Bench Press Bar Path

The shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line, right? Well, yeah, mechanically and mathematically that’s true.

  • In order to press in a straight line, your arms have to be at a 90-degree angle.
  • When your arms are at a 90-degree angle, there’s a very real possibility of shoulder impingement.
  • Impingement happens when the bony parts of the shoulder run into the rotator cuff muscles. Over time, it’s possible to literally “saw” a hole into your rotators. Ouch.

Okay, so what’s the safest and most efficient way to move the bar during bench press? 

  • Drive the bar back toward the rack as soon as it leaves your chest.

The bar path should resemble a “J” (or a backward “J”, depending on which side of the lifter you’re standing on). Pressing in a  “J” curve will allow you to get the bar back in line with your shoulder joint quickly without causing any impingement. 

Who does what? 

  • Elite lifters immediately press BACK AND UP. Novices tend to press UP for several inches before they begin pressing back.
Elite lifter pressing up and back off chest, novice lifter pressing up THEN back

Why does it matter?

  • A smaller moment arm means less “stress” on the joint.

The closer the bar is to the shoulder joint, the smaller the moment arm at the shoulder. So the faster you can get the bar back in line with your shoulders, the better.

lifter with bar directly over shoulder at lockout, lifter with bar on chest depicting moment arm at shoulder

How this translates:

  1. Staying safe and having healthy shoulders should be your #1 priority. If you’re injured, you can’t train. And if you can’t train, you certainly won’t make any progress!
  1. Correcting your bar path can make your numbers jump pretty quickly. Slow or no progress is zero fun, especially when you’re a novice or intermediate lifter. (Advanced lifters know that progress comes more slowly, but it’s still frustrating!)

So, focus on pressing BACK AND UP in a “J”. Both your shoulders and your ego will thank you.