Lie supine on bench. Grasp bar with overhand and slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Arch back, extend hips, and position feet back flat on floor. Dismount barbell from rack over chest.
Lower weight to lower chest. Press bar upward until arms are extended. Repeat.
Competitive lifting requires bar to make contact with chest above bottom of the sternum with momentary pause. Gluteus Maximus, Erector Spinae, Quadriceps, and other muscles may be considered significant stabilizers during actual powerlift.
The Bench Press is one of the events in competitive powerlifting, as well as one of the most popular exercises among athletes and recreational weight trainers. Particular concerns have been raised by certain authorities calling upon possibly somewhat controversial guidelines. We'll analyze the bench press and examine the actual literature behind these guidelines so you can determine how to best perform or coach the bench press based on specific circumstances.
Should you flare or tuck your elbows? Does benching with a wide grip offer any advantages? Is it safer to bench with a narrow grip? Is it better to maintain shoulder flexibility through a full range of motion or is it better to stop short in fear of shoulder injury? Is incline or decline bench press really necessary? How likely is a complete pec tear while performing a heavy bench press? Let's take an in-depth look at these questions and others like it.
The Pectoralis Major is the primary muscle used in the Bench Press. Both the Sternal and Clavicular heads of the Pectoralis Major transversely flex the shoulders during the bench press (Lauver 2015, Duffey 2008). Pectoralis are utilized the greatest in the lower portion of the decent phase and the early portion of the lifting phase. Peak activity in the lift phase occurs early (35% lift time). (Duffey 2008)
The Anterior Deltoid assist in transverse flexion of the shoulders as well as flexion of the shoulders, particularly when the upper arms are closer the sides of the body. The Anterior Deltoids are utilized the greatest in the mid position in both the descent and lifting phases (Duffey 2008).
Triceps, particularly the lateral and medial heads extend the elbow during the Bench Press. They are utilized the greatest in the lifting phase as compared to the lowering phase. Like the Pectoralis Major, maximal activity of the triceps actually occur late in the descent phase and early in the lift phase. Their involvement also peaks again near the top of the lifting phase, particularly with a narrower grip. (Duffey 2008)
Biceps Brachii act as a dynamic stabilizer with low relative activity. Clemens (1997) measured Biceps Brachii involvement at approximately 22% maximum voluntary isometric contraction.
The Latissimus Dorsi remains relatively inactive during the bench press, at least in experienced non-competitive lifters (Barnett 1995).
Dumbbell Bench Press & Smith Bench Press
The average load of the Dumbbell Bench Press is approximately 17% less than a barbell bench press and 14% less than a Smith Bench Press. Electrical activity in the Pectoralis Major and Anterior Deltoid did not differ during the lifts. However triceps activity was reduced using Dumbbells versus Barbell or Smith Machine. Biceps Brachii activity increased according to stability requirements (ie: Smith Machine < Barbell < Dumbbell) (Saeterbakken 2011)
Incline / Decline
Trebbs (2010) found that the Bench Press on a flat bench activates the sternal head of the the Pectoralis Major more than Incline Bench Press. The sternal head tends to decrease in activity as the incline increases (Trebbs 2010). Glass (1997) reported that Barbell Decline Bench Press recruits a greater portion of the Pectoralis Major than does the Barbell Incline Bench Press. Barnett (1995) reported that flat Smith Bench Press activated the the sternal head of the Pectoralis Major more than the Smith Decline Bench Press.
Trebbs (2010) found that the clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major (upper chest) was most active at a 44º incline, over the 0º (flat bench), and incline bench presses of 28º, and 56º. In contrast, Barnett (1995) reported that the clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major was no more active during the Smith Incline Bench Press than the flat Smith Bench Press, however it was less active in the Smith Decline Bench Press. Glass (1997) reported no significant differences in clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major between Barbell Incline and Decline Bench Press. Interesting, Lauver also found no significant difference in the activation of clavicular head when comparing decline, flat and incline presses. However, when they divided the concentric phase into 4 parts, they observed particularly more clavicular activation during the 26-50% contraction duration in both 30º and 45º Incline Bench Press.
The Anterior Deltoid tended to increase in activity as the bench inclination increased (Glass 1997, Trebbs 2010). The long head of the Triceps Brachii was more active on the Smith Decline bench press than the flat Smith Bench Press or Smith Incline Bench Press, particularly with narrow hand spacing (Glass 1997).
Barnett (1995) reported very low levels of Latissimus Dorsi during various angles of the bench press (decline, flat, and incline) with a short burst of activity immediately prior to the initiation of the lift. Despite its relatively low activity, the Latissimus Dorsi exhibited significantly greater activation in the decline position compared to the flat position with both wide and narrow grips. (Barnett 1995)
As resistance training programs progress, additional supplemental exercises should be performed to fully train the target muscles. Performing the Incline Bench Press is important to provide a more complete nueromuscular activation and fully train the involved musculature. (Fleck & Kraemer 2014)
Grip the bar with an opposing thumb grip so that the barbell does not slide out of the hand onto the body. Position the wrists directly under the bar by turning the wrists out slightly so bar is placed on lower outer portion of palm. This grip positioning prevents the wrists from becoming completely hyperextended under the weight of the bar. It also facilitates elbow flare and allows the elbow to be positioned more directly under the weight of the bar.
