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Powerlifting - The Bench Press
For more than three decades, the lift commonly viewed as the test of strength has been the bench press. From its inception in competition, it has been the most popular lift in single lift competition, and often, when someone who has no idea what powerlifting or Olympic lifting is all about, will pose the question “How much do you bench?” to anyone who lifts. It is the second lift in a powerlifting competition, and even athletes who are strong on the other two lifts need to develop proficiency in the bench press to achieve an exceptional total. While this lift is practiced by nearly everyone, even those who have no idea what a snatch, clean and jerk or squat is, this document is primarily written for powerlifters or those who wish to develop a maximal bench with minimal risk of injury.
The bench press is executed while lying flat on the back, the only contested lift where this occurs. The agonists (prime movers) in the bench are the triceps, deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, and the latissimus dorsai. Numerous smaller muscles are used to stabilize the body while lifting, but these are the primary focus. Performed properly, the bench can produce incredible muscular hypertrophy of the pressing muscles, although specific assistance work will still need to be performed to achieve maximal poundages.
The set up for the bench consists of lying flat on the bench, with the head, shoulders, and hips on the bench, and the feet flat on the floor. While some federations may allow variations of this, as a general rule it is good to practice this set up. Certain lifters may not be able to reach the floor, and may use plates or blocks to allow the athlete to achieve a respectable amount of leg drive. One of the most overlooked aspects of the bench is the amount of power that can be transferred from the legs to the torso, but this is only possible if the hips are driven strongly into the bench, and the abdominals and lower back are used to keep the torso stable. This is made easier for the athlete by arching, where the lower back is extended. This also serves to allow the lats to be recruited more efficiently by the athlete. The scapulae should be retracted to their fullest extent. This can not only shorten the bench stroke as well, but decrease the angle of rotation of the shoulder joint, limiting opening of the acromial process.
The grip will influence numerous factors; bar path, muscle recruitment and activation, bar placement, and risk of injury. As a general rule, most powerlifters will use a wide grip, shortening the distance the bar must travel and reducing the necessary work to lockout the weight.(10, 36) A narrow grip enables lifters to generate more force initially, but hinders force production at lockout. A wider grip has been shown to limit initial force production.(31) It is also worth noting that a wider grip generally allows far less horizontal bar displacement than a closer grip. Contrary to popular belief, a wider grip does not stress the pectorals more than a closer grip, although the triceps are recruited to a much greater degree with a narrower grip due to the greater vertical displacement of the bar.(10) While there is no greater recruitment of the pectorals secondary to a wider grip, the muscles will be subject to a greater stretch, which can result in increased force generation.(19) It goes without saying that the thumbs should be wrapped firmly around the bar, which will not only help ensure the safety of the lifter, but will make it easier to keep the wrists straight. Keeping the wrists straight allows the bar to be supported over the radius and ulna, instead of being held in position by the much smaller and weaker tendons of the wrist.
Unracking the bar is a part of the set up, and can result in a poor lift if it is not given the attention it deserves. Ideally, the bar should be taken out of the rack by the lifter, allowing the athlete to tighten the lats as the bar moves into position. However, since it is not an ideal world, a spotter is often used. If the is the case, the spotter should provide no more assistance than absolutely necessary, and a poor lift off can be worse than no help at all, especially in the case of smaller lifters, who can be pulled not only out of position, but clear of the bench by an overly enthusiastic ‘assistant’. When the bar is unracked, it should be taken at full extension, both because the athlete must demonstrate control of the bar for a successful lift in competition, but to ensure that the muscles are tight and the set up is correct. A single second of adjustment can avoid what seems like an eternal struggle to press a weight that is out of position.
Elbow position on both the descent and ascent will determine many things, including risk of injury to the shoulders, activation of the lats and triceps, as well as bar position. This is one of the most ignored factors when benching. It will be discussed in more detail during both the raising and lowering phases, but one thing will be mentioned first: do not flare the elbows out to the side “to place more emphasis on the chest,” as bodybuilding lore often states. This will result in a severe amount of strain at the shoulder joints, as it opens the acromial process to an extreme degree.
