Bench Press Bar Path: Proper Form Cues and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 9, 2022

Among the many mechanics of resistance exercise one must pay attention to, bar path is one that is often overlooked due to the simplicity of its purpose.

The bar path, as one may guess, is the line in which the bar travels in the air as the lifter moves it throughout the exercise; with different exercises producing different bar paths, and an incorrect bar path pointing towards deeper issues relating to the exerciser’s form adherence and biomechanics.

In the case of the bench press, the bar path refers to the trajectory and distance in which the barbell is raised over the exerciser’s torso with each repetition, with the correct bar path featuring a slight curve towards the exerciser’s head as the triceps brachii muscles are engaged or disengaged throughout the repetition.

Why is Bar Path Important in the Bench Press?

Bar path is far more important than most novice exercisers realize, especially in the performance of the bench press itself, wherein an incorrect bar path is not only more dangerous and increases the exerciser’s risk of injury, but also reduces their total force output potential by placing the musculature in a position wherein they cannot exert their full strength.

bench press correct bar path

As such, not only exercisers seeking to ensure they reduce their risk of elbow and shoulder injury by distributing the load equally, but also those that wish to maximize the amount of weight they are bench pressing can all benefit from the improvement of their bench press bar path.

What are the Disadvantages of a Sub-optimal Bar Path?

Though a bar path during the bench press is one of the less noticed and less consequential errors made in its performance, there are nonetheless several disadvantages associated with this error that can directly impact the exerciser’s total force output and the training stimulus of the exercise.

bench press wrong bar path

The most significant of these is the exerciser failing to maximize the effectiveness of the bench press movement as they are forced to utilize less total resistance than their muscles require for maximum benefit - occasionally resulting in minor muscular imbalances as certain muscle groups are forced to bear more of the load than other muscles.

In relation to this uneven distribution of load, the shoulder joint may also receive significantly more stress and therefore a greater risk of injury from a sub-optimal or even incorrect bar path, requiring the exerciser to take time off to recover and only further hampering their development.

bench press wrong bar path 2

For strength based athletes and exercisers wishing to increase the total amount of weight they lift during the bench press, optimizing their bar path so that the strongest muscle groups are recruited to the greatest extent and the range of motion is at its most efficient will greatly aid in achieving their goals as well.

What Does a Correct Bar Path Look Like?

During the bench press, achieving the correct bar path is somewhat more complicated than in other barbell-based exercises, as the concentric and eccentric phases of each repetition in fact differ from one another.

During the concentric or descending portion of the bench press, the bar path is meant to be moved in a downward curve starting somewhat more forward as the bar is then lowered at an angle until it reaches the required bar touch point of contact along the exerciser’s chest.

barbell bench press

However, during the eccentric or ascending portion of the bench press’s form, the bar path instead travels in a nearly straight upward trajectory until the triceps brachii are engaged, wherein it ideally will begin to bend in the direction of the exerciser’s face somewhat, forming a “J” shaped curve.

While the exact bar path of the bench press is not set in stone as each exerciser possesses different body proportions and biomechanics, the general idea of how precisely the barbell is meant to move throughout the bench press remains the same.

It is quite difficult for an exerciser to assess their own bar path owing to the fact that they are immediately beneath said barbell as it is moving, and as such there are several form cues that they may check in order to ensure that they are utilizing the correct bar path during the bench press.

Form Cues for Proper Bar Path

Several form cues may aid the exerciser in achieving a proper bar path so long as they are paid attention to accordingly, with the most important of these form cues being the beginning of each repetition, wherein the exerciser initiates the repetition with the barbell placed over their neck or too low on the sternum, immediately affecting their bar path.

The correct form cue in this situation is raising the barbell over the shoulders and collar bones, allowing for a strong and effective start to the repetition.

Another form cue applicable in this particular situation is the exerciser’s elbows flaring outwards, forcing the barbell to move higher and thereby causing an inefficient bar path. In order to avoid this, the exerciser should keep their scapula retracted throughout the entire repetition, not only improving the bar path but also reducing their risk of injury as well.

Finally, one of the main ways an exerciser can tell that their bar path during the bench press is incorrect is an inconsistent touch point, wherein the barbell makes contact with different parts of the chest with each repetition.

This will usually point to the exerciser either utilizing too much weight for their own strength level, a muscular imbalance, or some sort of error in their bench mechanics that is resulting in a wobbly and inconsistent bar path.

Other Factors Relating to Proper Bench Press Bar Path

While we have gone over the most important form cues to pay attention to in order to achieve a more optimal bar path, several other factors may contribute to the exerciser possessing a less than perfect bar path - each with their own requisite fix that will hopefully improve the exerciser’s performance of the bench press.