Bench press lifting performance increases as grip width is increased up to approximately twice the biacromial width (shoulder width as defined by the distance between acromion processes) performance (Madsen 1984, Wagner 1992, Clemens 1997, Gilbert 2003). Barnett (1995) reported a approximately 5% greater resistance can be lifted in a wide grip smith bench press versus a narrow grip smith press, however this difference was calculated to be statistically insignificant. However Wagner (1992) showed that the greatest single 1-rep bench press performance was achieved with a relatively wide 200% biacromial width, a 7% greater load compared to narrow grip beech press performance.
A wider grip width on the bar both decreases the range of motion of the lift and the final height of the bar. These factors could be possible explanations for increased bench press performance with an increased grip width (Madsen 1984, McLaughlin 1985). The bar travels nearly 25% further with a shoulder width grip (biacromial width) as compared to a grip twice the width. The increase in lift height results in 20° greater shoulder flexion and 25° greater elbow extension. The forearms are also angled out further with a wider grip (Duffey 2008).
A wider grip has shown to increase involvement of the clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major while decreasing Triceps involvement. However, Lahman (2005) only observed an 18% in pectoral activity when benching at 200% biacromial width as opposed to a 100% biacromial width, which was not was not deemed statistically different.
In contrast, Barnett (1995) reported that Close Grip Smith Bench Press increases activation of the Triceps and clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major (upper chest). Lahman (2005) found that Close Grip Bench Press increased triceps activity 210% from that experienced during the wide grip bench press.
Coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell recommends a relatively narrower grip bench for geared powerlifters. Since geared powerlifters' bench shirt assists in the lower portions of the lift, geared lifters typically perform closer grip bench press to emphasize the triceps during lockout. In contrast, raw powerlifters may gravitate toward wide grip bench press to accentuate strength in the lower and mid portions of the lift. Coach Simmons has recommended wide-grip benching for raw powerlifters(Simmons 2014) and periodic illegally wide grip (beyond the bar markings) benching as an auxiliary exercise (with the elbows tucked in) for geared bench press training (Simmons 2003).
Both raw and geared powerlifters appear to be at higher risk to pectoralis tears compared to the average gym goer largely (yet not entirely) due to the large loads they are capable of pushing (Butt 2015). A narrower grip is thought to decrease the risk of pectoral tears by decreasing torque on the Pectoralis Major (Green 2007). Geared powerlifters often bench wide in competition within the protection of their bench shirts. However many raw powerlifters who use a wider grip, in both training and competition, seem to do so with apparently no repercussions. More on this later.
Upper Arm Positioning
Positioning the upper arm out to the sides, such as in the Wide Grip Bench Press may increase activation of the Pectoralis Major (McLaughlin 1985). In a more extreme position, the Guillotine Press (popularized by old time bodybuilding coach, Vince Gironda) with the upper arms near 90° to the torso mimics the upper arm position of chest fly and is thought to decrease anterior deltoid involvement, thereby isolating the Pectoralis Major and consequently limiting the resistance that can be used in this auxiliary movement.
Some individuals may be able to perform bench press with the upper arm portioned further out without issues due to individual structural differences (Contreras 2011). However, performing bench press with the upper arms positioned close to 90° to the torso is thought to place the shoulder in a potentially vulnerable position, at least for some individuals, particularly when combined with other Weight Training Injury Risk Factors (Green 2007).
In contrast, positioning the upper arms closer to the body in the lower position is thought to increase the load on the Anterior Deltoid, clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major (upper chest), and Triceps while decreasing involvement of the sternal head of the Pectoralis Major. In this close arm position, the shoulder may have greater mobility with less potential shoulder issues. In fact, those with a history of certain shoulder issues may find that positioning the upper arm closer the the sides does not aggravate their shoulder condition. However, this totally adducted shoulder positioning can also limit the resistance that can be used since this close arm position limits the involvement of the powerful sternal head of the Pectoralis Major while emphasizing the relatively weaker front deltoid, upper chest, and triceps.
For those with healthy shoulders with proper mobility, positioning the upper arm somewhere in between these two extremes will allow for the best combination of strength, muscular development, and safety. Lowering the bar between the lower to mid-chest will typically result in a 45º to 70º angle between the shoulder and torso and can be customized according to individual goals and body mechanics.
Hand spacing of 2 biacromial width increases shoulder abduction above 75°, whereas hand spacing <1.5 biacromial width maintains shoulder abduction below 45° (Fees 1998).
Interestingly, Zatsiorsky and Kraemer (1995), leading academist in the field of weight training recommend the upper arm to form a 65º to 90º angle to the torso in the chest-touch position.