The descending phase is critical, and will directly determine the ability of the athlete to press the weight. When the bar is lowered, it should be brought low on the torso, to the apex of the arch. This serves to decrease the distance that the bar is pressed, reducing the work done by the athlete during both the eccentric and concentric phases. To enable the bar to be lowered properly, the elbows should move toward the lifter as the bar comes down. This should be done with a feeling of ‘rowing the bar down’ with the lats, but achieving the feel of this can take time. Tension should be maintained throughout the body as this is occurring, to preserve the potential energy of the stretch reflex.(7)
The pause is required in competition, and while this is one of the many things that separates a competition bench from a gym lift, it is often one of the most important. The ability to preserve a stretch reflex is crucial to any athlete who needs to hit a big number in competition. When the bar is paused, the most important thing to do is not relax, tension must be maintained throughout the entire body. The stretch reflex can be maintained for up to two seconds in a trained athlete, although a novice will struggle to achieve 25% of this result.(7)
The concentric portion of the lift is the most difficult, and can present a variety of problems to the athlete. One fact that should be noted is that, once the bar is paused, the lifter should not allow the bar to sink further, using the ribcage or stomach to propel the bar upward. This is heaving, and is cause for a lift to be turned down. As the bar begins to ascend, it should be driven upward with as much force as possible, both to take advantage of the myotactic response, as well as to push through any possible sticking point.(13, 30) The elbows should be maintained as close to the body as possible until the sticking point is reached, at which point they should flare outward, reducing the movement arm about the elbow and improving the leverage of the triceps.
The bar should be driven upward in as straight a line as possible. Quite simply, this requires the least amount of work on the part of the athlete. Some lifters are taught to push the bar back (‘back to the rack’) and this is quite incorrect, even though several good benchers do so. Benching in this manner increases the amount of work that the lifter must perform, and decreases the involvement of the lats. Some coaches and athletes are under the impression that this will more fully utilize the musculature of the upper back, but this is not the case. It would be if the athlete were vertical instead of horizontal, however, as the bar is simply drifting over the face, the athlete is in no way utilizing muscular force to pull it there.
Common errors that occur when benching are discussed briefly. They all have several things in common. First, they all indicate that the lifter is not strong enough to move the weight properly, and should decrease the poundage until their ability grows to match his desires. Second, they all indicate that the lifter needs further education in the realm of strength training. Third, they all have the potential to cause injury.
Excessive arching is common among gym lifters, who should know to keep their hips on the bench. However, when the ego takes over, the body often loses control. The lifter will push the hips up off of the bench, in order to improve his leverage. While this can help someone lock out a lift they would otherwise have missed, it can caused a great deal of strain on the vertebrae of the lower back and the neck. The lumbar vertebrae will be compressed unevenly, increasing the shearing force the spine is subject to, and putting the lifter at risk for serious injury. An even more extreme form of arching can have the lifter actually compressing the vertebrae of the neck.
Bouncing the bar off of the chest is another common technique exhibited by those who seek to impress their friends with the fact that they have survived as long as they have. This is, quite simply, an easy way to damage the ribs, sternum, or even completely fracture the xiphoid process. In addition to the potential for injury, people who utilize this ‘technique’ will begin to develop a weakness in the bottom of the bench press, necessitating further bouncing of the bar, which is quite a viscous circle.
