Why you should reconsider the bench press

by Jason Kilgore

Back in November, I took a trip to New Jersey to meet with some pretty high level Sports Performance coaches. The seminar was an intense two day course that resulted in a test and certification. A little while after returning, I’m sitting in Roots Fitness with Andre Miller discussing some of the things that were covered in the seminar.

As I am cruising through the information with Andre, I quickly pass over the bench press information because, as we all know, there is very little, if any, practicality to bench pressing unless you are a power lifter. We try not to waste too much time and energy on impractical movement.

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“But I want to look good Jason!”

We’ve all seen and maybe even aspired to look like the gymnasts with the physiques that look like twisted rope. I can assure you, Chris Brooks (pictured left) achieved his Greek God-like body without spending countless hours on a bench press…and I know nothing of his training program.

The only clients I teach the bench press to are my high school football players and the only reason I do is because they are forced to perform it at school. I want to know they are performing this movement correctly and safely when I am not around. The bench press has, arguably, wreaked more havoc on shoulder health than any other movement performed in a gym setting and I would argue that most of that is due to the lack of understanding of the set up.

Andre had me back up real quick during my rundown as he was interested in the cues that were given to set up and perform a bench press….this lead to some pretty sweet conversation.

I run through a checklist of cues when having clients set up for the bench press. I won’t list them all here, but something in particular struck a chord with Andre and me that day. One of the cues to protect the shoulder girdle during a bench press is to retract and depress the scapula while arching the lower back by bringing the chest and ribcage up as we drive the traps into the bench. This puts the shoulder girdle in a much more protected environment to press loads off of the chest.

When I look for information regarding (insert any topic), I always look to who does it and/or teaches it best. Why wouldn’t I? If I want to know more about bench pressing, I look to the best in power lifting; people like Louis Simmons of West Side Barbell, Dave Tate of elitefts, Jim Wendler, or Mark Rippetoe, to name a few.

Louie Simmons http://journal.crossfit.com/2010/01/setting-up-the-bench.tpl

Dave Tate https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHHGtQn0V5I

Jim Wendler https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3EOtjcXxo4

Mark Rippetoe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBNeeeTId1M

Dan Green https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50kOE5Rc4K0

When it comes to lifting heavy, these guys are some of the best strength coaches/lifters in the world. Listen to each of them talk about the bench press set up and you will hear the exact same concepts from each of them. We can take their word because they are the best at what they do. We can also dig into the information behind this idea and understand that with the scapula retracted and depressed while under a load on a bench press, your shoulders are protected and safe. It’s almost like having a safety harness for your shoulders.

I will not try to refute this. I 100% believe and agree with this method of bench pressing. I am sure any Ortho surgeon worth his/her weight would agree as well. What I will try to refute is the practicality behind football players (or anyone outside of power lifting) bench pressing.

Anyone who has watched American football has witnessed athletes on the field pushing an opposing player’s body away in an attempt to create space to either block an opponent or to get around an opponent. Creating space, in this instance, requires one person to press another away from him. That will not happen effectively with scapulas retracted and depressed.

Stand in front of a partner. Put both of your hands out in front of you and have your partner put his/her hands palm to palm with yours. Both of you set your feet in a manner that would prevent someone from pushing you over. One foot forward and one back leaning into your partner would be ideal. Try pressing them away from you with your scapula retracted and depressed. Go ahead and arch that back for me while you’re at it because that’s good bench press technique. The lack of efficiency should be obvious. If not, try to press that same person away with your scapulas protracted. Don’t arch your back this time…it is pointless and all you will be doing is leaking force. Pay attention to how much more force you were able to create with protracted scapulas. Play with this. Instead of doing the pushing, try to stop someone from pushing you away with your scapulas retracted vs. protracted. The results should be glaringly obvious.

If I was looking for a population of people to call the best “pressers” in the world, I would argue that gymnasts hold that title. The planche (pictured below) is a perfect example of what good pressing looks like and to perform it properly, one must be completely connected on the anterior side of their body. We lose connection to the anterior side when we start contracting posterior muscles such as the ones involved in scapular retraction and arching in the lumbar region of the back.

Scapular retraction, hyperextension in the hips/lumbar, thoracic extension…basically anything that involves contraction of the posterior chain is usually indicative of pulling, not pressing. The anterior chain presses and the posterior chain pulls.

During a football game, you won’t find anyone on the field in scapular retraction and arching their lower backs while blocking, hitting, etc because it doesn’t make sense. If we are supposed to train like we fight and fight like we train, what purpose does the bench press serve on the football field?

This article was meant to induce some thought and discussion on a topic we’ve seen little of. I’d love to hear your thoughts concerning this. Feel free to email me at tridentstrength@gmail.com or hit my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/tridentstrength.

Thanks!

J. Kilgore