Hand Placement Along the Barbell

The exerciser’s hand placement along the barbell will affect the path in which said barbell will move throughout each repetition.

wide grip bench press

This is due to the altered angle at which the arms are placed in comparison to the shoulders, requiring the exerciser to compensate by rounding the barbell more at the top and bottom of the press so as to achieve the same bar touch point along the chest.

bench press narrow grip

Consequently, the hand placement of the bench press will also alter its range of motion as the exerciser must move the bar for a longer period of time prior to completing the repetition.

bench press touch point

Not only will this reduce or increase the amount of exertion required to finish the exercise, but it will also change the descending trajectory of the barbell as either the pectorals or triceps are forced to act in a greater capacity, moving the bar away from its ideal position over the sternum.

Stabilizer Muscle Weakness

Another factor that may contribute to an ineffective barbell path during the bench press is weakness in the stabilizer muscle groups, wherein the synergist muscles such as the serratus or medial and posterior deltoid heads are too fatigued or underdeveloped to withstand the stresses of the bench press load.

This is characterized by a sticking point or sudden erratic portion of the barbell path wherein these weakened stabilizer muscle groups are activated - and may best be remedied through the usage of targeted isolation exercises that ensure these muscle groups are receiving sufficient training stimulus.

A few cases of stabilizer muscle weakness leading to a suboptimal bar path may be due to injury of these muscle groups, and as such will require the attention of a physical therapist or physician in order to remedy.

Insufficient or Excessive Spinal Arch

Primarily seen with the barbell path making a sudden and sharp curve at the bottom of the repetition as the exerciser attempts to reach their bar touch point, excessive or insufficient spinal arch wherein the exerciser’s back is curved at an improper angle can directly affect not only the optimization of their bench press bar path, but also the total range of motion of the exercise.

While many weightlifting sport competitions allow for an excessive spinal arch to be used (and thereby allowing more weight to be lifted), this is not highly conducive to proper muscular development as each repetition induces a shorter time under tension than what is necessary.

bench press glutes

Conversely, an insufficient spinal arch may greatly reduce stability of the exercise, deviate from proper biomechanics and reduce recruitment of the major pectoral head - reducing total load lifted and therefore altering the training stimulus of the exercise as well.

As such, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the bar path, achieve a proper range of motion and ensure proper muscular development, the exerciser should avoid both excessive and a lack of spinal arching.

Exercises to Reinforce Proper Bar Path Mechanics

If the exerciser has checked their bench press for all the aforementioned form cues and factors and still finds that they cannot achieve an optimal bench press barbell path, the simplest answer may be that they have not reinforced the proper bar path in their muscle memory and mind.

In other words, they need only practice the correct bar path in order to reap the benefits of such an alteration in their bench press technique - with a number of exercises existing that may aid in practicing a portion of their bench press bar path, or in certain mechanics that allow for the correct bar path.

The Dead Press

A bench press accessory exercise that places pins at approximately chest level on the barbell rack so as to limit the exercise’s total range of motion, forcing the exerciser to work within a specific portion of the bar path and allowing them to maintain stability and consistency throughout any sticking points that may occur.

Quite similar to a pin press, the dead press primarily differs by way of beginning the repetition with the barbell resting atop the pins and thus requiring the exerciser to start with the ascending portion of the conventional bench press as opposed to the descending portion of the movement.

Pause Presses

Pause presses are a bench press variation best used when the barbell touch point at the bottom of the bar path is inconsistent or otherwise shaky, resulting in a poor curve at the end of the bar path and a weaker transition between the concentric and eccentric portion of the repetition.

barbell pause bench

This particular exercise has the lifter “pause” when the barbell touches their chest prior to beginning the second portion of the repetition, thereby allowing them to consciously practice their barbell touch point and bottom bar path, while also placing greater static muscular recruitment on many of the muscle groups involved.

References

1. Wilson, Gregory & Elliott, Bruce & Kerr, Graham. (1989). Bar Path and Force Profile Characteristics for Maximal and Submaximal Loads in the Bench Press. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics. 5. 390-402. 10.1123/ijsb.5.4.390.

2. Mausehund, Lasse1; Krosshaug, Tron2 Understanding Bench Press Biomechanics—Training Expertise and Sex Affect Lifting Technique and Net Joint Moments, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 23, 2021 - Volume - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000004191

3. Biscarini, Andrea & Calandra, Andrea & Contemori, Samuele. (2020). Three-dimensional mechanical modeling of the barbell bench press exercise: Unveiling the biomechanical function of the triceps brachii. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology. 234. 175433712091783. 10.1177/1754337120917831.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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