PT on the Net Research

Bench Press - Flyes - Pec Dec


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 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! 

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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.

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Dumbell Flyes

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. 

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Pec Dec

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.

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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.