Continuing on with our technique series, the focus shifts upwards to the most coveted (sadly) of all lifts, the bench press. As a side note, it really is a shame that the bench press is the most utilized lift. Sure, it is possibly the best upper body pushing exercise out there, but most of us are not body builders. Athletes especially rely too much on this lift as part of their workout when in reality, the bulk of their performance is derived from leg strength and power. Its a shame, really, that athletes would rather “drive for show” than “putt for dough.” To those who live by the bench press I say “Nah, I’ll just beat him now.”
I’m not saying that I dislike the bench press (it’s actually one of my favorite lifts), but I do think it is over utilized. That being said, the bench press is great for developing power and strength in all athletes. One major problem I have with it (besides over-utilization) is the sporadic and various techniques I see employed. Honestly, this most likely stems from the seemingly never ending supply of stupid people in gyms that only bench press, and do it wrong. Nothing makes me more frustrated…….. except maybe this:
There are two main issues I commonly see with the bench press. The first is grip width. People seem to go into the bench press and grasp the bar either randomly, without any rhyme or reason, or from the outer grip marks on the bar. The problem with gripping randomly is exactly that, there is no thought put into where the hands are – is the bar centered, what are these lines, what the heck am i doing laying under this bar anyways. The problem with using the outer grip marks is that unless your shoulders are 5 feet wide, they are too wide to use as a grip placement.
When looking at the bench press as simply the bench press, without any modifications, its best attribute is its ability to increase strength. In order to do that, we need to lift heavy loads. Lifting heavy loads is hard, so why not use every advantage you have to make it easier? Using the correct grip width puts us in the most advantageous position to lift the load. It allows us to use each muscle group, namely the pectoralis major, triceps, and [anterior] deltoids, at the highest percentage possible for the exercise.
What is the correct grip width? The correct grip width is roughly 1 inch wider than your shoulders. It is at this width that we get the greatest production from each of the muscles pointed out above. Increasing the width places more load on the pectoralis major, and less on the triceps and deltoids. Decreasing the grip width places more load on the triceps, and less on the pectoralis. Both of these variations can be used to focus on a specific muscle group (i.e. triceps or pecs), but they are not favorable to increasing total pushing strength.
The other main issue I see with the bench press is bar placement at the bottom of the rep. Too many lifters out there touch the bar to a spot in the middle of there sternum or higher, if they even touch their chest at all (don’t be that guy). This is not good as it puts us in a disadvantaged position. Allowing the bar to touch too high on the sternum causes the elbows to flare out, which brings the shoulders up in a shrugging motion. Why would we want to shrug if we are pushing? Seriously, sit there, shrug your shoulders up, and replicate a pushing motion. It’s awkward isn’t it? Aside from that, shrugged shoulders also puts you at a much greater risk of hurting yourself in the lift. Flared elbows and shrugged shoulders cause the shoulder to be very unstable and increase the risk of it (the head of your humerous) slipping out.
How do we fix this? By simply touching the bar to a spot on the bottom of your sternum. This spot is not exact, as people are built differently, but the key is to aim for a spot near the bottom of your sternum and troubleshoot from there. Your forearms should be completely vertical, and your elbows should come off your body at a 45 degree angle. Imagine drawing a line from your shoulder straight down along your side, and straight out as if your arm was held outstretched; these lines should make a 90 degree angle. From there find the angle halfway between at 45 degrees and that’s where your elbows should be. In this position your shoulders will not be forced to shrug upwards, however to further protect them we want to pull them underneath us. I like to tell my athletes to roll their shoulders underneath them as if they were puffing their chest out. This puts our shoulders in the safest position possible. It also gives us the greatest amount of control over the lift as it is the most advantageous position to be in. So, don’t separate your shoulder, do it right.
Give the bench press back its foundation, and let it increase your strength. Be advantageous, and reap the rewards.