Will An Uneven Bench Press Hold Back My Progress?
March 2nd 2020
One of the common gripes beginners complain about to me is the uneven development of their chest or bench press.
It’s not surprising to me, that this occurs especially for beginners.
Chances are if you lived a relatively inactive lifestyle before you began lifting, your weak chest is the same side as your non-dominant hand.
Though there might be a few exceptions, chances are, whatever side is weak is the side that you used a lot less on a daily basis.
For example, let’s say in you typically take the bus and hold onto the rail with your right arm.
Over time, this will cause slightly more development in your right arm than your left arm.
Combine this with the rest of the activities you are doing the day predominantly with your right arm (ex: holding your bag, opening doors, etc.) and you will see why your right side could be stronger than your left.
The same analogy can be paired with the muscles of the chest.
With that being said, how can we fix our uneven bench so that both sides develop evenly or so that we aren’t limited by our weak chest?
The simple solution is to do more unilateral work on your weak side.
The more advanced solution, which is the purpose of this article, is to figure out what muscles might be weak, and what specific exercises you can do in order to quickly strengthen them so that you can go back to increasing your bench press total.
With that being said, let’s first get into the kinesiology of what occurs during the bench press.
Muscles involved during the bench press
During the bench press, the main muscles involved are the pectoralis major, triceps brachii, and anterior deltoid.
Though there may be a few more when we get more specific regarding leg drive and other tweaks, these are the primary muscles involved when you perform the bench press.
The pectoralis major is your chest muscle and is involved with bringing your arms close together (horizontal adduction).
It is most active throughout most of the bench press, especially at the bottom.
The triceps brachii is your arm muscle which is primarily responsible for locking out your arms.
It is active throughout the entire bench press and is most active during the lookout portion.
The anterior deltoid is the muscle in the front of your shoulder.
Proper bench press form involves a bar path that is curvilinear which means when watching someone bench press from the side view, the bar is not going straight up and down.
Instead, while you lower the bar, the bar is going slightly down toward your toes (in order to touch the bottom of your chest), and while the bar raises, the bar is going slightly upward toward your head to get back to the starting position.
And the muscle that controls this curvilinear pattern is your anterior deltoid.
Now that you know the primary muscles involved during the bench press, as well as their actions, how can you diagnose your weak point?
Ways you can diagnose your weak points
The easiest way to diagnose your weak point is by simply doing unilateral work targeting the muscle and seeing whether one side is weaker than the other.
So, in order to test pec major, perform a dumbbell bench press with a heavy weight (80% of 1 RM) in your dominant arm, and do it again in your nondominant arm.
Assess to see if you are overcompensating on one side or the other in order to get the weight up.
If one side is able to lift it and the other side is unable to or is severely weak while doing so, then your weak point might be your pectoralis major.
The triceps are composed of three heads, but we will only be strength testing the middle head as it is the most significant during the bench press.
To test your triceps, simply perform a one-arm cable pushdown with one arm and test the other one.
Again, be sure that you are not overtly compensating on one side and note what side feels weaker.
The easiest way to test the strength of your anterior deltoid is by performing a dumbbell shoulder press on one side and comparing it to the other.
Note: while performing these tests, it is optimal to perform them as the first exercise on separate days.
This is because although these exercises target their intended muscle the most, they also slightly utilize the other muscles which could result in fatigue and skewed results if you are trying to test them all in one day.
Regardless, you should still have a general idea of what muscles and what side of your body is weak.
Now that you know what to focus on, here are a couple of suggestions that you can implement in order to strengthen your weak points.
Further on, we will discuss what you should do if you don’t have any or just a slight strength discrepancy between both sides.
Exercises you can do in order to strengthen your weak points
You can simply perform the same exercise that you used to test your muscle weakness.
So, for the pecs, one-arm dumbbell bench press, for the triceps one-armed cable pushdown, and for the anterior delt, one-arm dumbbell shoulder press.
To implement these into your program, you can start off by adding 1-2 sets at the end of your workout and gauging whether it’s sufficient or you need to add more.
What if you have no weak points, but still an uneven bench?
If after performing these tests you found that there are no strength discrepancies or just a minor one, then what could be the cause of your uneven bench press is simply because your body has not adjusted to performing it well enough yet.
It’s possible that your nervous system is not yet optimized in order to recruit both sides of your body evenly which results in unevenness.
In order to fix this and to continue progressing in your bench press, you can either bench more, or perform more bench variations.
I would suggest variations because doing so will be less boring, may build up potential weak points, and could target the underlying weak point a lot better.
Some exercises you can perform are a paused bench press or spoto press, close-grip bench press, and incline bench press.
You can also vary these with dumbbells, but I would not suggest doing so unless if you have a really weak side as mentioned earlier.
By performing these compound exercises, you will not only be building up your weak points, but also improve on your bench press form.
All these exercises and variations are discussed in a separate article here (link).
Another solution you can work on in order to fix your uneven bench is to reexamine your cues to see if you are performing the bench press properly.
Proper bench press technique
If you have an uneven bench press, the most important cue that you might not be doing is to grip the bar evenly on both sides.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen beginner lifters in the gym simply grab the bar in an arbitrary position and try to bench press.
Uneven bar positioning will cause you to be weaker, will increase your risk of injury, and will cause you to have an uneven bench.
So, make sure that both of your hands are gripping the bar evenly.
One cue that could help you make sure of this is to use the knurlings, (rings without the bumps) to help you determine hand placement.
For example, you might feel the best width for you is with the knurlings on your ring finger.
If that is the case, you want it to be that way on both hands.
Another important factor if you are in a commercial gym is to examine the type of bar you are using to bench with and if there are different bars in the gym.
Some gyms have different types of bars with different knurlings, weights, and widths.
As a result, you might be comfortable with using a knurling position on one bar but is totally different from another.
So, examine the equipment your gym uses, and make sure that your form and technique is the same week by week.
By eliminating all the other potential variables, are we closer to figuring out what might be the cause of our uneven bench press?
These are the two cues that will most likely play a role in someone with an uneven bench press.
If you understand these cues, then work on bench pressing more and the variations.
You will be able to perform the bench press much better, and any small imbalances will fix itself over time.