Coach Rippetoe (2015), author of Starting Strength, suggests a 70º upper arm position with the forearms vertical at the lowest bench press position. According to Rippetoe, this width of grip permits the longest range of motion around the shoulder at the bottom of the movement. As the barbell is raise, it is positioned over the shoulders in the path of a J.
Greg Nuckols who has held 3 all-time world records in powerlifting in the 220lb and 242lb classes, explains:
"'Tuck your elbows' (30°-45° shoulder angle) is generally a bad cue for the raw bench press. 'Flare and push'(~60°) is a much better cue. Benching in this manner will help you use your pecs more effectively and gain strength faster."
For general strength training, the lower back forms a natural arch when the head, upper back, and hips are in contact with the bench. Placing the feet apart on the floor creates a more stable base of support. Those with shorter legs and/or inflexible hip flexors may choose to place their feet on an elevated surface (eg: weight plates or bench).
However, in powerlifting, the spine is placed in an hyperextended arched position with the hips making contact with the bench throughout the lift. To facilitate hyperextension through both the thoracic and lumbar spine, the feet are tucked back so forefeet remain on floor. Once the weight is set, heals are pushed onto floor. (Kovacs 2014)
Arching the spine places the rib cage higher so the bar does not have to be lowered as far down before it makes contact with the lower chest. In addition, it also declines the torso so the Pectoralis can push the bar upward in a stronger plane of movement: shoulder transverse flexion with slight shoulder adduction. This plan of motion is more similar to the Decline Bench Press. In an extreme arched position, the Latissimus Dorsi may assist somewhat by Shoulder Adduction.
Unracking and Racking
Lie on bench so eye level is just in front of the racked bar. The exact positioning of body on bench will allow proximity to bar for easy unracking and racking yet far enough away so rack does not obstruct the moving bar. Lift bar from rack. With elbows extended, pull barbell so it is balanced directly over shoulder joint before proceeding with the exercise.
Completely lock out over shoulders on last rep before returning the barbell to the rack. Keeping elbows straight, pull barbell to back, making contact with back of rack before bending elbows to lowering bar onto rack supports.
Keep the scapula back and down. Retracting the scapula during the bench press (1) forms a more stable base of support against the bench, (2) decreases anterior forces through the shoulder in the lower position, and (3) optimizes the mechanics of the Pectoralis major.
The Pectoralis Major essentially has characteristics of a biarticulate muscle, practically crossing the shoulder girdle and shoulder articulations simultaneously.
By maintaining scapula retraction as the bar reaches its lowest position, the Pectoralis Major enters into a stretch reflex cycle (explained below) sooner without the elbows traveling as far back behind the shoulders. This is because the Pectoralis Major enters into Passive Insufficiency sooner with the shoulder girdle retracted as opposed to scapular tilting forward (Protraction with anterior tilt).
Keeping the shoulder girdle retracted near the top of the lift keeps the Pectoralis Major from entering Active Insufficiency as they continue to contract. Although the Pectoralis Major is primarily engaged at the lower portions of the lift, they appear to also assist the Triceps and Anterior Deltoids throughout the mid and upper ranges as seen by EMG activity (Duffy 2008).
As the shoulder transversely flexes, initially with the elbow behind the shoulder, the powerful Pectoralis Major has a strong stabilizing component of force, pushing the humerus into the glenohumeral joint, with a tendency to displace the head of the humerus anteriorly (Kreighbaum 1996) and increases traction to the acromioclavicular (Green 2007). This force must be counteracted by the Infraspinatus and Teres Minor rotator cuff muscles (Kreighbaum 1996). This responsibility of these particular rotator cuff muscles is why exercises for the posterior chain (eg: rowing movements) are important to maintain shoulder integrity.
As the barbell is lifted, the shoulder continues to transversely flex so the angle of pull of the humerus to the Pectoralis major attachment approaches perpendicular allowing for greater rotary force through the shoulder joint.
Postural shoulder girdle deficits may compromise ideal scapular position thereby placing greater anterior forces on the shoulder. A Protracted Shoulder Girdle posture places the scapula anteriorly which can increase the angle of the scapula and humerus in the lowest position when the shoulder is completely transversely extended. This greater angle increases the anterior forces on the shoulder during the initiation of the concentric contraction of the Pectoralis Major. The antagonist rotary cuff muscles must exert greater compensatory forces to counter the anterior forces through shoulder.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends performing exercises through their full range of motion (ACSM 1995).
Kolber (2010) review of the literature found that the bench press has been implicated in shoulder injuries including osteolysis, soft tissue strains and tears, anterior instability, and dislocations. The lowering-eccentric phase of the bench press has been postulated to be responsible for many of the injuries particularly when the arm was lowered below the torso. (Kolber 2010, Morey 2010)
Haupt (2001) suggests the decent phase should finish 4-6 cm above the chest. Morey (2010) suggests limiting the end-range positioning on the bench press by placing a towel roll or barbell pad on the chest to possibly mitigate risk from the terminal lowering phase.
