Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bench Press, Part Eleven

Norbert Schemansky

3.2 – Training the Chest

The key muscle of the chest is the pectoralis major, which for reference can easily be palpated and is superficial enough to be clearly seen on most people (or refer to any anatomy text). This muscle has two muscle fiber groups:

(1) the Clavicular portion – whose fibers originate from the clavicle and insert via the common tendon in the humerus (upper arm bone), and
(2) the Sternal portion – whose fibers originate off the sternum and also insert via the common tendon on the humerus.

It is important to note (relative to the bench press) that by far the most important group of fibers in the pectoralis major is probably the sternal portion. I say this because the sternal group of fibers constitutes the largest group of fibers in the pectoralis major muscle and also is a portion of the muscle that horizontally adducts the arm (which is involved in the upward phase of the bench press and fly motions). On the other hand, the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major acts primarily much like the anterior deltoid to cause shoulder flexion (which looks like the upward phase of a front lateral raise).

To summarize the results of our studies done so far that have tried to estimate muscular involvement of the pectoralis major during bench presses (see Section 3.1):

(1) There is generally more pectoralis major involvement when wider grip spacings are used during the bench press;
(2) The greatest involvement of the pectoralis major during bench presses occurs from the bar’s position on the chest to about one-half to two-thirds of the way up in the lift; and
(3) When one goes from flat bench presses to incline bench presses, as the incline angle increases there is correspondingly less involvement of the sternal fiber portion of the pectoralis muscle and more of the clavicular fiber group.

The implications of these results to training the pectoralis major muscle for the bench press are significant. In order to involve the important sternal group of the pectoralis major muscle, one should primarily work the chest using wide grip bench press (or dumbell bench press) motions. Other similar movements involving the same horizontal adduction motion (like heavy dumbell chest fly motions, etc.) can also be done. However, keep in mind that such movements are probably not much different than wide grip barbell or dumbell bench presses. I personally recommend that the upper arms be kept out perpendicular to the torso (as at the end of a bench press) when doing wide grip chest work, in order to reduce triceps involvement and consequently involve the pectoralis major more. Personally, I prefer heavy dumbell bench presses with the wide grip style whenever possible (and when spotters are available to help here), mainly because dumbell training requires more involvement of the shoulder girdle muscles to coordinate dumbell position in space.

As many top bench pressers I’ve trained with have done over the years (like Kazmaier, etc.) our research showed there is a logical basis for doing your wide grip chest development work through the range of motion bounded by the chest to perhaps two-thirds of the way up. However, these “non-lockout” style bench presses will not involve the triceps near their important top position involvement, so it is important to train the triceps separately if this style chest training is done exclusively. It is hard to say how much different this may be than complete wide-grip movements, but it would appear prudent to use both this non-lockout style as well as complete movements in a chest development program.

To best involve the large sternal fiber group of the pectoralis major muscle, one should primarily work the bench press from flat to low incline angles. From our results, I would limit this to low incline angles not exceeding perhaps 30 degrees relative to the horizontal. No matter what incline angle you use, the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major will still be heavily involved, and I don’t feel that additional specialized work for this portion of the muscle is needed. Regarding the use of decline bench presses in training, I have no research data to rely on regarding its usefulness. It seems that moderate angle decline bench presses would be useful variation movements for chest training, but they should not be done exclusively. Personally, I prefer to work the chest using flat to low incline bench press movements mainly related to technique (bar path) development discussed in Chapter 2.

Finally, it is valuable to incorporate variation in your chest training for the bench press. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, for example:

(1) Vary the chest development exercises that I have recommended a lot, using different ones quite frequently;
(2) For a given exercise, you can vary it by hitting the chest at a different position. For example, wide grip bench presses that hit higher up on the chest are an excellent form of wide grip bench press when used sparingly for variety; and
(3) You can even vary the position where you touch the chest with the bar within a set when doing chest work. For example, you might begin a set with reps hitting higher up on the chest and as the set progresses touch progressively lower (but probably not below the base of the pectoralis major).

Overall, based on the biomechanical results discussed in Chapter 2, the more variation that you use here the more beneficial your chest development training should be for increasing your bench press maximum. Have fun and experiment with it!

3.3 – Training the Triceps

No other muscle of the upper arm is more important to the powerlifter when it comes to bench pressing. Further, not only is the triceps an important part of any great bench press but it generally is the strongest muscle of the arm.

