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It’s super common to have a lopsided bench press – it happens to many (if not all!) of us occasionally. But just how big a deal is it, and what can we do to even up that barbell? The good news is this is eminently fixable – BUT you might need to work at it…
At a glance…
- Uneven bench presses can be identified by a gym partner, or from filming your sets
- It can be bad news as it puts more stress on your body to compensate for imbalances, and makes you MORE likely to miss reps
- Below there are a BUNCH of ways to try and straighten up your barbell
- FORM and CONTROL are key – stay humble with the weight on the bar!
- If all else fails try adding flat dumbbell bench as an accessory to bring up your weaker side
What do I mean by an uneven bench press?
An uneven bench press is when one side of the barbell rises above the other during the lift. An ideal bench press should keep the barbell parallel to the floor as it descends and then rises back upwards through the full range of motion down and up off the chest.
One side of the bar is higher than the other: So what?
Let’s get this straight: Benching with a slight squint from time to time is not the end of the world and you will not implode in to a ball of fire if the bar deviates from being perfectly parallel to the floor!
BUT continually doing it is undesirable as it can cause a few issues:
- Balance – just how to balance the bar when bench pressing? In extreme cases you can lose your balance with an uneven bar causing you to fail the lift or unsettle yourself on the bench. Trust me – this seriously knocks your confidence!
- Mechanical spotters – I bench press in a power rack and if the barbell ends up uneven at the bottom of the ROM I have fouled the spotter on one side. As I’m not expecting this the impact really throws me off the rest of the set. It can also unsettle my brace position resulting an uneven scapula as it is knocked out of position. Overall this is not desirable!
- Human spotters – if lifting with others then an uneven bar may confuse your spotters as they may think you are struggling with the lift and they would then intervene in your lift. Much fallout can ensue!
- Wear and tear on the body – fortunately not an issue I have encountered but lifting the barbell squint will cause different stressors on each side of your body. This could result in uneven growth, strength gain OR possibly injuries
The weight lifted can be considered an ‘accelerator’ of the above. The MORE weight on a squint bar then the more the above issues are exasperated. Conversely the lighter the weight the less invasive the issues are typically (but not always) going to be.
How to identify an uneven press
A clue may be if the plates on ONE side of the bar are wandering away from the inner sleeve… This may hint that you have an issue!
The easiest way to know for sure is to ASK someone to observe and let you know if the bar is squint or not. Alternatively you can set your phone up and film a set or two – it should be easy to spot!
How to fix your uneven bench press:
There can be multiple factors at play here that are making the bar go squint. Here are a few cases & cures to help you troubleshoot:
1. Check your equipment
A poor quality barbell may not be evenly weighted. Similarly there is almost always a deviation from the stated weight on plates – calibrated plates will be close, but others may be out by up to 5%.
If you have a mix of these issues you may find the bar is unevenly weighted – and therefore one side of it is definitely HEAVIER than the other! This can make your eccentric ‘push’ uneven as one side of your body is comparatively MORE loaded than the other.
This can be resolved by taking imbalances in to account when loading the bar. If your plates deviate a lot then mark them accurately with stickers or a pen and pair them up as best you can so each side is evenly loaded.
As for the barbell: Treat yourself by trying to beg/borrow/buy one that is properly weighted!
2. Try a WIDER bench
I have a 10” and 12” bench and the 12” offers slightly more lateral stability when flat benching. There are pros and cons to both bench widths – but if your priority is flat bench stability then the 12” is the one to go with (all else being equal).
3. Ensure the weight is appropriate
You are more likely to have an uneven bench press if the weight is particularly heavy OR particularly light.
Heavy weight will put you under more strain as you are at or around your capacity to lift. Your body will be given everything it has to shift the bar up. There is a chance that one side is simply a LITTLE stronger pushing one side up higher as well as the risk of subtle form degradation that let one side slip lower.
Conversely LOW weights can be unexpectedly light if you’re used to heavier loads. This can give you issues balancing the barbell throughout the ROM, and issues treating the lift with conviction as the light simply doesn’t FEEL enough.
This is particularly prominent if trying to do it with an empty bar. The lack of weight plates at each end of the bar meaning it can be hard to feel the balance properly!
Anecdotally I have an uneven bar path MORE OFTEN with lighter loads. Maybe I just don’t give the bar enough respect in these situations.
Loading the bar evenly and appropriately for your training goals and making sure you are mentally engaged with the weight on the bar and invested in the ROM should help you keep the bar parallel throughout.