However, there is no actual evidence demonstrating that bench pressing through a full range of motion (as recommended by the ACSM) is inherently dangerous for most individuals. In fact, restricting range of motion may decrease flexibility, strength, and joint adaptations through the omitted range of motion, thereby potentially increasing risk of future injury.
Strength Training performed through a full range of motion has been shown to increase and maintain joint flexibility (Morton 2011, Souza 2013). Flexibility shoulder flexibility will likely decrease if shoulders do not travel through full range of motion (until slight stretch or pull is felt through shoulder or chest, while maintaining shoulder retraction) unless specific stretches or movements are performed to supplement program compromised by limited range of motion.
Exercising through a full range may be the only means of maintaining flexibility through the Pectoralis major and minor for most individuals engaging in weight training. However those with a thicker rib cage or those performing a powerlifting-style bench press will have less lower range of motion due to the arched back position. Tight Pectoralis muscles in addition to particular muscular imbalances may contribute to Protracted Shoulder Girdle posture which could potentially create or exacerbate the mechanical issues in which Haupt (2001) and Morey (2010) were attempting to circumvent.
Therefore, restricting range of motion during the bench press as described by Haupt (2001) and Morey (2010) should be prescribed only for those with specific shoulder injuries or dispositions. In which case shoulder flexibility movements for the Pectoralis major, Pectoralis minor, and Anterior Deltoid (second column under 'Stretch') will likely need to be a part of the rehabilitation program until fuller a range bench press movement can safely be performed.
Fees (1998) points out that the narrower 1.5 times biacromial width grip actually increases transverse flexion. This may be true in a flat back bench position, however the arched spine position typically performed by powerlifters can actually decrease range of motion since the bar does not need to be lowered as far with the low chest raised upward. Again this limited range of motion may require assistance work with dumbbells and/or wide grip benching to mitigate the effects of a limited range of motion (ie: protracted shoulder posture and its resulting biomechanical issues).
The descent immediately before the lifting phase permits a muscular stretch-shortening cycle allowing greater weight to be used. Approximately 14% more weight can be lift (eg: 20 kg for young adult male) with a counter movement bench press than with a pure concentric lift. (van den Tillaar 2013)
Wilson (1991) found that the effect of the stretch-shortening cycle in the bench press diminishes rapidly with time, with a half-life of 0.85 seconds. After a pause of 1.5 seconds between the eccentric and concentric phases, 30% of the performance augmentation remains in effect. Similarly, after a shorter pause duration of 0.35 seconds, 75% of the performance augmentation remains in effect. A pause of 4 seconds between the concentric and eccentric phase would be required in order to avoid any performance enhancement from the stretch-shortening cycle. (Wilson 1991)
The sticking period is the first period of deceleration of the lifting phase occurring before full extension. It is the weakest region during the lift, typically occurring between 3–16 cm vertically from the sternum (van den Tillaar 2013).
The elbows typically move laterally during the sticking region thereby reducing the resultant moment arm of the barbell about the shoulder joint. (Gomo & van den Tillaar 2015).
Elliott (1989) concluded that the sticking region is not caused by an increase in the moment arm of the weight about the shoulder or elbow joints or by a minimization of muscular activity during this region. Instead he postulated that the sticking region was a force-reduced transition phase between a strain energy-assisted acceleration phase (bottom of lift) and a mechanically advantageous maximum strength region (top of lift). However, grip width was not an independent variable in Elliott's study and intermuscular comparisons were not measured.
Van den Tillaar (2013) concluded that the sticking region is likely the result of a poor mechanical force position. In a raw bench press, it was observed that it was not the Triceps Brachii responsible for getting the lifter out of the sticking region in the bench press, but instead the Deltoid and Pectoralis Major muscles were responsible (van den Tillaar 2013).
Gomo & van den Tillaar (2015) examined how three different grip widths affect the sticking region in powerlifters' bench press performance. Twelve male experienced powerlifters (age 27.7 ± 8.8 years, mass 91.9 ± 15.4 kg) were tested in one repetition maximum bench press with a narrow, medium and wide grip. The sticking region did not occur at the same joint angles in all three grip widths. This disproved the theory that the sticking region would occur at the same joint angle of the elbow and shoulder independent of grip width.
Madsen and McLaughlin (1984) compared the single maximal lifts for world class power lifters to group of recreational lifters. The world class powerlifters moved the bar more slowly throughout the exercise and kept the bar more directly over the shoulder during the lift phase. Lowering the bar more slowly may have reduced the forces required to stop the descent of the bar.
Wilson (1989) compared a maximal bench press lift with a single sub-maximal bench press lift at 80% of maximum in elite lifters. In addition to differences in vertical acceleration, the elite lifters tended to keep the bar more directly over the shoulder during the lift phase of the maximal load, showing similar form to the elite lifters mentioned in Madsen and McLaughlin (1984) study.
Green (2007) is often cited on the internet (eg: T-Nation 2011) suggesting there is no significant difference when bench pressing with a wide or narrow grip. Green (2007) points other researchers have not observed a significant difference in Pectoralis major involvement or one rep max and when comparing grip width of 100% to approximately 200% biacromial width.
