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The myths of the squat and bench press Part 2
By Rob Wagner

This article was taken from Eclipse's magazine, BodyTalk. Click here if you would like a free copy.

If you are continuing this series from the last issue welcome back and if you are just opening up this article let me refer you to page 4 in the last issue of Body Talk for Part one of this article covering the squat. As I mentioned in part one there will be no mention of Prometheus or of Gilgamesh here. Instead, this article will investigate the misconceptions and misguided advice often given for the Bench Press. A Bench Press in a gym is as common as a wart on a toad. I have been to gyms with no power racks or chin bars or platforms but I have never seen a gym without a flat bench. It has become the primary upper body exercise of most individuals who lift weights and it has plenty of merit in being that when it is performed correctly. How many times have you asked or been asked, when talking about lifting, “how much do you Bench?” The difficulty with discussing the Bench Press is that there is an abundance of thoughts and beliefs on or about Bench Pressing that just aren’t right. The fact that so many people practice the lift allows for a lot of variations and interpretations. Unfortunately, many of these variations are biomechanically incorrect and can be hazardous to your shoulder health. So lets look at some of the misconceptions about this lift and try to shed some light on how to correct this information. Hopefully, I will get you started on a more righteous path of Bench Pressing

Myth # 1. The Bench Press is a pec developer.

Well this is only half a myth since it does develop the pecs. However, the efficiency of how the lift is performed can limit the pecs involvement (McLaughlin, 1984). The exercise is often demonstrated in magazines and training tapes with lifters lowering the bar with the upper arms at 90 angles (a T position) away from the sides of the body. This style of benching places most of the stress on the shoulder joint. How many folks do you know with a shoulder injury from benching? The lowering of the bar in this fashion places greater rotational forces (torque) on the shoulder. Over time this pattern of movement can create havoc on the shoulder specifically in the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres Minor and subscapularis). To really use the pecs to their fullest, I suggest keeping the elbows closer (less than 90) to the body on both the descent and ascent of the lift. A simple demonstration is for you to raise your arm straight out to the side so that it is parallel to the floor. Now try to flex your pec without bringing your arm across your body. Its not easy is it? But if you think about it this is the same position that is advocated for benching. Now lower the arm to 45 from parallel and flex the pec in the same manner. Bit of a difference, huh? By keeping the elbows in versus out our arms are less externally rotated and the distance between the muscles points of origin and insertion are at a more optimal range allowing the pecs to be more functional.
This position also allows the triceps to play a bigger role in your bench as well. The triceps primary role is to extend the forearm. When you bench and your arms hit the 90 position the triceps can no longer extend the forearm because your hands are stuck on the bar. The only way the triceps can work in this position is to slide the hands outward. By placing the elbows in a less than 90 angle the triceps can work more effectively through a larger range of motion since the upper arms aren’t at 90. So how do you get the arms at less than 90. Lets look at myth # 2.

Myth #2. Lower the bar to the nipples or slightly below.

Why the nipples, is it because it’s the only landmark that people with no muscle could think of? Bringing the bar to this landmark will give you that T arm angle. When the bar comes to the chest the forearms need to be almost vertical to the floor for the most effective force development (McLaughlin, 1984). The landmark that I prefer to use is the xiphoid process, the little piece of cartilage that extends off your sternum (breast bone) at the top of your abs. For most individuals lowering the bar to this region will keep the elbows in and ensure that the forearms are in a vertical position. This area is typically the highest part of your torso when you are on the bench. This helps to reduce the range of motion that the arms must travel in turn reducing shoulder torque. Initially you will feel a little awkward and weak but stay with this for about 4-6 weeks and you will see the results.

Myth # 3. Keeping your feet on the bench protects the back and develops better pressing power.

