Originally published on March 25, 2012
Flaring your elbows out on bench press versus tucking them to your sides.
I recently got a bench press question from a commenter on my (old) forum. You know it’s funny, I used to get more bench press questions than anything and after a while, I started getting more deadlift questions than anything. Which I liked until I almost have grown sick of talking about the deadlift so it’s sort of a treat to get a bench press question again. The question was basically this:
Bench press – Flaring versus tucking the elbow: What exactly do people mean by this? It is confusing me, and I want to get the correct form. When I read ‘Tuck Your Elbows in’ I’m thinking of moving the arms closer to your body, like the close grip bench, but keeping the same grip width. Is this what it means?
After I answered the question, I figured that it is related to why a person can lift more on the flat bench press than on the incline press. So, I’ll knock over two cans with one stone in this post. First to answer the basic question, but let me start by stating that usually, when we talk about bench press without specifying a certain implement, we are talking about a straight barbell bench press, so what follows applies to pressing with a barbell. There may be certain exceptions with dumbbells and other implements, and I will make note of one of these below.
What does it mean to “flare your elbows” on bench press?
When people say “flare the elbows” they mean that the elbows themselves are out away from the sides of the body. Obviously, in order to flare your elbows far out, you would need to have a wider grip, and many bodybuilders and some powerlifters adopt this elbows-out position for the bench press, some so that the upper arms come close to being perpendicular to the body.
The reason bodybuilders do it is that it emphasizes the pectorals more, and they only do the bench press to grow their chest. Since both the upper and lower portions of the pectoralis major are very strong adductors of the shoulder, but especially the upper fibers, keeping the arms out brings to bear the pecs by calling on them to adduct the arms/shoulder joint more so than if the elbows were tucked into the body. Many people will tell you that this does not make a difference and that your chest will grow just as much if you keep your arms in. While some lifters can and do have their pecs respond to bench pressing with arms in, for many of us, all the regular bench pressing in the world won’t make a difference to our chests. We have to keep our elbows out or do dumbbell flys or similar exercises. This is certainly true of me.
By the way, keep in mind that from a kinesiological perspective, when I say arms I am always referring to the upper arms. Otherwise, I’d say ‘forearms’. So having your “arms out” or your “elbows out” on bench press is the same thing. The reason people say “elbows out” is because when you say arms, people want to know ‘which part’ of the arm. So now you know that ‘arm’ means upper arm. To help bring this home, the word “brachii” in biceps brachii means just arm. We use a similar convention for the legs, so that when we say leg we mean the upper leg or thigh, not the lower legs or shins/calves
Okay, so keeping your arms out, away from your side, with the commensurate wider grip, emphasizes the chest more by calling on its ability as an adductor, along with the anterior deltoids. So for bodybuilders, an arms out bench is done for the same reason as a dumbbell fly, except of course much more weight can be used in the bench press, and it also hits the triceps very well.
Why Do Some Powerlifters Use And Arms Out Style?
Some powerlifters use the elbow/arms out style with a wider grip simply because it decreases the distance the bar has to travel and for those with short arms who are suited to this style, it can be very successful.
Those are the reasons for the arms out style, but it is VERY stressful on the shoulder joint and is part of what gave the bench press a reputation as a shoulder killer, especially since so many people use the bodybuilder style of pressing.
Bench Press with Arms Tucked IN? Don’t Even Bother
The very opposite of that is having the elbows/arms tucked tight into the sides, which would, of course, mean you’d need to bring the grip in closer, maybe even closer than shoulder width. Having your arms tucked tight to your sides is a very uncomfortable way to bench and it is actually hard on the shoulders in its own way. It also makes the pectorals less efficient since there is MORE shoulder extension but less adduction. The upper pecs are actually good extensors, but the lower fibers not so much and the deltoids have to do more than their fair share. The overall effect of this, without getting too complicated, is that an arms tucked tight in style means most will lift less weight and stress the shoulders.
Again, we are assuming here that you are bench pressing with a straight bar. If you are using dumbbells you might find pressing with your arms tucked in or partially tucked in to be quite comfortable when you hold the dumbbells in a hammer or neutral grip, with your palms facing to the inside or toward your body. Normally, however, having your arms completely pinned to your sides is going to be stressful to the shoulders, especially in the long term.
It is quite normal for these dichotomies to be set up in strength training. If having your arms flared out bodybuilder style is incorrect and dangerous, then having your arms tucked tight into your sides must be correct, right? Wrong. If we equate sheer discomfort with shoulder stress, then this tucked in position is way worse than elbows out, especially if we don’t take the bar as low.
The more efficient and safest way to bench press, for most, is to have the arms come out from the body to just around 45 degrees or so..although it does not need to be perfect…whatever angle is most comfortable. So, if having your arms right against your sides is zero degrees, bringing them out about halfway between that and 90°, which would be at right angles to your torso, should be right. For most trainees, this will mean a grip width of around shoulder-width, give or take. This should allow you to lift the most weight while maintaining shoulder health. Keep in mind, however, that the idea that bench pressing with the arms out will automatically ruin your shoulders is not credible. Although we can explain why certain practices may be damaging, this does not mean they are predictive of injury. As well, the parameters matter (volume, frequency, weight), as well as the depth, which I previously mentioned.
When people say “tuck your elbows in” it is hard to be sure what they mean. Some people literally mean to tuck them in tight to your sides. But others may mean relative to having them flared out all the way. So that is an ambiguous cue, at best. The reasons for being able to lift more on the flat bench, as you shall see, is actually related to some of the points I made in this answer. To explore this, I’ll go a bit more in-depth on some of the things I introduced above in Is Incline Bench Harder Than Flat Bench?