It seems like anyone who lifts weights bench presses. It’s a classic movement that can develop serious upper body pushing strength. But for all its popularity and potential for strength development, I’ve realized that its nasty side probably makes it one of the least efficacious movements for chest development.
I’ve been benching since the age of 13–almost 22 years now. When I came off a two-year lifting layoff around three years ago, the flat and incline barbell bench presses were two staples of my training routine. But as the load increased, I began experiencing discomfort in and around the acromioclavicular joint at the top of my left shoulder. Over the ensuing weeks, that discomfort evolved into pain and reduced mobility. Since I can remember, I’ve had a moderate [and strange] obsession with kinesiology, so I was compelled to dig deeper into why specifically the bench press might have been causing shoulder pain, and might be dangerous in general. Yeah, I said it, and I have two good reasons for why I think that.
First reason: Excessive range of motion
I definitely think that lots of people can get away with benching heavy, like people with shorter arms and thicker torsos who don’t have to move the bar as far as longer-armed individuals. But for a guy like me with longer arms and not the thick torso of a powerlifter, my potential range of motion on the bench is very large. When I lower the bar close to my chest, my elbows drop two inches below the level of my shoulders, a position that places the shoulders in an exceptionally dangerous position under a load, causing the humerus to actually pull away from the body and a stupid amount of strain to be placed on the rather delicate muscles and connective tissue that comprise the rotator cuff.
Second reason: Internal rotation of the humerus
This, I believe, is the primary reason why bench pressing heavy loads is bad. Really bad. Question: if you had to shove an attacker as hard as you possibly could to save your own life, how would you do it? You’d probably unconsciously put yourself in the most anatomically advantaged position as possible without thinking because it’s what feels right. It’s the way we’ve evolved to push stuff. You’d probably bring your hands close to your chest with the base of your thumbs somewhere in the vicinity of your nipples (providing they don’t hang too low). You’d also naturally bring your elbows close to your sides and would keep them from flaring out as you pushed because you can transfer more power in this position. You’d also depress your shoulders and retract your scapulae. [All instinctively, of course.] Additionally, your fingers wouldn’t be pointing straight up and down, but rather 25 or 30 degrees out to the sides. In my opinion, this is the single most glaring problem with all barbell pressing variations. Because your hands are in a fixed position, your wrists are also fixed. This means that as you move the bar away from your chest, the humerus (bone from elbow to shoulder) wants to rotate internally via elbow flare, no matter how perfect your form. To understand this motion, put your right arm out in front of you, palm forward (fingers up) as if signalling someone to stop. Now rotate your arm so your fingers are pointing to the left. Your elbow moves away from your body as your humerus (upper arm) rotates inward. As the weight gets heavy, this can, and likely will grind on your shoulders by creating the right environment for impingement and acromioclavicular joint damage (bony process at top of shoulder).
What to do? Limit [eliminate] bar benching in favor of dumbbells.
The goal of bench pressing is to stimulate the pectoral muscles, right? Right. But in my experience, dumbbell pressing variations are much more effective for pec stimulation, and especially so for filling out those pesky upper pecs. The key to maximum pectoral stimulation with dumbbells is as follows:
1. Just like bar benching, keep shoulders down and back (depressed and retracted)
2. Keep elbows close to sides (no more than 20-30 degrees from body)
3. Do not drop elbows below plane of torso at bottom of movement
4. The magic move: when pressing, focus on rotating your palms inward (toward your face) through the entire motion while simultaneously moving your ELBOWS in toward each other. This results in the strongest adduction of the humerus as possible with external rotation. This is both the safest AND most effective way to stimulate as many pectoral muscle fibers as possible. Of course, you could eliminate pressing altogether (I know, blasphemy!) in favor of all sorts of bodyweight pressing movements using gymnastics rings and develop real strength. Another post for that, though.