Article Courtesy of Robert Wildes.
Thank You, Sir!
"How much do you lift?"
We've all heard that question, and when we have, we knew what exercise the speaker was asking about. It's the bench press, of course, and it is without a doubt the most popular lift in any gym and the most frequently mentioned in conversations about training.
There has been much negative press and commentary about the bench press as there has been positive, however. Gym veterans frequently drop it from their workouts altogether, and there are hundreds of thousands of sore shoulders around that can be directly attributed to this lift. Even so, it is still the lift that's on everyone's minds, and unfortunately, it is the layman's yardstick of strength, as most people don't understand the real power of the legs, hips and back.
There are two key problems with the way trainees typically perform the bench press. The first involves proper lifting technique and the second involves training volume and lack of recovery time. For this discussion we will concentrate on identifying the correct, biomechanically sound way to bench press.
Many trainees erroneously advocate a technique in which you lower the bar to a spot that's high on your chest while flaring your elbows out, which abducts the shoulders. In addition, you are instructed to press the bar straight up so that it travels up and down in a straight line throughout the set. This places a great deal of stress on the shoulders, not only to move the bar, but also to stabilize themselves. The structures that are traumatized by this technique include the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff (the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor and the subscapularis), the tendon of the long head of the biceps brachii and the subacromial buras - not to mention the stress that occurs to the prime and secondary movers, which include the deltoid, the pectoralis major and the triceps brachii.
This linear approach to the bench press may well be the singular most significant contributor to shoulder injuries. The reason why so many trainees believe it to be "correct" or at least "good" technique is because it's linear and/or the elbows are held out perpendicular to the body. That is the popular theory. Even so, it is not necessarily the most natural way the body moves and functions.
While there is some truth to the theory that the greater the stretch a muscle gets, the greater the facilitation of the muscle fibers, this only works up to a point. Although the flared-out elbows causes a greater stretch of the pecs, it also sacrifices the normal stability of the shoulders and sets up up for injury.
The question is, At what cost will you make that little gain? And how much improvement will you make if your shoulder is too sore and injured to lift any weight?
For this column I asked four world class powerlifters and one former Mr. Olympia to lend their experience to the discussion. The panel included Doug Young, a former 242-lb world champion powerlifter and former 275-lb world record holder in the bench press; David Shaw, a former five time, 275-lb world record holder; Roger Estep, a former 198-lb world champion and 20 time record holder; Steve Miller, a 220-lb world class powerlifter; and three time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane.
These athletes all bench press significant poundages, and they all have ideas about technique that can improve your own bench press, increase your development and most of all avoid injury to your shoulders or reduce the stress to an already sore one.
In general, we have made an interesting observation at the Soft Tissue Center, and that is that we see a far greater percentage of shoulder injuries in the bodybuilding and recreational training populations than we do in the powerlifting population.
According to Doug Young, 95% of bodybuilders bench too high on the chest.
"The bar should be at least below the pecs," he explained. "Start the descent in an arc so that the bar ends up below the chest. Keep the elbows close to the body but not too close, and descend with the same or more control that you use when pressing the bar up."
The slower descent gets the bar to what Doug calls the "power point." He uses the widest grip allowed for competition, which is 32 inches, and, as he said, "I try to feel as if I am going to break my sternum at the bottom with it so that I feel the tension in my pecs and not my shoulders.
"At first you cannot handle as much weight, but as you increase the poundage, it will make your delts, tris and pecs bigger," he continued. "Many people can't believe that it does work. Train yourself and see."
Keep in mind that Doug bench pressed 617 pounds in the 275 class and that many people wanted him to get into bodybuilding competition because of his enormous development.
David Shaw believes that the powerlifters' method of lowering the bar nearly to what's commonly called the solar plexus and pressing it upward in an arc toward your face as opposed to a straight line over your pecs is a much more natural movement.
"I always do the bench press that way," he said. "I avoid any unnatural stress in training. The different elbow position will change the effect, but we know that different trainees will have different arm lengths, proportions and tendon attachments that will affect strength and development. I have done 95% of my training alone in a garage, so I did not observe large numbers of people performing the high-chest and straight-line bench press movement. Also, I don't always believe what I read about other people's training programs."
