Myths of the Bench Press
By Rob Wagner
If you are continuing this series from the last issue welcome back and if you
are just opening up this article let me refer you to page 4 in the last issue of
Body Talk for Part one of this article covering the squat. As I mentioned in
part one there will be no mention of Prometheus or of Gilgamesh here. Instead,
this article will investigate the misconceptions and misguided advice often
given for the Bench Press. A Bench Press in a gym is as common as a wart on a
toad. I have been to gyms with no power racks or chin bars or platforms but I
have never seen a gym without a flat bench. It has become the primary upper body
exercise of most individuals who lift weights and it has plenty of merit in
being that when it is performed correctly. How many times have you asked or been
asked, when talking about lifting, �how much do you Bench?� The difficulty with
discussing the Bench Press is that there is an abundance of thoughts and beliefs
on or about Bench Pressing that just aren�t right. The fact that so many people
practice the lift allows for a lot of variations and interpretations.
Unfortunately, many of these variations are biomechanically incorrect and can be
hazardous to your shoulder health. So lets look at some of the misconceptions
about this lift and try to shed some light on how to correct this information.
Hopefully, I will get you started on a more righteous path of Bench Pressing
Myth # 1. The Bench Press is a pec
Well this is only half a myth since it does develop the pecs. However, the
efficiency of how the lift is performed can limit the pecs involvement
(McLaughlin, 1984). The exercise is often demonstrated in magazines and training
tapes with lifters lowering the bar with the upper arms at 90� angles (a T
position) away from the sides of the body. This style of benching places most of
the stress on the shoulder joint. How many folks do you know with a shoulder
injury from benching? The lowering of the bar in this fashion places greater
rotational forces (torque) on the shoulder. Over time this pattern of movement
can create havoc on the shoulder specifically in the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus,
infraspinatus, teres Minor and subscapularis). To really use the pecs to their
fullest, I suggest keeping the elbows closer (less than 90�) to the body on both
the descent and ascent of the lift. A simple demonstration is for you to raise
your arm straight out to the side so that it is parallel to the floor. Now try
to flex your pec without bringing your arm across your body. Its not easy is it?
But if you think about it this is the same position that is advocated for
benching. Now lower the arm to 45� from parallel and flex the pec in the same
manner. Bit of a difference, huh? By keeping the elbows in versus out our arms
are less externally rotated and the distance between the muscles points of
origin and insertion are at a more optimal range allowing the pecs to be more
This position also allows the triceps to play a bigger role in your bench as
well. The triceps primary role is to extend the forearm. When you bench and your
arms hit the 90� position the triceps can no longer extend the forearm because
your hands are stuck on the bar. The only way the triceps can work in this
position is to slide the hands outward. By placing the elbows in a less than 90�
angle the triceps can work more effectively through a larger range of motion
since the upper arms aren�t at 90�. So how do you get the arms at less than 90�.
Lets look at myth # 2.
Myth #2. Lower the bar to the nipples or
Why the nipples, is it because it�s the only landmark that people with no muscle
could think of? Bringing the bar to this landmark will give you that T arm
angle. When the bar comes to the chest the forearms need to be almost vertical
to the floor for the most effective force development (McLaughlin, 1984). The
landmark that I prefer to use is the xiphoid process, the little piece of
cartilage that extends off your sternum (breast bone) at the top of your abs.
For most individuals lowering the bar to this region will keep the elbows in and
ensure that the forearms are in a vertical position. This area is typically the
highest part of your torso when you are on the bench. This helps to reduce the
range of motion that the arms must travel in turn reducing shoulder torque.
Initially you will feel a little awkward and weak but stay with this for about
4-6 weeks and you will see the results.
Myth # 3. Keeping your feet on the bench
protects the back and develops better pressing power.
