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Bench Press Under Fire

Bill Starr
The bench press is no doubt the most popular exercise in all of weight training. Most bodybuilders and strength athletes believe its the very best upper-body lift for adding size and power to that area. Since the early 70s its replaced the military press as the standard of strength. People no longer ask, How much can you press? but rather, How much can you bench? to determine your strength level. The transition came about when the military press was dropped from Olympic competition and at the same time the sport of powerlifting emerged and strength training for all types of sports became the norm. In high schools and colleges with meager equipment, the flat bench could still be done. I knew of several high schools that did the exercise on locker-room benches. It was easy to teach and fit in nicely when the strength coach also happened to be the sports coach. When Tommy Suggs and I formulated a simple but effective program for coaches that could be done with a minimum of equipment and in a limited space, we selected the bench press as part of the Big Three. Why not the overhead or incline press? At that time the overhead press was getting lots of, well, bad press. Many authorities had declared that pressing heavy weights overhead was harmful to the lower back. So we figured that would create difficulties for athletic directors and coaches. We really preferred the incline over the flat bench, but there was a problemthere werent many incline benches available, even in fitness facilities and YMCAs. Shaky as they might be, flat benches were plentiful, and they did build stronger upper bodies. So they became a fixture in strength programs even after incline benches became more prevalent. Everyone was happyuntil lately. A number of people have sent me comments that theyve pulled off the Internet concerning the damaging effect the bench press is having on the chest, back (primarily the rotator cuffs), shoulders and elbows. They contend that the lift should be eliminated from all programs and replaced with inclines as its especially harmful to youngsters and older trainees. They wanted to know what I thought. As most readers know, Im a big fan of the incline bench. I like it because it hits the target muscles very directly and because theres less opportunity to cheat on the incline. Also, the motion of the incline is closer to the actual movements made in nearly every sport, whereas the flat-bench press relates to only a few athletic activities. Im not, howeverby any stretch of the imaginationantibench. It was one of the first exercises I did when I found a weight room, and I include it in all of my routines. The exercise is not an evil movement just waiting to do harm. When done correctly, the bench press is a safe exercise and helps enhance strength in the chest, shoulders, and arms, the key word being correctly. When its grossly overtrained or when trainees repeatedly use sloppy technique, injuries occurbut thats the case with any exercise. The lift is not at fault; the lifter is.

The reason ugly form shows up so frequently on the bench press is linked to its status as the gauge of strength. Back when the military press held that distinction, the bench press was regarded as an auxiliary exercise and no one paid much attention to how much a person could bench. Thats all changed. Its the one lift used to test athletes in nearly every sport. Quite often, a football players best bench press is listed right next to his time in the 40-yard dash. That makes the bench press extremely important. A lofty bench might catch the attention of a coach at a Division I college and translate to big bucks. You dont see form noted alongside the amount on the bench. All that matters is the number. As a result, coaches and parents care little about how the lift is done, just so the poundage is noteworthy. In truth, sloppy technique is encouraged. Excessive bridging, rebounding the bar off the chest, squirming, twistinganything goes. Big numbers in the bench reflect favorably on the coaches, even if the athletes have to stand on their heads to complete the lift. For those who train in commercial fitness facilities, its not the lure of scholarships but peer pressure that results in using poor form. Since, to most, the bench is the only lift that matters, they resort to any means to record a high one. Once bad habits become ingrained, its close to impossible to break them. It would be necessary to use much less weight, and the bench is so closely aligned with their egos that few can handle that. What it all means is that there are no rules for the bench press. If it touches the chest and is locked out in any manner, it counts. Once trainees have done a certain poundage, theyre not going to change their style, even if it means sore elbows and shoulders. In all of my years of lifting and coaching, Ive encountered very few who could swallow their pride and learn to bench correctly after handing big weights using sloppy form. The exception was John Phillip, my Tongan friend in Hawaii. I trained with Phillip at the Church College of Hawaii in Laie when I first moved to Oahu. When he found out that Id competed in some powerlifting contests, he asked me to train him for an upcoming one in Honolulu. At that point he was doing 515 but was rebounding the bar off his chest rather excessively. I told him that he had to learn to pause the bar on his chest for at least a full second if he expected to get the lift passed at the meet. He had to go back down to 405 before he could manage a legal lift. John was a legend on the island, and I fully understood what it took for him to lower his bench by more than 100 pounds in front of all his friends. Yet he did just that. At the contest, three months later, he benched 525 and got three white lights from strict judges. Then there are those who use decent technique on the bench but still have a host of dings or outright injuries to various parts of their upper body because they overwork the exercise to the extreme. They are so intent on improving their benches that they train the lift at every session and add several more exercises for their shoulders and chest for good measure. The workload for their shoulder girdles is often two or even three times greater than what they do for their hips, legs or back. It must be understood that the groups that comprise the shoulder girdledeltoids, triceps, biceps, pecs, and (yes) the rotator cuffsare quite delicate and cant take nearly as much work as the more powerful hips, legs and back. True, the upper back is also a part of the shoulder girdle, but its seldom included in the programs of athletes obsessed with obtaining a bigger bench, which means its a problem in itself. Ill come back to that later.