Green cites Barnett (1995) who reported 5% more resistance can be lifted using a wide grip, which was deemed statistically insignificant. However, Green fails to mention Barnett used a smith machine in that study and not a barbell. Other researches examine performance differences of an actual barbell bench press found a 200% biacromial width grip allowed for the greatest weight to be lifted compared to other widths (Wagner 1992, Gilbert 2003).
Green's 2007 paper entitled ' The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury.' brings up some interesting points. The main premise of the paper argues that a bench press grip of greater than 1.5 times the biacromial width places the shoulders in a vulnerable position (Green 2007). Green cites Fees (1998) and writes "A grip of more than 1.5 biacromial width increases shoulder torque by 1.5 times that of a narrow grip..." but then adds "... thus increasing the risk of injury" as if torque in itself is a cause of injury. Torque cannot be considered a risk factor by itself since torque is necessary to place a loads on muscles (ie: required for movement). It's the lack of adaptation to a given torque that's a risk for injury. More on that point later.
Interestingly, Fees (who Green cites) actually makes the restricted grip width recommendation for athletes with rotator cuff or shoulder impingement injury and not the general weight training population, and particularly not asymptomatic individuals, as the Green recommends.
Grip Width Effect on Pectoralis Activation
Green (2007) paper states, "Electromyographic results showed that grip width did not significantly affect activity of the sternocostal head of the Pectoralis Major (p > 0.05)." and cites Lahman 2005 as one of two references. Interestingly, Lehman (2005) did find insignificant differences in the activation of the (A) clavicular head(upper chest) when comparing wide and narrow grips, and (B) sternal head when comparing wide and narrow supine grips (reverse grips). Activity in the sternal head of the Pectoralis major dropped 27% when grip was shifted from wide grip (200% biacromial width) to very narrow grip (a space equal to the width of one hand between the hands). Mean activity level dropped 18% shifting from 200% to 100% biacromial width (over hand grip), but this was not deemed statistically different. So while Lehman's study supports Green's claim that researchers have found no significant difference in Pectoralis major involvement when comparing grip width of 100% and 200% biacromial width it may not be exactly representative of the entire picture.
In the same section, Green (2007) also cites Barnett (1995) as further evidence. Indeed, Barnett's data suggests that hand spacing did not vary EMG activity of the Sternal Pectoralis Major although a wide grip decreased Triceps activation. However a Smith Machine with a linear track was used in this study, not exactly a free weight bench press! Actually all reviews in other papers citing Barnett's study also fail to mention this fact.
Green also cites Clemens (1997) (2 pages earlier) suggesting no significant differences in Pectoralis Major or Anterior Deltoid involvement with varying grip widths. However there are several serious limitations to Clemens' study which warrant caution in interpreting those findings at face value.
The most obvious issue is that Clemens uses the same loads (1-RM of narrow grip bench press with biacromial breadth grip) for all grip widths. The narrow grip width (100% biacromial breadth grip) represented the least weight of all grip widths. Therefore no comparison can be made for maximum loads for all grip widths.
In addition, Clemens only collected EMG data for the concentric phase and does not collect eccentric EMG data. Duffey (2008) shows that the Pectoralis are utilized the greatest in the lower portion of the decent phase. Incidentally phasic inferences cannot be made since this study only examined EMG through the concentric portion of the lift. Therefore the Pectoralis Major's greater involvement in early portion of the lifting phase cannot be distinguished from the remaining lift.
Possibly unrelated to grip comparisons, Clemens' methodologies used to obtain standardize EMG values were fundamentally flawed which essentially invalidate comparisons between both muscle groups. In attempt to standardize EMG data for proper comparisons, a Percent of Maximum Voluntary Isometric Contraction was obtained for each muscle group by collecting EMG data in a fixed position, a separate predetermined position for each muscle group. unfortunately the triceps yield a percentage far above 100%. The chosen elbow positioning of 90º during static triceps EMG measurements (instead of a greater angle) is likely the reason his data suggested all grip widths yielded greater relative Triceps involvement in all grip widths as expressed in as a Percent of Maximum Voluntary Isometric Contraction: Triceps 112%, Anterior Deltoid 95%, Pectoralis Major 75%, Biceps 22%.
With these obvious errors, no comparisons between muscle groups can be made. Clemens himself admits his methodology in calculating relative muscular activation was flawed and warns,
"The intermuscular difference relative to Triceps and the Pectoralis major might be regarded with some caution."
More recently, Halaki (2012) discusses recommendations and challenges of normalizing EMG signal reviewing several potential points of error including MVICs of over 100% as seen in the Clemens study. Several methodological errors (beyond the scope of this article) from the Clemens study become apparent when reviewing Halaki's recommendations. These procedural flaws, particularly when combined with the earlier issues, in addition to the contrasting data of other studies, question the validity or applicability of Clemens' findings.
