Defending the Bench Press

This article was originally publisehd at EliteFTS.com

Defending the Bench Press

By Mike Robertson

For www.EliteFTS.com

The bench press is a great lift. Whether your goal is to develop a powerful overall physique or a barrel chest or just get brutally strong, the bench press can help you get there.

Before we go any further, however, let’s get a few things out of the way. First off, I’m not a great bench presser. My best bench was in the USAPL. At a body weight of 198 lbs, I benched 335 lbs. In fact, if anyone should have a disdain for the bench press, it should be a guy like me who has a terrible one!

It seems the bench press has been thrown under the proverbial bus lately, and I feel somewhat compelled to defend it. Whether it’s being demonized for tearing up shoulders, ripping pecs off the bone, or finding some other way to get people injured, the bench press seems to have fallen out of favor in many circles. I’m here to tell you this much—when performed correctly and when incorporated properly within a program, the bench press is a wonderful lift that will take your upper body strength and physique to the next level.

Let’s begin by reviewing some of the common “theories” held when it comes to the bench press and injuries.

Destroying the dogma

One of the injuries that people relate to the bench press is the dreaded pec tear. Now, I’ve never torn a pec, although I’ve had a pretty serious strain in the past. It sucks and it’s no laughing matter, but it didn’t happen from bench pressing!

The naysayers would have you believe that pec tears are a common theme when it comes to strength enthusiasts. But is this really the case? If we follow the logic that if you bench long enough, you’ll tear a pec or somehow get injured, then the same logic must be followed for the squat and deadlift, right? So, if you train the deadlift long enough, you’re sure to have some sort of back issue? Or if you squat long enough, you’re sure to have some sort of hip or knee issue?

Hopefully, you’re picking up on my sarcasm here. It’s not the lift itself. It’s an entire host of factors. How you perform the lift, your individual biomechanics, the joints and connective tissue you have, and your programming (both short and long term) are all going to play a role in how healthy you are over the course of your training career. Saying that one lift is the penultimate reason that people get injured is a little naive if not flat out asinine.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking to some of the strongest bench pressers in the world. As an assistant coach for the USA bench press team several years ago, I talked shop with national and world champions from many different countries. Oddly enough, I don’t recall any of them suffering from a pec tear. If anyone should be at an increased risk for pec tears, it should be someone at this level of strength, right?

At the risk of using the same broken logic that I’m harping on others about, let me give you a caveat. If you’re a world class bench presser, chances are you have all the right tools genetically to stay healthy and get freaky strong. I just want you to understand that it’s really hard to pigeonhole one lift as the reason why people get hurt.

Another common myth you’ll hear purported is from the overhead pressing camp. Now, I see nothing wrong with the overhead press for those who are moving appropriately (most notably good thoracic spine alignment and scapular upward rotation) and those who have optimal scapular design (type 1 or type 2 acromions). However, it’s almost comical when people say that the overhead press is “safer” than the bench press. Since when?

I think this myth started many years ago with some comments made my Bill Starr. Before I continue, let me preface this by saying that I have the utmost respect for Bill Starr. The man has probably forgotten more about strength training than I will ever know. However, many advocates of the overhead press will paraphrase a quick line that’s been attributed to him in the past: “Before the bench press became en vogue and people overhead pressed, there were far fewer shoulder and rotator cuff injuries.” Here’s the beef that I have with that argument. How in the hell can you prove that? Has someone tracked it? Is there reliable data? Or scientific evidence?

I’ve looked for data to back this and there is none. What’s worse is there’s no way that we could ever reliably track this. With so many people hitting the gym nowadays, even though there may be more total injuries, that’s largely due to the fact that more people are strength training now than ever before. So while the total number of injuries may be on the rise, the percentage of lifters getting injured probably hasn’t changed all that much.

The overhead press is a great lift, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, it takes more biomechanical “mojo” to overhead press than it does to bench press safely and effectively. First and foremost, you need to have good extensibility at your thoracic spine. Otherwise, you’ll be working on an impingement syndrome before you know it. And even if your thoracic spine posture is optimal, you still need to have great upward rotation as well. Many of the clients that Bill and I have worked with at I-FAST have terrible strength in their serratus anterior and lower trapezius, which makes getting into a good overhead position very difficult to do.

With all that being said, can you get injured performing the bench press? Of course you can. Let’s briefly discuss a few of the reasons why people get injured and discuss some ways to prevent injury and keep your numbers on the up-and-up over the long haul.

Option #1: Perfect your technique

Flawless technique isn’t an option when it comes to lifting let alone the sport of powerlifting. The best lifters are not only brutally strong but typically have outstanding technique as well. It’s doubtful that I’m going to teach any of the high-level lifters on this site how to improve their bench press from a technical perspective.

For the beginner or intermediate level lifter, however, here are two hugely important keys for staying healthy over the long haul:

  1. Scapulae back and down: I can’t stress this enough, but getting your upper back locked in is one of, if not the most, integral components of bench pressing. I have no way to prove this other than anecdotal evidence, but I suggest that many of the injuries we see on the bench press are due to a lack of scapular stability. Keeping the scapulae tucked back and down gives us a nice solid base from which to press. If you feel as though one side isn’t as stable as the other, work diligently to remedy this.One other note, always get a hand off! When training at Westside many years ago, I found it odd when Dave Tate (a 600-lb bench presser) was getting a hand off with 135 lbs on the bar. Now, it makes a lot more sense! It’s impossible to get set in an ideal position and then try and lift the weight out yourself. Once your scapulae are back and down in the appropriate position, get a hand off to help keep them there.If you want to learn more about proper bench press technique, I highly recommend picking up the EliteFTS Bench Manual.
  1. Tuck your elbows: Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’re interested more in strength and performance than building huge pecs. Leave the elbows flared variations to the bodybuilders. Instead, tucking the elbows places more stress on the triceps and takes stress off the shoulder joint. I can’t imagine teaching anyone to bench with their elbows out. Even if your only goal is to build huge pecs, there are safer ways to do it than elbows flared bench presses.

