The bench press is one of the most widely debated exercises in the world of training baseball players, specifically pitchers. Despite the debate, not only is the bench press part of our assessment process but also some pressing variation is included in almost all of our athletes’ programs, to some extent. Much like weighted balls, the bench press is all about smart programming, proper execution, and the right population. Let’s explore this in more detail.
Benefits of the Bench Press
First, I want to dive into the benefits of the bench press, so let’s begin with the muscles involved. The prime movers in a bench press are the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and anterior deltoid, whereas the triceps and serratus anterior work to stabilize the movement. The antagonist muscles are the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoids, and biceps. The rhomboids help keep the scapula retracted during the movement.
What Does This Mean for Throwing and Mobility?
The latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major are two of the muscles that help accelerate the shoulder. The shoulder internally rotates at a max speeds upwards of 4600 °/s during the throwing movement. The serratus anterior is one of the three muscles that help upwardly rotate the scapula when the shoulder goes into flexion or abduction.
Research has shown that lacking shoulder flexion can put an athlete at a higher risk for injury. If the serratus anterior is weak, it could limit the ability to have sufficient flexion or abduction of the shoulder. The rhomboids are a prime mover in scapula retraction which aids in shoulder horizontal abduction in the delivery, also known as a scap load.
Why Test It?
We test the bench press because it’s a great representation of overall upper-body strength. As far as performance goes, there is a study done by Mário C. Marques, et. al that shows a relationship between bench-press bar speed and throwing velocity in elite handball players.
From an injury-prevention standpoint, because the muscles used in the bench press help accelerate the shoulder, stabilize the scapula, and aid in upward rotation, it’s important to see if those muscles can apply force quickly since the throwing delivery is a very fast movement.
What we program for our athletes always depends on their training age, injury history, and movement assessment. There are many progressions and regressions for the bench press, and we want to match the athlete with the most ideal pressing exercise possible.
If an athlete has a previous shoulder injury, we may regress him to a push up or swiss-bar bench press to get him in a more shoulder-friendly position. If an athlete’s assessment shows that he has poor shoulder flexion or abduction, we may regress him to a landmine pressing variation to get him to work on scapular upward rotation directly. If an athlete has a young training age, we may regress him to a dumbbell bench press or dumbbell floor press that have a smaller learning curve.
As far as progressions go, once an athlete has perfected technique and sufficient strength, we can start to work on more dynamic effort and focus on bar speed. We can also add accommodating resistance with chains and/or bands. A few exercises that can be added as progressions are spoto bench press and incline and decline variations. These exercises are great for adding variety while also helping to improve the bench press.
As said earlier, the problem with bench press is not the exercise itself; rather it’s the execution and generally how it is used in programming. Most people are not very technically sound when it comes to bench press, because it is far more complex than lying on a bench and pushing a barbell.
First, I want to talk the setup. Like most exercises, the setup is crucial; if you don’t start in a good position, you likely won’t move well during the movement. The goals of the setup are to have an arch in your thoracic spine, keep the scapula retracted, and have your feet in a good position to put force into the floor; people forget that the bench press is a full body exercise.
The setup is a bit different for everybody, depending on what feels like the best position to press the weight while protecting the shoulders. To get extension through the thoracic spine, start with the bar at head height and use your feet to drive your body back until the bar is at eye height. Foot position varies depending on body types. Feet can be wide and flat out front wide and flat back in line with the hips or narrow with heels up in back and in line with the hips. To retract the shoulder blades, leverage the rack and push the shoulder blades back and down into retraction.
Execution of the lift starts with the unracking of the bar. It’s important to think of pulling the bar off the rack by using your lats rather than pushing up and losing retraction to bring the bar out. Once the bar is unracked, I like to use the cue of “breaking the bar” or “bending the bar in half” to engage the lats. The eccentric portion of the movement should be similar to a row; thinking of “pulling” the bar to your chest can help with this. This will also help stabilize the muscles that are retracting the shoulder blades.
As long as tension is maintained in the lats, the upper arms should be about 45 degrees to the torso as you lower and press. Pressing the bar will start with leg drive. The biggest mistake made with leg drive is that people often go into hip extension and have their butts come off the bench. To fix this, think of knee extension and drive through the quads instead. From there, think of keeping the muscles in the back tight to avoid going into elbow flare, and imagine pushing yourself away from the bar. The shoulders should remain protracted as the arms lockout at the top of the rep.
The bench press is one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck exercises for the upper body. It can be used in hypertrophy and strength phases for beginner athletes looking to increase their strength base. It can be used for dynamic effort with more elite-level athletes looking for an increase in performance. How the exercise is implemented and executed always depends on an athlete’s assessment, training age, injury history as well as personal goals.
This article was written by Lead Strength Trainer Kyle Rogers