Besides being noted for its force capacity, the triceps is also the largest single muscle of the arm. In fact, the cross sectional area of a normal triceps is larger than all three of the elbow flexor muscles (biceps, etc.).

To start off once again with our systematic guided tour of the body’s musculature, please refer to any good anatomy book to get a mental picture of the triceps muscle. So you will see, the triceps is composed of three separate “heads” (or muscle segments) that originate at different places on the back of the scapula (shoulder blade) and humerus (the upper arm bone). All three of these heads insert into the common extensor tendon (which is an extremely strong tendon). This extensor tendon travels over the elbow and then inserts on the olecranon process of the ulna an inch or two below the elbow. In your anatomy search you also see another muscle called the anconeus but this very small muscle is virtually inconsequential compared to the triceps. The anconeus mainly stabilizes the elbow joint and contributes very minimally to extension.

The three heads of the triceps muscle are typically given separate names:

(1) The long head is the “longest” triceps head, originating from the inferior part of the scapular glenoid. This part of the triceps is the only one of the three heads that does not originate on the humerus (upper arm bone);
(2) The medial head has its origin about half way up the humerus. The medial head is covered, in part, by the long head and lateral head and is difficult to see or feel, and
(3) The lateral head originates from the upper side (or lateral) part of the humerus only a short distance below the shoulder joint. This lateral head is easily seen when one looks at the side of someone’s arm since it is right below the deltoid insertion.

What you see on a powerlifter of bodybuilder with great triceps development are mainly the very prominent lateral head (which is on the outside) as well as the long head (which is more on the inside). The lateral and long heads of the triceps join a common extensor tendon of insertion from opposite sides – which looks a bit like the two heads of a gastrocnemius (calf muscle) as they approach the Achilles tendon. This appearance of the triceps may account for the term “horseshoe” which is often used to label the triceps appearance.

Now that you hopefully have a reasonable feel for the location of the three heads of the triceps, let’s explore some of the unique characteristics of this muscle.

Although more advanced biomechanical studies need to be done, in my opinion, in order to really determine the load sharing of the different heads of the triceps during heavy powerlifting and other weight training exercises, there are some very interesting studies to date. The most pertinent is the research by Travill (reference 1). In his study Travill found some results that should be of significant value to powerlifters and bodybuilders everywhere. To summarize his results, let’s look at how the three heads of the triceps are involved with and without resistance.

Without Resistance

(1) The medial head of the triceps is the “work horse” of the three heads of this muscle. The medial head is always active during extension of the elbow and is the major extensor of the arm.
(2) The “lazy” lateral head has a certain amount of activity as well during elbow extension when there is no load.
(3) Surprisingly, the “totally lazy” long head is virtually inactive during elbow extension no matter what position the subject in is (or what exercise is used).

With Resistance

(1) The medial head is still heavily involved as before but no doubt to a greater extent.
(2) Now, the formerly “lazy” lateral head and the “totally lazy” long head of the triceps become heavily recruited to aid in the force of triceps extension. This situation makes it seem as if the lateral and long heads are “reserved” only for the really heavy elbow extensions.

There are a number of observations I can think of from my years of powerlifting that add some support to the results of Travill’s studies. As no doubt many of you have noticed, the physical appearance of the triceps in nom-weight trained people, beginner’s, etc. shows little development or definition of the long and lateral heads. These individual’s triceps look “flat” since unless they exceed some “threshold” level of heavy resistance training, the medial head probably does most of the work in their normal day-to-day activities, recreation, etc. It is also certainly possible that the “threshold” level of resistance that is needed to really get the long and lateral heads (which are the lazy two thirds) involved is not approached even by some powerlifters in their training. So, let me raise an interesting hypothesis related to Travill’s results and these observations.

