Sometimes it’s nice to walk into the gym and just blow your chest up on the bench press. Am I right? Fellas? You feel me? It might not be “functional”…it might not be fancy…but it can make you feel like a man (or woman) again. The bench press is typically THE exercise whereby your chest muscles (along with others) can push their maximum load. You might prefer dumbbells or cables and such, but generally if you want to push the maximum amount of weight that you can, the flat bench press is the way to go. There’s many training benefits to pushing big weight, but the biggest might be psychological.
For me, during any pushing exercise I can visualize pushing something out of my life that I no longer wish to have in it. Psychologically, that feels good. Physically, it’s nice to feel like your chest is popping with confidence; perhaps a 180 from what you feel and look like at your work-desk. We shouldn’t knock the old-school exercises that make us feel good and keep us motivated in the gym. If you love the bench press…good. Just keep reading this post and save your shoulders.
The bench press can get a bad wrap as new and so-called “better” or “safer” exercises flood gyms around the world. I want to shed a bit of clarity on this however, because like with most things…it’s not black and white. It’s true, bench pressing can cause shoulder problems. And, if your shoulder(s) currently hurts while doing them…DON’T DO THEM! There are many reasons for this such as poor form, lifting too heavy too fast, and not having the range of motion for the shoulders that dumbbells or cables provide you. That last one is a biggie – the barbell just simply does not allow the body to vary the motion of each rep as much as exercises that work the arms independently. The body needs to alter movement patterns – even if ever so slightly – so that it avoids overuse injury. That’s an injury common to those who bench press too much. Another common injury is shoulder impingement. Those of you walking around with rounded shoulders like an ape know what I’m talking about…or you will. As a quick aside…those of you who look like this, even if your bench press isn’t painful and you’re quite the heavy lifter…I HIGHLY recommend you to do two to three times as many exercises or reps for pulling motions as you do pushing. For example, go ahead and do 4 sets of 8 reps on the bench press (following a good warm-up). Afterward, do 4 sets of bent-over barbell rows for 8 reps and maybe 4 sets and 10 reps of shoulder-height cable pulls.
Know with all that said, and sorry to wait until the end of this post to get to the point, the easiest way to set yourself up for success with the bench press without the risk of injury IS…drumroll…to test the range of motion in your shoulders prior to bench pressing. It’s so easy to do I’ll explain it here in a sentence or two. Too many people see the bench press as a lowering of a barbell to the chest followed by a return to the start position, arms extended above shoulders. The problem is, MANY people do not have the range of motion in their shoulders to bring the bar all the way to their chest safely. Sure, the weight will take you there, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. It can be a good way to stretch the stability (ligaments, tendons, muscles) of your shoulder beyond what’s safe, leading to laxity and instability. So in couple sentences…do this first:
Grab a dowel rod, broom-stick, or something of that sort that is very light, but that you can grasp in your bench pressing position. Lie on a bench with your arms extended, straight up from your chest like you would to begin the press. Slowly lower your arms down toward your chest – DO NOT FORCE how far down you come – and note when your shoulders/arms want to stop. There’s a good chance you’re and inch or two away from your chest. If so, THIS is where you want to stop your barbell on the descent. And this…is how you can easily reduce the risk of shoulder problems while bench pressing. Now go get your pump on!!!