Steve had some additional comments on Young's bench press style. "Doug did use a controlled method of lowering the bar, and I believe that while this style will thicken the chest and shoulders, the triceps may not thicken as much even though they will get stronger," David observed. "The bar should start with the face or shoulders under it. There should be a slow descent. The placement of the bar should be almost to the solar plexus, and you may pause or not depending on your training. You must then reproduce the arc upward that you just followed downward.
"Just do the movement," Shaw continued. "Control the motion of the weight and not the bodyparts. Start slow with the weight moving in this natural style. Concentrate on control of the weight and not on the position of your elbows."
This is truly a powerlifter's bench press technique. David bench pressed approximately 540 in the 275 class and has also been encouraged to enter the bodybuilding arena because of his mass and proportions.
Roger Estep, too, prefers the above described technique. "It is a much more natural method," he said. "I feel that I can incline press more than I can overhead press. I can flat bench more than I can incline. I can decline press a pretty heavy poundage, and the decline is close to a dipping motion.
"The powerlifting method of performing the bench press is similar to a decline press and allows you to handle a significant amount of weight," Estep continued "I feel that good control during descent is necessary, but you shouldn't waste too much energy with it."
Roger has bench pressed 515 in training while weighing 202, and has entered numerous strongman contests. He has one of the most impressive physiques in the iron game.
Steve Miller, too, was familiar with this information of bench press technique. "I know five bodybuilders who are heavy bench pressers, and they all have shoulder trouble. Their backs are off the bench, their butts are high in the air as they try to get something more out of their benches," he said. "The powerlifting style does not give you any desire to lift your butt off the bench.
"My experience is that the bodybuilders try to be scientific and methodical, but they usually don't take instruction well," Miller continued. "I am interested in longevity and health. I feel that the grip should be shoulder width or with the index fingers three to four inches wider than the knurling marks."
Steve proceeded to describe his personal bench press technique. "Concentrate on the liftoff and don't flare the elbows," he instructed. "Bend your elbows close to your body. Your elbows may not actually be that close to your body, but they will feel as if they are. By the time the bar is against your chest, you will feel tight. Drive the bar up over your elbows. This will give you more power. If your elbows are flared out, there is no quick drive."
It's also important to note here that the flared elbows make it difficult to coordinate the movement safely and effectively. Miller has benched 523 in the 220 class, and as you might expect, he's developed a thick physique with that kind of lifting.
I asked Doug Young if injured trainees have ever sought his help on their bench press technique. He replied, "I only get asked for help by injured trainees." Injured lifters, he explained, are the ones who are ready to listen.
"I helped (nine time world champion powerlifter) Larry Pacifico with his technique due to his shoulder pain. I also helped (powerlifters) Jon Cole and Marv Phillips, and Frank Zane trained with me to help him with his lifting technique."
Zane later followed up that instruction by working with Roger Estep. In addition, the late Dave Johns, who was a former Mr. Universe, sought the help of Shaw, Terry McCormick and Phillips.
"The training with Doug Young in 1979 definitely helped my thickness and size," Zane said. "I gained eight pounds of true muscle by working with Doug. I would also say that trainees usually use too wide of a grip. It does stress the pecs, but you will usually have injuries to show for it. Also, many trainees do not build up a good base before trying to use the heavy weights. It takes time to build up to that."
The following points summarize good bench press technique, as described by these champions:
1) Don't touch the bar high on your chest. Instead touch it low on your chest, almost to the solar plexus or lower rib cage.
2) Don't move the bar in a straight line up and down. Guide it up and down along an arc.
3) Don't flare your elbows out wide. Keep them relatively close to your body.
4) Don't use an excessively wide grip.
5) Make sure that you control the bar's descent.
This method is biomechanically sound, and as I mentioned, we see fewer injuries due to the bench press in powerlifters even though the name of their game is to lift the most weight. Take the time to get your bench press poundages up and your volume of sets and reps down before you embark on 20-plus set workouts. Get back to basics and forget those gym myths that may well cause you pain and injuries that will keep you on the sidelines.
Enjoy Your Lifting!