Posted by on Aug 14, 2013

Strength Training

 John Phung, NSCA-CPT is a 5’4″, 200 lb fitness blogger and strength evangelist with a focus on building strength through barbell training. He has a simple, yet effective approach to strength training & nutrition using minimal equipment and a handful of exercises to achieve maximum results. John is training to get stronger and inspires others to do the same.

Visit John on his blogTwitter, or Fitocracy.

The bench press is one of the most popular exercises in the gym, but it’s also potentially one of the most dangerous (if done alone without a spotter or performed outside of a power rack or squat rack).

If you think about it, the bench press is almost like a guillotine. You’re lying flat on the bench, and the only thing stopping the bar from falling on your face, neck, or chest are your arms and your ability to push the bar away from your body.

Throughout the movement (from unracking the bar, lowering it to your chest, pressing it up and re-racking) the bar travels over your face, neck, and chest. At any point, there’s the possibility of missing a rep. If you don’t have safety precautions in place, a failed rep during the bench press could lead to embarrassment (via the “roll of shame”), serious injury, or even death.

If you have a spotter, you minimize the risks while bench pressing. However, there are some drawbacks when using a spotter for the bench press.

Problems With Using A Spotter For The Bench Press

  1. You need someone who is strong enough to lift the bar with whatever weight you’re using.
  2. Unless you have a consistent training partner, it’s a hassle to find a spotter whenever you perform bench presses.
  3. If you ask a stranger at the gym to spot you, they may not know how to spot properly even when given clear instructions. For example, they may assist you during the lift, while simultaneously saying that, “it’s all you bro!”
  4. The spotter might be wearing high-cut shorts with large leg openings. Once you’re lying flat on the bench, you’ll be looking straight up while the spotter is straddled on top of you standing with both of their legs on either side of your head. The view can be a distraction.
  5. Even with a strong, reliable spotter(s), accidents can and do happen.

The solution to bench pressing safely without a spotter is to do it inside of a power rack or squat rack that has safety pins or spotter arms designed to catch the weight in the case of a failed rep.

Why You Should Bench Press Inside Of A Rack

The benefits of bench pressing inside of a rack include:

  1. The safety pins are usually designed to hold several hundred pounds upwards to 1000+ lb. This is much more than what an average gym member can safely hold.
  2. An attentive spotter who is strong enough and quick enough to catch the bar when you fail a rep is not required. If the safety pins are set up properly, they will catch the bar before it crushes your body.

A drawback of using a rack for the bench press is that someone may actually want to use it for squats! But if you’re training in a typical commercial gym, not many people will use the rack properly for squatting anyway.

How To Set Up A Rack For The Bench Press

All you need to do is adjust the safety pins or spotter arms of the rack to a height just above or level with the height of your chest while lying flat on the bench. This might take a few adjustments to get right.

To test if you have the correct height, get into your bench press arch, unrack an empty bar and lower it to the bottom position. If the height is correct, the bar should touch your chest without hitting the pins. While the bar is at the bottom position, relax your arch and flatten your back. The bar should be able to land safely on the safety pins of the rack.

Here’s what it looks like once the safety pins are set up inside of a power rack:

What If Your Rack Doesn’t Have Adjustable Safety Pins?

When I was training at a commercial gym, I used to bench press using their rarely used Hammer Strength squat rack.

The height of the safety pins were fixed, and whenever I benched the bar would hit the pins and not reach my chest. I solved this issue by placing a few plates underneath the bench. Increasing the height of the bench allowed me to perform bench presses with a full range of motion.

Watch this old video of me bench pressing inside of the squat rack to see what I mean:

 

 

If you look closely, you can see that there are a few plates underneath the bench that I’m using. Also, you can see when the bar is touching my chest at the bottom position. It’s only an inch or so from the safety pins of the squat rack.

What To Do When You Miss A Rep

If you ever fail a rep during the bench press and the safety pins catches the bar, roll the bar towards your feet. Once the bar is over your lap, you can sit up. Alternatively, you can leave the bar where it is (probably over your chest), and slide out from underneath, either by moving your body downwards towards your feet or by sliding your body off to the side.

Here’s a demonstration of me missing a rep during the bench press, and getting out from underneath:

The “roll the bar forward and sit up” method.

 

 

And here’s the “slide out from underneath” method.

 

 

Conclusion

Even if you have access to a reliable training partner to spot you, risk of injury still exists during a bench press. If you bench press alone and there’s no one around to run to your aid if you fail a rep, the safety pins of the rack could literally save your life.

Bench pressing inside of a rack is the safest option, allowing you to push the limit and attempt personal records without having to worry about getting pinned underneath the bar.

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