I propose the hypothesis that in order for someone to get maximum triceps development one needs to use very heavy resistance during triceps training (perhaps to a greater extent than would be the case for other muscles). Until I can test this hypothesis more, let me give some further supportive experiences and observations that I have had over the years on this issue. First, one of the largest and strongest set of triceps I’ve ever seen belongs to one of the true greats and gentlemen of our sport – Bill Seno. When I was an undergraduate years ago at Northern Illinois University, I had the opportunity to meet and train a bit with Bill and the experience has left a lasting impression on me. Bill is still one of the greatest bench pressers of all time and has had an incredible career over decades that few can match. A high percentage of top lifters like Bill Seno and others that I have known over the years seem to have been firm believers in heavy triceps training, like narrow grip bench presses and similar heavy movements with the triceps. A number of top bodybuilders have also made comments to this effect to this effect as I can recall. For example, when Frank Zane visited Auburn a few years ago he mentioned that his favorite “bulking” triceps exercise was heavy close grip bench presses, while the Mentzers have also gone on record as believing in “high intensity” dips, etc. with very heavy weights for their triceps, etc.

It seems to me that in my own triceps training, every time I have done high repetitions (with consequently lighter weights). I subjectively have not experienced as much lateral and long head development. In fact, I have often noticed that during a normal periodization type training cycle that when I go down to five repetitions on my assistance work (i.e., my triceps exercises) I start getting a disproportionately greater amount of triceps development. Therefore, the “threshold” that is needed for recruiting a considerable amount of lateral and long head involvement may require “heavy” training.

The human body has a number of “protective” neuromuscular reflexes that serve mainly to protect the body from injury. It has been shown, for example, that pressure on the ulnar surface of the hand (or on the fleshy part of the palm on the little finger side) causes an extensor or stabilization response in the upper arm. This reflexively aids the stability of the whole upper arm by stimulating greater contractions of the elbow extensors, especially the triceps.

As you may have noticed, a number of top lifters can be seen pronating their forearms to be sure that the bar rests not transversely across the center of the palm – but rather more on the ulnar surface of the hand. I can think of quite a few lifters that I personally have seen do this. I have often taught this extensor reflex maneuver to beginning weight training classes by instructing them to put the weight on the ulnar surface of the hand during all sorts of triceps exercises. You will be surprised if you try this at how powerful and comfortable this maneuver makes the arm feel.

Well, what are the “best” triceps exercises to develop this muscle for its role in bench pressing? It may be useful to first review the results of the studies on muscle involvement during bench presses from Section 3.1:

(1) There is more triceps involvement during narrow grip bench presses than with wider grips (also true during incline bench presses);
(2) Typically the triceps activity is at the start of the bench press (off the chest) and at the end of the lift. Triceps activity is also more pronounced at the end of a narrow grip bench press;
(3) The triceps activity is more consistent throughout a bench press with a narrower grip; and
(4) The triceps may be a key limiting factor at maximal bench press poundages, especially at the top portion of the lift (with narrow grip spacings especially).

Keeping these observations in mind, and with our earlier discussion as a base, it is evident that triceps training is critical to bench press performance. The “best” exercise for triceps? Well, we do know some facts at least that are useful for selecting and evaluating the various triceps exercises available to us. For example, the research of Currier (reference 2) discovered that the triceps developed the greatest maximal isometric extension force when the arm was at 90 degrees of flexion (or at right angles). Consequently, the “best” exercises for the triceps quite logically would be those that load the triceps maximally somewhere near this 90 degree arm position. Interestingly, dips, close grip bench presses, triceps pushdowns, etc. all have an external torque pattern that peaks somewhere near this 90 degree position. Movements like the triceps kickback, for example, would produce the reverse torque pattern and overload the muscle at its weakest range. This is an important point, since, if you remember, the triceps was most involved in regular to wide grip bench presses at two major points – off the chest and near the top. It is logical then to consider training the triceps in particular at these muscle lengths. In practice, this means that most triceps training should be of the “normal” variety that loads the muscle most the important longer lengths (as in close grips, dips, etc.). However, it does make sense to do some movements to overload the shorter lengths of the triceps (near full extension) by perhaps doing heavy partial close grip bench presses about halfway down, etc. In fact, greater triceps strength is even needed for improving your bar path! Whatever you do, train this muscle heavy, often, and mainly with a variety of major pressing type movements. It is the key to unlocking a great bench press.


(1) Travill, A., “Electromyographic studies of the extensor apparatus of the forearm”, anat. Rec., 144:373-376, 1962.
(2) Currier, D.T. “Maximal isometric tension of the elbow extensors at varied positions, Part 2,j Assessment of extensor muscles by quantitative electromyography”, Physical Therapy, 52:1265-1276, 1972.

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