One last error will be discussed, and that is the improper use of spotters. While a spotter is a good idea when benching, using one (or more) to perform the lift instead of pressing the weight to full extension is not a habit that the serious strength athlete should develop. While there may be a place for heavy negatives in the recreational athletes program, there is a disadvantage to performing them as well, in that they cause the greatest degree of microtrauma to muscle fibers than any other standard type of training. While a muscle may be able to handle approximately 120% of its maximal concentric load during the eccentric phase, this does not in any way serve to optimize the CNS, and it is, in fact, more fatiguing to the athlete than standard training, increasing the recovery time and lessening the amount of training time. (29, 41, 60, 61)
There is at least one school of thought which would have athletes believe that there is little benefit to performing a regular bench press, and that machine type bench exercises are just as good, if not superior to the bench press. Unfortunately, research does not support this. Studies have shown that not only is there greater muscle activity during the bench press (20, 31, 33) but that there is also greater recruitment of the stabilizing muscles to support the musculature used in the bench press (16, 17, 45) This is particularly true of the deltoid, and while all muscles of the deltoid are active to one degree or another during any movement of the upper arm, with one head being the agonist and the others synergists,(40) this difference is highly significant with respect to the bench press.(33)
Lifters, whether powerlifters, bodybuilders, or recreational lifters often argue about which muscles are most involved in the bench. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer. The following information is compiled from electromyographical analysis (EMG) performed within several studies, and in every case the EMG signal was quantified by calculating the integral of the EMG pattern (IMEG) as the area under the linear envelope.(60) The data were analyzed through a repeated measures ANOVA (analysis of normal variance) using type III sums of squares where possible.(1) This method of review was also used when assessing % maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC). All anatomical references were reviewed with respect to electrode placement with respect to both anatomical accuracy as well as sensitivity as diagnostic tools (9, 12, 19, 24, 25, 37, 39, 42, 43, 61)
What the above paragraph indicates is that, when all factors are considered and standardized, including individual variations such as biomechanics, fiber type, rate of force development, etc. the following can be surmised (all data based on averages of 60% and 80% 1rm):
% MVIC of agonists:
Anterior deltoid: 95%
Pectoralis Major: 75%
The most active portion of the triceps was the long head, which is even more active with a narrow grip. This is true even when overhead pressing, assuming the elbows are fully adducted. This is secondary to the greater degree of elbow flexion, in which the triceps brachii functions as the agonist.
The anterior deltoid will be more active the more the trunk is inclined, as well as being more active with a wider grip. This is due to the fact that the anterior deltoid is not merely an flexor of the humerus, but also an adductor of it. Wide hand spacing during a vertical press will cause mainly glenohumeral abduction, whereas with a narrow grip the primary movement is flexion.
The sternocostal head of the pectoralis major is little affected by hand spacing, but is directly affected by trunk inclination. The greater the inclination, the less the activation. There is also a slightly greater activation of this muscle with a wider hand spacing, due, in general, to the fact that with a wider grip, the elbows tend to move away from the midline of the body, which increases the degree of horizontal flexion of the humerus.
The clavicular head of the pectoralis major is affected by both hand spacing as well as trunk inclination. The narrower the grip, the greater the activation, as well as the greater the inclination, the greater the activation. There are several factors for this, including the fact that vertical bar displacement is greatest during an incline press. This is also due to the fact that the clavicular head is involved in horizontal flexion and adduction in addition to pure flexion. The clavicular head will maintain its function as a flexor of the glenohumeral joint until humerus moves above the horizontal position. This is why it is rather inactive when the torso is vertical, as little flexion is occurring.
The latissimus dorsai is highly active at the initiation of the concentric phase, with greater activity the closer the elbows are maintained to the torso, due to the degree of adduction required. The latissimus dorsai is an extensor at the glenohumeral joint as well as being a humeral adductor, which explains its activity during every type of pressing.
Numerous training programs have been devised, and will not be discussed here in great detail. A modest discussion of the various methods of training will be mentioned.
Maximal effort method: The maximal effort method consists of lifting a maximal (1RM) load, with the goal being improvement of both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination. The CNS system is maximally stimulated, with CNS inhibition being reduced, and the greatest number of motor units are recruited using this method.(61) The primary disadvantages of this method are that it induces minimal hypertrophy, as only one or two reps are performed, as well as the fact that the CNS will attenuate rather quickly, and so exercises must be rotated regularly. If more than one set (repetition) is to be performed, then a lengthy rest period may be required. (3, 4, 21, 53)
Repeated effort method: This method utilizes submaximal effort with higher reps to stimulate maximal hypertrophy.(61) The basis for this method is that the larger the muscles peak cross sectional area (PCSA), the greater the strength of the individual muscle. The disadvantages to this method are that the CNS is not highly stimulated with this method, as well as the fact that as the muscles become fatigued, form begins to suffer, decreasing proper motor unit recruitment patterns. As multiple sets are normally performed using this method, rest periods should be long enough to allow the athlete sufficient recovery time, but, over time, the athlete should strive to reduce the rest time in-between sets (3, 4, 21, 46, 53)
Dynamic effort method: This method uses sub-maximal (light) weights to increase rate of force development.(61) This method will also potentate the myotactile response, as the weight is moved quickly. Repetitions are low, to ensure proper technique, and sets are high, to allow for greater motor unit recruitment. Rest periods should be kept low, as the various systems, such as the CNS, musculoskeletal, etc. are not heavily taxed during a single set. (4, 21, 41, 53)
A brief discussion of assistance work and its effects, as well as specific bench techniques, is quite appropriate. Assistance work is of critical importance, a point which has often been illustrated. When an athlete cannot progress in a certain lift, it is not the lift itself which is weak, but there is a weak link (muscle group) in the kinematic chain. The key to successful assistance work is determining which muscle group is the weakest and determining the appropriate technique to strengthen it.
