View from the bench

Mike Morley explains how to safely tackle this commonly-employed but potentially dangerous exercise

Posted on May 5, 2011 by
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Weight training

The information in this article is common knowledge that apparently becomes totally unavailable once the lobotomy has taken place and the “pumping” starts! Go into any weights room and you will inevitably hear the question “what’s your bench press, mate?”

Athletes need to understand the fundamental flaw in a piece of equipment as simple as a flat bench, let alone the other weird and wonderful machines on offer. I have never been a big fan of the bench press, preferring instead the incline bench and decline bench exercises. I have always disliked the bench press exercise, almost as much as I dislike most weights machines (other than a very few for rehab assistance). Therefore, it must follow that I believe free-weight exercises which require the use of benches or other various sorts of contraptions are always suspect.

The pectoral muscles are developed with bench presses. It’s a potentially dangerous exercise so always have a spotter close by and never bench press alone. Have your spotter assist you to lift the bar out of the uprights and position it directly over your chest, (see picture 1).

Lower the weight to your chest (picture 2) and press it back up to arms’ length again. After performing the required number of reps, have the spotter assist you in placing the bar back on the uprights (picture 3).

You can emphasise your pecs more if your elbows are away from your sides (perpendicular to your torso) during the movement and your front deltoids more if your elbows are kept close to your sides during the movement. Further gains can be made by not locking the elbows out at the top of the press. This will keep the tension in the upper chest throughout the movement [Bompa, Pasquale & Cornacchia].

There are two particularly dodgy techniques I see all too often among bench pressers. One is the potentially dangerous practice of using a thumb-less grip. The thinking that a thumb-less grip will somehow alter the angle or quality of stress you’re delivering to your pecs is without any foundation that I can find, and is potentially dangerous. With your wrists hyper-extended while pressing there is increased stress on the wrist joint. This has the potential to injure the metacarpal bones in the wrist [Kinakin] – so keep your thumbs around the bar [Drechsler, Hadfield et al].

The second practice is just as absurd. I’ve heard and seen many benchpressers say that by keeping your feet off the floor – suspended over the bench or resting on the bench – it somehow improves the isolation of the pecs and therefore the adaptive overload being delivered to your pecs.

The truth is that while your feet are off the floor, you’re always slightly off balance on the narrow bench you’re lying on, and various stabiliser muscles are attempting to keep you from falling off the bench. This superfluous muscular activity is actually detracting from the stress you can deliver to the pecs. It is certainly not improving it and, besides, being off-balance while a heavy weight is hovering over your face and throat really is not in the best interest of survival (pictures 3 and 4).

Lying on a bench effectively limits the support and stabiliser requirements that are part and parcel of lifting while standing (or in the case of an incline, half supported half upright). Removing your need for synergy and stability, and therefore your ability to apply adaptive stress to the muscles and other tissues which provide them is the reason that you are able to effectively injury-proof yourself more easily with lifts performed while standing than any other method of weight training.

Bench pressing problems

This free-weight movement – lying on your back with 120-160kg or more in your hands – presses your scapulae into the flat bench beneath. You lower the bar to your chest, but the scapulae are pinned to the bench and cannot slide inwards as you lower the bar, neither can they slide outwards as you raise the bar off your chest. This causes undue stress on the tendons of the long heads of your biceps with the results being:
» Nagging long-lasting pain from biceps tendonitis
» Unable to lift as much
» Much less strength is developed
» Poor performance in sports and daily activities

In addition, all benches are made to be about 16 inches off the ground because the rules of power lifting dictated it back in the mid-Sixties. This is particularly problematic and possibly dangerous for shorter athletes, who have to go into spinal hyper-extension in order to keep their feet flat on the ground for better stability with the resulting di culties being:
» Low back trauma
» Less stability during training and therefore greater exposure to injury and less weight being lifted
» Poor sports performance, or (worse) ruined sports career or quitting the gym from unnecessary injury

Interestingly, Canadian shot putter Dylan Armstrong told me that when Dr Bondarchuk took over his coaching in 2004 he removed the heavy bench press from his programme.

Bondarchuk classified it, among other things, as a slow-twitch exercise, and said he had done enough of this for development over the previous years. Within six weeks he started to improve and has now progressed to 21.58m.

Dumbbell bench press

I favour dumbbell bench presses over benching with a bar because you can achieve greater adaptive stress with these. Dumbbells will tend to force you to keep your upper arms perpendicular to your torso while lowering them.

Many bench-pressers will allow their elbows to drift inward toward their sides while using a straight bar. This happens because there’s a natural tendency to use the anterior (frontal) deltoids to assist in moving the bar, thereby robbing the pecs of some stress.

Dumbbells also allow you to employ a technique that will improve the adaptive stress being delivered to your pecs even more. By carefully (under total control) allowing the dumbbells to drift slightly off balance towards the outside, you will have to “fight” harder to raise them. This controlled outward drift allows you to use superior weight while getting the same benefits afforded by regular flyes. Regular flyes are done with very light weights, whereas modified dumbbell benches employ far heavier weight.

» Mike Morley is now retired but was one of the first strength and conditioning coaches employed by the English Institute of Sport. Among the athletes he has helped over the years are Mick Hill, Dave Smith Jnr, David Parker, Richard Buck, Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, a number of Paralympian sprint medalists, plus internationals in 18 different sports.

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