Summer is here and that time of year signifies school is out and athletes are heading back into the gym eager to get huge for the summer and prepare themselves for the next school year’s sports season.
It is inevitable that if I get a male athlete who is new or who returns from college to start their summer training program going I will get the question, when are we going to bench press? This is usually followed up with my answer, Let me see 15 pushups.
The bench press is a tremendous exercise for building upper body strength; in fact it is THE exercise where the athlete has the potential to use more weight to train their upper body than any other, which allows for greater strength gains. The bench press is, however, potentially useless and dangerous if you don’t completely understand the movement and train your body to do it properly.
There is much more to the bench press than simple grabbing the bar, smoothly bringing it down to your chest and pressing back up. In fact, go to any commercial gym during the summer and you will see anything but a fluid movement demonstrated by a flock of 16-year old boys.
The bar will be loaded too heavily, their set up will be off- kilter, the weight will plummet like a meteor towards their chest, create a bounce that they use to press it back up while their friends laugh and half-spot and half-save the poor kid’s life from the bar crushing his now concaved chest.
In this article it is not my intention to go over the proper technique of the bench press. I am going to move a step back and get you to assess and see if you or your athletes are truly ready to perform this exercise. If you are interested in the technique check out my other article Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier.
First and foremost an athlete has to be able to perform proper pushups. I do not have a magic number to complete to be able to graduate to bench press but I’d like to see 12- 15 repetitions with unwavering shoulder stability and good body unity during the movement.
Like most exercises, pushups should be progressive in their degree of difficulty in order to ensure the athlete’s success is gaining the physical and tactical attributes to perform a correct and effective bench press.
I like to start out my athletes using a bar in a rack to not only asses their upper body strength and control but also their push up prowess. There are a few nice components that the bar allows for during the pushup. The hand position, unlike a floor push up, is gripping the bar much like during a bench press so that the athlete can activate more forearm and back muscles during the movement when compared to the hands simply on the floor. The bar in the rack also allows for height variability which can correlate the athlete’s current strength and coordination levels. Simply put; when the bar is higher off the ground the easier the pushup will be. As the athlete gets better with the movement, the bar can be lowered to make the pushup more challenging.
After the athlete gets proficient with the bar I like to move to a slightly less stable platform, a suspension trainer, to further increase the demands on the shoulder muscles to stabilize the body during the movement. Because the arms are working independently there is much more demand on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders for strength and more core muscle activation to keep the body in proper alignment. Shoulder stability during the bench press is crucial for safety and success.
You can take the pushup one step further before moving on with the uneven push up. Utilizing an elevated object, like a medicine ball, in one hand while the other hand rests lower on the floor, creates more demand for work out of the shoulder stabilizer muscles and the core to resist rotation. The goal for the athlete to complete this exercise successfully would be to move through the range of motion with stability and a level body through core stability and strength.
Before we get to the bench press I like my athletes to get comfortable using variations of dumbbell chest pressing. Unlike the push up the dumbbell chest press allow the athlete to mimic that exact same position that they will be in for the bench press. The individual weights also allow for more shoulder stability development and helps balance strength between both sides of the body so when your athlete moves on to the bench press they will have as much equal strength on both sides to make the bench pressing as strong as possible.
You want to first make sure the athlete is set up properly so they can take it with them when they bench press. Feet should be on the floor, even on both sides and rooted into the ground for maximal stability. Their glutes should be engaged to keep the hips stable during the movement and the shoulders slightly retracted so they are also stable.
When the athlete performs the movements I like to start with two dumbbells and I have the athletes understand lifting in both directions. I impart this to eliminate fast descents with the weight which is not only weaker but very perilous to shoulder health. I like the analogy of compressing a spring where the athlete with pull the weights downward, in control, using their lats and then use the elastic energy to press the weights back to the starting position using their chest, shoulders and triceps.
The second variation I like to practice is the alternating dumbbell chest press. While one dumbbell is moving you will have the athlete keep the other dumbbell up and stable; when completing the rep on one side you will switch to the other dumbbell. This variation puts more emphasis on shoulder strength and stability enhancement with the isometric hold while the other is moving.
The final variation I like to implement is simply chest pressing with one dumbbell. This puts a great emphasis on core stability because without the other weight to counterbalance the body, you have to tighten the core so you do not move or roll off the bench while the weight is descending on the opposite side.
Performing big strength movements requires proficiency in the foundational movements and building a base level of strength. If you are willing to take the time to do this, when you incorporate the bench press into your program you will achieve much greater success.
Check out the video below for more information: