Doug Hepburn was the first man to bench press 500 pounds, Reg Park was the first bodybuilder to do it, and now there are teenagers and even women hitting this “bench” mark. In fact, three men have bench pressed over 1,000 pounds! The question is not if the bench press is popular, as you’d be hard-pressed to find any commercial gym that does not have a bench press station, but how to perform this lift safely and effectively.
First, there is no question that the bench press is a great exercise for packing on slabs of powerful muscle to the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps – just ask Arnold.
Arnold Schwarzenegger not only had impressive chest development, but he was as strong as he looked. Despite having relatively long arms (which gave him favorable leverage that helped him deadlift 710 pounds), the “Austrian Oak” could bench press 500 pounds (and reportedly did 225 pounds for 60 reps!). Arnold said, however, that in the early stages of his career he believed that his upper pectoral development was a weakness, so he would perform flat bench presses only after he performed incline barbell or dumbbell presses
With the barbell bench press, the range of motion of the pectorals is restricted two ways. First, the hands cannot move together on a barbell (as they can with dumbbells), so the top motion of the pectorals is restricted. At the bottom position, the range of motion stops when the bar touches the chest; using a neutral grip with dumbbells, the hands can move down more, thus creating a greater stretch.
Because bodybuilding is an aesthetic activity that requires symmetrical development, many bodybuilders focus on dumbbell bench presses to ensure complete development. The downside is that the amount of weight that can be used with dumbbells is less than a barbell, reducing the intensity of the exercise. That said, eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman reportedly could perform 10 reps in the dumbbell press with 200-pound dumbbells!
Some strength coaches and personal trainers believe that specializing on the bench press can significantly increase the risk of shoulder injuries, but one major research study suggests otherwise.
The September 2011 edition of the International Journal of Sports Medicine contains a study on 245 powerlifters representing 97 powerlifting teams. The researchers found that the shoulders and elbows were the body parts mostly likely to be injured, but that injury rate was only .3 injuries per athlete per year – this translates into one injury per 1,000 hours of training. In contrast, a CDC-sponsored study involving 100 high schools between the 2005-06 school years found that the average overall rate of injury for nine major sports studied was 2.44 for 1,000 hours of training or competitions. In other words, compared to other sports, the injury rate among powerlifters is very small.
Most of the research performed on bench press looks at “raw” bench pressing, which means the lift is performed without the use of assistive gear such as bench press shirts. Considerably more weight can be lifted with the use of such gear; in fact, the difference between the absolute “raw” world record and the gear-assisted record is nearly 400 pounds! Also, there are some bench press variations that carry a much higher risk. One extreme example is the “reactive-acceleration bench press throw” in which the trainee throws the bar in the air and catches it! This high-risk version can be found in a book called “The Best Sports Training Book Ever” by Dietrich Buchenholz (which may be a pen name), Jerry Diamond, and Brad Nuttall.
One point of controversy about the bench press is using a thumbless grip, which means you don’t wrap your thumbs around the bar. This grip may be more comfortable as the wrists don’t bend back as much. Also, because the bar is directly over the bones of the lower arm, the thumbless grip may provide better leverage to lift more weight. The problem is that the bar can easily slip out of your hands.
To lift maximal weights safely in the bench press, it’s important to develop a consistence movement pattern. Optimal technique begins with getting into the best position to press. Here are some commonly-accepted technique cues that will help you get off to the right start:
· Feet flat on the floor
· Shins vertical
· Knees aligned with the center of your feet
· Feet and legs pointed slightly out (as if you were in a squat position)
· Pull your back into a slight arch
· Tighten your lats
· Squeeze your glutes,
· Point your knuckles towards the celling -- a cue that will help keep your wrists straight and in a stronger position to press
· Fine a reference point on the ceiling and keep your eyes focused on it during the movement
From this starting position, lift the barbell off the rack and hold it at arms’ length. Bring the bar to the lower portion of your sternum and then straighten your arms. You should avoid flaring your elbows directly out to the side (such that they are perpendicular to your trunk) as this can place adverse stress on the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder.
For maximum safety, have a spotter when you bench press. Also, a spotter can help you lift the bar off the supports and help you return it to the supports, reducing the stress on your shoulders. If a spotter is not available, a safe alternative is to perform the lift insider a power rack (with the safety rods placed a few inches below chest level to avoid hitting him between reps).
Cheating methods have their place in resistance training, but cheating during the bench press by bouncing the barbell off the chest places you at high risk of injury. Same goes with lifting your hips off the bench – it may help you lift more, but is against the rules in competition and places unnatural stress on the lower back.
The bench press is here to stay, and is unquestionably one of the single best upper body exercises to increase upper body strength and muscle mass. You may never come close to lifting 500 pounds, but if you follow the advice in this article you should be able to enjoy the benefits of a lifetime of pain-free bench pressing!