It is interesting to note that although Clemens' data suggesting no significant difference in Pectoralis and anterior deltoid involvement in all grip widths, in his discussion section (ie Practical Applications) Clemens' recommends a grip width between 190% to 200% of biacromial breadth for bench press performance.
So why does Green suggest the narrower grip? Green appears to overstate the relative danger of wide grip benching relative to the papers she cites. For example, Green advises against the incline bench press (unless the angle is specific to sports performance) since it too could increase the risk of injury. Well, why not just stay home and forget weight training altogether? This Chicken Little mentality is sometimes typical of over-cautious physical therapists, orthopedic physicians, and the like who lack practical long term weight training experience and only work with injured individuals who are not necessarily representative of most individuals.
You'll be left with very few exercises in your arsenal if believe those who over generalize by claiming a particular exercises is inherently bad because some individuals have issues with them under particular circumstances. Risk of injury increases for a number of reasons other than some inherent flaw of a particular exercise).
A potentially greater risk to the shoulder joint during incline bench press is mounting and dismounting from a rack position too far back and low. High volume benching, muscular imbalances (ie: inadequate rowing work), past injuries, inadequate progressions, and insufficient recovery between workouts are other common factor leading to injury.
Risk of injury also increases when an exercise is performed at a greater range of motion than the shoulder can accommodate. Some individuals who lack adequate shoulder flexibility (exacerbated by a protracted shoulder girdle position) may either need to (a) stop just short of the bar making contact onto the chest or (b) tuck their elbows in slightly while bringing the bar slightly lower on the chest. In any case, the bar should be lowered in a controlled manner only as low as when a slight stretch is felt.
Fees (1998) (who Green cites) takes a more reasonable approach and suggests these sort of modifications and others for athletes recovering from certain types of injuries. In contrast to Green, Fees only recommends elimination of the incline bench press for those diagnosed with anteroinferior instability, or after anterior shoulder stabilization surgery since the incline bench press places stress on the compromised anterior middle and anteroinferior glenohumeral ligaments. Other modifications are provided and explained for various shoulder disorders including Rotator Cuff Injury, Shoulder Impingement, SLAP Lesions, Anterior Shoulder Instability, and Posterior Shoulder Instability.
For those with rotator cuff injury or shoulder impingement, Fees (1998) recommends bench pressing with a grip no wider than 1.5 times the biacromial. Fees explains this position:
- Places shoulder below 45º abduction places bar lower on chest so shoulder extension remains less than 15º decreases compressive forces at the distal clavicular
- Decreases shoulder torque reduces anterior and posterior rotator cuff and biceps tendon complex requirements for humeral head stabilization
Interestingly, Fees (1998) recommends a hand spacing of greater than 2 times the biacromial width for those diagnosed with posterior shoulder instability. Fees explains that the wider hand spacing and resulting component angles allow better structural approximation of the humeral head in the glenoid fossa and decrease the strain on the posterior soft tissue. He further explains that the wide grip permits shoulder abduction greater than 80°, horizontal abduction greater than 15° at the start of the concentric phase of the lift, and horizontal adduction less than 20° in the finishing position at the end of the concentric phase. (Fees 1998)
So we can see that the recommendations really depend on the circumstances, not a one way for everyone approach that Green appears to have suggested. It is important to understand that many people who use a wider than 1.5 biacromial width grip simply do not experience complications. And finally, the studies in which Green cites to make her recommendations involve injured athletes who certainly do not represent participants of weight training as a whole.
There's far too many variables and individual situations involved to make a blanket statements of bench press grip width and shoulder injury. Injuries with sub-max loads are likely due to overuse injury, inadequate warmup, biomechanical deficencies, and other factors rather than in some inherent form characteristic per se. The conclusion of particular form characteristics being the cause of injury cannot be made with the current body of evidence.
That being said, several legitimate cases may still be made for using a grip no wider than 1.5 biacromial width in certain asymptomatic populations.
Green (2007) claims rupture of the Pectoralis is common. She cites Aarimaa (2004) and state, "Prior research noted that 24 out of 33 subjects suffered a Pectoralis rupture during power lifting and bodybuilding with a bench-pressing mechanism." In fact, Aarimaa (2004) points out that total or near-total Pectoralis ruptures is a rare injury and that fewer than 200 cases have been reported in the literature.
The first incidence of those 200 cases was described by Patissier in 1866 documenting a French boy who tore his pectoral tendon while he was lifting an heavy piece of beef from a hook. Later in 1861 Letenneur reported a similar case. (Merolla 2012)
Butt (2015) reports that the incidence of tears to the Pectoralis major tendon has spiked in the last decade. The majority of these cases occur in muscular young adult men aged between 20 and 40 years during bench press. It seems that factors other than the choice of grip width play a role in this spike. Perhaps there could be an elephant in the room?
Dr. Serrano sees Pectoralis Major tears regularly in his medical practice, including 4 to 6 complete tears a year. Serrano patients include many professional and elite athletes including many of the Westside Barbell powerlifters. For those who do not know, Westside Barbell is considered the 'World's Strongest Gym' with two powerlifters with over 2700 pound totals, five over 2800 pounds, and one who has the biggest total of all time at 3005 lbs.
