I don't need to tell you how revered the bench press is. Along with exercises such as the squat and deadlift, it forms the basis of most strength training and bodybuilding programs. And it wouldn't be too bold a statement to say that the bench press is the most popular upper-body exercise in the world!
I've got no beef with that. I think the bench press deserves this status. It's undeniably a great lift!
If you share this appreciation of the bench – and there's probably as much chance of this being true as the Pope being Catholic – I know you are not going to be happy if your ability to bench is limited. And, heaven forbid, if you can't bench without pain, then you're one sad bastard. I want to save you from that fate. I no longer want to hear about how your pec just blew, or how you have tendonitis in the long head of the bicep where it passes through the shoulder joint.
No, I don't believe I'm being Nostradamus-like about the bench. What I see, in proportions as epidemic as "wussiness" amongst the kids of America, as common as breast implants in Southern California, is shoulder-damaging training methods.
It's no surprise that so many are suffering declines in performance and setting themselves up for future pain because of the flock mentality: "I see everyone else doing it, so I'll copy it." Besides, it doesn't help that many influential people in this industry reinforce these damaging habits.
Don't misinterpret me – I want you to bench as much as you are determined to. But if you want to optimize your bench and minimize chest, shoulder and arm injuries, you would benefit from learning how to negate the downsides of the bench press. In essence, you need to learn how to maintain muscle balance around the shoulder.
Whenever you move your arm, the upper arm is controlled in the shoulder joint by the combined action of all the muscles that cover this joint. If the relationship of these muscles is altered, you immediately have injury potential – because the way the head of the humerus moves in the shoulder joint may have changed.
This integration or coordination of the muscles around the shoulder is complex and fine-tuned, and even a minor alteration can cause significant problems!
What kind of problems? Changes in the function of the shoulder can contribute to non-specific shoulder pain, torn pecs, torn biceps, triceps and forearms, force reduction in pushing movements and so on. I have no desire to create a lengthy list of downsides, as I wouldn't want a knee jerk reaction where the bench ends up being neglected, but I do have an obligation to tell it like it is. And many chest and upper extremity injuries can be traced back to altered function in the shoulder joint. To take that one step further, the disproportionate volume given to bench pressing is invariably involved.
Keep in mind that there are two kinds of injuries – traumatic and chronic. The traumatic ones are the kind that hit you all of a sudden. They're common in contact sports – especially when an athlete's struck unexpectedly by significant external forces. They're obviously not common in the gym, but they do occur. Take a pec tear for example.
Chronic injuries are more insidious. We all have examples of them. The first stage is when your function is impaired, but the impairment is at such a low level that you don't realize it. The body is very fine-tuned and you can experience firing inhibition with even the slightest of problems.
At the next level is a chronic injury. You may notice a low level discomfort, but most of the time you ignore it and hope it goes away. By this time it's possible that the poundages are being affected, but you invariably apply the old 'head in the sand' technique (otherwise known as the 'Ostrich maneuver'!)
By the time most of us do anything about it, the problem is so severe that we can no longer train (or at best train this bodypart), and the rehabilitation time and cost is significant. Then we say, "If only I'd taken notice of this...".
How do I know all this? I have much experience!
So to enjoy pain free benching for life.... I'm going to share with you some steps to negate the downsides of benching – to help you take your bench press as high as you can, to support your ability to bench for life, and to educate you on how to keep your shoulder joint healthy.
Let's first take a look at the triad of factors that alterate shoulder function:
Any exercise has potential to cause shortening of the connective tissue. The bench is typically a cyclical movement (repetitive, through the same line of movement) and usually done in high volume (lots of sets, reps and days trained in the week). Cyclical movements done in high volume represent high risk to any athlete, no matter what the sport or action.
To negate this I recommend stretching and massage. Nothing radical about this. No, I don't care how you stretch. Obviously, I have reached my conclusions on this matter but have no insecurities about you reaching other conclusions. All that really matters is that you get a result, a result that counteracts the shortening induced by this typically high volume, cyclical movement.
The underlying theme here is the need to control the shoulder blade in all movements that involve the shoulder. It's commonly recognized in therapy circles, totally ignored in much of the strength training lay environments, and given only lip service by most strength coaches.
In essence, if the shoulder blade is not controlled, one of the risks is increased impingement of the head of the upper arm bone into the shoulder socket. Stability drills have crept into strength training habits during the last five years, but are usually performed in poor form, with excessive load, in low volume (e.g. 1-2 sets) and at the end of the workout. Kind of like putting the condom on after the event.
You end up with a Boris Becker like result. In other words, the damage will continue for a lot longer than the pleasure of the event! Or as we say in Australia, this approach is like a "tit on a bull." I haven't opened up on this area of information too much in my writings for T-mag, but only because it constitutes too much information, too soon, for many, and also because it is hard to teach! I have, however, covered it in some of my videos, covered it in my seminars, and will lay it out in street language in my upcoming Get Buffed!™ Part 2 book.
In any event, please be aware that the body operates in concert.
[Editor's note: Ian didn't mean to leave you hanging like this, so rest assured that he'll prescribe specific movements that will add stability to your bench in an upcoming article.]
This concept is one of the simplest of the 3, or at least, in the literature, the most accepted. The need to balance a pushing movement with a pulling movement has been given written recognition in strength training literature for decades. But for some reason, the practical application of the concept hasn't filtered down all that well.
There are a number of reasons for this, at least as it pertains to the shoulder joint and the bench press. Literally interpreted, for every set of bench press, you would have a set of an opposite movement, e.g. a rowing type movement. For those who are unfamiliar with my approach, I call a bench a horizontal pushing movement and a rows a horizontal pulling movement.
Historically horizontal pulling movements, relative to benching or horizontal pushing movements, are not 1) done as often, 2) in as high a volume, or 3) using comparable loads.
