounds I am not going to bounce that off my chest no way.

  2. Bryan says

    I used to fall into the group that thought you should always touch the bar then I read an article that compared longer vs. shorter arms and bench pressing. I’ll summarize but next time your at the gym watch guys with shorter arms and bigger chests, when the bar touches their chest their elbows are pretty close to parallel maybe slightly lower than shoulder level. Next, watch someone with longer arms or in my case I had longer arms, my elbows dipped way below my shoulders almost 5 or six inches below, which put my shoulder in an awkward position. Now, I try to stop where my elbows are parallel or a bit lower. This too a little while to get used to, luckily I have a power rack at home, so I set the pins where they needed to be and would lower the bar down to the pins and pause (to avoid bouncing) then lift the weight back up. I then lowered the pins one notch, so I can control it myself. My shoulder no longer hurt and my bench started improving after getting used to this new style. I have read what others think about it, but I no longer care, like you said not going to be entering any power lifting competitions anytime soon, so no need to tear up my shoulder any more than I already did by lifting that way in the past.

  3. Lowell says

    had some meat head at the gym tell me today my chest would grow twice as much if i touched the bar to my chest. then he went on to tell me he has had both shoulders reconstructed.. hmm i wonder why?!

  4. yessdrillsgt says

    I’ve been lifting for a very long time and although this article seemed to be more of a common sense I was always the guy that got into “bad habits”. I competed in powerlifting meets for football all through highschool and adopted those habits. In specific making sure I touched the bar to the chest on bench or it didn’t count. After a separated shoulder and many years later I find it very difficult to continue that and have recently changed to making sure my elbows are slightly below parallel before I count a repetition. I now bench press with minimal discomfort and I can continue training were as before I would have to heal. Very good article. Wish I read this before now so I could knock some sense into myself.

  5. Jan-Su says

    Thank you so much for finally clarifying the controversial part of this exercise!

    I know that the best single weight training advice is to listen to your body, but I was always at first torn between that and what seemingly everyone thinks is “the norm”.

    But now I can rest a little easier knowing that I can still perform this exercise in a way that’s right for me. My arm bones actually aren’t that proportionally big or long, so unfortunately they don’t have that much mechanical advantage. Further compounding the matter is that I sustained a small injury in my right shoulder two years ago. If I were to lower my arms so that my elbows were to make 90 degree angles, those would actually already be quite low enough for me. It would be detrimental to my shoulders if I were to go much lower than that, especially if I was trying to go my heaviest.

    So one size really doesn’t fit all. It’s going to be different for everyone since each and everyone’s bodies are a little different, too.

  6. Dave Demaria says

    I will add a caveat to your article…. I agree with everything you mentioned. I also stopped bringing the bar all the way down to my chest years ago, and it alleviated all shoulder/rotator cuff discomfort I was experiencing. However I was asked to participate in a weight lifting event recently (bench press). In this event, lowering the bar to your chest was a requirement. On my 3rd and final attempt I ruptured my pectoral muscle at the tendon where it attaches to your arm. I attribute this to both my technique, and the fact I had not maxed bench in years. I was not trained for this event, as I was asked to do it last minute. The combination of factors is what caused the injury. Moral of the story: if you’ve been keeping the bar off your chest….be VERY wary of lifting heavy weights where bar-to-the-chest is a requirement.

  7. Emiliano says

    Great article!

    I was wondering what your thoughts are about chest/back position during bench pressing.

    I’ve seen lots of videos explaining that you should arch your back a little bit and expand your chest while bench pressing in conterposition as opposed of being just flat on the bench.
    This is one of the videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJX5MKacR6M

    Do you think this is a good and safe way to bench press?

    Thank you!

    • says

      Yup, you definitely should NOT be flat on the bench. There should be some degree of arch in your lower back, with your upper back and ass remaining flat on the bench and your chest sort of pointed upward.

  8. Rob Beckett says

    Once again Jay you are right on the money. I have short legs but long arms and a shoulder injury from a year and a half ago and I stop the bar about 4 or 5 inches from my chest because it puts my upper arms below my torso if I do and thus puts more strain on the shoulders. Just like inverted leg press, you go to 90 degree or a touch more and dont bury your knees in your chest. Oh and yes my flat bench is my first exercise on monday mornings haha. Last monday my 5th set was 295 for 4 reps and I normally dont do a 5th set but I felt good so I added a bit more weight and did 4 bang bang bang bang. My short term goal is to get to 315 in my 4th set by Jan. Oh and I keep my elbows tucked in as well at about 45 degrees instead of out 90 parallel with the bar like many people do in error.

