Three of the most popular exercises to target what are probably the most trained muscles in the male upper body. These exercises, simplistic as they may appear at first glance, are literally fraught with a multitude of performance criteria, that in some cases almost appears to change monthly and often are implemented, by the trainer, with little regard to anatomical function.
Well, it’s not that difficult. With a basic knowledge of functional anatomy, application of simple mechanics and a smattering of common sense the trainer or instructor can turn these three exercises into safe and effective additions to their training repertoire.
Firstly let me state that emotion must not play a part in the way you view an exercise. The “I’ve always done it that way” or “ that’s how I was taught” have no place in deciding how an exercise should be taught or performed. This is the domain of established anatomical and mechanical fact!
The purpose of this article is to highlight the anatomical and mechanical flaws within the currently accepted criteria for these three most popular exercises and give you all a safe, effective and viable alternative.
Myths & Misunderstandings
Weight training, like no other fitness pursuit, is utterly permeated with multitudes of criteria that often have no place being there. Many times it is perpetrated by well meaning but sadly misinformed ‘experts’, both academic and/or self proclaimed.
I will list the most prevalent technique criteria/faults that are generally taught and give the simple correct alternative.
- Bench press: Depth of the movement, position of the spine, placement of the feet, position of the head and movement of the Scapula.
- Flyes: As above plus positioning of the hands at the start/finish and mid-point.
- Pec Dec: Arm positioning - its effect on the shoulder joint and effectiveness of the exercise.
Depth of movement has been a hot topic in the performance of chest exercises such as presses and flyes for some time now and rightly so. Extreme angles at the Gleno/Humeral joint under load are not advisable nor are they necessary. This fact has led to the plethora of ‘depth criteria’ flooding the markets where chest exercises are performed (not least the “Resistance Training to Music” scene). With cues like, “bar should be one inch above the chest”, “fist distance”, or “upper arms parallel to the floor” etc. etc. In order to keep up with the changes and the measurements the average trainer / client would have to carry a protractor, measuring tape and calculator to every session!
The depth criteria should be a tangible point. For example, “the highest point on the pectoral”. Everybody has one, and the age-old ‘perception variations’ would not be an issue. (An inch seems to increase in length as you become more fatigued!).
Before you all jump on your “extreme force angle” bandwagons and start calling me a lunatic or worse, read on.
The changes in ‘bar depth’ have been a reactive rather than proactive approach to a problem created by the previously implemented but misguided criteria of “keeping the lower back flat and the feet up” (on the bench or in the air) in order to protect the spine. I’m sorry, but I wasn’t aware that the spine was in much danger while lying flat on your back supported by a solid padded structure!
- What happens in this instance (and you can see this clearly in photo 1) is, as a reaction to the spine being placed into kyphosis (flattened on to the bench) the rib cage and subsequently the sternum drop down. This results in a greater distance for the bar to travel in order to reach the chest. Another point is that, as the rib cage drops the clavicle will follow. (The clavicle attaches to the sternum at the sterno/clavicular joint) The scapulae, in reaction to this, protract and elevate, subsequently moving the Gleno/Humeral joint forward, which in turn is responsible for the creation of the extreme G/H Joint force angle seen during chest exercises performed in this way.
- Stop being reactive and fix the issue at its inception. Get the feet flat on the floor, (if the bench is too high – use a step), extend the spine to at least neutral if not slightly beyond, (determined by flexibility and individual orthopedic history), retract and depress the scapula and at the same time push up the sternum and rib cage. This simple repositioning has the highly significant effect of:
- Reducing the distance the bar has to travel by elevating the height of the ribs.
- Lowering the Gleno/Humeral joint away from the bars maximum depth
- Subsequently reducing the force angle at the joint. (See photo 2 for correct position, then make a comparison).
As a side bar to this it is worth noting that the practice of lifting the head during this exercise (especially in the “Exercise to Music” scenarios when the instructor and class are endeavoring to maintain visual contact) will simply make this situation worse. It will reduce the first rib angle and place the thoracic and cervical spine into a kyphotic position. I recommend that during this phase of the class that the instructor gets up and moves around the group checking form, which should include keeping the head on the step/bench.
- Another good tip to remember for optimum Pectoral involvement is to maintain the Scapula in the retracted and depressed position throughout the pressing phase. This action maintains the muscle origins in a more stable and favorable situation while minimizing any involvement from the Serratus Anterior. (See photo 3).
- With the scapula pushed forward and the rib cage dropped, it is impossible to effectively contract the Pectorals as their origin has moved away from the insertion and the Serratus has become the Prime Mover in shoulder girdle protraction.
For this exercise the previous criteria, with regard to body / Scapula / spinal / head positioning should be adhered to. The controversy in this exercise lies with the positioning of the hands. For some reason, unknown to me, the exercise is consistently taught and performed with the arms in an externally rotated position and the palms facing each other! To be polite, this seems to be a strange practice with no basis in anything other than to mimic the action of bird wings! So if we were in fact trying to fly then this position may be valid.
It certainly does not lend itself to the true functional anatomy of the Pectoral muscle nor does it sit favorably in maintaining safety of the joint.
- The Pectoral muscle is responsible for multi-angular adduction, flexion, extension AND internal rotation of the upper arm. It is the internal rotation function that I draw your attention to. If one maintains that the palms must be facing at the start and completion of the dumbbell flye, then one must assume that the upper arm will be externally rotated. This would inhibit the full involvement and contraction of the muscle one is attempting to target. Incongruous and impractical at best!
- By correlation, if the palms are facing and the arms externally rotated at the start and finish of the exercise, then it must be assumed (and often witnessed) that the same situation would be in place at the mid point of the exercise (arms out to the side). If this is the case, then the Gleno/Humeral joint is placed in an externally rotated and abducted situation at a point of extreme mechanical disadvantage. (Photo 6) This position of the joint in question is criticized throughout the fitness industry around the world (and rightly so) in exercises like behind the head pull-downs and presses. Neither of which places a load on the joint that even comes close to that potentially experienced during flyes performed in the illustrated manner.
- To avoid potential pain and injury as well as to achieve optimum muscle involvement in the flye, simply maintain the arms in internal rotation; face the palms toward the feet with the thumbs pointing inwards throughout the movement. Maintain a straight line from the dumbbell, through the elbow and shoulder, across the chest, through the shoulder and elbow on to the dumbbell on the other side. (Photos 7&8) Exactly the same as you would for a press with dumbbells or barbell, only wider at the bottom.
- An interesting anatomical point to note is – that if the palms are supinated at the low point of the flye then the biceps are at least partially contracted. Given that the bicep crosses the shoulder it may be prudent to assume that this muscle is in part, restricting involvement of the pectoral! Also noteworthy is that a very common injury resulting from the performance of flyes in this manner is to the biceps tendons of origin! (The ones that cross the shoulder!)
Taking into account all of the above with respect to anatomical function, force angles and terminal external rotation/abduction then this exercise with its current performance criteria should be at the top of the contraindicated list. Yet it remains one of the most popularly prescribed chest exercises for beginners and advanced bodybuilders alike.
Not only does it place the shoulder in extreme positions under load but it also shuts down a large percentage of pectoral involvement.
- Criteria for the Pec Dec is to have the upper arms parallel to the floor and the forearms maintaining their position on the pad throughout the exercise (Photo 9). It doesn’t take a genius to see that the shoulder is once again the victim of ‘terminal external rotation combined with abduction’ at a position of extreme mechanical inefficiency. The absurd act of maintaining the forearms on the pads as the arms are brought together requires a concerted effort from the muscles that externally rotate the upper arm (Infraspinatus and Teres Minor). Both muscles are antagonistic to the muscle that internally rotates the upper arm, (Pectoral) are part of the Rotator Cuff group and do not function well as prime movers, especially when in competition with the much more powerful Pectoral.
- In order to complete the exercise while adhering to the criteria of ‘maintaining the forearm on the pad’, other muscles are recruited (namely the Serratus Anterior and Pectoralis Minor,) to protract the Scapula. This action results in the situation described earlier in the Bench Press section and almost negligible Pectoral involvement. Not only that, the mechanical actions involved in bringing the elbows together, inevitably results in the client ending up in a kyphotic, sunken chest and head forward position. This posture is what we as an industry are steadfastly trying to avoid and correct. Currently the most prevalent posture problem in society today! Why on earth give an exercise that encourages it?
- You can however make this exercise a bit safer and more effective by following a few simple steps. Straighten the arms out to the side and internally rotate the shoulder joint, be sure to retract and depress the scapulae as well as to extend the spine. Maintain this body and arm position throughout the exercise for a safer more effective exercise performance.
If the design of the machine does not allow for this adaptation then it is my strongest recommendation that you do not use it for anything other than a place to hang your towel or place your drink bottle.
Hopefully this article will help in clearing up some misconceptions and misunderstandings about chest training. Look for more articles on a variety of resistance training exercises and muscle groups from me in the near future. If you would like to see a focus on a particular set of exercises or muscle groups, send your requests to this website.