Last updated on November 10th, 2022 at 01:57 pm
Elbow flaring has long been considered the arch-enemy of bench pressing, but is it really that bad?
You’ll typically hear that flaring your elbows when bench pressing is inefficient, plus it will also place undue stress on the shoulder joint.
And yet, you’ve probably seen countless trainers, experts, and YouTube wannabes consistently bench press with their elbows flared.
Allow me to explain what you need to know about the bench pressing elbows flared/elbows tucked debate.
Why is Elbow Flaring Bad For Bench Press?
Some elbow flare is inevitable whenever you bench. With that being said, when training for hypertrophy, flaring your elbows will allow you to isolate the pecs to greater effect. However, when training for strength you should keep the elbows tucked, as this helps you to recruit more muscles in order to move the bar. The most important factor is that your elbows should never go behind the line of the barbell in the bottom position of the bench press.
Elbow Flaring isn’t As Bad as Everyone Makes Out
I’m just going to come right out and say it – Elbow flaring during bench press isn’t as bad as everyone makes out.
Yes admittedly, there are certain times when you should keep flaring to an absolute minimum, and I’ll discuss these in a moment.
However, it’s important to realise that some elbow flaring is inevitable whenever you bench.
So, for those of you who try to excessively tuck your elbows, you’re probably doing even more harm to your shoulder health.
To be honest, where your elbows are in relation to the barbell is far more important.
Plus, this can also be affected by how wide your grip is.
Additionally, elbow position while bench pressing can even be impacted by the length of your arms.
With that being said, there is an elbow position that you should try to completely avoid.
Basically, when looking at your bench press from the side, in the bottom position you’ll want your elbows to be in line with the barbell.
Occasionally, your elbows may be slightly ahead of the barbell, which is fine and typically caused by having a more tucked elbow position or narrower grip.
However, you never want your elbows to be behind the barbell (elbows nearer to your shoulders) in the bottom position of the bench press.
This is usually caused by too much flaring, which can eventually lead to shoulder soreness.
And this is the whole point about elbow flaring – it’s all to do with where your elbows are at the BOTTOM of the movement.
So, as the bar approaches your chest you’ll want to keep elbow flaring to a minimum.
However, there is a time and a place for elbow flaring when you bench press, and this depends on your training goals.
Elbow Flare Bench Press For Hypertrophy
When you’re training to build muscle or for hypertrophy you typically want muscle utilisation to be inefficient.
What I mean by this is that you’ll usually want one muscle to take as much of the load, while doing as much of the work, as possible.
This is also why isolation exercises are more geared towards hypertrophy.
However, the bench press is a compound exercise that not only works the chest, but also the shoulders and triceps (as well as many stabilising muscles).
But, this doesn’t mean that you can’t isolate the pecs to a greater degree while bench pressing.
Now, if you think about it, one of the best ways to contract the chest muscles is to have your arms to the side and then bring them across your body.
The chest is actually responsible for the horizontal adduction of the upper arm.
So, your aim is to bring your upper arm across your body in order to better isolate the chest muscles.
Think about the chest contraction you get when you perform dumbbell flyes.
As you lower the dumbbells, your arms go out to the sides, then you bring your arms back across and in front of the body, and this is when you feel the chest muscles contract.
In effect, when it comes to the bench press and hypertrophy training, you’re trying to create the same movement pattern.
Therefore, elbow flaring is acceptable if you’re training bench press for hypertrophy.
However, you must make sure that you don’t excessively flare by pushing your elbows behind the line of the barbell.
Remember, you also want your elbows to be in line, or even slightly ahead, of the barbell in the bottom position of the bench press.
Elbow Tuck Bench Press For Strength Training
If you’re training for strength, or specifically using the powerlifting bench press, then things are very different.
I’ve spoken of “inefficient” muscle utilisation when training for hypertrophy, well things are the opposite for strength training.
Basically, when strength training you’ll want to utilise as many muscles as possible in order to move a load.
So, when it comes to the powerlifting bench press you’ll want your elbows in a far more tucked position, especially at the bottom of the movement.
This will also mean that you should typically have a slightly narrower grip when training for strength.
With that being said, many powerlifters generally have a wider grip, which simply means that the bar has less distance to travel.
This is how you’re able to press more weight.
However, a narrower grip will lead to the most efficient use of the muscles.
So, by having a slightly narrower grip, while keeping your elbows tucked, you’ll immediately bring the front delts and triceps more into play.
Plus, your lats will be far more active when you lower the barbell with a tucked elbow position.
In effect, you’re using more muscles to move the barbell, which means that you realistically should be able to press more weight.
And this is why you’ll want to keep your elbows tucked when bench pressing for low reps with heavier weights.
It is especially important that your elbows are tucked at the bottom of the movement, as flaring your elbows here is an extremely inefficient way to move the weight.
However, as I’ve previously mentioned, excessive tucking is just as bad as excessive flaring, and can cause shoulder discomfort.
So, regardless of whether you’re training for hypertrophy or strength, the most important factor is to ensure that your elbows are in line or slightly ahead of the barbell in the bottom position of the bench press.
How to Bench Press Like a Powerlifter
So, as you can see, flaring your elbows when you bench press isn’t as bad as most people think.
With that being said, you should never excessively flare or tuck your elbows during bench press.
Plus, the amount of acceptable elbow flare will depend on your training goals.
You will always have some elbow flare when you bench, but when training for strength you’ll want to keep this to a minimum.
However, if you’re training for hypertrophy then some additional elbow flaring is fine.
But, the most important factor is that your elbows should never be behind the line of the barbell in the bottom position of the bench press.
If you’re looking to take your bench press to the next level then you’ll want to check out Lee Hayward’s Bench Press Specialization Workout Program. Lee claims he can help you add up to 51lbs pounds to your bench press in just 3 weeks. See what I thought of Lee’s training system in my Blast Your Bench Review.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.