4. Brace yourself correctly on the bench
The bench press is a COMPOUND movement and it therefore involves multiple muscle groups. You should be seriously BRACED from your feet all the way up your legs, through your back (probably arched) and shoulders up the arms.
If you are NOT bracing your legs and using leg drive to help with the movement you are MORE likely to have a lopsided press.
Bracing yourself against the bench is key to stability when pressing as you are controlling the lateral movements more – if you’re not holding your body tight you are at the mercy of your arms only!
A proper bench set up can really help your bench press progress quickly if you’e stalled. I found focusing on my scapula retraction and pushing myself ‘in to the bench’ enabled me to go on my best runs of bench PBs!
Personally I find it easier to get even scapula retraction on a slightly wider 12” bench, but I can still lift perfectly well on my 10” bench (my PBs have generally been set on 10” bench – so it is more of a ‘feeling’ than anything too serious!)
5. Grip width should be even
A good quality barbell will have ring markings at each side of the bar around 32 inches apart. Use these to ensure you are taking an even grip on the bar.
Personally I go for ring fingers on the marker, but some prefer to go slightly wider or narrower. Experiment with these subtle differences to find what works best for your body shape.
Without rings on the barbell you may find one of your hands ends up closer to one sleeve than the other meaning the balance of the weight tips to be lopsided – this can contribute to an uneven press as at full extension the arm closest to the sleeve will ALWAYS be lower by virtue of requiring a wider shoulder angle.
6. Consider a spotter or monolift for unracking
Personally i found unracking the weight from standard J-hooks to be the ‘danger zone’ for killing my bench set up. I would pull myself out of position and end up with my scapula out of place and unevenly set.
I almost always use a set of mono-lift style J hooks now to help me unpack without upsetting my brace position. If you train with a partner even better – they can give you a hand off so you can save some money on the rack attachments 🙂
7. Control the descent (concentric)
I think of the bench press motion as a spring – compress down under load, then use that pent up energy to PRESS upwards.
By failing to control the descent – or concentric – part of the motion I am more likely to end up with an uneven press. Typically this manifests as one side of the bar dropping down quicker than the other, a ‘bounce’ at the bottom of the ROM off the chest and/or an uncontrolled transition from descent to ascent.
This transition – if not controlled – can end up (again) with scapula out of position slightly on one side and the bar helicoptering around slightly as we push up.
Controlling the descent – coiling up the spring – then pushing upwards with even pressure (I think of pushing myself in to the bench) helps keep the bar parallel to the floor.
As covered under the equipment and appropriate weight sections above there is also a higher chance of touching the spotter arms if the descent is not controlled. This can impact any bounce and knock you out of the groove resulting in an uneven, suboptimal bar path.
8. MAINTAIN control through the push (eccentric)
Similar to the above point a controlled ascent is important to keep yourself even and balanced throughout the rep.
This really is the culmination of all the above points – using the appropriate weight will help, as will transitioning from a well executed descent.
If I am struggling to complete a rep I can feel my body want to contort during the eccentric phase which I don’t give in to. It will want to drop a shoulder to provide a BIT more leverage, resulting in that side of the bar jumping up a bit higher than the other. I would rather fail the rep (in a controlled manner) than put myself through an extreme form breakdown like that.
9. PAUSE each rep on the chest
Between the above two points you an add another… Simply PAUSE each rep. This will remove momentum from the lift, remove any bounce factor and serve as a clear transition point from concentric to eccentric.
The weight lifted is usually pretty smilier between both paused as well as touch and go reps – it may take a few sessions but transition from T&G to paused should be fairly quick without being TOO humbling. When I have transitioned between these in the past I have found I very rapidly was lifting the same weight with either technique.
If in doubt… Try DUMBBELL flat bench pressing!
My all-time most successful bench press runs have all had flat dumbbell pressing as an accessory. I view dumbbell benching as KEY to driving my barbell bench weight UP.
Others may vary – I know close grip bench gets a lot of kudos – but for me, dumbbell flat pressing all the way.
For our particular issue dumbbells are a fantastic tool we can use to correct uneven pressing. By working with dumbbells (please use the same weight in each hand!) and pressing with them we train both sides of our body independently. This will rapidly bring the weaker side UP in the two key areas:
If you have equalised these areas across both sides of your body for pressing then your barbell equivalent SHOULD even up over time.
The vast majority of the fixes for an uneven press presented here relate to FORM – be it the set up or the motion itself. Really getting to know your bench press and practicing it as a COMPOUND lift is key to straightening that barbell. Judicious use of dumbbell accessories can also help a ton!
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