Exercise of the Month: Flat Bench Press. NOT!
Starting an ‘Exercise of the Month’ article with a NOT joke is a little unorthodox. However, the reason is that almost everyone (certainly every man!) who’s stepped foot in a gym has performed a Flat Bench Press. The Flat Bench Press is seen as a king among lifts and a supposed marker of physical prowess. I do not agree! I encourage you NOT to perform the Flat Bench Press for at least the next month. Instead, I’ll outline a couple of reasons which bring me to this conclusion and some alternate exercises to perform.
First, for most, the rotator cuff (comprising 4 muscles - teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and subscapularis - which in concert help to stabilise the shoulder) is the weak link during a Flat Bench Press. Therefore, the rotator cuff is prone to injury performing a Flat Bench Press - in particular, the supraspinatus muscle and/ or tendon when reaching or driving out of the mid-position of a Flat Bench Press. At this point, the stretch on the pectoralis major (chest muscles) is also excessive and a common cause of pec tear when lifting heavy. Risk is significantly increased if the weight is not lifted in a controlled manner i.e. trying to reverse the downward inertia caused by performing the movement too quickly.
Secondly, although to complete a Flat Bench Press the arms return to their pressed position (perpendicular to the torso), the range-of-movement does not allow for full-contraction of the pectoralis major (chest muscles). It’s quite short! Full-contraction being achieved when the arm’s drawn forward and across the body, not forward and out to the side. For reference, consider performing a Cable Crossover, but stopping with your arms shoulder-width apart as the mid-position, rather than drawing them across your body.
So, what do I recommend? Leave the ego at home! First, pick up some small weights and start training your rotator cuff regularly in order to increase mobility and strength. You can find exercises and workout ideas on the Gym Professor website. Secondly, with lighter weights than you’d typically press with, exchange the Flat Bench Press for Neutral-Grip Incline Dumbbell Press. You should find a lesser (unforced) range-of-movement at the mid-position (helping to reduce strain on your rotator cuff) and greater contraction of the pectoralis major at the start/ end-position.
Should you wish to return to Flat Bench Press in future, your weak link should be stronger and your pectoralis major adequately stimulated performing an alternate exercise. You may find you’re stronger. Personally, I choose not to perform Flat Bench Press at all.
Restricted by allowable content-length, the above is a brief article I penned for the Living publication magazines. For the Gym Professor site, I had planned to write a more in-depth look at the Flat Bench Press and nail down the precise biomechanics and address other queries, such as elbow flare and shoulder saving devices, like Mark Bell’s Sling Shot for one. However, first, I thought I’d post my article to the world on Facebook. Among my friends are some of the world’s very best athletes and coaches from bodybuilding, powerlifting, and more. Without the medium of Facebook, there’s no other way you could pool this sort of input – it’s almost like the G8 Summit equivalent for the sports world. I expected as much controversy too. My News Feed that day pretty much says it all – it’s REAL SCIENCE + BROSCIENCE = COMMON SENSE. It’s more interesting than reciting an anatomy journal and carries a lot more weight in my eyes too.
The first is the subsequent Group discussion on the NPA (Natural Physique Association) Group in its entirety:
• Steve Howarth I whole heartedly agree - I have been no where near a flat bench for a long time, crunch city - I tend to use dumbbells and the bench at 30 degrees plus
• Michael Phillips Flat Bench is one of the best exercises, end of. Bodybuilding is so individual that to me, the only reason not to include Flat Bench is if you don't feel it works for you. Sure, you could say Flat DB Press gives you a bigger range of motion, and is also a top exercise; but when under the bar and pushing for that final, last rep breaking down those last muscle fibres as you get the bar up, nobody can tell me that all your chest musles aren't working at their 100% capability. Do Flat Bench with Inc DB Press, or do Inc Bench with Dec DB Press...its all about results whichever combinations you use imo.
• Matt Bembridge Thanks Steve - that's good to know. There you go guys: one of the best naturals around and he doesn't go anywhere near a flat bench. Michael raises a good point - I thought more people may debate this. I just certainly would not consider it the "best" lift for chest, as many do. And, like you mention, for some that it doesn't work for (mainly those with shoulder issues), I'd go as far to say it's a bad selection. I do implore people to explore alternatives though without thinking they're going to lose their muscle mass. A basic understanding of kinesiology and biomechanics I feel will help a great deal of people with their training - iron out weak links, avoid against injury, and better their physique - by knowing what's working and when. Being taller Michael, I should imagine your hand-width means that you do not touch your chest with the bar when you bench. Is this right? If so, with your elbows not dropping below your shoulder line, there'll be less strain on the rotator cuff and less stretch on the chest, so the likelihood of related injuries will be reduced. The truth is, an increase in mechanical stress on the muscle will result in more muscle. To this end, it can be achieved with a shorter range-of-movement, a full range-of-movement, good form, bad form, etc. This is why you may get a well-muscled guy in the gym using very short ranges-of-movement during lifts and terrible form, but still looks great. I'd argue that they're subjecting themselves to an increased risk of injury and may well develop as good a physique (if not a better physique largely due to injury avoidance) with better form and better range-of-movement. I find that some of our most interesting competitors at shows are our masters competitors, as they've been there, done that, and have the T-shirt. They will usually openly talk about injuries and why they've come to do what they do in their training. For me, I consider learning from these guys a great way to avoid common pitfalls. Sorry that was a long reply. Night all.
