Why Can’t I Keep the Bar Straight When I Bench Press?

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The most common reason for an inability to keep the bar straight is that you haven’t retracted your shoulder blades evenly. This will typically mean that one arm is “longer” than the other when you grip the bar. More often than not, this is a mobility issue that can be fixed by foam rolling and performing scapular retraction exercises.

Bench Press is Affected By Scapular Retraction

A Man Bench Pressing With a Spotter in an Outdoor Gym

One of the main cues when it comes to bench pressing is scapular retraction.

This simply means that you want to pull your shoulder blades back and down.

In effect, it’s almost as though you’re trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets.

I also liken this to trying to hold an imaginary tennis ball in the middle of your back.

Now, the main reason you do this is to provide much more shoulder stability while you bench press.

In effect, this places your shoulder blades back into their sockets and decreases their range of motion.

This is actually a good thing when you bench press.

It can lead to better form, pressing more weight, and is the safest position for your shoulders.

So, if you’re not retracting your shoulder blades properly you may find that your bench press is wonky.

This may simply be due to you placing one shoulder blade perfectly, whereas the other isn’t retracted properly.

If this is the case you’ll typically find that one side of your back is slightly raised off the bench, while the other side is completely flat.

So, it may initially appear that one arm is longer than the other, when in fact it’s just that one side of your body is raised higher on the bench.

Therefore, you need to make a concerted effort to ensure that you retract both shoulder blades prior to benching.

Of course, this could also be down to a mobility issue.

Basically, one side of your body, i.e. the shoulder blade, is more mobile than the other.

This will basically lead to exactly the same outcome, i.e. one side raised, the other side flat.

If it is a mobility issue then I’d suggest some regular foam rolling for the “immobile side”.

Plus, you should also perform scapular retraction exercises more often.

Some examples include scapular pull ups, face pulls, band pull aparts, etc.

All of these movements will not only help with mobility, but they’ll help to understand when both shoulder blades are properly retracted.

Your “Elbow Tuck” is Uneven

If you find that all the most obvious cues for an even bench press are correct, but you’re still wonky, then this may have something to do with your elbows.

Whenever you bench press you’ll want to tuck your elbows in and keep them close to your sides.

However, in truth, I often see people in the gym allowing their elbows to flare out all the time.

Admittedly, depending on your training, there may be times when flared elbows are called for.

But, in the main, you should bench press that vast majority of the time with your elbows tucked.

By keeping your elbows tucked you once more provide additional shoulder stability.

Plus, this is a much safer position for your shoulders as well.

With that being said, you’ll often read advice about NOT tucking the elbows and allowing them to “slightly flare”.

In truth, you never want your upper arms completely parallel to the body, as they would be if your arms were completely flared out to the side.

Therefore, you do want to tuck your elbows in slightly, but not so much that they’re scraping the side of your body.

So, for me, there is always some elbow tuck when you bench press.

Now, the reason that your bench press might be uneven is simply because one elbow is more tucked than the other.

I guess you could also say that one elbow is more flared out than the other.

Once again, you’ll need to concentrate on ensuring that both elbows are tucked evenly.

Something else you could try, although more of a tricep exercise, is to perform the close-grip bench press for a few sessions.

This will allow you to literally relearn proper elbow tuck position.

Are You Gripping the Barbell Correctly?

Okay, so far I’ve covered the main reasons why you can’t keep the bar straight during bench press.

And to be honest, these are things that you may be doing without realising it.

So, in other words, you’re not making any obvious mistakes.

However, there are of course some distinct and visible errors you could be making.

The first one of these is where and how you’re gripping the barbell.

In fact, I recently came across a Reddit discussion where a user was having this exact problem.

Once he posted a video and a few images it was extremely apparent that he was gripping the bar in different places.

It’s a good idea to use the rings on either side of the bar to determine perfect hand placement.

Obviously, where you place your hands will depend on your overall size.

However, a good starting point is to have either your index or middle fingers on the rings on either side of the bar.

If you find that this is too wide then bring your hands in slightly.

However, remember to have both hands in exactly the same position on or around the rings.

Are You Lying Evenly on the Bench?

You wouldn’t think you could screw up lying down on a bench, but it happens.

In fact, it’s probably the one thing that none of us ever consider.

However, positioning yourself correctly on the bench is key to ensuring that your bench press remains straight.

I guess that most of us are so concentrated on the barbell, and perhaps even where to place our hands, elbows, etc. that we don’t pay that much attention to the bench.

So, you should be very precise about how you place your torso on the bench.

Too far over to the left or the right and you’re likely to end up with an uneven bench press.

I would look upon placing yourself correctly on the bench as part of the overall set up.

In fact, once you pay attention to your torso position you’ll probably pick up on minor indiscretions that you’d never noticed before.

Do You Have a Muscular Imbalance?

The final “obvious” reason that you can’t keep the bar straight when benching is due to muscle imbalances.

This could simply be that one side of your body is stronger/weaker than the other.

And unfortunately this weakness could be attributed to a wide variety of muscles in the body.

By this I mean, it could be a pec, delt, tricep, or even a lat or bicep imbalance.

We all have a more dominant side anyway, whether we want to admit to it or not.

However, this can work in one of two ways.

Firstly, you may rely on your dominant side more often, which in turn could make you even stronger and more muscular on that side.

Then again, perhaps you’re wary of being more dominant on one side, and therefore you “work” your non-dominant side harder.

It could even be that all your gym work consists of barbell exercises, so you never get to determine whether you’re using one side more than the other.

However, any form of muscle imbalance can push your bench press off the straight and narrow.

The most obvious fix would be to ditch the barbell for a few weeks and work all body parts with dumbbells.

Not only is this a fantastic way to add some variety to your workouts, it can also increase the intensity of your workouts.

Plus, it won’t be long before you discover whether you have muscle imbalances, which can off course impact much of your training.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the main points to keeping the bar straight when you bench press:

If you feel that you have all the normal cues correct then this is probably down to uneven scapular retraction or elbow tuck.

With that being said, you should also check the more obvious reasons too.

So, ensure that you are gripping the bar evenly.

Make sure that you are lying on the middle of the bench.

And finally, you can try some dumbbell work to see if you have any muscle imbalances.

Here’s another common issue that many people have with the bench press, namely getting stuck in “the hole” or at the bottom of your bench press.

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