The Bench Press: Gym PR vs Competition Bench

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I can’t count the times someone has come into the gym that tells me they can bench a certain amount, only to get trapped underneath the bar when attempting 1 competition rep at that weight. Bench pressing in competition is a different beast, and the skills must be practiced. To make it even more confusing each federation has slightly different rules. Since I am a referee for USPA I will write this referring mostly to USPA rules but there are some commonalities amongst all many of the feds.


Showing control and following commands are the biggest difference. It is one thing to psych yourself up for a huge PR in the gym. If you are just lifting off and bouncing the bar off your chest then locking it out, it counts in the gym and there is nothing wrong with that. If you are getting stronger then good for you. If you are in a meet, the referees are looking for you to be able to control the weight throughout the range of motion. There are 3 commands you need to know on the Bench. “START”, “PRESS”, “RACK”.

Once you un-rack the weight (or have your spotter lift you off) you have to show control at the top with your elbows locked out. Once you show control the referee will shout out, “START”. Once that command is called the only thing you can do is bring the bar down to your chest. Once the bar touches the chest the referee will wait for the bar to be motionless on your chest and they will scream out “PRESS”. The next movement has to be directly up. When the elbows are locked out and you show control at the top your will receive the “RACK” command, and you put the weight back into the rack. Failure to obey the commands will get you red lights, even if you have a “successful” attempt.


Knowing the commands is great, but there are a few other things to know about the rules. Ill never forget when I was 18 years old I was at a hardcore gym and I witnessed a guy stacking on plate after plate on the bar. I watched him lift the weight off the rack and bounce the bar off his chest like a trampoline. As he was fighting the weight, his back arched and his ass came off the bench by at least 10 inches or more. He got the weight up and the gym cheered. It was cool to watch, but that would never fly in a competition. On the bench press, your butt must stay on the bench at all times to have the lift count. Once you get that start command your butt cannot leave the bench.

Another problem that occurs, is when lifters start their set up and lift the bar off with their butt off the bench, then set their butt down after the fact. Since the head judge can’t see your butt on the bench he is only looking at bar control. If your bar is out of the rack and he feels you are ready to lift you will get the “START” command. If your butt is off the bench you will receive red lights from the side referees. If you are going to use this set up method in USPA you can let the head ref know you put your butt down late, but you are still risking a red light since he cannot see that angle.

BELOW are 2 videos demonstrating things not to do with your butt on the bench.


Once the bar is motionless on your chest and your receive the “PRESS” command your next movement has to be up. Many lifters will sink the bar deep into their chest before pressing. That is fine, but make sure that you sink it before the press command. If you get “PRESS” then sink and press you will be red lighted. It is super important that if you have this habit that you practice your press timing on the bench.

There are a few more key differences between hitting legit benches in a meet vs being in the gym.


Having both arms lockout at the same time is important. If you have a discrepancy in your arms and you let one side fall behind it is crucial to have the bar lockout at the top evenly. The bar can’t look like a seesaw going up. Another important factor is the bar cannot move back down at all once the press command is given, the bar path has to continue up. If you are fighting a max weight and the bar starts to come back down, even for a split second you will get a red light. The bar can stop if you are grinding, and it can be super slow, but it just can’t start moving back down. If that happens the ref will yell out “TAKE IT” and the spotters will grab the bar and rack it.


In USPA your head can come off the bench during the bench press. In a few other federations the head cannot come off the bench. In USPA you can be on your toes, but your feet cannot move all over the place during the lift. Other federations require heels to be planted on the ground so it is important to know the rules of the fed you are competing in. Again it is important to know the rules and most importantly practice your training utilizing the rules.

Here is a link to the USPA rule book. If you have any questions regarding competing in the sport of powerlifting please feel free to reach out to us. We will be hosting a free powerlifting workshop on January 16th to discuss the rules, meet prep, and what to expect on meet day. Join our newsletter below and add us on social media to get alerted when we RSVP!


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