General guidelines are hard to present, but, nevertheless, an attempt will be made.
Weak at the initiation of the concentric phase (out of the bottom): Strengthen lats, pecs, as well as learn how to recruit lats properly.
Weak at the midpoint: Strengthen the shoulders, and work on specific exercises to train the sticking point.
Weak at lockout: Triceps, triceps, and triceps. The triceps are active throughout the entire lift, but most active the closer the bar moves toward lockout. Specific exercises to strengthen the lockout can be used as well.
Bench assistance work will be divided into several basic categories, with a general discussion about the effects of each category of exercises, with extra discussion for specific functions of individual exercises if necessary. The categories include flat benching exercises, partial pressing exercises, bench-like exercises, assistance work for the triceps, assistance work for the deltoids, assistance work for the traps, assistance work for the lats, assistance work for the biceps and forearms. The use of chains and bands will not be discussed, but will be the focus of another discussion.
Flat bench: This lift needs to be examined in and of itself as it can be used with a variety of methods, techniques, and set and rep schemes, all of which can have an effect on bench performance. When trained dynamically, the athlete should use a weight that allows the production of maximal force, which will generally occur somewhere between 50 – 60% of the 1RM. This allows for greater force development, allows the lift to be trained again more frequently as it is performed in a very rapid manner, lessening the eccentric stress and resultant fatigue, as well as maximizing the utilization of the stretch reflex.
The paused version of the bench press can be used to develop starting strength. Many athletes will train with an extended pause (two or three seconds) to help them further develop the necessary explosion off the chest, as well as the ability to maintain tension in the paused position.
Heavy negatives: Not advised for the strength athlete. By the time an athlete is advanced enough to perform them, the amount of recovery time necessary will reduce practical training time. This exercise may be useful for novice athletes to become accustomed to the feel of heavier weights through synaptic facilitation.
Illegal wide grip bench. Very useful for strengthening the bottom portion of the bench which will occur secondary to hypertrophy, as these are generally performed in the six rep range. The only caution is that this exercise can severely open the acromial process, and should be used sparingly, and only by athletes with healthy shoulders.
Pressing from the pins at chest level can work the start of the bench as well, but it is difficult to recruitment maximal power from the torso, as there is no stretch reflex, and no resulting tension. This can place the athlete at greater risk for injury as well.
Benching with a cambered bar or a buffalo bar can also work the start of the bench, but once again care must be taken to avoid injury to the shoulders as the acromial process is quite open using these types of bars.
Close grip bench presses have been a not only a standard method for powerlifters to strengthen the triceps and thus the lockout of the bench, but have even been used by weightlifters as an assistance exercise to increase their ability to execute the press decades before powerlifting was a recognized sport, including the great Tommy Kono. (for the trivia-minded, Kono cleaned and pressed 350 pounds at a bodyweight of 182.5 pounds)
Reverse grip bench pressing can provide quite a bit of stimulation for the triceps. This method is little used, but could be far more prevalent if athletes did not overlook this very useful exercise. It is, in fact, even more surprising when one considers that the heaviest bench ever executed was performed with a reverse grip. This was a standard assistance exercise for legendary bencher Rick Weil, who eventually utilized it as his competition style, pushing 551 lbs. at a bodyweight of 181 lbs.