Although it may be somewhat comforting for the average gym goer to realize that their risk for Pectoralis tendon tears is relatively low compared to these professionals (for obvious and possibly not so obvious reasons), it's interesting to note that even powerlifters from Westside Barbell continue to incur these sort of injuries despite presumably having Louie Simmons (the most successful and arguably the best powerlifting coaches in the world) at their disposal. Are we to believe they have never heard of the 1.5 times the biacromial width bench press grip recommendation?
Green (2007) suggests restricting bench press grip width within 1.5 times the biacromial width since this narrower grip minimizes peak shoulder torque. According to Green, greater torque increases risk of injury. Although it is believed that a the 1.5 times the biacromial width protects against pectoral tendon tears, it should be pointed out that no study has actually substantiated this theory. It could be just as well be argued that increasing grip width with controlled progressions could allow the Pectoralis, its tendon, and accompanying joint structures to adapt so it may better withstand greater torque loads, making it less susceptible to injury.
Tendons exhibit viscoelastic properties and are adaptive to conditions of increased loading and disuse. The traditional concept of tensile failure may not be the essential factor in the pathomechanics of insertional tendinopathy. Particular joint positions are more likely to stress the area of the tendon usually affected by tendinopathy. Incorporating different joint position during exercise may allow for more controlled stresses on these affected areas of the tendon which may afford better maintenance of the mechanical strength of that tendon region in effort to prevent injury. (Maganaris 2004)
Consistent with other models of exercise adaptation / maladaptation, Maganaris's paper suggests that stresses in which the body has adapted are not a risk for injury. Instead, risk of injury occurs when the body has not had sufficient opportunity to adapt to particular stresses by way of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID). In the case of tendons, the adaptions are specific to both torque and their angle to their insertion as described by Maganaris (2004).
The Pectoralis major tendon typically ruptures at the bottom of eccentrically loaded bench press position. The tendon is thought to fail in a predictable sequence, with the inferior segments of the sternal head failing first, followed by the more superior segments of the sternal head and subsequently the clavicular head. (Butt 2015)
During a maximal bench press attempts range of motion and bar path can alter in two ways. First with a narrower grip, it is possible that the upper arms would have a greater tendancy to pull away from the sides (ie elbows flare out) under a heavier than known maximal wieght (as subject to in competion) in effort to decrease the moment created by the barbell about the shoulder joint and/or to further engage the Pectoralis major, somewhat consistent with observations made by Madsen and McLaughlin (1984) and Wilson (1989).
Secondly, compared to wider grips, the 1.5 biacromial width grip has the potential to increases horizontal adduction at the shoulder (Fees 1998, Green 2007), if not for the bar making contact with the raised chest accentuated by the arched back position. Under an extremely heavy load with the bar compressing more forcefully into the body, the upper arms can be pulled behind the back further than normal causing further Pectoralis stretch with a higher risk of overloading of the Pectoralis Major Tendon. The combination of the altered range of motion and varied arm positioning (or even a single variation) could place the tendon at an angle in which it is has not fully adapted thereby possibly overload the Pectoralis tendon, particularly if recent training has not adequately prepare the athlete for this altered form.
Is it possible that the very technique that was intended to protect the Pectoralis Major from tendon tear potentially could have the opposite effect, or possibly offer limited protection at best?
Determining Actual Causes of Injury
Causes of injury are likely multifaceted, meaning more than one contributing factor can be attributed to a particular injury. It is an overgeneralization to suggest that wide grip bench press is dangerous. There are too many confounding variables to make a definitive inference to all individuals with the current information. To Green's credit, she points to several possible contributing factors to injury suggested in the literature (other than the 'inherently vunerable' wide bench press positioning).
Many individuals apparently perform wide grip bench press without incident. It is certainly plausible that factors other than grip width at least play a concomitant, if not a dominate role in the risk of injury. We know of no studies that explain or even explore how so many individuals who engage in the mentioned so called vulnerable movements can end up unscathed. There must be some specific anti-risk or protective factors at play offering a certain degree of immunity to the unaffected..
Many of the cited studies proposing risk factors are retrospective, using injured subjects which cannot demonstrate cause and effect (as many authorities would like to suggest). The authors of these referenced papers merely postulate contributing factors surmised from clinical observation and surveys after the fact, which may or may not be causal or even a contributing factor under particular cases. A clear cause and effect relationships can only be accurately determined with well planned controlled prospective studies. (Kolber 2010)
For those performing a full body workout, a single basic compound chest movement such as the bench press will generally be sufficient, envolving both sternal and clavicular heads of the pectoralis major, as well as the anterior deltoids, and triceps.
The appropriateness of a particular width grip should be based on an individual basis. Choose a bench press grip width depending on level of mobility, joint stability, and training goals. For example, keeping the arms closer to sides with a narrower grip may be more ideal for those with certain shoulder issues.
