Recently, I had a conversation with Branden Ray, the ’08 NPC Junior National champ, about shoulder training. I was surprised to find that he never uses the traditional seated bench that most gyms have for overhead dumbbell presses. The seat back is short and set perpendicular to the seat. It’s most often used for shoulder presses, but you also find trainees doing seated curls and overhead dumbbell extensions on it as well.
Certainly, I’ve been doing my shoulder presses on those benches for the better part of 20 years. What’s B-Ray’s beef with the bench? “Because the seat back is so low, most guys have a tendency to lean back too much and put an extreme arch in their lower back, just to use heavier weights,” he said. “Not only do they wind up working more upper chest than deltoids, but their lower backs are in a very dangerous position.”
Branden could have been speaking specifically about me. I’ve gone as heavy as 140s for shoulder presses on various occasions—but with the aforementioned sins of form. You can even catch me on YouTube showing off my prodigious shoulder power and crappy form!
Without confessing my transgressions, I asked Ray what type of bench he does use. “I take an adjustable incline bench and set it to almost but not quite vertical—maybe a five-to-10-degree lean back. That lets me keep my shoulder blades pressed into the pad and makes it almost impossible to arch my back.”
He also noted that you can’t handle as much weight pressing on an incline bench, “but the weights you do use are being moved by your delts.”
Wouldn’t you know it: I was set to work shoulders and bi’s the very next day and vowed to forgo the short-backed bench. Talk about humbling—my heaviest set wasn’t with 100-pound dumbbells as usual. All I could manage were 80s, and cleaning them up to start the set without my typical exaggerated lean back was a bitch. As tempting as it was to go right back to the short bench, I had to recognize that part of my recurring lower-back pain probably stems from excessive arching there while doing heavy overhead dumbbell presses.
Compared to the short-backed bench, the incline is a lot less user-friendly—or should I say, less ego-friendly. Since you can probably trace most of the injuries, aches and pains we bodybuilders suffer back to ego lifting, though, I have sworn off the bench that allows for severe arching of the lower back. Thanks to Branden, I now know it’s not my friend—it’s an arch nemesis!
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding: Muscle Truth from 25 Years in the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.