Partial bench exercises can take a wide variety of forms, and will be further subdivided into several categories: initial, or the start of the concentric, lockout, which will be used to refer to any portion of the bench higher than ½ of the distance to lockout, or specific. One difficulty arises in that exercises with specific variations with respect to the height at which they are performed, such as board presses, and presses from the rack, will fall into a different category based on the bench stroke of the individual. An athlete with a short bench stroke may find that the three board press strengthens the lockout, whereas an individual with a very long bench stroke will find that it strengthens the start or the mid-range of the bench. The same is true for partial presses from the rack. One of the keys to making partial exercises effective is that they must be performed in the correct range, with the joints at the proper angle.
Partial training is based on the attenuation principle, where the intent is to train in the range of motion where there is demand for maximal force production. This method is used to overload the musculoskeletal system as well as the CNS with supramaximal loads in the area of the ROM where maximal force is produced.(40) This also produces a decline in neural inhibition.(55) Numerous studies have shown that there is an area of the ROM where maximal force production occurs, and this area is often referred to as the ‘sticking point’.(13, 31, 57) Studies have shown that partial ROM training increases strength primarily at the trained ROM, although there is a certain amount of variance. (18, 27, 28, 48) It is worth noting that partial ROM exercise produces greater torque compared to full ROM exercise. (47, 58) One other benefit of performing partials is the lessened eccentric phase, which will result in less microtrauma, allowing quicker recovery.(29)
Board Press: Allows the lifter to maintain tension throughout the torso but still work a partial ROM. Much of the weight is transferred to the athlete at the bottom of the rep, when the bar is paused.
Rack Press: Similar to board press, but harder for the athlete to maintain tension in the torso. This exercise is easier to vary, as changing pin heights is relatively simple, but there is greater risk of injury if the athlete does not achieve the appropriate levels of muscular tension prior to the concentric phase. This exercise can also be used to push very heavy weights, allowing the CNS to be better conditioned for handling heavier weights.
Floor Press: Good for working the initial portion of the bench. For lifters with weak triceps, this may not be the best assistance exercise.
Isometric press: This exercise involves utilizing a power rack with the pins set just above and below the sticking point. The athlete will then press the weight off the pins, forcibly contacting the next set of pins. This will be repeated for a total of three times, and when the bar contacts the pins the third time, the athlete should push against the pins for at least six seconds, with the goal of exhausting every possible muscle fiber.
Work for the triceps is basically the same. Variations of extensions, as the function of the triceps is to extend the elbow joint. There are a great many types of extension, so many, in fact, that they would be the subject for an entire document of their own. The purpose of all of them is to increase the strength of the triceps through hypertrophy, and a wide number of set and rep schemes can be used. Only a couple exercises will be mentioned specifically.
Dips: Good for the novice, who is not used to pushing heavy weight. As the athlete becomes more advanced, there is the matter of diminishing returns. Perhaps it is because of the strain on the shoulder joint, the fact that so many muscles are involved that it is hard to target a specific weakness with this exercise, or for some unknown reason, but advanced athletes seem to benefit very little from this exercise.
French Press: Yet another overlooked exercise. Whether seated or standing, this exercise provides a benefit many other do not: it fully stretches the long head of the triceps, which crosses the shoulder joint. This can be quite beneficial for a lifter who has been doing short range isolation movements.
Pushdowns: These exercises do very little to truly develop functional strength, and should be used only for active recovery or as GPP.
Exercise for the shoulder girdle are of the utmost importance. Not only the anterior deltoid, which functions as an agonist in the bench press, but the medial and posterior deltoids, the trapezius, as well as the rotator cuff and rhomboids.
Pressing exercises, whether with barbells or dumbbells, are one of the best all around shoulder exercises. The anterior and medial deltoid will be directly stimulated, and the posterior will function as synergists. The traps will be used to support the musculature of the shoulders during overhead pressing as well. Pressing can also be performed from various pin heights within the rack, adding extra variations to the lifter’s arsenal.
