Bench Press: Not the Best Exercise

/ Posted 03.06.2010

It’s been called the “King of Chest Exercises”.  Millions of people have done it, world-wide, for the past 50+ years.  It’s in almost every fitness book and fitness magazine, and almost every gym in the world has a bench press “station”.  In fact, the “bench press” (pressing a barbell off one’s chest, while lying flat on a bench) has been so ubiquitous, that many people use it as the barometer of total body strength.  A common question asked of someone who is known to weight-train, is “…how much do you bench?” (… or simply, “how much do you lift?”).  Yet, mechanically speaking, the bench press has a couple significant problems.  Let’s take a closer look, and see what we find.

First of all, let’s establish that this article is specifically FOR those whose primary goal is to work the chest – or pectoral – muscles.  This assumes the overall goal of either “bodybuilding” or “fitness”.  Powerlifting – the act of competing on the basis of how much is lifted in a given exercise – is something else entirely.  This article is not for Powerlifters, nor anyone else whose primary emphasis is the “amount” of weight lifted.  With that in mind, let’s analyze what characterizes a “good” chest exercise, and see how the bench press rates.

Any “good” exercise – whether for the development of the pectorals, or biceps, or quadriceps – typically has the following characteristics, which are considered “essential”:

Path:  the exercise movement must follow the path specifically determined by the muscle’s function (i.e. the range of motion of the muscle determines the path, beginning at the position where the muscle is fully elongated, and ending at the position where the muscle is fully contracted).

Alignment:  the concentric movement should be in direct opposition to the resistance (for example… pushing upward as gravity pulls downward… or pulling horizontally to the left, as the resistance pulls horizontally to the right).  Also, the position of the muscle should be directly opposite the resistance (i.e., if the resistance pulls from below, the muscle must be positioned opposite the downward resistance – therefore directly above, so as to be able to pull upwards, directly opposite the downward pull).

Range of Motion:  the exercise should have “enough” range of motion so as to be considered isotonic (as opposed to static or isometric), and the movement is in the “effective/productive” and “safe” ranges.

1.  Let’s first examine the Path of the bench press.  The function of the pectoral muscles is to bring the upper arm bone (the humerus), from a position that is lateral to (the side of) the body, and perpendicular to the torso … to a position that is anterior to (the front of) the body, and still (mostly) perpendicular to the torso.  Therefore, the path of a dynamically working pectoral muscle is from a position where your arm is out to the side, and then moves inward, toward a position where your arm is directly in front of your body.  To a degree, the bench press conforms with the correct path of the pectoral muscle.

2.  Next, let’s look at Alignment.  When looking at someone doing a bench press from the side view, there is definite alignment between the two important factors:

a. Opposing forces: resistance (i.e., gravity, pulling straight downward) and the concentric movement of the upper arms (moving straight upward) are in a straight line, and opposite each other – as it should be.

b. Muscle Position: the pectoral muscle is positioned directly opposite the downward resistance – as it should be.

Therefore, there is no alignment problem with the bench press.

3.  Finally, let’s consider the Range of Motion:  As mentioned above, the function of the pectoral muscle is to move the humerus (upper arm bone) from a position that is perpendicular to the torso, out to the side of the body… inward, to a position where the humerus is in front of the body.  Actually, the pectoral muscle brings the arm slightly past the mid-line of the body (where your nose points when looking straight ahead), crossing over to the opposite side by a few inches.  So, the contraction of the muscle occurs somewhere near the center, or past the center, of the body.  Yet, the bench press movement ends much short of that.  In fact, it stops about a foot short of that (assuming a standard width grip on the bar).  In other words, the bench presses misses the point of contraction by long-shot !  The contraction is an important part of that “effective/productive” range of motion.

Let’s look at the other end of the range of motion – the point of muscle elongation.  Typically, we are expected to bring the bar down until it touches our chest.  However, that could very well be considered “excessive” stretch of the pectoral muscle.  The reason for this is something known as “mechanical advantage” and “mechanical disadvantage”.  The simplest way for me to explain this is the adage, “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line”.  You see, the pectoral muscle originates at the center of the rigcage – the sternum – and crosses the front of the shoulder, and connects to the upper part of the upper arm (the humerus).  So, if you were to lower the bar down only to the point where your upper arm is parallel to the ground, the pectoral muscle would be in a “straight line” from its origin to its insertion, and that’s as far as you should go (especially with a heavy weight) – even though the bar may still be 6 inches away from your chest.  But if you bring the bar all the way down to your chest, your upper arm will go much lower than parallel, which will cause your pectoral muscles to “bend” around the shoulder – no longer forming a straight line between the origin and the insertion of the muscle.

