The Bench Press - How Low Should I Go?

“Want to work on chest today? How much can you bench? How many plates?” I’ve heard those lines one too many times.   I’m not sure why men (mostly young men) have the need to compare with each other, who can bench more and the obsession with a big chest. I guess being big chested also means a strong, sexy man? But how sexy is it when you have a big chest, but can’t reach your hands over your head or behind your back? Yes, very sexy.  But what are some of the consequences of focusing your workout strictly on the bench press, especially when lacking full shoulder range of motion?

 

Currently, I’m seeing an influx of men complaining of shoulder pain who sit in front of me with large pecs, but poor posture and rounded shoulders.  They want the shoulder pain to go away but also be able to bench press the weight they once achieved in college or university.  For many, bench-press is the standard or benchmark for strength and fitness.  But the truth is, it’s just one aspect of strength of a few muscle of the body (chest, triceps and anterior deltoids). Because it’s been a benchmark for many individuals, they will load the bar as heavy as they can with poor mechanics, leading to shoulder pain and injury.

Why does my shoulder hurt?

Speaking of poor mechanics, there is much confusion of how far the barbell should be lowered when performing the bench press.  When I Googled “bench press- how far should the bar go,” I read many forums stating that the bar must touch the middle of the chest and if it doesn’t, you’re not getting the full range of motion.  To sum it up, many others considered it “cheating” if you didn’t. In order for the bar to touch your chest, it requires your shoulder to be able to move through full range of motion.  For many over-developed chests and shoulders, it becomes difficult and to make matters worse, lying flat on a hard bench makes it hard for your scapula (shoulder blade) to move through its natural course of movement. If the individual without full shoulder range of motion is determined to have the bar touch the chest, they will be able to do it, but at the cost of stretching the joint capsule or if the weight is heavy enough, rupture the pectoralis muscle.  The joint capsule is a layer of connective tissue that allows your brain to know where your arm is in space.  If the joint capsule is constantly stretched, it doesn’t provide accurate information, it can change the location of the where the humerus sits in its socket, destabilize the shoulder and eventually lead to injury (ex. impingements, rotator cuff irritation, bursitis).

 

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Poll taken from Bodybuilding.com. 2012.

How far should I go?

I’m not here to say that bench press is a bad exercise, in fact, it’s a great exercise if your body can handle it.  So how do you know how far the bar should go while still protecting your shoulder?*

1. While lying on the bench, squeeze your shoulder blades together and place your hands just outside your shoulder

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2. Allow your arms to gently drop, to its passive range of motion. This is the point where your joint capsule gets tight, but not overstretched. Note that your arms should be 45 degrees from your body, not allowing your elbows to flare out    

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3. You want to make sure you bring the bar approximately 10 degrees higher than this position to ensure that you are protecting your shoulder

If there is any sharp pain associated with the bench press, especially at a lighter weight, it’s a good idea to get your shoulder properly assessed by a professional.

Check out Eric Cressey's website, which has great articles relating to shoulder saving tips and how-to exercises.

 

Cheers,

Jessie Wong, Physiotherapist from the Physio Room

 

*The exercises provided on this website are for educational purposes only, and are not to be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific treatment plan, or course of action. Exercise is not without its risks, and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. They include but are not limited to: risk of injury, aggravation of a pre-existing condition, or adverse effect of over-exertion such as muscle strain, abnormal blood pressure, fainting, disorders of heartbeat, and very rare instances of heart attack.

To reduce the risk of injury, before beginning this or any exercise program, please consult a healthcare provider for appropriate exercise prescription and safety precautions. The exercise instruction and advice presented are in no way intended as a substitute for medical consultation. We disclaim any liability from and in connection with this program. As with any exercise program, if at any point during your workout you begin to feel faint, dizzy, or have physical discomfort, you should stop immediately and consult a physician.

 

References:

  • Bodybuilding.com. Poll Results: How far do you go down bench press.  2012.
  • Brukner and Khan. Clinical Sports Medicine 3rd Ed. McGraw Hill 2007.
  • Chek, P. Big Bench, Bad Shoulders.
  • Cressey,E. http://www.ericcressey.com/shoulder-savers-part-1. 2012.
  • Jerosch J, Castro WH, Halm H, Drescher H., Does the glenohumeral joint capsule have proprioceptive capability? Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 1993;1(2):80-4.

 

Cover picture taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bench_press.gif (A soldier in the U.S. Army performing a bench press, from the Task Force Eagle site)