The Bench Press is without a doubt the most popular of exercises. Mondays at any gym are full of Bench Press devotees sacrificing their well being in pursuit of a hot muscle-rack. But the Bench Press is pure evil; anything so accepted and loved universally must have sold its soul in order to have so much influence over others.   For me, that evil streak lays in the shoulder wrecking havoc the Bench Press has caused me and all the confusing and conflicting information out there on how to Bench Press properly.

For years I benched a certain way, always striving to bench heavier and heavier. Once I broke into the 315 lbs. club I started noticing chronic shoulder pain. Official diagnosis was rotator cuff tendonitis. After a break from heavy lifting, hardcore icing and regular dosing of Aleve had failed to fix me up, I resorted to Cortisone shots, which in the end did nothing to improve the problem. It took me a long time to recognize the Bench Press was the chief cause of my shoulder pain and having figured that out, I still did not know how to fix the problem.  Then one day I was visiting a friend at a power lifting gym near Boston and he showed me some techniques that power lifters use to bench heavy.  Incorporating these techniques, I am now benching heavier than ever and (knock on wood) I am mostly pain free… mostly.

Here is a great article and video demonstration of these techniques.  If you want to learn to bench heavy, or if you are prone to shoulder pain, give these a try:

A few points from the article/video I’d like to highlight:

  • ARM POSITION – I had learned to bench with my upper arms at a 90-degree angle from my body, keeping my forearms perpendicular to the floor as I lowered the bar to my chest with my elbows flared out at my sides.  The position of my arms at the lowest part of the lift put too much pressure on my shoulders, causing pain and injury.  Learning to tuck my elbows slightly as I lower the bar, with my upper arms close to a 45-degree angle from my body at the bottom of the lift transferred the pressure I was feeling in my shoulders to my chest and triceps, saving my shoulders.
  • USING THE LEGS / STABILITY –  Stability is essential to benching heavy. Without stability you will have less control of the weight and will not be able to bench as heavy as you can.   The key to stability in the Bench Press comes from the legs. When getting in position to bench, plant your feet and press through your legs, tightening your glutes and core. Driving through your legs will create tension throughout the body, giving your upper body the stability it needs to stay in control of the weight.
  • CHEST UP / SHOULDERS BACK – When benching, rather than simply allowing the weight to press down on you as you lower the bar, imagine you are actually pulling the weight down toward you. When pulling weight toward you as in a cable row, you tend to arch the back, keeping the chest out and the shoulders back. This engages the lats, creates stability and is the ideal position for your upper body during the bench.
  • ROLE OF THE SPOTTER – Obviously, benching with a spotter is essential for safety. But for benching, the spotter is also there to help you un-rack and rack the weight, helping you get in and out of starting position for your Bench Press. The few inches you move the bar to and from the rack puts the shoulder joint through an unstable and weak range of motion, increasing the risk of injury especially when using heavy weights.  A spotter assists in getting the bar in the starting position and helps rack the weight after the lift, helping to avoid injury.

Learning to Bench Press properly takes time and I’m not adverse to beginners using machines and dumbbells as a way to build up strength before tackling the Barbell Bench Press. Having said that, it should be your goal to learn to do the Barbell Bench Press as soon as you have established sufficient upper body strength and stability.   There are many benefits and variations of the bench that will help you develop upper body strength and size.  Start light, use a spotter, and if you can – hire a trainer.

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