Probably the most overrated and over used exercise since everyone saw Arnie’s pumped up chest graced the screens in Pumping Iron. Not to mention all of the incorrect technique, bad form, incomplete RoM, overuse injuries, strength imbalances and just plain idiocy surrounding the bench press… Why do gyms have more bench presses than squat racks? Well simply because it works.
Now there are so many videos and instructional books/text/websites that present how to do a bench press, adding one more is pointless. We all know the bench press targets the pectorials, triceps and shoulders. Narrow grip shifts the emphasis on the triceps and wider grip emphasis the pecs. Always remember that benching puts extraordinary stress and pressure on the shoulder & elbow joints. Keep this in mind with respect to programming and training protocols. As I can say from personal experience, don’t train shoulders the day after a heavy bench day…big mistake.
There are two basic types of bench presses. The powerlifting bench & the bodybuilding bench. The big difference comes down to purpose. The powerlifting press trains the movement, whereas the bodybuilding press trains the muscle.
The most common form of bench press you will see is the bodybuilding/conventional bench press, as demonstrated by Arnold below.
The purpose here is not to lift the heaviest weight possible, but to make the pecs recruit as many muscle fibres as possible to induce hypertrophy and maximise time under tension on the muscle. You’ll notice the body is flat, the arms are flared out and the weight is pressed at or above te nipple line. These simple placements and cues of the body have major biomechanical repercussions, which mean that the chest and triceps are the main antagonist. This setup however has its drawbacks, mainly the enormous stress it places on the shoulder socket.
The lesser popular sibling is the powerlifting bench press (bodybuilders will call this cheating).
When executed properly, the pecs will actually play a really small role in lifting the weight. Remember the main goal in the powerlifting press is to move the weight, not to work the muscle, and as a result the whole body is used to move the weight. You’ll notice an arched back, shoulders tucked in, heels pressing towards the ground, the bar travelling from the sternum/upper stomach and the traps/shoulders being pushed back into the bench. EliteFTS has an amazing series on youtube called ‘So you think you can bench‘ which explains quite well how to set yourself up for a powerlifting bench.
From my experience, the conventional press has wreaked havoc on my shoulder joint, built up my chest like nothing else, but for me, the risk isn’t worth the reward. However, I pushed the limits and I wouldn’t recommend that. However, everyone is different, so just remember to listen to your body and if your shoulder is in pain that isn’t DOMS, then I suggest another chest builder. For building the pecs, I’ve switched to neutral grip dumbbell press, dips, incline & decine chest machines.
When I do bench, I have switched to the powerlifting style, I have found that I can bench upwards of 185lbs with no shoulder pain (whereas anywhere near this weight using the conventional style would cause days of pain). The key for this is all in the setup, so I constantly read & watch technique articles & videos.
And for all those people that do cables as a shaping exercise, yet can’t bench at least 1.2 times their bodyweight, I just have one question; exactly what muscle are you shaping? Remember to stick with the basics and to get a solid foundation before you try anything fancy. If you can’t flex the muscle, you don’t really have any muscle to isolate.
Three ways to get a bigger bench:
- Improve your technique
- Get stronger triceps & lats
- Push the weight as fast as you can
There are so many assistance exercises & programs to look out for; Westside Barbell are probably the producers of the strongest people on the planet & their three principles are: Max Effort, Dynamic Effort & Repetition method. Eric Cressey, Dave Tate, Louie Simmons, Jim Wendler, Charles Poliquin are some other writers to look out for if you want technique instruction and plan selection.
Remember, listen to your body, check your ego at the door & remember the purpose of the bench press