This would be considered a severe mechanical disadvantage.  The pectoral muscle, at that point, would be pulling the upper arm in a forward direction, rather than an inward direction.  This means that your upper arm bone is being pulled in a direction that is encouraging it to dislocate.  Now imagine doing this type of joint distortion with a very heavy weight, and with a sudden reversal of the downward inertia.  In other words, it’s bad enough to bring the bar so low, while lowering a heavy weight slowly; it is much worse if you just let the weight fall quickly to your chest, and then suddenly reverse that downward inertia with an explosion out of the bottom.  Doing it this way would magnify the force of the muscle pulling the humerus forward, and could easily damage shoulder cartilage, if not fully dislocate the shoulder.

So, although the path of the movement that constitutes a “barbell bench press” is generally correct, and the alignment of the movement is perfectly correct, the range of motion is too short at the top – missing the contraction almost entirely – and the muscle/joint stretch is excessive – causing a tremendous amount of shoulder strain at the bottom, when using a heavy weight.  The excessive stretch would be outside the “safe” range of motion, referenced above.

Comparison

Let’s assume – for just a moment – that the bench press really is the “King of chest exercises” – as it has been called.  This would imply that it’s the very best exercise for the pecs, despite the fact that it misses the point of full contraction (by over a foot), and despite the fact that it strains the joint at the bottom of the movement.  Would we accept these conditions with other exercises, for other body parts?  Hardly.  Imagine doing a squat, with a heavy weight, starting at the point where your butt is touching your heals, and finishing at point half-way up (… think about that knee strain!).  Imagine doing a heavy preacher barbell curl, starting at the point where your arms are fully straight (at the bottom) – essentially hyper-extending your elbow (ouch!) – and then only coming up half-way.  Imagine doing a heavy leg curl, starting at a point where your legs are completely straight, but still with a full load (weights not resting) – straining a backward bend of your knees (ouch!) – and then only coming up half-way.  Shall I go on?  I’m sure you get the point.  In no other circumstance, would we “happily” start a movement with joint strain, and then avoid contraction of the muscle.  Why do we so happily accept that dual condition with a bench press?

Ironically, we not only accept the bench press, despite those two negative factors.  We honor it with the reverent title of “King”.  Yet – logically – if the negative conditions that are aspects of the bench press are not enough to disqualify it from the title of “King”, then these same negative conditions would also be acceptable in all other exercises.  But we know they are not acceptable in other exercises.  Therefore, they should not be acceptable in the bench press.  We can’t have it both ways.  Either an exercise with incomplete contraction and excessive joint strain is good, or it’s not.

Why the Bench Press Became So Popular

The “barbell bench press” was invented (so to speak) during the early days of weight training – before weight lifting machines or pulleys had been conceptualized, and before we had a thorough understanding of biomechanics.  What we (the weight lifting community – personally, I was not around yet) discovered in the early 1900s, was that we were able to lift a fairly heavy weight when using a bar, as compared with using individual, hand-held weights.  In fact, typically we can barbell bench press between a third, and twice as much, as the aggregate amount of two separate dumbbells.  This – naturally – makes us “feel” (i.e., believe we are) strong.  It satisfies our egos, and – mistakenly – causes us to believe that it must be more beneficial for our pectoral muscles, as compared with using dumbbells, because we are able to use a heavier weight.  But that is a false belief.

First, the ego has no relationship with physiology.  Although you may “feel” strong, it is unrelated to the actual stimulation that your pectoral muscle is experiencing.

Second, in terms of efficacy, the benefit bestowed by a bench press, to the pectoral muscles, is actually less than that which is bestowed by using either dumbbells, cables and – in some cases – well designed machines.  The reason you are able to use a heavier weight is NOT because your pecs are working harder.  It’s because the bar is more stable than two separate dumbbells, and – more significantly – because the bench press involves a great deal of triceps involvement.  Don’t believe me?  Try putting some baby oil on the bar before doing a set of bench presses.  Guess what happens.  Your hands slide straight out.  Why?  Because that is the direction that your triceps are pushing.  Think about it.  Your pecs are pulling up and innot in an outward direction.  If you oiled up a pair of dumbbells, you would still be able to perform your chest press without any sliding, because that movement involves very little (if any) triceps (… especially if you keep your forearm perpendicular throughout the movement).  The additional weight you are able to lift on the barbell bench press is due entirely to the added stability of the bar, and the help of the triceps.  It is not because your pecs are working harder.

