Controversy can bring attention. Although this will bring many critics if it upsets the status quo, the increased awareness of a lesser-known viewpoint that has merit could help more people than otherwise. The controversy itself though, along with the source it comes from, do not make the argument any better or worse. In some cases, the controversy has value. In other cases, it fails to provide any. Perhaps the proponent offered well-meaning but false advice, or was motivated by less noble causes such as the profits it could create.
As functional training has grown to dominate fitness, classic free weight exercises such as the bench press have come under attack. This seemed radical at first, but with more and more authoritative voices chiming in to decry it, you may have even come to believe that the status quo among experts is to avoid the basic free weight exercises.
The critics will categorize the bench press as among the worst exercises you can perform. They scare you with stories of pec tears and ruined shoulders. Injury is inevitable should you persist with it.
Consider that more injuries occur on it because more people use it. It ranks among the most popular exercises. The opponents often fail to differentiate between different styles of performance though. They make sweeping statements that usually draw upon the worst catastrophes to make their case.
Performed correctly, the bench press works the pushing muscles best and functions not merely as a chest exercise. It works the front half of the shoulders, the triceps, and the chest. Many stabilizers such as the core and smaller muscles such as the serratus anterior assist the movement. The bench press allows you to safely load a basic movement pattern as you grow stronger and stronger.
Those against it often suggest functional training exercises instead. They push devices like suspension trainers that reduce the stability required to express and build the utmost strength. They recommend bodyweight exercises that change leverage. These may seem to make an exercise harder but instead change it completely and make it riskier.
They replace the bench press with gymnastics exercises. Exercises such as ring dips and pull-ups can truly harm the shoulder due to the vertical movement. They may hearken to the sentiments of the old-timers where the overhead press reigns, despite the evidence showing that this exercise causes shoulder impingement. Standing on two feet to perform it alone seems to make it worthwhile.
Push-ups, while a step in the right direction, have a limited capacity to load the pushing muscles. It has other flaws less apparent at first glance. It makes no sense to defend an ideal that cannot work in reality.
Address these concerns to ensure the bench press feels safe.
In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for the Truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.
- Avoid retracting the shoulder blades as far as possible.
The bench you rest upon can impede the movement of the scapulae. This then exaggerates movement at the glenohumeral joint, causing shoulder problems. This alone gives a sound argument against the bench press.
You can defend against this though. Allow the bench to just barely hold your shoulder blades in place. Lift your chest up and pull your shoulder blades back just a bit. As you lower the barbell, allow you shoulder blades to retract as occurs naturally. The scapula should move along with the glenohumeral joint, maintaining its natural rhythm. This will establish stability yet allow freedom of movement.
Never retract your shoulder blades as far as possible to lock in the scapula. Powerlifters suggest this to enhance performance. This advice has then infiltrated the realm of the ordinary lifter, to the detriment of their safety.
- Avoid too much range of motion.
Depending on the trainee, the bottom position of the bench press can destroy the shoulders.
According to the length-tension relationship, you only need to get your elbows equal or just a tad lower than the plane of your shoulders. About parallel with the floor and about a 90° bend at the elbows is sufficient. Consider placing a pad around the barbell to still allow you to maintain a consistent endpoint at the bottom, lest you cheat yourself. Some trainees can still use their chest as an endpoint, depending on their build.
Never arch the lower back to decrease the range of motion. This confuses a better performance with best building strength.
- Use medium positions.
All grips, stances, and positions should never approach an extreme.
Never grip too narrowly or too widely. Many that complain about stress at the delt-pec tie-in go too wide. If you use too close of a grip on the bench press, your shoulder blades will spread too far apart. The body operates as a unit and one flaw can affect every other step. Remain close to about a 45° angle of the arms relative to the body.
On the bench press, the elbows should line up with the wrists at the bottom of the movement. The elbows should be perpendicular to the floor when viewed from the side. The wrists should never travel ahead of or behind the elbows, which occurs if you lower the bar to the collarbone or the lower rib cage. Hit the lower chest or upper rib cage area.
