There is no doubt that bench press has a special place among all the exercises in bodybuilding. It is usually the first exercise novices learn. Many bodybuilders measure their progress by their bench press improvement. It is considered by many as the most effective upper body exercise. And so on.
Surprisingly, most bodybuilders do not fully understand the potential, dangers and nuances of this complex movement.
A little history
Unlike what you may expect, bench press is a new exercise. The reason is obvious: you need proper, specially designed equipment for bench press. In fact, before 1940’s there was no bodybuilding equipment at all, except for barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.
Therefore, the strength training of this prehistoric age of bodybuilding consisted mostly of various overhead lifts and biceps curls. Pectorals were neglected just like in a typical weightlifting training of today.
Towards the end of 19th century, some athletes started to experiment with exercise called floor press.
In floor press the barbell is pushed from the floor and thus the range of motion is shorter. This is a disadvantage because shorter movement is less suitable for muscle development but in the same time, it’s also an advantage because stopping the movement when the elbows are in the level of the back will cause much less shoulder problems, as I will explain later.
Floor press was done either with small weights and the barbell has been first moved over the body by straight-arm pullover; or the plates used have been so large that the athlete was able to place himself under the barbell.
George Hackenschmidt, the German-Russian wrestler and strongman reportedly lifted 333 lb (151 kg) by press floor in 1898 (he was 20 years old then).
This was before athletes started arching their body in floor press (lifting the hips enables stronger lifts).
The bench press as we know it today became widespread between 1940’s and 1950’s thanks to American bodybuilding magazines.
In 1957, two leading magazines published lengthy and much quoted article “The Bench Press....Greatest Exercise of them all” and the era of “bench press the king” began.
Variations and techniques
There are several ways to do bench press and they all have some rationale behind them.
First of all, there is the bodybuilding version: elbows away from the trunk, no arching of the body (meaning the whole upper body is on the bench during the motion) and usually no scapular contraction (squeezing of shoulder blades).
The grip is somewhat wider than shoulder-width. This is what we call “medium grip” in bench pressing – shoulder-wide grip and anything narrower than that is called “narrow grip” and targets triceps as primary muscle.
Medium grip bodybuilding bench press involves especially the chest (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor), triceps (all three heads) and the front part of shoulders (anterior deltoid).
Powerlifting bench press is somewhat different. First of all, it is more emphasizing the triceps muscle because the grip is narrower. Also – and this is very important – the elbows are much closer to the body. This technique will again put more emphasis on triceps and it will – together with scapular retraction – spare the shoulders of some extra pressure (I will explain this later in the article).
The rule of thumb is that the closer the grip, the more emphasis is on triceps. Wider grip means more emphasis on the chest muscles.
It is, however, not as simple as it seems. First, very narrow grip has questionable benefits when compared to narrow (meaning somewhat narrower than shoulder-width) grip. It can be justified for stressing the triceps from a different ankle, especially if combined with keeping the thumbs along other fingers, but it’s not “better”.
Second, very wide grip put more emphasis on the shoulders but not the way you want it to. Wide-grip bench press has no real benefits comparing to medium grip bench press but it tends to damage the shoulders much more.
Therefore, wide-grip bench press should be avoided.
Unfortunately, bench press is not such a “perfect” exercise as some would like to present it.
In order to understand the problem with bench press, you can make a little trial. Lie down on a bench and put your empty hands in the same position as if holding a barbell close to your chest. Now push the imaginary burden up (forget about the barbell, just push as if you were pushing a big block of concrete).
Now look at your hands. You can see that they are much closer to each other than at the beginning of the motion. Why? Because your shoulders serve naturally as hinges. Therefore your hands are following a curved path, not a straight one.
If you now grab a pair of dumbbells and perform the same movement again, nothing will change: the dumbbells do not limit the natural path of your hands.
But there is a problem with the barbell. Once you grab the barbell, you have no choice: the distance between your hands is fixed from the beginning to the end of the motion.
But the difference has to be absorbed somewhere. In narrow grip bench press this is not an issue because the elbows are moving alongside the torso.
In powerlifting technique, most of this difference is absorbed by scapular retraction (shoulder blade squeeze) and by keeping the elbows close to torso.
In classical medium-grip bodybuilding bench press, it’s the shoulders that have to cope with all the pressure. What suffers most is a rather complicated system called rotator cuff – four muscles and their tendons that play a crucial role in shoulder movements.
Rotator cuff injuries are very common in bodybuilding and few people realize that the most common cause of such injuries is actually the bench press.