More often than not, the lifters who overtrain their upper bodies also employ ugly bench technique. The combination eventually results in some type of injury or nagging pain that makes sleeping without medication impossible and will ultimately cause them to stop training altogether. I believe that one reason so many people use improper form on the bench press is that theyve never been taught how to do it correctly. Since its really a simple movementlower the bar to your chest and press it back to lockoutvery few bother to examine the many form points of the lift. With light weights it doesnt matter all that much, but when the poundage gets heavy, it certainly does. If you know that the bench press is causing undue stress to any part of your upper body, here are suggestions that will enable you to continue to bench and avoid being punished in the process. For some, the best thing you can do for yourself is to stop benching for a while. Give your body time to heal. You can still work your shoulder girdle with other exercises, various degrees of inclines, overhead presses done with a bar or dumbbells, and dips. Or just do lots of auxiliary movements for a month or so, such as dumbbell raises, curls, triceps pushdowns, straight-arm pullovers and rows. The rest and high-rep work for the smaller groups often work wonders. Once you decide that youre ready to start benching again, you must take two steps, and both will be difficult. First, you must forget you did numbers. Old Man Usta died. Set your ego aside, and tell yourself that if you do everything right, youll eventually get back to the bigger numbers. That shouldnt be an immediate goal, though, or youll slip back into the old habits right away. Second, you must adjust your program and modify your technique. Your goal should be to achieve the perfect bench pressso clean from start to finish that you could be a model for a training video. That usually means starting from scratch. The time spent away from benching will help in that regard. Muscle memory will still be there, of course, but it wont be as fresh as if youd been benching recently. Start with the basics, and pay attention to the small points, such as the grip. Many experience shoulder and elbow trouble because they use a wide grip. They do it in the belief that it enables them to handle more weight. Or if theyre bodybuilders, they figure it builds a more impressive chest. Maybe, but benching with a wide grip over a long period of time is extremely stressful to the shoulders and elbows and will take its toll. To my way of thinking, its smarter to bench a few pounds less or have a bit smaller pecs and be able to continue to do benches than it is to have to resort to wraps, muscle rub and aspirin just to get through a workout. Besides, some of the greatest benchers I ever saw used a rather close grip relative to their shoulder size. Doug Young stands out as the perfect example. If you start with a close grip and use it consistently, youll end up handling as much as or more than if you selected that wider grip. That assumes you do all other aspects of the lift correctly. The grip I teach to everyone except those who have small or very wide shoulders is this: On an Olympic bar, extend your thumbs until they barely touch the smooth center. Thats a good starting point. Youll know a grip is right for you if you can keep your elbows under your wrists throughout the movement. When your elbows arent directly under the bar, youre

giving away power. Simple fact, but often overlooked. Maintaining the forearms in a vertical position also alleviates a great deal of stress on the elbows and wrists. Grip the bar firmly with your thumbs wrapped around it, I realize many big benchers prefer the false grip, where the thumbs are not around the bar, but Im not talking to powerlifters or those who have been benching for many years. The false grip is just too dangerous. One slip, and there goes your dental health; it happens more often than you realize, and theres no reason to use a false grip. Everyone I watch who uses a false grip also bridges to bring the bar through the sticking point. They have to bridge because the false grip works against them whenever the bar moves even the slightest bit forward. By contrast, with your thumbs around the bar, you can guide it back into the proper line should it run forward. As you assume your grip, lock your wrists, and keep them that way throughout the lift. Many beginners pick up the habit of cocking or turning their wrists while the bar is in motion, trying to coax it through the sticking point. That doesnt help, and it works against you because the unnecessary movement of the wrist diminishes the power generated by your chest, shoulders and arms. When the wrists are locked, power flows through them into the bar. Bear in mind that your wrists are delicate joints and very susceptible to injury. The constant cocking or twisting will aggravate them, and theyre one of the tougher areas of the body to rehab. If you find it difficult to stop cocking or twisting your wrists during the lift, tape or wrap them. That will hold them in place and also serve as a reminder for you to keep them straight. Now lets move from the hands to the feet, an aspect of benching that is generally overlooked. Bench pressing really starts with the feet. Brace your feet down into the floor before you lie back on the bench. That helps establish a firm base so that when the bar does hit the sticking point, you can power up from the solid foundation into the pressing muscles. If you allow your feet to dangle, though, theres no source of power when you need it. So you end up bridging or twisting to nudge the bar upward. Neither is permissible for the perfect bench press. Similarly, when you position yourself on the bench, squeeze down into it. Lock your shoulder blades and glutes tightly, and become a part of the fabric. Be the bench. Trite, I know, but you get the idea. The combination of grinding down into the bench and driving your feet into the floor will ensure that you have a very solid foundation from which to press the weight. Once youre fixed on the bench and have gripped the bar, have the spotter hand you the bar on your signal. Make sure you and your spotter are on the same page. Quite a few prefer to take the weight off the racks on their own, without any assistance. They feel that affords them more control of the bar right away. Either way is fine. Fix the bar at arms length, take a deep breath, and then lower it in a controlled manner to the point where your breastbone ends. Of course, there are variations on where the bar touches the chest, but it shouldnt touch too high or too low. Remember the rule: Your elbows must stay under your wrists at all times. In order to establish a pattern in which every rep is identical, you must make sure the bar touches your chest in exactly the same spot every time. That happens only when you lower it under complete control and dont allow it to crash on your chest. Remember Doug Young, whom I consider one of the greatest powerlifters ever? Hed lower the bar so slowly that youd have thought he was trying to avoid aggravating some old injury. In fact, he was making certain his downward line was precise. Then he exploded into the bar, and it shot up