Questionable Endorsement

You’ve probably spoken to someone who “swears” by the bench press – in terms of his pectoral development (… even if that person happens to have a “mysterious” shoulder pain).  And you’ve probably also read articles endorsing and encouraging use of the bench press.  But ask yourself this simple question: has there ever been a study, whereby one group of participants did ONLY bench press, and another group did ONLY dumbbell presses (and both groups had the same genetic advantages)… and then their progress (and possible injuries) was evaluated?  No – there hasn’t been.  Typically, people do both, possibly along with using cables and machines.  So the pectoral development we SEE on someone cannot be accurately determined as having been produced more or less from any one exercise.  The development we see on someone is due to the combination of exercises (… and genetics is a factor as well).  Certainly some exercises contributed less, and others more.  Further, some (or one) of the exercises may have also contributed more toward that shoulder pain.  The fact is that when we hear endorsements of the bench press, they are usually based on the misguided belief that – since it’s the exercise that allows the heaviest weight to be lifted – it must be the “most important” of the chest exercises (so it is thought).  But that assessment is not based on logic, nor on a mechanical/physiological analysis (EMG test), nor even on a well-constructed study (measured results comparison of two groups).  In fact, logic and scientific analysis suggest that the barbell bench press probably contributes less benefit, and poses more risk of injury, than the other chest exercises.

Evaluation

For beginners, the bench press is fine.  It offers stability – like training wheels – which allows the user to begin gaining some strength, as well as a sense of coordination.  Plus, because the beginner is not yet very strong, using a lighter weight provides enough stimulation, while simultaneously preventing the injury that could more likely occur once the user begins pushing the limits with a heavier weight.

However, as the user graduates to a more advanced level, incorporating a contraction into his/her chest exercises becomes more important.  Because the bench press fails to provide that full contraction, the more advanced user would be wise in moving toward better exercises.  Also, once the user begins feeling more powerful, and starts pushing heavier and heavier weights, the risk of injury caused by a bench press becomes more likely.

Assuming that most of the Iron Man Magazine readers are at least “semi-advanced”, this rating is more designed with that particular candidate in mind (… novice users would have a point or two higher benefit score, as well as two or three points lower on the risk score).  The below rating is an average estimation, at best.

For Benefit: 5 (on a scale of 1 – 10) … because of the lack of contraction

For Risk:  7 (on a scale of 1 – 10) … because of the over-stretch

The risk factor goes down with lesser weight, and increases with heavier weight, of course.

Some people would argue that the triceps involvement in the bench press is a good thing.  I might agree, for the novice, but not for the advanced athlete.  The novice can benefit from the triceps stimulation, without risking a shoulder injury, because the weight he or she would be using is relatively light.  But the advanced athlete would be using a much heavier weight, so the triceps stimulation might come at the expense of a shoulder injury.  That’s foolish, since there are other great triceps exercises that don’t have any risk of shoulder injury.

What We Should Do Instead

Basically, any chest exercise that brings both hands together at the center of the body, is good from the perspective of a full contraction of the pectorals.  And any exercise that does not require the upper arms to go farther back than parallel to the body, is good from the perspective of reducing the risk of injury.  Of course, the other two categories mentioned in the second paragraph are still required – namely, that the movement follow the correct path, and that the alignment be correct.  So, given these requirements, here are the good exercises:

Supine (flat bench) Dumbbell Presses

Incline Dumbbell Presses

Decline Dumbbell Presses

Cable Crossovers (standing / bent over)

Incline (bench) Cable Crossovers

Cable Crossover on a Flat Bench

Butterfly Machine

Any Chest Press Machine that… allows the user to bring his/hehands together in front of the body (or close to that) – like some of the Hammer Strength machines, for example.

And, here are the ones that would not qualify as “good” for the chest, given the above criteria:

Barbell Bench Press

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Decline Barbell Bench Press

Parallel Bar Dips

As you can see, the above four exercises are the ones that fail to bring the hands together, which would allow full contraction of the pectoral muscles.  Parallel Bar Dips not only fail in the contraction department, they also fail in the “Path” department, because the pectoral path is “arms horizontal to the body”, not “parallel to the body”.  Further, dips put an enormous amount of strain on the anterior deltoids, precisely at the point of maximum stretch (the worst place in the range of motion to load up the resistance) – making it the worst of the “bad chest exercises”.  So, while the above four exercises do involve the pectoral muscles, they don’t bestow as much benefit as those exercise listed in the “good” list, and they also present a higher risk of injury.

Summary

The main goal of a chest exercise (movement-wise) should be to bring the arms from a position of: out-to-the-sides… then forward and inward – toward the center of the body.  This is actually a circular movement.  The bench press tends to be more of a linear movement, pushing the hands forward and OUTWARD. The risk of injury could be dramatically reduced, simply by stopping short of having the bar touch your chest (stopping when your arms are parallel to the ground) – but then the range of motion would be even shorter, and the exercise would come no closer to achieving a pectoral contraction.  In the quest to spend one’s time, energy and effort doing the “best” exercises – the ones that produce the most benefit, and pose the least risk of injury – eliminating the barbell bench press from one’s repertoire is a wise move, in my opinion.  Try replacing it with exercises that don’t overstretch the shoulder, and allow the pecs to fully contract with each repetition, and you’ll be surprised to discover that you can get all the pectoral development you need (and more) – without the risk of shoulder injury, typical of bench press.

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