Here are 5 tips for a safer, and stronger bench press.
1- Touch lower: We all want to look like Arnold and so we bust out the ugliest reps we can, thinking that “intensity” is key to the game. While intensity is important, knowing and properly executing good technique is paramount and should never be sacrificed for “intensity”. The most compromising position in the bench press is at the bottom of the lift, when the bar is coming to rest on the chest. At this point in the lift, if we touch the bar too high(towards our chin as opposed to our belly button) the shoulder joint is severely endangered. To avoid this, one should touch the bar, especially on heavy attempts, at or below the xiphoid process. This will vary a little based on the length of your arms, breadth of your shoulders, etc, but rarely should one attempt a maximal effort bench press and touch above that. This touching location will also aid in the recruitment of the triceps(which should remain under the bar, “tucked” as it were) front deltoids, and even the upper back. If you want to specifically train your chest, there are movements that are better than the typical bench press, so don’t use that as an excuse for poor form.
2- Pinch your shoulder blades together: This may seem counterintuitive, pulling your shoulder blades back and together, like you were trying to hold a pencil back there, while trying to push the bar as far away from you as possible. The truth is, though, that we don’t want to push the bar away from us, we actually want to push ourselves away from the bar, just far enough to lock out our arms. This is most efficiently accomplished by pinching our shoulder blades together. Pinching our shoulder blades together also give us the added benefit of having a nice flat surface to push from. If our shoulders are rounded forward, we don’t have a flat surface and it starts to feel similar to standing on rocking chair; fun when we were kids, but we don’t want to do it with something heavy in our arms.
3- Variation: Variety is the spice of life. It is also key to a well balanced and healthy physique. By varying our grip width on the bar, which bench we use(incline, decline, or flat bench) which bar we use, and our weight and rep schemes, the amount of variation is almost endless. If we are regularly “mixing it up” it will be difficult for our bodies to develop overuse injuries, tendonitis, and the like. Healthy shoulders means we get to keep training, which means we have the potential to get stronger. Change also stimulates the body to grow. Our bodies are very much like super computers. Efficiency is it’s goal. If we don’t change things up, the body will optimize it’s ability to perform a given movement with minimal exertion. Then progress stops.
One of my favorite sources of variety, as well as a way to overload my bench while saving my shoulders, is a tool called the sling shot. Mark Bell, owner of supertraining gym, supertraining.tv, and inventor of the sling shot. Mark was a pro wrestler and an exceptional powerlifter, having bench pressed over 800 pounds so he obviously knows his stuff. He developed the sling shot as a training tool and I love it. (You can pick one up at www.howmuchyabench.net).
4- Warm up/Prehab: Proper warm up is key. Most of my warm up is actually focused around strengthening and activating all those little muscles in and around the shoulder girdle. Rotator cuff tears are common so that’s a good little area to make sure is strong, warm, and ready to bench. There are hundreds of websites out there to scan for your favorite shoulder warm ups, just make sure you’re keeping it short and focused; that way you still have energy for the workout.
5- Rest: While we train to stimulate growth and change in our physique, that growth doesn’t happen in the gym. Growth occurs during rest. If you want to stay healthy, grow and improve, and avoid injury, rest is essential. If you’re like me and crave the gym daily, rotate workouts. Don’t work the bench press every day. In fact, as a general rule, don’t work the same body part or movement more than twice a week. Occasionally you can surprise the body and mix it up, but you can’t bench 5 days a week and expect continued progress for long.
I hope these help you lift more, and most importantly, more safely.