    • says

      As more and more time passes, I come across more and more people who also do a whole lot better stopping a couple of inches before touching their chest. I used to think we were the minority, but I’m realizing we’re the majority… it’s just that most people don’t realize it until after their shoulders start bothering them.

      And dude, how’s everything been going lately? Strength progress seems pretty damn good. I was actually thinking of you the other day when I was putting together a post for next week. You’ll see why.

      • Rob Beckett says

        Ups and downs Jay. I have gained weight so now Im trying to focus on getting down to 250 by end Jan and 230 by spring. The weights are going ok and Im getting back up to 60 mins cardio instead of the 30 I have been doing. The one thing I dont get is I see a few really well built guys at my gym yet they always seem to be lifting less than me, sometimes half of me and I dont get how they got big not lifting heavy. I dont know them so i never ask. Yes I was excited monday when I said I would try for 2 and asked a guy to spot and then did 4 without any need of assistance. I dont normally show much excitement about stuff but I did do a woohoo after. The gym manager asked me “why I do that”, “whats the point?” but I think she just likes to grind my gears. I will look for the post next week to see why. Cheers

        • says

          Sounds like good realistic goals. And screw the gym lady, personal records deserve a woohoo.

          As for those weak well built guys… first, there’s drugs. I’ve been around plenty of guys lifting very unimpressive amounts of weight for their size, yet the magic of steroids (or sometimes just amazing genetics) allows them to look the part anyway. Second, you do find the occasional natural guy who’s just comparatively weaker than average. And third, there’s leanness. Once you hit a certain body fat percentage, it’s common for people to “look” more muscular than they actually are.

          • Rob Beckett says

            Good point. I have to wonder if I would look like them or close if I lost another 80 lbs and got to my proper weight. I have now adjusted my 4 sets to incorp 295 by set 4. Nov it should be 305 and Dec 315. Training alone I dont know how far you can go before its just too hard to get it off the rack.

  9. Uk Lifter Lewis says

    Excellent article, was really struggling to break plateus going down to the chest. My chest just seems to have no go at all that far down there is literally less than half the power down there! If i stop about 2 inches from my chest my 1RM is 90kg and i will press 80kg for 5/6 for a couple of sets fine. If i lower right to my chest the front of my left shoulder “pulls” tight and leaves a lingering pain after the session, not to mention im only just squeezing 5 on 75kg for 1 set if i touch my chest. I keep telling myself this cant be right and more and more people are now telling me its not. i seem to be genetically a “dead lifter”. My arms are a fair bit longer than my torso with well… exceptionally long legs lol. I believe my genetic make up just cant comfortably cope with going right down to my chest on BP. Thanks for the article just helps confirm im not going to waste my chest sessions if im just going part parralell instead of touching my chest. many thanks

  10. Jake says

    Hey Jay, I think this will help me move on my bench. It’s one of those exercises that has always troubled me, both physically and mentally. Physically because at times (like yesterday) it seems to stress my shoulders more than my pecs. Mentally, because I’m fairly often questioning how good my form is, is the bar in the right position, is my grip the correct width, is the arch in my lumbar optimal and not overdone, are my feet planted firmly enough, will this next rep be impossible to complete… you get the picture.

    In your view, would you say that if the elbows bend to a minimum of a right angle when in the lowered position, the bar approximately across the mid chest (nipples)and keeping the elbows from flaring out, is this good technique? In my head it is. I have Starting Strength and have (about a year or more ago) read the chapter on the bench press. I’m just a bit bugged from yesterday’s workout as I’ve once again started touching the bar to my chest and it was troubling my shoulders.

    I’ve always valued your advice so I’m keen to hear your thoughts once more.

    • says

      Honestly, it’s impossible to say just based on your description of your form. It really needs to be seen (ideally in person).

      But if touching the bar to your chest hurts your shoulders, DEFINITELY stop touching it to your chest. That’s a really easy bit of advice for me to give.

      Depending on your arm length, stopping when your elbows reach 90 degrees will probably be a bit too short. That’s basically a floor press, which in and of itself is a fine exercise that tends to be very shoulder friendly (it’s typically used as an assistance exercise to train the mid point of the bench press… a bit more triceps than chest).

      Again it really needs to be seen to know for sure, but there’s probably a point slightly below that between where your arms are paralell to the floor (elbows at 90 degrees) and where the bar touches your chest that will be the sweet spot in terms of both shoulder health and chest training.