After exhausting several databases I found no research on back injuries and the bench press. They can occur so lets look at why they might and how you can avoid them without placing your feet on the bench. Injuries can occur to the lower back area when a lifter starts to raise the bar and simultaneously lifts his butt off the bench. This raising of the butt also raises the ribcage creating a decline like bench position. It is in this position you can hyperextend the low back and possibly injure yourself. This type of injury is not the result of benching; it is the result of benching wrong.
Fitness experts advocate the maintenance of a neutral arch in the back on squats and other standing exercises, but how come they never mention this when they are instructing lying exercises. Besides them typically being idiots, they must assume that lying is a safe position regardless of the exercise. Just like all other exercises you need to have a proper posture on the bench. Place both feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart. The feet can be either directly under your knees or slightly out in front of them. When you lie back flex your glutes and hams, you will notice that you will feel yourself pushing down through your feet when you do this. Tighten the low back as well and hold the neutral posture of the spine, think about getting your butt and shoulders close to each other. You will also want to pull the shoulder blades together and keep the upper back tight as well. Finally, keep the head on the bench. Lifting the head has been shown to decrease pressing power (Berger, 1991). Your feet are flat on the floor and your shoulders and butt are on the bench with a small arch under your low back. The bottom of your rib cage should be elevated. Now try to lift your butt off the bench. If you can, move your feet away from your knees until the butt stays on the bench. Once you are in a position where you can’t lift the butt you have injury proofed the lift. By maintaining this posture we eliminate the opportunity for the low back to hyperextend.

Keeping the feet up can actually limit your power since the ability to balance and stabilize the torso on the bench is compromised. I have found that when athletes keep their feet on the floor and maintain the proper posture the weight actually feels lighter to them. I don’t know if this is a reflex mechanism of pushing with the feet or if the whole body tension increases the excitability of the nervous or muscular systems involved in the benching motion. In any case keep the feet on the floor and maintain your posture.

Myth # 4. Wide grip works the outer pec and narrow grip the inner pec.
The typical belief is that the wider the hands the more you will hit the outer pec and the narrower grip will hit the inner pec. Well there is a major problem here. The Pectoralis Major has two portions a lower, the sternocostal head and an upper, the clavicular head. There are no inner and outer pecs anatomically speaking. Let me define a narrow and wide grip. In two separate studies, researchers determined narrow grip as the distance between your acromion processes (slide your hand down your trap and the bony bump you hit is the acromion). They then applied this measurement to the hand spacing (distance between index fingers) on the bar. Wide grip was two times the narrow grip distance. Both groups of researchers found that grips that were 1.65 to 2 times their narrow grip were the most effective strength wise. The way you can determine your grip is to measure the distance between your acromion processes. Now measure the distance between your index fingers when you bench. Divide the bench distance by the acromion distance and if your number is between 1.65 and 2.00 you are in an optimal position (Clemons, J. & Aaron, C, 1997; Wagner, et. al, 1992). In the research, the activation of the upper and lower portions of the pec muscle are affected by different hand spacing. In one study it was found that the wider grip placed more stress on the sternocostal head than the narrow grip. The narrow grip seemed to activate the clavicular head more effectively then a wide grip. The narrow grip also activated the triceps more than the wide (Barnett, Kippers & Turner, 1995).

Myth #5. Incline BP works the upper pec and Decline BP works the lower pec better than flat bench.

This would be true if you compared the Decline BP to Incline BP but the research has actually shown that decline and flat stimulate the sternocostal head in similar fashions (Barnett, Kippers & Turner, 1995). Glass and Armstrong (1997) reported that the Decline BP activated the muscle in the clavicular head as effectively as the Incline BP. Now that I have cleared that up, why can you Decline more then you BP? Well it probably has to do with your technique on the BP. Think about your bar placement when you decline. Is it lower then the flat? Think back to myths #2 and #3. The technical recommendations I provided in those areas will raise the rib cage up similar to the decline position. This reduces the distance that you have to lower and press the bar.

Myth #6. When you bench put the bar in the palm of your hand.
Well I am not a big person and my palm is about 3.5 inches from top to bottom. The bar diameter is a little over one inch, so where does it go? The folks with sore wrists will appreciate the forthcoming information. Don’t place the bar at the top of the palm, instead place the bar as close as possible to the heel of the hand. Besides the obvious reason of taking stress off the wrist, placing the bar near the heel of the hand has some function behind it. The heel of the hand is formed by the ends of two forearm bones the radius and the ulna. The ulna is on the pinkie side. When you press on the area covering the ulna you initiate an extension reflex (pushing). This reflex is there so that when this portion of your hand comes in contact with a force the triceps will contract. Think about your hand and where you place it when you fall down or when you push someone away from you. You don’t use your fingers or thumbs; you use the heel of your hand. By placing the bar over this point it can aid in stabilization and possibly the force production of the arm during the benching movement (McLaughlin, 1984).

When it comes to false grip (thumb under the bar alongside the fingers) or closed grip I think that you have to let comfort be the guide. If you are a competitive lifter some federations don’t allow the false grip so they make the choice for you. The key on bar placement in the hand is to try to get that bar over the ulnar portion of the palm. You will find by rotating the elbows inward away from 90 will allow you to get the bar in that position more effectively.