• Michael Phillips Matt, I have always touched the bar onto my chest then pushed it back, just to a before lock position for most of the reps, to keep stress on the muscle. Don't you think though that most competitors go for the pump, and BP has always given me a great pump, I also rate Inc Bench Press too, prefer that to DB Press. Lets see if some of our more experienced competitors will contribute for you, so how about it Robert Feesey, Andrew Palmer, Lee Williams, Richard Walker,Henry Elsom, Wesley Clarke, Andy Hallahan, Ian Duckett, Martin Duckett...just to name a few...
• Matt Bembridge This opens it up. These are basically some of the best of the best masters tagged (a couple are missing, if they'd be kind enough to share their training also), so please share your views guys. I know how some of these guys train and also know of some injuries suffered etc, so I think we may get a mixed bag. It'll hopefully show there's no one right way of doing things .
• Sonny Topham I am very early into my bodybuilding career as such however I will 90% of the time do bench press last in my chest sessions. I believe it doesn't matter whether you bench 100kg or 50kg as the muscle only knows that a force is resisting against it. By doing it last it may prevent injury for the future, allow me to focus more on my chest (stopping my shoulders from being used) and hopefully still get the best I can from the exercise...more experienced peoples views on this opinion would be appreciated
• Michael Phillips Well, personally I don't know how doing it last can prevent injury, Sonny. Never had any injury training but pulled an hammy playing cricket! Bench Press is a top exercise!
• Martin Duckett I agree with Steve Howarth I haven't used flat bench for years just as Matt Bembridge has pointed out it is prone to cause problems with rotator cuff etc That said I still believe flat bench is a great strength building exercise but warming the rotator cuff up first with some small weights is imperative just as Matt has pointed out. At the end of the day it's all about personal choice there is no right or wrong here just what suits the individual !
• Courtney Smith I haven't touched flat bench presses for years either.It's because they kill my shoulders especially at the front.I always give the joints a good stretch first and only do chest press&machine inclines for chest and feel my pecs haven't suffered too much for not doing flat bench presses.I've done(or not done)so for about 16 years and remain injury free but still get the odd ache.
No dips either.
• Richard Walker I have nearly always started my chest session with incline presses and fly's and then gone on to either dumbbell or hammer machine press. I tore my right rotator cuff last year so now all pressing is done under caution.
• Matt Bembridge Thanks for your comments guys - it's interesting to read your methods and skipping flat bench or doing it under caution certainly hasn't done any of your physiques any harm .
• Christus Ferneyhough I love flat benchpress and it's a staple in my chest workouts..usually always the first exercise I do. Having said that, I always do 5 warm up sets (slowly increasing weight each set) before I do what I'd consider my 4 working sets. I definitely feel like my joints need this and I cringe at the thought of jumping on the flat bench and going straight into working sets like I see many people do.
• Robert Feesey Dumbbell benches and weighted dips, nothing else.
Whilst this was going on, my News Feed was also filled by people commenting on Andy Bolton’s status of Scott Mendelson’s pec tear. If you are not familiar with either, Andy Bolton’s one of the best all-time powerlifters and the first man to Deadlift 1000lbs. Scott is a US powerlifter, specialising in the Bench Press. The picture and comment by Andreas Moeller pretty much sums it up for me.
• Andreas Møller I tore off about 40% of my left pec in 2010. It looked pretty nasty and took two years to heal completely, but this looks a lot worse. About five times worse!
I'm glad I no longer have to prioritize bench presses after retiring as a powerlifter in favor of strongman competitions. Overhead presses don't give me injury problems, but bench presses give me constant strains and muscle cramps in the pecs. Still want a 200kg raw bench, though.
This is also a good opportunity to plug the Gym Professor Globe Gripz invention. It’s not some gimmick, but designed following a rotator cuff injury I suffered squatting (heavy!). In the absence of specialist bars (like a swiss bar or football bar), I primarily wanted a way in which I could perform a neutral-grip on a bar for variety and to avoid discomfort in any gym. This was just the tip of the iceberg for the use of Globe Gripz. In relation to the article, I also favour Globe Gripz for the aforementioned light-mobility exercises of the rotator cuff.
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