Try to draw the elbows straight back when you lower the weight instead of flaring them. This may seem to help at first but deceives you and reduces your efficiency. This will largely come about naturally with the right grip though.
Do not try to get your hand under the bar so to speak. Avoid a false grip. Avoid having the barbell rest too closely to the palm of the hand
Any time a trainee complains that they do not feel it in a certain muscle, they almost always deviate from a medium position. The joint motions required for the bench press physiologically cannot remove the chest, shoulders, and triceps as the prime movers. The medium positions will work all the muscles evenly and also maximize tension, the main stimulus for more size and strength.
- Move neither too fast nor too slow.
A balance between fast and slow works well. Remain in control and stay in your groove. Push hard when the reps grow difficult. The intention to move fast matters more than the actual speed.
- When unracking the bar by yourself, avoid unracking it from too far behind you.
Line up the barbell a bit ahead of your gaze before the liftoff.
- Avoid support gear.
Training with support gear develops crutches and unbalances the exercise to make it more dangerous
- Ensure setups for safety.
Death can result if the weight collapses on your chest or neck.
Always press inside a power rack. Get a spotter if needed too. If you cannot set the safety bars at the right level, always go a bit higher. Remember, you do not need too much range of motion.
- The alternatives rank worse.
Incline and decline presses place shearing forces on the shoulders and work less total muscle. Any difference in muscle activation on them is negligible. This matters not if you work hard enough to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers according to motor unit recruitment.
Some defend the incline press as more sports-specific. They may say that the decline press better matches the function of the pecs. These opinions ignore what occurs to the joints. The cross-over function of the pecs exists in isolation and has no bearing on handling a heavy load. Isolation works poorly for loading our muscles. We move in straight lines when demanding strength. The rotations of many joints combine to achieve it.
Heavy flyes place shearing forces on the shoulders. The load exists far away from the working muscles. This is a sign of a bad exercise.
Freedom of movement at the shoulder exists for repositioning. The mobility to enter unusual positions does not mean we can handle heavy loads within them. Even repetitively testing the mobility of the shoulder will harm it over time.
Functional training movements rely far too much on balance and coordination. These factors overwhelm the exercise and limit strength gain. If you use enough weight to truly overload your strength levels, a mistake that occurs due to losing your balance could also hurt you tremendously.
- No exercise is sports-specific.
Some will make the observation that a boxer and a lineman push in a slight incline plane. Keep in mind this occurs unloaded and with speed, which does not expose the shoulder to the same harmful forces. Athletics also fail to dictate normal movement patterns. Consider that many athletic tasks harm the joints.
The bench press best trains the pushing muscles. You then apply this strength but practicing your sport. Trying to make a basic movement more athletic by hampering stability just reduces the strength you can then transfer. It also trains a completely new set of irrelevant skills. You just improve at pressing from an exercise ball, nothing more.
Keep training general.
The Bench Press is Safe
My approach aims to overload three basic movement patterns. These include a push, a pull, and a squat. It seems our bodies adapted to expect heavy weights for them when viewing upper body anatomy along with lower body and core anatomy. Other motions beyond these occurred in unloaded environments. They get better worked through functional tasks such as sprinting for intervals or through walking, not lifting.
We aim to load these basic movement patterns in the safest way possible. You need heavier and heavier weights as you grow stronger, not a variety of exercises. I suggest the barbell bench press, the barbell back squat, and the single-armed dumbbell row.
None of these exercises are perfect. The bench press can limit shoulder blade freedom. The squat can strain the shoulders. The mechanics of the row can limit the necessary range of motion. Nonetheless, with good form, these exercises work as the best options. They allow you to assume medium positions and evenly address all the involved muscles and joints.
Avoid the functional training approach. Focus on the most basic and safe way to overload the pushing muscles. The bench press is safe and works best for this purpose, given you use good form.