Option #2: Be prudent when cranking up volume/intensity

Poor lifting mechanics are a surefire way to get injured when bench pressing. Another is injudiciously cranking up your volume or intensity without preparing your body for it. I’ve worked with tons of athletes and lifters in the past, and I can’t tell you how many of their injuries are spurred on when they start to crank their training up.

You see this all the time with recreational lifters. They read the latest article on BroScience.com about how to put 50 lbs on their bench press in two months and jump into the program immediately. Things are great for the first 3-4 weeks and then every fiber of their being starts to hurt. It could be their wrists, elbows, or their shoulders. But remember, it’s their poor application of the lift that got them injured, not the lift itself! Quite simply, they didn’t prepare themselves correctly for the increased training loads.

Option #3: Balance your training

You want to know why so many of the average gym rats out there end up getting injured when bench pressing? I’ll tell you why, and it’s not just bad technique or the 20 sets of chest presses they do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s because their programming is so horribly imbalanced that their body basically has no choice other than injury or lack of progress.

Here’s an example of a kid who just joined our gym a few weeks ago. He’s pretty damn strong overall. He’s squatted 425 lbs in knee wraps and pulled 455 lbs at around 181 lbs of body weight. I wish I would’ve been that strong at his age! The problem? His bench press is 245 lbs! When Bill assessed him, he was strong in the areas that you’d expect (pecs, triceps, etc.) but horribly weak in his upper back and stabilizing musculature.

Whether you know it not, your body is far smarter than you are. It knows when you’re suffering from a muscle imbalance. If things aren’t lined up the way that they should be or if your stabilizers can’t do their job effectively, your body halts progress in its tracks. Unfortunately, too many people feel that this is the time to do more of whatever activity they’re struggling at! This is where the injury bug lies.

If you’re serious about not only improving your bench press but also staying healthy, I highly suggest putting in a ton of work to get these typical weak areas up to snuff. For the upper body, this generally includes improving your thoracic spine alignment as well as the strength of your upper back, lower trapezius, and rotator cuffs. This will not only keep you healthy but on the fast track to success as well.

Option #4: Don’t forget about your connective tissue

While older lifters know this to be true, you have to back off from time to time to allow your connective tissue time to heal. You also need to have dedicated times of the year to work on higher repetitions, which helps develop connective tissue strength. Going balls out every week month after month and year after year is a surefire way to get injured.

When discussing connective tissue strength, we need to mention anabolics as well. I’m definitely no expert on the topic, but steroids do seem to influence how tissues respond to loading. Mel Siff mentioned in a presentation at the SWIS conference that if a lifter he trained was on anabolics, he doubled the amount of time spent on connective tissue development. I guess those high rep sets aren’t just for the bodybuilders after all!

As many coaches have said in the past, “There aren’t bad exercises, just bad exercise performance.” Whether it’s poor technique, poor programming, or one of the other factors I discussed, I hope you can see that it’s not the exercise at hand that’s the problem but the application of said exercise. Many are quick to demonize the bench press, but when utilized appropriately within your training program, it can be an amazing tool to develop new found levels of strength and muscular development.

3 Comments

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  1. Pretty good point with the connective tissue development work. How many reps and sets do you recommend for such training? Also:

    Even if your only goal is to build huge pecs, there are safer ways to do it than elbows flared bench presses.

    My goal isn’t exactly to build a humongous chest, but a decent pair of pecs wouldn’t hurt. What exercises would you recommend for this purpose, since elbows flared bench press is out?

    Thanks.

  2. I really like this article Mr.Robertson. The point about imbalance and making sure your stabilizer’s are strong enough to support the exercise is awesome. We definitely practice that here. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  3. Hi Mike, My experience is that I have very tender shoulders, and used to do lot’s and lots of pushups and bench press. Lots. We were taught in HS that we should allow the bar to go down as far as we could, to get a good stretch on the muscle. Very, very bad idea! In the military, I did hundreds of thousands of pushups, to include wide grip, close grip, clapping in between, incline, etc, etc. I also did flies and dips, and incline press etc . . . all in an effort to produce a nice chest. And it worked. Very nice. But today, at age 46, my shoulders are toast. they have been since about age 35. I went to a sports doctor before I turned 40 . . . one of the doctors who works with the Clemson Football team, because I didn’t want to be seen by someone who was primarily working with geriatric patients. He did some MRI’s and x-rays and told me I could save my shoulders if I stopped doing flat bench and went to incline. He told me that flat bench puts WAAYYY too much pressure on the medial head of the deltoids, especially when you allow the bar to go all the way down to the chest. Turns out, he was right. Since then, I have gone exclusively to the incline bench, and even though I work hard, (a few weeks ago, I did 225 twelve times, very clean and controlled) I no longer have shoulder injuries since then. (Unless I try to go back to the bench!). My wife and I won Bill Phillips Body For Life Contest (Couples category) about 10 years ago. I still work out regularly, and every time I go back to ANY kind of bench, my shoulders hurt. This may only be anecdotal, but the doctor says no one needs to do bench press, but if you DO flat bench, you should never go below a 90 degree angle at the elbow. So, my advice on bench is . . . Go Incline!

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