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The Bench has Many Faces
Likness of naturalphysiques.com
press is probably one of the most well known resistance training exercises ...
but how many variations are there?
While some people
may scratch their heads when you ask them what a "skull crusher" or "front
squat" is, they're more than happy to demonstrate the motion of a bench press.
Some people go so far as to say, "This is the proper way to bench press."
What?! Are you kidding me? The bench press has many faces, and we're going to
explore them today!
Ways To Bench
The notion that
there is one way to perform a bench press is just not valid. If you are
bench-pressing for a competition, then the "proper" form is dictated by the
rules of that event. Power-lifting has a set of rules that describe exactly how
a bench press should be performed, and in the context of that sport, there
really is only one proper way to do it - the way that keeps you from being
training, however, there are many variations that serve different purposes. So
let's get started. The traditional flat bench press involves lying on a flat
bench and grasping the bar slightly outside of shoulder's width. The bar is
unracked, then lowered slowly to touch the chest. In a bench press competition,
the bar may have to sit there for a specified period of time. The person
benching then drives the bar upward and completes the repetition with arms
perpendicular to the floor and locked out or just slightly bent.
which requires moving a very heavy weight, the bench press is more than just a
chest exercise. Any type of bench press movement will involve the shoulders and
triceps to a certain extent. During a power-lifting repetition of the bench
press, the lower body also comes into play. The legs are used to drive the
torso into the bench for stability. The shoulders are retracted and the back is
flexed to further keep the torso stabilized and also to provide more surface
area against the bench to support the load. A slight arch in the back is not
uncommon as the entire body is used to drive the bar upward.
Some people focus
on the bench press as a chest exercise - the goal is to increase mass in the
chest. They wish to minimize the involvement of the shoulder and triceps and
even the lower body. For this variation, you can lift your legs off the ground
and keep them bent or crossed in the air, to eliminate their involvement with
the movement. Biomechanics tells us that the best grip to target the chest will
place your wrists over your elbows when your upper arm is parallel to the
floor. In other words, your arms should form a perfect right angle when your
elbow is level with your shoulder.
The bar at this
position may be slightly above your chest, and you would not need to go below
this point (doing so increases involvement of the anterior deltoids or front of
the shoulder and triceps). You would start with your upper arms parallel to the
floor, then drive the bar upward, pausing just short of lockout, then return to
the start position. Avoiding lockout and not bringing your upper arms below
parallel will maximize chest involvement, minimize shoulder and triceps
involvement, and maintain constant tension on the chest (when you lockout at
the top, the tension shifts to your elbow joint and off of the chest).
By elevating the
bench that you are pressing on, you shift emphasis to your shoulders. As the
bench becomes more inclined, more tension is placed on the deltoids. While this
means more shoulder involvement, it also means less chest involvement. Lowering
the bench to a decline will shift tension lower on the chest. Keep in mind
that, as a muscle, the chest cannot "selectively" contract the upper or lower
portion - the entire muscle performs work against tension. The change in angle,
however, can shift more tension overall to the chest, by reducing the tension
that is handled by stabilizer muscles or other secondary movers. Since the
chest is stronger than the shoulders, most people can press the heaviest weight
in a decline. The load that can be handled decreases as the bench moves into a
Grip has an
important function with respect to bench press. When you grasp the bar at
exactly shoulder width or less, you are forcing most of the angle of motion to
occur in the elbow joint rather than where your upper arm meets your body. This
means that more tension is shifted to the triceps muscles. A close-gripped
bench press is often considered a triceps exercise, even though the chest is
still somewhat involved (any movement of the upper arm with respect to the
torso will involve the chest).
Keep in mind that
with an extremely narrow grip, it might be beneficial to rotate the arms so
that the elbows stay close to the sides. This minimizes tension on the elbow
joint - many people performing narrow grip bench presses find that they feel
tremendous stress in their elbow joint. Keeping the elbows close and arms
rotated slightly (the bar will be above the abdomen rather than the chest) will
reduce some of this stress.
Grasping the bar
with a reverse grip also changes the way that work is distributed during the
movement. Many believe that a reverse grip bench press places more tension on
the triceps, and can serve to build the "belly" of the triceps muscle. Since
your arms move through the same range of motion as a traditional bench press,
most of the same muscles are involved. The reversal of the grip, however,
shifts the emphasis through phases of the lift, and therefore involves the
triceps through a larger range of motion. Keep in mind that a reverse grip
makes it extremely difficult to manage the bar when it is over your head. You
should always have a spotter unrack the bar for you when performing this
movement, or load the bar onto a rack and lift directly from the rack or pins.
Using a dumbbell
rather than a barbell will require your body to stabilize the dumbbells. This
will involve more muscle groups and therefore provides a different stimulus
than a barbell bench press. It is always good to balance dumbbell movements
with barbell movements.
movements help work stabilizer muscles and improve coordination, while allowing
imbalances to be addressed - for example, if the left side of your chest is
larger than the right side, you can perform one armed bench presses to work on
correcting that imbalance.
the involvement of many stabilizer muscles and require less coordination, so a
heavier load can be used to place more tension on the chest muscle. The
dumbbell will also allow a fuller range of motion - but be warned, the lower
you allow the dumbbell to travel, the more torque you place on your shoulder
joint (stress) which can be dangerous, especially for someone with weak
As you can see,
there are many variations to the bench press. So which one is right? It depends
on your goals! Incorporating a variety of movements is the best way to
stimulate all muscle groups that are involved in the bench press. It also
forces your central nervous system to constantly adapt to the new stimulus,
which will help avoid plateaus. Alternating between dumbbell and barbell
movements allows all aspects of the bench to be perfected.
that in order to perform an exercise a specific way, you must practice it that
way. If you are benching for a competition, you must include presses that
follow the competition guidelines in order to maximize your ability to execute
that variation of the movement.