      And if all else fails, remember that there is nothing magical about the barbell bench press. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or an athlete training for a combine, it’s not at all required. There are TONS of equally (if not more so) effective options for training those same muscle groups in a way that suits your body/shoulders.

  11. jfig says

    in competition bench press…..shouldnt the bar have to rest on ur chest for a certain amount of seconds before lifting to not be disqualified?

      • PT says

        You make a lot of good points here.

        Ultimately you have to choose what your goals are: if you bench primarily for pec hypertrophy then stopping the bar 1-2 inches above the chest should be perfectly fine. A number of pro bodybuilders do exactly this, even some who do powerlifting in their off-season.

        It’s important to remember that the competition bench press is different from a bench press used strictly for hypertrophy. The arching of the back, leg drive, elbow tucking, etc are all techniques powerlifters use to maximize numbers, so it becomes a full body exercise, and not something that builds big pecs.

        Still, it is a pet peeve of mine when people brag about their bench numbers only to see them do what is technically still a partial ROM bench. :)

  12. Rob says

    I just wanted to say thank you again for a great article that makes a lot of sense. There’s really not a single article I can’t agree on really, even if it’s against common knowledge (or not so).

    It’s funny actually how you’re never really sure you’re right or wrong, you only know by measuring your progression. Obviously I also did partial reps at the beginning of my “career”, the 5 days split, you name it. Now I have been making some decent gains for about a year following your advice and others, but mostly yours :)

    Until now I’ve always hit the bar slightly on my chest making sure there’s no bounce, didn’t have any shoulder issues, but I think the hardest part of the lift is the beginning of the push. And since my upper arms are under parallel I’m always having trouble with this, so I can’t wait to try out your technique of stopping 1-3 inches above the chest. Maybe again a new form of progression and gains is awaiting..

    But the initial point I was going to make is it’s funny how I’ve been condemming people who did it your way because they are doing so called half reps. Because obviously I know it all because of all the research and talks with people who know a great deal about bodybuilding. This just keeps my eyes open and wakes me up to always have an unbiased mindset, in this world, but in everything else too. So thanks for everything until now and I’m really looking forward to next articles.

    There was some last thing I was wondering about. You seem to be this “masked guru” everyone speaks about, definitely got his shit together and seem honest and true, but as far as I know you’ve never really revealed yourselve. And that’s all fine by me I respect people’s privacy, but you got me a bit curious now :) Is there a specific reason for this? Maybe you’re some kind of big shot in the fitness industry who’s reputation is at stake if people found out about this, that’s as far as my imagination goes :) But anyway have you ever thought about putting some pics on your site? You know in this day and age people believe anything about you if you have a good physique, why not use this to your advantage? I’m just wondering.

    Thanks again man!

    • says

      We’ve pretty much all been there with diet and training. We (myself included) go through a phase where we think we know everything followed by a phase where we realize we weren’t quite as smart as we thought. All part of the fun. ;)

      And lol @ masked guru. That’s funny shit. But I promise, I’m definitely not some known person in the industry hiding their identity. I’m also not Batman. I’m not really hiding anything other than my own privacy. I explain this a bit more in the comments here.

  13. Simon says

    Hey!
    I’m a beginner, using your Beginner Guide (it’s awesome, thanks) and I don’t know if I should buy a Barbell for bench pressing or stick with my dumbbells.

    Barbells seem to be the more popular and classic method, but after googling I’ve found that many people actually prefer dumbbells (harder, hits your chest more, easier on the wrists).

    What’s your opinion on this? Barbell or Dumbbell? Or get a Barbell and alternate?

    PS: If Barbell, should I get straight bar or EZ-bar? Guessing EZ Bar is just for triceps cause you need to put your hands in the middle.

    Thanks

  14. Wayne E Robinson says

    I totally agree with your article, I thought I was the only one that thought that way, so I felt that it might be essential to have the bar touch my chest even though I was getting phenomenal results, even though I was not letting the bar not touch my chest, however, just like it stated in this article, if you plan on getting involved with anything that requires that the bar hits your chest, then it should be considered. Besides, I don’t consider anything cheating unless your trying to break your own rules.

  15. Beth says

    Aha. Wish I would’ve seen this one yesterday. ;)

    So after you suggested I check my form, I found a couple YouTube videos and found I was probably doing a couple things wrong, and then I found this. I was bringing the weight more over the shoulder/collar bone line and down almost into my armpits. I happen to be pretty thin at the top so I’m going to try to stop a little bit higher. Plus, bring it down in line with the nipples. I think those were the two things I was doing wrong.

    Time to back off the weight a little and practice.

    Thanks again for all the helpful info!

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