Pressing behind the neck is often viewed as dangerous, and this is true: if the athlete does not maintain adequate flexibility in the shoulders, strength in the external rotators, and a certain amount of flexibility in the chest. As at least one of these factors is generally sadly lacking, this variation of pressing exercise can be quite hard on the athlete.
Snatch Grip Press Behind the Neck: This exercise is rarely performed in the United States, as Olympic weightlifting is not as popular as it once was. This exercise is one of the reasons when Overhead lifting was the rule, rather than the exception, that rotator cuff injuries were few and far between.
The strength and recruitment of the latissimus dorsai is essential to a big bench, and so correspondingly the lats should be trained in the manner which not only most closely simulates the motion of the bench, but allows the athlete to achieve greater recruitment of the lats. As the lats are basically worked in two directions (there are minute exceptions which are not very applicable) exercises will be grouped into two categories.
Chins/Pullups/Pulldowns: All excellent movements for strengthening the lats, and chins and pull ups are superior to pulldowns due to the greater number of motor units recruited. If an athlete is going to perform chins or pull ups, care must be taken not to bounce out of the bottom portion of the exercise, as this can cause bicep tendonitis or other elbow problems.
Rows: While certain types of rows have been shown to display a higher EMG activation rating, such a s dumbbell rows, the athlete working to improve the bench should make the row as specific as possible. Ideally, this will be with the chest supported, the bar held in the same grip, and it is rowed in the same plane as the bench is executed. Rotating different variations of this exercise can be useful.
The trapezius is a muscle that helps stabilize the entire shoulder girdle, as well as the neck and head, and is often neglected in many conventional programs.
The basic exercise for strengthening the trapezius is the shrug. This exercise can be performed with barbells or dumbbells, and can be performed in an explosive manner allowing more weight to be used as well as increasing the effective ROM.
The other method for strengthening the traps as well as the upper back would be the Olympic lifts. While learning the classic (full) versions of the snatch and clean and jerk could be counter productive, partial versions of the quick lifts can be readily learned and provide a degree of stimulation to the upper back that is unparalleled by other forms of lifting.
The power snatch is one of the best exercises for strengthening the upper back that has ever been practiced. In addition to strengthening the traps, posterior deltoids, rhomboids and teres major, the external rotators are strengthened quite thoroughly. This exercise, or a variation of it, is often used for this very purpose.
The power clean will work the traps quite well, and more weight can be used than in the power snatch. This exercise will work the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and teres major, but it does not strengthen the external rotators to the same degree as the power snatch. If strengthening the external rotators is the primary goal, dumbbells can be more effective.
Pulls: Whether executed with a snatch or clean grip, performed from the deck, the hang, or pins, Olympic pulls can work the traps through an incredible range of motion, and there will be some stimulation of the other muscles of the upper back.
Biceps: The only function the biceps brachialis serves is as a stabilizer in the bench press. For this reason, there is little reason for the athlete interested in strengthening the bench to spend much time curling. The brachialis serves as a stabilizer as well, and often more so than the biceps, so reverse curls and hammer curls can be of some use.
Forearms: The muscular of the forearm is far more important to the bench than the biceps. The brachioradialis serves to stabilize the elbow joint, and the extensors and flexors stabilize the wrist joint.
Reverse Curls: This exercise primarily strengthens the brachioradialis, but also serves to strengthen the brachialis.
Hammer Curls: Similar to reverse curls, with less effect on the brachioradialis, but more stimulation of the brachialis.
Wrist Curls: Can be used to strengthen both the flexors and the extensors.
Grip work: Grip work in general can be divided into a few categories as well, but the primary interest of the athlete seeking to improve the bench is static contraction.
A final note: Aside from the obvious cautions about using spotters or a power rack, there is one other difficulty that is often overlooked. The bench press will heavily work the internal rotators (supraspinatus and infraspinatus) but not stress the externals to any great degree. The external rotators (subscapularis and teres minor) are equally important, and should receive attention. While mention has been made of the fact that some of the Olympic lifts work the external rotators, this needs to be stressed. If these moves are not utilized, a certain amount of specific work for these small muscles should be included. The key aspect to any training program is that the health of the athlete is paramount.
By Arioch and Spatts
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