For most fitness goals including general muscular strength and development, a standard bench press grip of 1.5 to 1.7 times the biacromial width can be used for those who follow adaptation criteria with healthy shoulders and no risk factors. This grip width achieves a suitable balanced between the ability to use heavy weights, ideal muscular involvement, fuller range of motion, and safety. This grip width affords a slight emphasis on the sternal head of the Pectoralis major with moderate involvement from the clavicular head, anterior deltoid, and triceps.
Grip widths variations (either slightly closer or wider) can supplement the standard grip width in training for either strength gains or muscular development. Grip widths approaching 2 times the biacromial width and upper arm positions of approximately 70º can be performed by individuals with healthy shoulders as long as certain precautions referenced in this article and site are followed. What ever grip width used, practice all precautions, including controlling the speed of decent so the range of motion and torque forces do not exceed what the joints structures and musculature are accustomed to.
A bench press grip with 1.5 times the biacromial width may be utilized for various reasons. In addition to placing slightly more emphasis on the triceps, this slightly narrower grip also involves both upper and lower chest more evenly, potentially useful when attempting to perform as few exercises as possible (eg: a full body workout). Both the 1.5 times biacromial grip width and 45º upper arm placement guidelines can serve as a beginning point for beginners who do not have sufficient body awareness or weight training experience. It can offer a conservative positioning for beginners who may not be aware of possible orthopedic weaknesses or inflexibilities at such an early stage.
Although studies have shown that a grip width of 2 times the biacromial width allows for the greatest weight to be used (see grip width above), those involved in powerlifting may choose to bench within the conservative 1.5 times the biacromial width constraint for safety concerns, particular when other risk factors are prevalent (eg: extremely heavy resistances, high training volumes, anabolic steroid use, etc.).
The 1.5 times the biacromial width may also be chosen as a standard width for either high volume bench press work or extremely heavy bench press attempts. Practice maximum attempts sparingly and judiciously. Regardless of the standard grip width chosen, supplemental work should be performed as a contingency to permit structural adaptation to unintentional deviations of form during personal bests attempts.
Some individuals may find that Decline Bench Press or Chest Dips stimulate greater chest development than bench press. Some may choose to maintain slightly greater range of motion by periodically including dumbbell bench press or lever bench press adjusted to the appropriate range of motion. In fact changing exercises every month or so offers many benefits. For all movements, perform exercises through the full range of motion, lower the weight only until a very slight stretch is felt in the chest or shoulders.
Dumbbell Bench Press and chest dominant plyometrics work (eg: Depth Push-ups) can also be performed with upper arm abducted approximately 45º, particularly if other risk factors are present. For those switching from a wider grip to a narrower grip, or to position where the arms are tucked in closer to the body, it take some time before being able to use resistances that approaches the wider grip.
The Incline Bench Press can be included in addition to a basic general chest exercise in a split program. A prudent 1.5 biacromial width grip with bar contacting lower chest can be considered, particularly since wide grip incline bench press does not appear to offer any redeeming benefits. However many people can seemingly perform incline bench press with a wider grip width without incident despite others being more prone to injury.
Close Grip Bench Press, targeting the triceps, can be performed at a grip around 1 biacromial width or slightly narrower.
Limiting the range of motion the bottom range of motion may be appropriate for individuals with certain types of shoulder injuries. However, limiting the lower range of motion has the potential of decreasing shoulder flexibility which may eventually alter shoulder girdle posture thereby increasing the mechanical stresses in which one is attempting to avoid. Healthy shoulders with proper shoulder girdle posture can typically adapt to to full range of motion if provided the opportunity through a sensible weight training program incorporating progressive resistances.
Proper posture and upper back strength is important for shoulder integrity. To maintain shoulder integrity for bench work, perform comparable upper body posterior chain work, particularly rowing exercises (emphasize scapular retraction). In case of a protracted shoulder posture, engage in corrective exercises to achieve and maintain proper shoulder girdle positioning.
Practice recommended safety techniques and maintain proper form throughout the movement. Perform a specific warm, at least one set of 50% 10 RM. Use a workout weight that can be handled in good form. Avoid bouncing the bar off your chest or raise your butt off the bench during the lift. Progress resistance systematically to allow adequate adaptation. For those with a couple years training, undulate workloads (eg: light/heavy or heavy/speed).
Avoid overuse injuries and overtraining by performing the fewest number of sets and exercises that will accomplish the desired fitness objectives. If high volume training must be performed, temper it will periods of lower volume work. Avoid continuous use of advanced training techniques that may increase likelihood of chronic overtraining (eg: Forced Reps). Listen to your body; take an additional day off if not adequately recovered and use the number of planned sets merely as a guideline. Every set should have a purpose. Walk away when the job is done.
Do not attempt to work through any unusual discomfort that could possibly be the start of an injury. Be prudent and take even subtle pains seriously. Administer first aid, take additional rest days, and/or readjust program to avoid reaggregating potential injury. Increase intensity and volume gradually when coming back from a layoff or recovering from an injury. Think long term progress.
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