It’s not by chance that every decent machine for vertical press (machine press) is designed in a way that respects human anatomy: you start the pushing movement with wider distance between the hands and end up with narrower one.
Dumbbell bench press – Using dumbbells instead of barbell in bench press has several advantages.
First, the distance between the hands is not fixed and thus the exercise will cause way less rotator cuff problems than barbell bench press.
Second, additional stabilizing muscles are involved. Third, both sides of the body are working the same weight.
Some people don’t believe that dumbbell bench press is a mass building exercise comparable to classical bench press. Some bodybuilders simply have subconscious problem switching from bench press to another exercise.
I would therefore like to mention a study from 2005 by Welsch, Bird and Mayhew (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15903389 ) comparing the barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press and dumbbell flyes. The authors were measuring the activation times and levels for pectoralis and anterior deltoid muscles. The study results clearly showed that dumbbell bench press is equal to barbell bench press in all aspects (dumbbell flyes activated muscle fibers to a lesser degree).
Machine press is an exercise that isolates the main involved muscles – pectorals, triceps and deltoids. The stabilizing muscles play no active role. The advantage is, as I already mentioned, that most machines are designed with respect to shoulder anatomy and thus less damaging to rotator cuff muscles and tendons.
Lifting free weights is, however, always better suited for serious mass gains when compared to machine workout.
Smith machine bench press – there is a long debate in the bodybuilding community about the usefulness of Smith machine. While some claim that the exercises (including the bench press) using Smith machine are equally efficient as lifting free weights, others swear by free weights.
As this study by Schick and colleagues from 2010 shows (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20093960 ), the later opinion is closer to truth. Barbell bench press seems to activate muscle fibers more than Smith machine bench press.
Personally, I believe that lifting free weights will always lead to greater muscle size and strength increases comparing to more isolated movements, including those using Smith machine.
Standing cable press – this is an interesting alternative to bench press. The advantage of standing cable press is that it involves most postural muscles of the trunk. Therefore, it is well suited for full-body training and core training.
The postural muscles are, however, always weaker than major muscle groups like pectorals.
Therefore, they are the limiting factor in this exercise. In other words, you can’t use as much resistance as you could in bench press because you would simply not be able to stand firm with such weight.
Of course, we have a scientific study at hand that confirms this position: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18076235
Incline and decline bench press
There is a common belief among bodybuilders that bench press on incline bench activates more the clavicular (upper) part of pectoralis muscle, while the decline bench press activates the muscle fibers of sterno-costal (lower) part of pectoralis muscle.
In 1995, C. Barnett, V. Kippers and P. Turner of The University of Queensland, Australia, used electromyography (EMG) to measure the actual activation of muscle fibers in various parts of the chest during bench press on flat, incline and decline bench, with various grips.
The results of the study were surprising and we can even say shocking:
- The incline press doesn’t result in greater activation of the clavicular head of the pectoralis major than does the horizontal press.
- Hand spacing significantly affects the activity of the clavicular head of the pectoralis major and the long head of the triceps brachii, with a narrow spacing yielding the greater response.
- Employing the decline press to recruit the sterno-costal head of the pectoralis major is not justified because the EMG activity obtained from the horizontal press with either hand spacing exceeds that elicited during the decline press.
Wow. So no benefits at all from decline and incline bench press, at least not for upper and lower chest. And the only exercise that seems to benefit the upper chest is narrow-grip bench press…
According to the study, the only effect of incline bench press is more anterior deltoid (front part of shoulders) involvement. So the higher the ankle of inclination, the more anterior deltoid involvement and the less chest involvement.
While the effect of speed on muscle growth is probably negligible, speed has a significant and proven effect on strength.
In some power sports (especially weightlifting) the speed/dynamic execution of an exercise is crucial.
But can increased speed improve your bench press maximum? You bet it can and it does. An Italian study published in 2012 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22318559) observed two groups of athletes: the first group trained bench press twice a week with maximum speed while the second group trained the bench press also twice a week but with “normal” or “self-selected” pushing speed.
Athletes in both groups had long experience in strength training.
While the improvement in the first (maximum pushing speed) group was over 10% of 1RM, it was less than 1% for the second group.
Rotator cuff exercises
By including the rotator cuff exercises in your training plan you can significantly increase bench press 1RM. Strong rotator cuff also makes the bench press safer and provides necessary support to other muscles involved in this complex exercise.
The importance of rotator cuff for bench press and overall muscular development cannot be overstated. You can trust me that your every minute invested in RC workout will give you huge returns in terms of strength and safety.