Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bench Pressing by yourself

For the bench press, you generally need a spotter. This is for two good reasons and one bad one:

Good Reason #1: It's hard to unrack the weight and get it in position. Any weight that really challenges your maximum pressing ability is going to be hard to unrack, especially since proper position will put it above your face, not above your chest - which is where you'll be pressing it from. A spotter can help you unrack the heavy ones and get it in position, and then you can press the weight.

Good Reason #2: Safety. What if you can't finish a repetition? The bar is over your body, and the only place it can go is up (if you're strong enough) or down (if you're not). A spotter can catch the bar and help you re-rack it after your unable to complete the rep.

Bad Reason #1: The two man row. Also known as "It's all you," this is when your spotter assists the reps. Perhaps just the last one, as part of Good Reason #2 above. Maybe with just enough assistance to let you complete one last rep (which you shouldn't count, anyway - you didn't do it yourself). But a popular joke is that the bench press is a two-man exercise. One person presses up, the other person pulls upwards as hard as he or she can. Don't do this. If you want to press the weight, press it yourself. If you can't, lower the weight. Your body is not fooled, and won't grow more on 225 split two ways before you and your partner than it will on 135 done by yourself.

So what if you don't have a spotter? Here are some tricks I used when I used to bench press by myself.

Use Dumbbells instead of a barbell. The dumbbell bench press is a good exercise in its own right. It may be superior to the barbell, since it demands more stabilizers, and you have to be able to swing the weights up into position to start and then put them down afterwards. It is harder to fine-tune the load - unless you've got plate-loaders, most dumbbells go up by 5# increments, so you always need to bump up your dumbbell bench press by 10# at a time. But it's much, much easier to ditch the weights if they are too heavy to complete a rep.

Safety first. Don't ever, ever, ever do the guillotine. Ever. Mess that one up, and you're dropping the weight on your neck. It's probably not that good for your shoulders, either.

Err on the light side. You're going to have to unrack the weight yourself, so anything you can't push up from above your head and pull into position, you can't bench. That will be self-limiting. In addition, you should err on the side of conservatism. If you're not sure if you can do 3 x 5 x 135, go with 125 or 130 instead. It's the hardest lift to bail on, so take care on loading it.

Bench in the power rack. If you have a full power rack, set up your bench inside. Then, set the safety rails to just below your normal benching height. If you fail on a rep, lower the bar to the rails, exhale, and squirm out from under the bar. It's tricky but safe - the weight can't come down on you.

Worse comes to worst...lower the bar to your chest. Then roll it down your body to your thighs. Sit up. From there, you can tilt the bar to one side and put it down, or roll it to your knees and stand up with it and put it down. Some people will suggest benching without collars on the bar, so you can slide the plates off. I always preferred to keep the collars, and just roll the bar down my chest.

If none of these options are attractive enough or safe enough, it's best to wait until you've got a good spotter. Try substituting another exercise - overhead pressing, pushups, etc. and save the bench press for when you've got help.


  1. Peter! Great to find your blog. Good job. I'll be following it.

  2. Thanks, and I'll be tracking yours as well.


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