After exhausting several databases I found no research on back injuries and the
bench press. They can occur so lets look at why they might and how you can avoid
them without placing your feet on the bench. Injuries can occur to the lower
back area when a lifter starts to raise the bar and simultaneously lifts his
butt off the bench. This raising of the butt also raises the ribcage creating a
decline like bench position. It is in this position you can hyperextend the low
back and possibly injure yourself. This type of injury is not the result of
benching; it is the result of benching wrong.
Fitness experts advocate the maintenance of a neutral arch in the back on squats
and other standing exercises, but how come they never mention this when they are
instructing lying exercises. Besides them typically being *****s, they must
assume that lying is a safe position regardless of the exercise. Just like all
other exercises you need to have a proper posture on the bench. Place both feet
flat on the floor about shoulder width apart. The feet can be either directly
under your knees or slightly out in front of them. When you lie back flex your
glutes and hams, you will notice that you will feel yourself pushing down
through your feet when you do this. Tighten the low back as well and hold the
neutral posture of the spine, think about getting your butt and shoulders close
to each other. You will also want to pull the shoulder blades together and keep
the upper back tight as well. Finally, keep the head on the bench. Lifting the
head has been shown to decrease pressing power (Berger, 1991). Your feet are
flat on the floor and your shoulders and butt are on the bench with a small arch
under your low back. The bottom of your rib cage should be elevated. Now try to
lift your butt off the bench. If you can, move your feet away from your knees
until the butt stays on the bench. Once you are in a position where you can�t
lift the butt you have injury proofed the lift. By maintaining this posture we
eliminate the opportunity for the low back to hyperextend.
Keeping the feet up can actually limit your power since the ability to balance
and stabilize the torso on the bench is compromised. I have found that when
athletes keep their feet on the floor and maintain the proper posture the weight
actually feels lighter to them. I don�t know if this is a reflex mechanism of
pushing with the feet or if the whole body tension increases the excitability of
the nervous or muscular systems involved in the benching motion. In any case
keep the feet on the floor and maintain your posture.
Myth # 4. Wide grip works the outer pec and
narrow grip the inner pec.
The typical belief is that the wider the hands the more you will hit the outer
pec and the narrower grip will hit the inner pec. Well there is a major problem
here. The Pectoralis Major has two portions a lower, the sternocostal head and
an upper, the clavicular head. There are no inner and outer pecs anatomically
speaking. Let me define a narrow and wide grip. In two separate studies,
researchers determined narrow grip as the distance between your acromion
processes (slide your hand down your trap and the bony bump you hit is the
acromion). They then applied this measurement to the hand spacing (distance
between index fingers) on the bar. Wide grip was two times the narrow grip
distance. Both groups of researchers found that grips that were 1.65 to 2 times
their narrow grip were the most effective strength wise. The way you can
determine your grip is to measure the distance between your acromion processes.
Now measure the distance between your index fingers when you bench. Divide the
bench distance by the acromion distance and if your number is between 1.65 and
2.00 you are in an optimal position (Clemons, J. & Aaron, C, 1997; Wagner, et.
al, 1992). In the research, the activation of the upper and lower portions of
the pec muscle are affected by different hand spacing. In one study it was found
that the wider grip placed more stress on the sternocostal head than the narrow
grip. The narrow grip seemed to activate the clavicular head more effectively
then a wide grip. The narrow grip also activated the triceps more than the wide
(Barnett, Kippers & Turner, 1995).
Myth #5. Incline BP works the upper pec and
Decline BP works the lower pec better than flat bench.
This would be true if you compared the Decline BP to Incline BP but the research
has actually shown that decline and flat stimulate the sternocostal head in
similar fashions (Barnett, Kippers & Turner, 1995). Glass and Armstrong (1997)
reported that the Decline BP activated the muscle in the clavicular head as
effectively as the Incline BP. Now that I have cleared that up, why can you
Decline more then you BP? Well it probably has to do with your technique on the
BP. Think about your bar placement when you decline. Is it lower then the flat?
Think back to myths #2 and #3. The technical recommendations I provided in those
areas will raise the rib cage up similar to the decline position. This reduces
the distance that you have to lower and press the bar.
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