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How to Bench Press: Powerlifting & Bodybuilding

We're going to be bringing you a lot of good content from the best in the business on a fortnightly basis. It will cover training, nutrition and all the latest scientifically backed research. Todays article is an excerpt from a larger guide written by Greg Nuckols. Greg is well equipped in the area of Powerlifting, and todays article focuses on some common bench press FAQ's.

 

Can I maximize chest and triceps development with JUST the bench press?

 

Can you grow your chest and triceps if you primarily just focus on the bench press? Sure.

Will the bench press, alone, maximize chest and triceps development?  Probably not.

For starters, research has shown that different regions of a muscle are activated and grow to different degrees based on the exercise performed.  So, to fully develop the entirety of a muscle, you’ll need some exercise variety.  You don’t need to take the full-on muscle confusion route, but you should probably have at least 2-3 movements in your training routine targeting each muscle if overall hypertrophy is your goal.

This is doubly true for the long head of the triceps.  The long head of your triceps is a two-joint muscle.  The other two heads only cross the elbow, while the long head also crosses the shoulder to aid in shoulder extension.  Research has shown that the long head of the triceps isn’t activated to the same degree as the other two heads in pure elbow extension tasks until the muscles are near-maximally challenged, or until they get very fatigued.  Because of that, the bench probably doesn’t train the long head of your triceps nearly as much as the other two heads.  To round out triceps development, movements with higher shoulder extension demands (like overhead triceps extensions or hybrid skull crusher/pullovers) will help grow the long head of the triceps.

 

What should I do about elbow and shoulder pain at the bottom of the bench?

 

If the pain is severe, if it has stuck around for more than a couple of weeks, or if it persists outside the gym, see a physical therapist and completely disregard the rest of this section.  This section is not for you.  You need to seek professional help.

If it’s just a minor irritation, and it really only bothers you a bit when you’re training, then read on.

Shoulder pain could come from a lot of different sources, from mild impingement (potentially from not retracting your shoulder blades when you set up), to a bit of capsular inflammation (just from the repetitive stress of benching hard), to tendonitis at the origin of your biceps (which originate just above your shoulder).

For most people, these five things will help, when coupled with a 30-50% reduction in bench volume until the discomfort subsides:

  1. Make sure your shoulder blades are retracted.  If you already retract your shoulder blades, then try playing around with how much you depress or elevate your scapulae when setting up.  I personally feel a bit of shoulder discomfort when retracting and depressing my scapulae, but my shoulders feel great with retraction and very slight elevation.

  2. Make sure you’re doing pulling movements (like rows and pull-ups) to provide stability for the joint.  If your shoulders are bugging you, make sure you’re doing at least one set of upper body pulling for each set of pressing.

  3. Train your external rotators through a fair amount of internal rotation.  This movement is my go-to.  Not only do your external rotators need to be strong, but they also need to be extensible enough to allow your shoulders to get into enough internalrotation.  This movement will help you strengthen and mobilize your external rotators in the plane you’ll be benching.

  4. Add in some push-ups with scapular protraction at the top (often called “push-ups plus“).  This will help train your serratus anterior, which aids in stabilizing your scapulae.  Most people neglect their serratus anterior to their own detriment (although if you’re already doing other pressing movements that allow your scapulae to move freely – like overhead press or dips – you’re probably fine).

  5. Add in some incline curls and light flyes.  A lot of lifters get tight pecs and biceps, and loosening them up while building a little more strength through a longer-than-necessary range of motion can work wonders.  With the incline curls, pull your shoulder blades together, push your chest high, and turn your palms out a little bit (instead of letting them face straight ahead).  You should feel a good stretch in your biceps as you lower each rep.  Don’t cheat range of motion on these, and make sure you’re getting a solid stretch for 2-3 seconds on each rep.  For the flyes, be conservative with loading.  I generally don’t go over 20-25lbs, even with a bench in the mid 400s; you want to be able to stretch your pecs to make sure they have more than enough range of motion for the bench press, without putting a ton of extra stress on your shoulders.  Play around with how much you abduct your shoulders to see where you get the best stretch, and lower each rep to the point that you feel a slight stretch, holding the stretched position for 2-3 seconds.  Try to get a bit lower on each rep if possible.  For both of these movements, sets of 15-20 tend to work best to allow enough loading that you can actually stretch the muscle and have a meaningful training effect without adding too much stress to the joints.

power lifting


Incline curls: my go-to biceps exercise for happy elbows with heavy bench training.

 

Many elbow issues start as shoulder issues, even without shoulder pain.  If the shoulders won’t internally rotate enough, that can stress the medial side of the elbow.  If your elbows bug you a bit when you bench press regularly, but you can reverse-grip bench (with your shoulders externally rotated) pain-free, then your elbow issue is likely starting at your shoulder.  If that’s the case – medial elbow pain that goes away or is significantly diminished with pressing with a neutral or underhand grip – then give the recommended exercises above a shot.

If it’s some tenderness more on the back side of your elbow, right on your olecranon or just above it, then it’s probably triceps tendonitis.  For tendonitis, rest is your ally; avoid heavy pressing for a few weeks, and then ease back into it slowly.  While you’re away from heavy pressing, some eccentric training can be beneficial (this article talks a bit about mechanisms; this isn’t a rehab article, but if you’re interested in pursuing this topic further, just pubmed search “tendonitis eccentric exercise” or “tendinopathy eccentric exercise” and lots of great info will come up).  This is easiest to do with a training partner and exercise machines.  Get your partner to help you raise the weight, and then lower it under control (2-3 second eccentric) by yourself.  Start with a weight where you’ll be below your pain threshold (half the weight you’d generally use for that exercise is a good starting point) when lowering the load, and get your partner to help you enough on the concentric that you stay below your pain threshold while lifting the load as well.