Here are some reasons why:
1) Frequency of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing:
Powerlifters/weightlifters don't do it. This is both true and false. Powerlifters don't need to do rowing movements as often as they bench because they deadlift. What has deadlifting got to do with it? It's little recognized, but deadlifting (at least with proper scapula positioning awareness) is one of the best ways to negate the downsides of the bench. But powerlifters have had a traditional awareness of the value of rowing. Remember this, if you are not deadlifting as frequently as the average powerlifter (all year round, basically), you need to do more frequent horizontal pulling than the average powerlifter. And Olympic lifters don't bench much, so this whole point of discussion isn't so much of an issue.
Anyway, Olympic lifters do cleans, snatches, and variations of these almost daily.
You can't see the results. I can't argue with this. Unless you are in the changing room at the local Sears, you aren't going to see your upper back much. Out of sight, out of mind. Until the injuries appear. By then, the years or decades of unbalanced training may never be overcome....
Pulling is pulling. There is this misdirected belief that a chin up or similar (vertical pulling) is the same as horizontal pulling, and work equally to provide the push-pull ratio with benching. What a load of trash! In fact, the two most common major muscle shortenings around the shoulder are tight chest and tight lats!!!
In fairness, I think people only reach this conclusion as a defense after they realize that there are significant limitations in their program design. Hey, bite the bullet and get over it – if not for your own sake, then for the sake of the people you influence. After all, which upper body exercises dominate in priority in many strength programs? Bench and chins. Great exercises, but when do you see rowing prioritized?
It's gotta be done if you want balance!
2) Volume of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing:
You can't see and feel the results. As explained above, you can't see or admire your back as often, you vain bastard, you! And you just don't get that sensation from blowing up the rowing muscles as you do when you are on the bench. You can't stare in the mirror at your bulging upper back.
Now when you bench, you can squeeze those pecs together during the rest periods and imagine what it would be like to be this huge all the time! So you gotta' keep that pump! Now for inclines, then dips, then flyes, then cable crossovers...oh no, where's that pump gone?!
To match this you would be doing bar row, cable row, dumbbell rows, prone flyes and so on. They just aren't as sexy!
And most will come back to do a bench variation again in the training week (Gotta' keep that pump!) But do these same people come back and train their horizontal pulls a second time in the week?
3) Load (intensity) of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing:
How much can you row? Haven't heard that question before? Short of being a member of international rowing and kayaking circles, you probably never will. But people write articles titled "How much can you bench?" ad nauseum. (I recall getting on the US team bus in Mexico with the Australian national roller hockey team once. The Yanks were buffed and I had hardly sat down when their biggest guy came up with "How much can you bench?" It's as cultural an act in strength training as a dog sniffing another dog's bum.)
Think about it – if you are not rowing as much as you are benching, wouldn't that (at least in the rough literal sense) suggest a muscle imbalance?
The lack of popularity of deadlifts and cleans: A decade ago, the word deadlift meant the bent-knee, pick-it-up-off-the-ground type lift. Seems that since Dragomir Cioroslan (the US head weightlifting coach) had his team doing more flat backed, stiff-legged deadlifts, the general strength training community over-reacted. No more bent-knee deadlifts.
Now when I teach deadlifting in seminars and talk about bending knees, I get strange looks from people! The stiff legged deadlift has its place, but doesn't provide the upper back loading that a conventional deadlift does for the upper back. In fact, the deadlift (and clean or clean variations) are one of the rare movement where you can expose your upper back (in retraction of the shoulder blades) to loads equal to or exceeding your bench loads! And the clean hasn't been popular for years in most gyms – unless you call the odd Muscle & Fantasy article about it (because they are running out of new things to write about, and it allows a new range of gym wear to be modeled) as reflecting popularity. For most, it provides token entertainment.
So what can you do to avoid the downside of benching? The following guidelines apply to muscle balance and revolve around the key areas of sequencing, volume and intensity. They are based on the assumption that you start in a neutral, balanced condition, which we both know is pretty rare.
Balance by sequence
For every time a horizontal pushing movement comes first on day 1, a horizontal pulling movement needs to come first on day 1. Not possible, obviously, within the same program, but over time. This rule is set in stone unless year-round deadlifting, cleans/snatches, or clean/snatch variations (off the ground) are performed – provided they are executed with scapula awareness (attempts to keep the shoulder blades close to the spine and in that position throughout the lift).
Balance by volume
For every rep or set of horizontal pushing, you need to do a rep or set of horizontal pulling. Again, the only way this rule is diminished in application is by the presence of deadlifting, cleans/snatches or variations of these (again mainly off the mid-shin start position).
Weak Side Rule
If you know your horizontal pushing exceeds your horizontal pulling strength, cap your load in horizontal pushing to no more than that of the horizontal pulling limits. In other words, for the time being – until you shore things up – don't bench more than you can row.
Again, the previous rules are for those of you who are in balance.
Now what if you present with a shoulder position that's not balanced and neutral? To reverse or mend this condition, you would need to show a prioritization of horizontal pulling:
Do horizontal pulling earlier in the program more often than horizontal pushing
Do a higher volume of horizontal pulling than pushing
In extreme cases, and there was an example of this at the Feb 2001 T-mag No-Holds-Barred Seminar in Florida, I would recommend not benching for a long, long time. How long? That can only be answered by the amount of time it takes to return your tissue length and shoulder joint positioning back to something that resembles neutral. In other words, however long it takes!
Of course you can reject my thoughts on this matter. Time will be the judge. Are you playing with fire in the way you train the tissues around the shoulder joint? Is this a risk you want to take? Hindsight brings much wisdom – but the true wiseman acquires wisdom before the injury occurs!