Myth #7 When you bench just push the bar up towards the ceiling.
Oh, if only it was that easy. Have you ever noticed that where you finish a rep changes during a set. A lot of this has to do with the bar path you are using In the 80’s Tom McLaughlin did extensive research on the bench press. He spent a good portion of this research on the kinematics of bar paths of powerlifters. What he found was that novices press differently from the world level competitors by pushing the bar more vertically at the start of the ascent and then moving it towards the head. The experienced competitors initially moved the bar horizontally towards the head and then it went vertical as they came to lockout (McLaughlin, 1984). Another study has shown that lifters don’t use the same bar paths all the time. Wilson (1989) found that 10 elite powerlifters had different bar paths on 80% of 1RM (repetition maximum) weight when compared to a 100% 1RM lift. So what does this mean? There is an effective bar path to follow and to develop consistency attention needs to be focused on this movement at all intensity levels.

The path suggested based on the research would be to start the bar off the chest by pressing it slightly towards the head not towards the feet. Allow the bar to arc ever so slightly back towards the head and as the elbows start to rotate out press straight up. This motion towards the head will be aided by pushing your feet into the floor since they are pushing the body in that direction. Now what about developing the consistency on the bar paths? Have you ever tried to throw some balled up paper into the trash without looking at the can. It’s not easy. How about when you do look, you’re probably ready to bet people in the office on how many you’ll make. Its easier because your eyes are telling the brain how far away the can is and how big the opening is and then this info is being processed to generate the right force and direction of the paper. Have you ever thought about where you are pushing the bar when you bench? It’s no different than looking at the trash can. Create a focal point on the ceiling that you will push the bar to. To find this point, take an empty bar or a lightly weighted one and do a technically correct rep. Find the point on the ceiling where the completion of your rep occurs. Now when you press the bar up look at that spot and press the bar to it. Do this with every rep. Once you develop the habit you will find it hard not to practice.

Myth #8 All good Bench pressers have short arms
The research shows that the best predictors of bench press ability in men is a combination of arm size (not length), % bodyfat and chest circumference (Mayhew, 1991). It would be expected that short armed people would be better pressers since they would move the bar a shorter distance. If you think about it though, we all have the ability to make our arms shorter. Shrug your shoulders up and you raise the arms up your legs (they appear shorter vertically). The same holds true if your arms are in front of you. Pull the shoulder blades back and the arms come closer to your chest. When you are on the bench let your shoulders drop back to the bench. Remember, when I talked about posture in the bench and the shoulder blades being pulled back? This along with dropping the shoulders will reduce the distance you move the bar. The key is you have to keep the shoulders back the entire time. Typically most lifters will raise the shoulders off the bench surface to assist in the lockout. Avoid this and simply press the bar to lockout using the arms. Using this approach can allow everyone to be a good bench presser.

Are those pecs ready for the iron onslaught that you are going to direct at them? Keep in mind when you change techniques have patience and allow yourself four to six weeks to adapt. Lets review what we covered. The bench is a great upper body exercise when performed correctly. Maintaining proper foot placement, posture, hand placement and spacing and arm angles can ensure the greatest development from the muscles involved. To increase your benching performance remember to use the proper bar paths and to make those arms short. Until next time Stay Strong!

Barnett, C., Kippers, V. & Turner, P., Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(4), 1995
Berger, R.A.,& Smith, K.J., The effects of the tonic neck reflex in the bench press. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research 5(4), 1994.
Clemons, J. & Aaron, C., Effect of grip width on the myoelectric activity of the prime movers in the bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(2), 1997
Glass, S.C. & Armstrong, T., Electromyographical activity of the pectoralis muscle during incline and decline bench presses. .Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(3), 1997
McLaughlin, T.M., Bench press more now: Breakthroughs in biomechanics and training methods. Marietta, GA: Biomechanics, Inc 1984
Mayhew, J.L., Ball, T.E., Ward, T.E., Hart, C.L. & Arnold, M.D., Relationships of structural dimensions to bench press strength in college males. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 31(2), 1991.
Wagner, L.L., Evans, S.A., Weir, J.P., Housh, T.J. & Johnson, G.O., The effect of grip width on bench press performance. International Journal of Sports Biomechanics 8(1), 1992
Wilson, G.J, Elliott, B.C. & Kerr, G.K., Bar path and force profile characteristics for maximal and submaximal loads in the bench press. International Journal of Sports Biomechanics 5(4), 1989.

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