So now that we’ve covered the more lower-body focused exercises of the Big Three, the Deadlift and the Squat, there’s still one more to go. The bench press is the more controversial of the Big Three. It’s been widely recognized as a staple for upper body strength, popularly used by American Football teams as a fitness test. But in recent years, there’s been a push-back against it and specialists are questioning the risk of shoulder injury and effectiveness of the movement. We’ll go through what the bench press is good for, how to get strong at it, how to avoid injuring your shoulders (not just during the press, but outside of the gym as well) and what other upper body exercises to do to ensure overall well-balanced upper body strength.
Why should you Bench?
First, the benchpress is a popular chest exercise for good reason. The push, like the bend and squat is one of 7 Primal Movement Patterns. It recruits the pectoral muscles, but also uses a significant amount of your triceps and deltoids, testing the function of your shoulder joints. Lying back on a flat bench, lowering a weighted barbell to your chest and pushing it right back up. Simple. Or is it? Different grip width, shoulder positioning, feet positioning and elbow movements are all factors to consider. Ultimately you’ll need to try out what works best based on what you want to get out of the bench.
Let’s get this straight:
If you want to increase chest size: do chest flies – you can maximize pectoral activation through increased range of motion (this article explains why, but it assumes you’re prioritizing the pecs)
If you want to increase muscle and strength overall: do the bench press – its an efficient compound movement
If you want to get better at pushing things (in sports or every day life): do the bench press
If you want to improve shoulder mobility: Read on, but eventually, do the bench press
But before we celebrate the bench press too much, let’s take a moment to reflect.
Vin Diesel is the man and all, but his shoulders are overly internally rotated. Too much bench press can have us all soon looking like this.
How to perform the Benchpress
- Lie back on a bench and line your eyes up with the barbell.
- Grip the bar roughly just wider than shoulder width apart.
- Unrack the bar and before beginning, tighten your core and retract your shoulder blades. This is a key point that will keep your shoulders from coming out of their sockets and compromising your shoulder joints.
- Lower the bar to almost touch your chest, avoid flaring your elbows or shrugging the shoulders up. Keep them down away from your ears.
- Push back up to the starting position, straightening your arms but not locking the elbows.
For a solid detailed description with a few more anatomical pointers, go check this out.
How to Fix Your Shoulder Stability
This is a topic that can be an entire article on its own if not a series of articles. Personal injuries need to be addressed specifically and this is just a general run-down.
If your shoulders hurt when you bench press, stop doing it (for now).
Likely causes of this are overly tight pectorals and anterior deltoids, so stretch these out and even get a lacrosse ball to roll through them, applying pressure to promote myofascial release. Here’s a video by the Supple Leopard himself on how to do that:
Strengthen your rhomboids and scapular adductors! These are the muscles right between your shoulder blades responsible for pulling them together. When people think of “back” exercises too often they end up working out the lats and the upper traps. Over emphasizing these groups will devolve you back to being a caveman. For more info on hunched posture due to muscular imbalance, give this a read.
Do band pulls, reverse flies, face pulls and external rotations. Include these exercises in every workout. You will not regret it. Keep practicing the bench press with lighter weight just to see how well you an push while keeping your shoulders retracted. If you improve your ability to retract, in 12 weeks, you will have a stronger bench press. Guaranteed.
That wraps up our series on the BIG THREE. For a recap, here’s the intro, the deadlift and the squat. We hope you learned something, but there’s plenty more on these topics to discuss so please comment with questions or ask us on our Facebook page.