Time away from heavy pressing coupled with eccentric exercise can help pec tendonitis as well.

The final common issue people have when benching is discomfort at the biceps insertion (near the elbow on the front side).  The same basic strategy (rest and eccentric exercise) can help this issue as well.  Once your biceps insertion starts feeling more comfortable, add in the incline curls to make sure the muscle stays loose and strong through a full range of motion.  Once it’s feeling 100% again, add in regular training for your biceps, just as you’d train your triceps.  Anecdotally, biceps pain when benching tends to be most common with powerlifters who have really strong triceps, but who tend to neglect their biceps.

Final disclaimer:  I’m not a physical therapist, and everything in this section should simply be taken as my observations from biomechanical reasoning, my own training, and from the clients I’ve worked with.  Don’t take any of it to be a hard-and-fast prescription.  If you’re in quite a bit of discomfort when benching, see a physical therapist.

 

How do I choose a grip width?  What are the pros and cons to each?

 

For strength, the name of the game is troubleshooting.

Odds are, your strongest grip right now will simply be the one you’ve used the most up to this point, since strength is quite specific. You’re simply the most skilled with the grip you use the most often.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your current grip gives you the most potential to be the strongest.

Most (though not all) world-class benchers bench with a wide grip.  In fact, most of them bench with the maximum legal grip width with their pointer fingers on the grip rings – 81cm apart.

It makes sense that a wide grip should be the strongest grip.  Range of motion will be shorter, though that isn’t a huge issue since fatigue likely won’t play a role in a 1rm attempt.  However, horizontal abduction and shoulder extension range of motion will also be shortened at the bottom of the lift, and that is likely meaningful and beneficial.  Additionally, with a wide grip, you naturally won’t touch the bar quite as low on your chest, which makes the lift a bit easier on your front delts.  Furthermore, with a wide grip, the midrange and lockout will generally be easier as well, since the pecs won’t be quite as shortened (closer to resting length = capable of producing more force) since a wide grip inherently means the shoulders will be more horizontally extended at any given point in the movement.

However, a wide grip may not be strongest for you.  To troubleshoot, simply work up to around 80% of your max with your strongest grip.  Then do 2-3 singles with a grip that’s 1-2 inches wider.  Then do 2-3 singles with a grip that’s 1-2 inches narrower. Did either of those grips feel almost as strong as your typical grip, in spite of having not practiced with it?  If so, stick with that for about half of your pressing for a month or two (you can just alternate it with your normal grip, trading off each set).  If your strength with your new grip surpasses your strength with current grip width, stick with it, and experiment even further in that direction (i.e. if 1 inch wider than your prior grip was stronger, try 2-3 inches wider next).  If not, stick with your current grip width and experiment in the other direction.

For building muscle, a more moderate grip is probably better as a default grip width – maybe 1.5x shoulder width, which works out to around pinky fingers on the grip rings for most people.  This will allow a slightly longer range of motion than benching with a wide grip, which is probably going to be better for hypertrophy.  For the same reason, I think a lot of powerlifters should get a decent amount of their bench volume with a grip slightly narrower than the one they compete with as well.

In general, benching with a wide grip allows most people to lift more weight, it’s generally easier on the elbows, but it may not be quite as good for building muscle (due to limited ROM) and may increase risk of shoulder impingement (since your shoulders will be slightly more abducted).

On the other hand, benching with a narrower grip probably won’t let you lift as much weight, but it may be a better overall mass builder due to the increased range of motion.  Your shoulder impingement risk is probably lower with a closer grip, but the movement may be rougher on your elbows, and anterior shoulder stress is quite a bit higher since shoulder flexion demands will typically be higher.

 

What should I do about wrist pain?

 

First things first, check your wrist position.  If they’re cocked back, then just sit the bar a bit lower in your palm and don’t cock your wrists back quite as much.

If issues persist, get some wrist wraps.  That should fix the issue.

If the pain is on the thumb side of your wrist, consider bringing your grip in a little bit.  The wider the grip, the greater the odds are of a tendon getting pinched on the medial side of your wrist, or the medial side of the joint just getting compressed uncomfortably.

 

Should I mix things up with incline and decline?

 

Incline press will train your front delts slightly harder than flat bench will, and maybe your upper pecs as well. However, based on the available research, it seems like incline still doesn’t challenge your upper pecs quite as much reverse grip benching with a wide grip does.  This matches my own experience as well. Incline press never seems to make my upper chest super sore, but if I reverse grip bench after a couple of months away from the movement, my upper pecs always get outrageously sore.

If at all possible, incline press with a low incline (15-30 degrees) if you’re primarily incline pressing to train your pecs.  Most incline benches at commercial gyms are at a 45-degree angle, which seems to shift way too much of the emphasis to your delts.  If your gym has adjustable DB benches and a power rack, you can do low incline press out of the rack, though.  In my bro-certified opinion, this makes the movement a better pec developer and doesn’t strain the shoulder joint quite as much.

In my personal opinion, decline press is primarily an ego lift.  It can be a solid bench substitute for some people with shoulder problems since it’s easier to naturally limit range of motion, but for most people it doesn’t have much of a payoff.  The range of motion is shorter and muscle activation in the prime movers is either the same or lower across the board when compared to flat bench.  Dips are a much better movement to train your pecs and triceps at that pressing angle since your scapulae can still move freely, and since you can achieve greater range of motion.

This excerpt was written by Greg Nuckols

For the full article, click on his name!

June 28, 2016 by Iron Tanks
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