like a rocket. Lowering the bar in a slow fashion also enables you to really tighten all your pressing muscles in preparation for the upward thrust. I compare it to coiling a giant spring, then releasing it. Now comes the part of the bench press that many refuse to accept because it means using a lot less weight, especially at first. Im talking about pausing the bar on your chest for a full second. Touch and go doesnt make it. As you pull the bar down to your chest, contract the muscles in your pecs, chest, arms and upper back, creating a solid base on which to position the bar. Stay extremely tight, and focus on driving the bar upward in exactly the same line every time. When you rebound or even touch and go, the starting line may vary a great deal and adversely affect the rest of the lift. When you pause with the bar on your chest, however, you have much more control of the its flight. Until powerlifting became popular, everyone who benched paused with the bar on his chest. Olympic lifters did so because they were doing benches to help them with the start of the military press. The purpose of benching was to strengthen the front deltoids and triceps, and that was achieved by pausing. Rebounding bypassed the target muscles, particularly the deltoids, and didnt make any sense. Bodybuilders paused, since they wanted to involve as many muscles as possible in the movement. As a result, neither group of athletes had any injuries from benching. No sore elbows, shoulders, pecs or damaged rotator cuffs. Once you learn to pause, youll discover that you can hold the bar on your chest for four or five seconds and still be able to blast it upward. Until you get the feel of pausing and determine where to drive the bar in the proper groove, be deliberate. After youre comfortable with pausing and have the line down pat, get aggressive. Think of the start as a boxing punchshort and powerful. As soon as the bar leaves your chest, follow through, and it will float through the middle range, which is where the sticking point usually resides. The bar should move in a straight line off your chest and through the middle; then glide back slightly at the finish so that it ends up over your chin or neck. It will travel upward in an arc, but a small arc. Lock the bar out, and exhale and inhale before doing the next rep. If youre handling a light or moderate poundage, how you breathe isnt that important. When you use heavier weights, however, its critical. Hold your breath throughout the lift, or at least until the bar breaks through the sticking point. Why? Inhaling or exhaling while the bar is in motion forces your rib cage to relax, and that adversely affects your base. Holding your breath ensures that your diaphragm stays locked, creating a positive intrathoracic pressure. Thats what you want, and theres little danger of running out of air unless youre in terrible shape, as the lift takes only a few seconds from start to finish. For those who find it difficult to stop bridging, try this. Its something lots of powerlifters did to keep themselves from bridging in a contest, which is cause for disqualification. Raise your feet up above the bench and cross your legs. Now you cant bridge. That also really helps the start because you arent getting any assistance from your lower body. Your goal should be to obtain the perfect bench and, for the time being, forget about the numbers. Five reps will work well, as will threes, but stay away from singles until youve built a strong foundation and ideal technique. If you have a history of being injured from benching, do it only once a week. And do only one primary exercise per workout for your

shoulder girdle. You can add one auxiliary movement as well, but no more than that. Should you decide you can handle benching twice a week, make sure that one of the days is a light day. Going heavy more than once a week isnt a smart idea, especially if youve had problems with your elbows, wrists, shoulders or some other bodypart in the past. Be sure to include some specific exercises for your upper back. Many athletes tell me of pain in their rear deltoids, and invariably its a result of disproportionate strength between the front and rear of the shoulders brought about from too much upper-body work and a severe lack of upper-back work. Shrugs, high pulls and rows will get the job done. If youre experiencing pain in the back of your shoulders, do a couple of sets of dumbbell rows at the end of every session. Every day is even better. Clean up your technique and do less for your upper body, and in a short time youll be able to say that youre a master bench presserand be pain free. A good deal, to my way of thinking. Take a moment to consider the big picture. Learn to bench-press perfectly, and youll be able to include it in your program for the rest of your life. Or keep abusing your body with sloppy form in order to satisfy your ego, and you wont. Your choice. Editors note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. Hes the author of The Strongest Shall SurviveStrength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit