Why all the fuss over a big bench-press? What does the sheer amount of weight that someone can push whilst lying flat on their back have to do with anything? If you’re sitting with a bunch of guys and someone strong walks in, it’s common to hear "I wonder what he can bench?". Or when discussing sport, the same question comes up, "How much can so-and-so bench?".
The bench press exercise was never intended to be a benchmark of man (or woman!) hood. It is an exercise for improving the size and/or strength of the chest, anterior deltoids and triceps, nothing else. In fact, the star player on any team is rarely the one with the biggest bench press! Unfortunately, over-emphasis on the bench press often coupled with poor technique has led to a high incidence of shoulder injuries in both athletes and non-athletes. Additionally many people are not anatomically designed to perform the exercise as it is generally taught in most strength training texts, Personal Trainer certification courses and by many strength coaches.
The Problem with Traditional Technique
The bar is lowered until it touches the chest and then pressed back up to the start position. Everyone is expected to lower the bar to the chest; anything less is considered poor form, sub-standard, and even wimpy by fellow lifters. However, to perform the exercise under such guidelines requires a greater range of motion (ROM) than is found in the shoulder joint of most people – particularly male athletes. Why is it so important to work within the ROM of your shoulder joint? Some simple anatomy will help to explain this.
The movement-restricting factor during a bench press is not the muscles of the shoulder; it is the joint capsule of the shoulder. This highly specialized structure is anatomically designed to not only allow just the right amount of motion to prevent joint damage, but also contains thousands of proprioceptors. Proprioceptors are special nerve endings that communicate with the brain, passing on information about joint position and speed of movement, as well as pressure, tension and pain in and around the joint. Loading the shoulder and forcing it beyond the functional ROM limit will stretch the shoulder joint capsule. In most people the functional ROM is exceeded when the bench-press bar travels until it touches the chest.
Additionally, because the bench press is performed on a flat weight lifting bench, normal movement of the shoulder blades (scapulae) is disrupted. This demands that more movement must occur in the gleno-humeral joint rather than being shared between the scapula-thoracic & gleno-humeral joints. As the bar is loaded with heavier and heavier weights, the shoulder blades are pressed even harder into the bench, further disrupting the normal mechanics of the shoulder girdle joints and overloading the shoulder.
How far should you let the bar travel when performing a bench press?
To protect the shoulder joint capsule from being stretched out or injured, the exerciser must determine how far to safely lower the bar. It is essential that the optimal bench press ROM is determined for the shoulders of each person, since everyone is different. This should be a standard test performed on each client during assessments.
The Bench Press Range of Motion Test.
Step One – Passive Shoulder Range of Motion
Place the arm in the bench press position and allow it to lower to its passive end range of motion . This is the position where the arm naturally stops without being forced. At this point you have determined the exact point at which the shoulder joint capsule becomes the primary restraint to shoulder ROM.
Step Two - Optimal Bottom Position
Once you have identified the end position of passive shoulder range of motion with the Bench Press Range of Motion Test, lift the arm 2-3cm to find the optimal bottom position for the bench press exercise. This creates a small buffer zone (10º – 15º) which will protect the joint capsule from overload when the weights get heavy or when fatigued.
Although many will argue that you must train through the "full range of motion" to be strong for sport, this concept is unfounded. It is well known among physiotherapists and exercise scientists that there is approximately a 15º +/- carry-over of strength developed at any specific joint angle with strength training. i.e. if you train the shoulder from 15º to 75º, the strength gained will carryover from 0º to 90º. This is how sports medicine doctors improve strength in an injured shoulder or knee without actually ever moving the joint through the painful ROM.
What’s so important about training within your given ROM?
What most trainers, athletes and coaches don’t seem to respect is the fact that training beyond the shoulder’s passive barrier with heavy loads will stretch the shoulder joint capsule. Once stretched, the joint capsule can no longer stabilize the shoulder joint during common arm movements such as swimming, hitting a volley ball or netball, holding power tools over head or even swinging a hammer. If these arm movements are repeated without the stability provided by a functional shoulder joint capsule, an impingement syndrome develops, resulting in inflammation and pain in the shoulder joint. Bursitis and rotator cuff tendonitis commonly develop secondarily. Because the shoulder joint capsule provides critical information about arm position, those with a loose joint capsule often lose their ability to accurately sense joint position. This will result in a loss of accuracy in sports requiring precision placement of the arm.
In any sport, your arm rarely ever reaches a loaded end point in the same position twice in the same game or event. Because the loads in sport are both brief in duration and seldom as high as those encountered during a bench press session, the shoulder joint capsule can recover from intermittent exposure to end range loading. For those with insufficient range of motion to perform the Bench Press as it is traditionally taught, going to the gym and lowering heavy loads to their chest with slow speeds of movement, 30-100 repetitions or more per week is like repeatedly crashing a car into a brick wall at slow speeds just to prepare for the one day they may actually have an accident!
What do I do if my client’s shoulders are trashed and they still want to bench press?
If your clients have painful shoulders when bench pressing they may not need to stop forever. To safely return to bench pressing, follow these guidelines:
- Spend 4-8 weeks performing a rotator cuff conditioning program. For more information on rotator cuff training I recommend the book "Seven Minute Rotator Cuff Solution" by Horrigan and Robinson.
- Begin your return to the bench press from the floor, not a bench. The floor creates a range of motion barrier, protecting your shoulder joint capsules and tendons from excessive stretch.
- Always start with dumbbells. Dumbbells allow your body the needed freedom of motion to find a new bench press pathway that does not stress the injured tissues.
- Once you have performed 3-4 weeks of floor bench press, progress from the floor to a slightly deflated 55-65 cm. Swiss Ball . The Swiss Ball will allow a slightly greater range of motion than the floor and will increase stabilizer activation. There are many Swiss Ball bench press variations in my video series "Strong ‘N’ Stable: Swiss Ball Weight Training". Alternatively a C.H.E.K Practitioner can teach you how to perform these exercises.
- After 3-4 weeks on a deflated Swiss Ball, progressively inflate the Swiss Ball. The firm ball will allow slightly more shoulder joint motion as well as increased shoulder blade motion.
- Having performed the above steps, use the test described in Figure 2 to assure that you don’t exceed your client’s shoulders safe bench press ROM. Progress both volume and intensity slowly. If their shoulder(s) begin to show signs of discomfort with the traditional bench press, you will need to revert back to the previous steps in the progression and probably avoid the traditional bench press all together!
See "Paul Chek’s Gym Instructor Video Series, Vol. 2 Pushing & Pressing Exercises" for more information on correct techniques for bench press & other pushing exercises.
- Chek, P. Strong ‘N’ Stable: Swiss Ball Weight Training. 3 video series. Paul Chek Seminars, 1997
- Chek, P. Gym Instructor Series, Vol. 2 Pushing & Pressing Exercises. Video. Paul Chek Seminars, 1997
- Hartmann, J. & Tunnemann, H. Fitness & Strength Training for All Sports. Pub. Sports Books Publisher, 1995
- Horrigan, J. & Robinson, J. The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution. Pub. Health for Life , 1991
- Paul Chek MSS, HHP, NMT is an internationally recognized lecturer and consultant. He is the founder of the Corrective High-performance Exercise Kinesiology Certification Program. For more information on his courses, videos, books, seminars, consulting appointments or other products, go to: http://www.paulchekseminars.com. To find a C.H.E.K Practitioner in your area, call 1-800-552-8789 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org