Article by Andy Tsang, Personal Trainer, The Varsity Gym
“Do you go to they gym?”
“Yeah, I do been training for a while now”
“Is that right, how much do you bench”
These are the typical meathead male conversations that you will see when two douchebags from the gym world get together. Even though I feel that the bench is far too overhyped, it is however a great upper body exercise and is deemed one of the ‘big lifts’. If done correctly, it is considered to be one of the best upper body exercises out there. Thinking about the movement, a horizontal push, it is a fundamental motion that the body has and has to be trained. However, since it’s clearly one of the most popular exercises in the gym, it is also one of the most misused. In this blog, I will talk about the bench; show you how to improve this lift and also to keep them shoulders healthy, which most people suffer from.
First of all, in order to bring up the bench we have to understand the bench anatomically so we can choose exercises that will positively affects the bench. Trust me, it actually takes more than just doing more sets of benching to get it better. By the way if you do, this will eventually create an imbalance on the upper body musculature and eventually lead to some sort of movement impairment, injury or both. Ok now, back on topic. During the bench press, which is basically a horizontal push position, creates motion within the shoulder joint. This is comprised of the shoulder girdle, glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint), acromioclavicular joint and the sternoclavicular joint. During motion, the scapula and the muscles surrounding’s job is to stabilise and allow the big muscles to do its job and produce power and strength. The stabiliser in this case, is comprised of the rotator cuff and the musculature around the scapula. They keep the scapula anchored to the thoracic wall via the spine and is stabilised to the spine. This is done by the muscle actions of the levator scapulae, trapezius, rhomboids, and the serratus anterior. The stabilising force couples at the shoulder complex will therefore provide the stable foundation for it to occur. This can let the muscles that act as mobilisers to generate movement. Those that exert force over the shoulder joint are the rhomboids, levator scapulae, pectoralis major and minor and the latissimus dorsi. Other combined contractile forces to consider at the shoulder complex include the deltoid (anterior, middle and posterior, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis, teres major, coracobrachialis, biceps brachii and triceps. Now in order for people to not only to bench better but also keep their shoulders healthy they have to counter balance the muscles that are used in the bench. Commonly what you see is that the downward rotators of the scapula is short and stiff because of postural demands and also over emphasis on only just the pressing motion. The upward rotators also tends to be either weak, inhibited or cant control movement optimally. This will eventually lead to impingement syndromes injuries. Knowing this, no wonder people always end up with dodgy shoulders, hunched backs and a crap bench.
Right biology lesson is over, now let’s put all this ‘guff’ together. Here is my tips on how to fix the bench.
One of my pet peeves is watching someone bench with sh^*ty technique. Obviously the easiest way to bring up someone’s bench is to become better at benching. It is far too common to see someone bench loose and yet if they tightened themselves up it would probably make them bench a hundred times better and reduce the chances for injury. Benching technique will probably take up an article by itself and if you know me by at all, I can get very long winded. So instead of listening to me lecture you for hours, here are some basic pointers:-
Squeeze your shoulder blades together and push them down
Inflate your chest
Keep you feet tucked up as far as they can up to your shoulders to tighten up the hips. Push the heels down to the floor and allow a better transfer of kinetic energy to the bar
Grip the bar as hard as you can to increase muscle activation
Try and pull the bar apart to keep the upper back muscles tighter
Don’t let gravity bring the bar down, you ‘pull’ the bar towards you to keep you lats switched on
Touch lower nipple line
Drive the bar up and curve slightly on the way up towards the rack to take up the natural line of the press and reduce strain on the shoulders
PUSH AS FAST AS YOU CAN
When you are moving something, you are trying to overcome inertia by applying force to it. In physics force is mass times acceleration. Therefore in order to create more force you either have to up the mass or increase the acceleration. Pretty logical right, so if the mass being how much you bench e.g kilos, and you are trying to overcome it.
The motion of moving the bar of the bench will therefore be how much acceleration you apply. It will be stupid then not to try and apply as much acceleration as you can to the bar to create more force. It is only logical that if the mass (weight) stays the same and you apply more acceleration, the force output will go up which ultimately means your bench press goes up. This does not mean when you press the bar up to do all sorts of crazy crap and start wiggling and twitching your head so that you can push as fast as you can. Make sure that you are pushing as fast as you can with PERFECT FORM. Also worth noting, when the percentage of weight edges closer to your rep max the bar speed will ultimately start to slow down. You should still be pushing as fast and hard as you can so you can produce the most amount of force possible to get that bar up regardless of bar speed. So no matter if its 40% of 100% of your 1 RM you should always apply the most force possible to the bar, so think fast!
STRENGTHEN UP THE UPPER BACK
Imagine sitting on the floor and kicking a box away. Now imagine sitting on the floor with your back against the wall kicking a box away. Obviously the one with the back against the wall will kick away a bigger box. This is because the back is supported giving a platform for the legs to work harder. What the wall is to the legs is the upper back for the bench. One of the first things I will always do, especially those who have a round back office type is to strengthen up there upper back. Sometimes we will use even a ratio of 2 or ever 3 to 1 between a pull action and a pull action. For example we will do 1 set of bench to 3 sets of rows. This will create a more structural balanced body and also strengthen the platform for your pressing muscles to work. Always use rows, pull ups, chin ups etc as the main upper back exercises and accessorize with the smaller exercises like face pulls and YTWI’S secondary to the bigger exercises.
I rarely ever see anyone fail their bench because their pecs were weak. Think about it this way, aside from technical issues, the majority of the time people will fail on the bench because of the shoulders or triceps or lats. These are the main synergistic muscles in the bench and well; you are as strong as your weakest link. It makes sense then that in order to be a badass, you should strengthen up the synergistic muscles.
I could probably go on forever about the bench but in a nutshell this is it. Here is a sample workout for you to try out. Do this for a few weeks and see how you get on.
50% of 1RM for 6 x 3 with 45-60 sec rest in between each rep (speed sets)
Bench press 2 x 5
Pull ups 5 x 2 shy of failure
Single arm row 6 x 6-8
Close grip push ups 3 x 2 shy of failure
*bodyweight row 3 x as many as possible
*incline cuban press 3 x 15
*superset with no rest between sets