Bench- Pressing Issues

Jerry Brainum Photography by Michael Neveux

Chest Development VS. Shoulder Injury

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The bench press can be done with a barbell, a pair of dumbbells or on a machine. Itís considered a basic exercise because it works important muscles in the chest, such as the pectorals, as well as the shoulders and triceps. Nearly all bodybuilding champions do some form of bench pressing at some point in their careers.

You can do bench presses in a flat, incline or decline position. The idea is that using varied angles focuses the exercise stress on different parts of the pecs. So flat-bench presses target the central, meaty area of the pecs; incline presses focus on the upper portion of the pecs; and decline presses work the lower part of the pecs.

Bodybuilders generally find that the most difficult portion of the pec to build is the upper part, often called the pectoralis minor, though it isnít anatomically correct to use that term to refer to the upper chest. Anatomists say that the pectorals are actually just one muscle and that the pec minor is merely a strip of muscle in the upper clavicular portion of the chest. That means what most bodybuilders are training when they do incline presses is the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major.

Heavy barbell bench presses are more associated with injury than incline and decline presses. There are, however, exceptions to that rule. I injured my shoulder joint a couple of times doing either barbell or dumbbell incline presses. When I did incline presses, I lowered the weight to my neck, which places a disproportionate amount of stress on the shoulder joints. Eventually, that leads to a tear in the joint that manifests as shoulder pain. Because of the injuries, Iíve had to avoid both barbell and dumbbell incline presses for the past seven years, substituting machine incline presses. Iíve found that using the machine produces no shoulder strain whatever, although I didnít get the strength and added mass that I would have gotten from using free weights.

While the flat-bench press is still popular, many bodybuilding champions have opted to do other versions of the exercise. Some eschew any type of flat or decline work, preferring to train only the upper portion of the pecs by doing incline work exclusively. Others favor the dumbbell flat-bench press, figuring that using dumbbells increases the range of motion, thus working more muscle fibers and building more complete pectoral development.

There are problems, however, with the stretch hypothesis of bench pressing. While doing a prestretch is a good idea for most exercises because it lines up muscle fibers and adds an elastic pushing component, that isnít the case with the pectorals. Because of the way the shoulder joint aligns with the pecs, excess stretch places a high degree of strain on shoulder joints. Indeed, numerous studies show that most pectoral tears occur during the lowering, or eccentric, phase of the rep, since that places a high degree of tension on the pectoral-shoulder attachment and may lead to a tear.

Some kinesiologistsóexperts on body movement related to muscle functionósuggest that you should avoid all stretching during any type of flye or lateral exercise for chest, as well as any type of press. They recommend lowering the weight only about halfway when doing bench presses, and stopping a flye as soon as you feel a stretch in the pectorals. [Editorís note: On the other hand, many research studies suggest stretching and stretch overload increase hypertrophy and may initiate hyperplasia, or fiber splitting.]

Another common misconception involves grip width. Bodybuilding dogma dictates that using a wide grip during bench presses stresses the ďouter portionĒ of the pectorals, producing a wider-appearing, more aesthetically pleasing pec. Most elite bodybuilders do have that type of pec development, but itís more a function of heredity, or muscle attachments, than how you perform an exercise. Using a wide grip on bench presses doesnít target the outer pecs but does strain the shoulder joints. Using a closer grip, one of slightly less than shoulder width, decreases pectoral stimulation by less than 5 percent over using a wide grip, but it also relieves shoulder stress. Using a close grip is even less stressful on the shoulders, although it tends to shift the exercise focus to the triceps.


Limited-Equipment Bodybuilding

Paul Burke

Limited-Equipment Bodybuilding

Q: Iím 53 years old. I competed twice as a younger man, and my first over-50 contest is in a few months. My main problem is my limited equipment and getting the most out of it. I train in my basement with an Olympic free-weight set, a homemade squat rack, a flat bench and a few dumbbells. I have a hard time getting full-leg results from squats, and, even though bench presses and dumbbell flyes seem to be good exercises for my chest, Iím not sure that Iím doing them properly because I see no results in my pectorals after five years. Can you help me put something together with the equipment that I have?

Bench Press Form for Pec Growth

John Hansen, Mr. Natural Olympia

Bench Press Form for  Pec Growth

Q: I got your DVD, and itís very good. Iím a natural bodybuilder, and it helped me very much with my preparation. I have a problem when positioning my shoulders on the bench for bench presses. As a result, I canít isolate my chest enough. I know you said, ďChest up, expand the rib cage, shoulders down and back, big arch, hold shoulder blades tight.Ē But I feel like Iím still missing something. Can you explain step by step how to position my back and shoulders to take them out of the movementóespecially shoulders? I noticed that most pro bodybuilders do something before they start to bench. When they first lie on the bench, they grab the bar and make one fast movement. Do I need to do that?

Pumping Pecs With POF

Steve Holman

Pumping Pecs With POF

After I hurt my shoulder while doing heavy bench presses during a powerlifting bender in my 20s, I thought my chest development was doomed, especially considering that it had always been my weakest bodypart. While it has been difficult to build pectoral mass, Iíve found that attacking the chest from three specific angles, or positions, has helped me add muscle to all its areas without much wasted effort in the gym and without doing heavy bench presses.

Benchless Chest Chiseling

Richard Baldwin

Benchless Chest Chiseling

Q: How can I build a bigger chest without bench pressing?

A: You have given me too little information to give you a quick answer. Why would you not want to do bench presses? Do you just hate them? Do you have an injury that prevents you from doing them?†Or have you just found them to be unproductive in the past?

 High Anxiety

Paul Burke

 High Anxiety

Q: Iím 52, and I started working out with weights 12 years ago. Iíve made good progress in most areas, but I have struggled to make my upper-pectoral muscles thicker. No matter what exercise I do for my upper chest, it doesnít grow. Why donít Incline movements work for me?

A: Iíve had that problem myself. To make improvements requires specialized, biomechanically sound training. I donít agree with most experts, who say that training the upper-pectoral region requires lots of incline-bench presses and incline flyes. Let me explain.