Ditch The Bench Press
This one is going to be controversial...
There is one exercise that I rarely do anymore.
And it's one of the most popular exercises in the gym.
Three guesses which one...
I have nothing against the movement pattern itself... but this particular variation of the movement tends to give people problems over the years, and especially as the weight gets heavier or the movement quality starts to slip.
But you could also say that about pretty much any exercise...
So why this one in particular?
Well, the popularity factor for one.
And then we have the "functional" application of the lift for two & its inefficiency at building the target muscle for three.
Figure it out yet?
It's the flat barbell bench press.
"Blasphemy! The barbell bench press is a staple of ANY program!" I can hear it now.
Well yea... for a powerlifter. Because you're COMPETING in that lift.
For the typical person, it's nowhere near "required." By all means, include it if it doesn't give you any issues, but if this lift aggravates your shoulders over time, don't fear cutting it out.
So why is the flat barbell bench press such an issue?
I see the popularity factor as the leading issue because so many people love chest day. They love chest day so much they totally neglect their back and they never, ever train legs. They love chest day so much they're content to smash their shoulder joints into powder just to have a "bigger bench press." And then years down the road they complain about shoulder pain...
That's absolutely not my style. And it's shortsighted.
I train for aesthetics and longevity, neither of which requires a monster bench press. Sure, I want to have a strong PRESS but it doesn't have to be on flat bench. That is only required if it's part of your sport. And when you're an athlete, you typically understand your sport can have long-term consequences to your body & health.
Now, when it comes to the "functional" side of things, we almost never use just our arms to push something away from us horizontally like in a flat bench press. We're more likely to have our feet planted & bladed, our entire body braced, and will push away from us at a slightly inclined angle (think of a linebacker pushing his opponent).
And then we have the inefficiency of the flat barbell bench press to build the chest. It's such a big movement, that the front delts and triceps tend to take over a lot of the lift, taking away the tension from your pecs. If you want to build a bigger chest, there are better ways to do it.
Now... I'm not saying that someone with a 500 pound bench press is wrong or that they have a small chest. This is a nuanced issue and it depends on who you are as an individual.
What I'm saying is that it all comes at a cost. And the person with a 500 pound bench press has most likely already come to terms with that.
What I'm saying is that if the potential cost isn't worth the benefit to YOU, don't do it. If you're not competing in the barbell bench press, don't feel as if it's "required" for you to do.
So what do I recommend instead?
Any incline press.
That includes incline barbell press, incline dumbbell press, Hammer Strength incline press, incline cable press. Anything of that sort.
The incline press places the shoulders in a better, safer position, and one that is easier to maintain throughout the lift than the flat barbell bench press. Just don't bench "to the neck" because it flares the elbows out into an unsafe and awkward position.
Focus on keeping your chest expanded, with your shoulders down and back, and maintaining this position throughout the movement. Don't let your shoulders "pop forward" in their sockets. Maintain roughly 45 degrees of elbow flare from your torso, and control the weight during every phase of the lift. FEEL it working.
A proper incline press will help to build the upper chest while protecting your shoulders in the long run.
Another benefit of this position is mimicking real-world use of the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Again think of a linebacker. The incline press mimics the same position we naturally angle our body to generate power. The torso will be leaned slightly forward and the arms will press out in much the same angle as an incline press. Power is generated by planting the feet into the ground, transferring it through the hips & core, and then unleashing it through the arms and hands.
If we pushed someone like we were doing a flat bench press, WE would fall over backwards because our base isn't planted into the ground. Again, it's not how we would press in an athletic context.
And finally, the incline press is more efficient at building the chest, especially the upper chest, and especially when both hands operate independently of each other.
If you perform incline dumbbell presses, you'll see what I mean. At the bottom you are able to get a better stretch across the pecs, and at the top, you're able to bring your arms together and really "squeeze" the pecs. And if you perform these with bodybuilding-style time-under-tension reps, you'll really start to see the development of your upper chest and the separation between your pecs and delts.
And that's why I prefer the incline press. It doesn't even have to be a barbell.
The incline press has felt much better on my shoulders over the years, and has given me the least issues. And for that reason, it's always a staple in my programs.
If there are any other movements you'd like me to break down, just let me know.
Spartan Training & Coaching
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