The Bench Press
Creating a Stable Foundation
The infamous bench press. Often seen as the pinnacle bro lift of the ages. Only falling second to the bicep curl, performed with a hearty grunt of intensity. The bench press is commonly used to improve pressing. Of which, many may argue is an unnecessary movement to strengthen, unless we are expecting a giant rock to fall on our chest while laying on our back. However, whether classified as a natural or unnatural movement for the human body, we use it all too often to measure “if you even lift”. The bench is seen in combines across the nation and used a competitive lift in powerlifting.
Although it may be a common and arguably the most popular movement at the gym, it is also a commonly misunderstood and flawed movement. These flaws resulting in injuries and imbalances. These are attributed to faults in technique during the set-up, lowering the bar (eccentric load) and pressing the bar (concentric press). All three of these steps are vital to the movements safety and peak performance.
First we will look at our setup, where our main objective is to build a stable foundation for maintaining that stability throughout the movement.
Grounding Your Foundation
Working from the feet up; there are two varied foot positions: on the toes or with the heels down. Whether one is better than the other is dependent on the individual. However the placement of the hips relative to the knees, is where we should see common positions. We are looking for a decline from hip to knee. This decline will create a position allowing the legs to kick down through the toe. Next we will press the knees outward to establish active hips, which will all create the stable lower extremity (inferior) foundation of our press.
With two points of stability, in active contact with the floor and bench we can now move up two the next two points of contact. The upper back and head (superior foundation).
All four points of contact are important in the press, however the superior foundation is commonly misunderstood and most difficult to maintain. Cues such as “keeping your shoulder blades pinned back” or “tucking your shoulders in your back pockets” are great to think about. However the main idea is to locate the head of your humerus into a stable position in your shoulder girdle (comprised of the clavicle and scapula). Keeping the shoulder blades back and down, pulls the humerus back into a position which keeps strain away from the glenohumeral joint (3). When unstable, this joint will often develop instabilities in the front (anterior) portion resulting in the common and uncomfortable pain resonating in the front of the shoulder.
The added benefits of this position is also the slight arch it creates in the upper back (thoracic extension), which has been shown to recruit more from those primary movers, the lats and pec major, and less from the ineffective movers, the delts and pec minor.
Get a Grip
The very last thing to consider is your grip placement. This is specific to the individual. The variables to consider when deciding on grip width are how your grip will affect balance and range of motion (ROM). Balanced not only being the ability to evenly distribute the weight, but more importantly, balancing the appropriate muscle group recruitment. This variable will be important in injury prevention. As for ROM, the narrower the hand placement, the further the bar will need to be moved. As well as the wider the grip, the more demand will be asked upon our ROM.
All of these variable aside. The most effective grip width has been shown to be within [40-50] degrees of shoulder abduction away from the midline at the bottom of the press (2). Meaning a few inches wider than your hands being placed directly above your shoulders, while the weight it in the rack. The bar path during descent and body type will determine whether a correction toward a closer or wider grip shall be made.
With your stable foundation now in full effect, be prepared to smash those personal records in no time.
- Barnett C, Kippers V, Turner P (1995). Effects of Variations of Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 9(4): 222-227
- Green, C, Comfort P (2007). The Effect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 29(5):10-14.
- Madsen N, Mclaughlin T (1984). Kinematic Factors Influencing Performance and Injury Risk in the Bench Press Exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 16(4): 376-381.