Everybody Loves the Bench Press

It can help your game, but it can also end your career. Here's what you need to know.

By: Ethan Banning
Certified Structural Health Specialist, and Certified Strength Coach
Human Performance
August 23, 2020

In my 20+ years as a strength coach in the NFL, Major League Baseball, the college level, the high school level, and the private sector, one thing that always has come up in conversations is making sure that we've got shoulder health with our athletes. Over the last several years, I've gotten the opportunity to train medical staff from both the NFL and MLB on my therapeutic protocols on keeping shoulders healthy, so that athletes don't break down during the season.

When we look at shoulder health, one of the first things that comes up is the barbell bench press. Everybody wants to discuss the barbell bench press because it is a fantastic exercise – but it can also be really dangerous. Many people remember that back in 2009, there was a running back from USC that dropped a bar on his throat crushed his larynx, not only causing him to miss the rest of the season, but he nearly died. It was a tragic story, and certainly, severe injuries like that are dramatic - they're pretty rare. But I have a story like that of my own.

Back in the late 1990s when I was playing college football, I had a bar slip out of my hand, much like running back from USC, and it fell across front of my shoulders and started to roll down toward my throat. Thank God I had a great teammate that was a fantastic spotter and he pulled it off of me, so it didn't do any permanent damage. It didn't hurt me. And in fact, that adrenaline helped me set a personal record that day. But unfortunately, things like that happen pretty regularly, and often with terrible results.

Freak accidents aside, there are more common injuries and issues that we'll see in the bench press. Problems with the joints of the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and even in the spine and neck. There are also concerns about the musculature around the back, shoulder, triceps, and more that can get torn when we don't execute, or set up for the bench press properly.

We’re going to discuss proper bench press setup and the proper execution of this excercise. So you can be the best athlete you can be, there are some important elements when we're considering the bench press, or any complex movement like it. In staying connected, we want the lower body, the trunk and the upper body to work in unison together so that we can execute and perform the lift to our best ability. We have to make sure that we have proper setup and execution.

I say it all the time: “Strength and power are meaningless without posture and position.” If we can lift a ton of weight in the weight room, but we can't execute on the field and take that strength into a playing surface situation, it really doesn't help us. Learning how to connect the entire body together and stay in a great posture position is really important, and something we can do in the bench press.

We're going to talk about how to retract and depress the scapula, drive the humerus into the proper position, make sure that we get the pec display, (so that we're using more of the pec muscle), making sure that we're using our levers properly, and pressing a body down into the ground so that we can lift as much weight as possible and hope that that exercise transfers to the field or court.

Much like hitting a baseball with a bat, we don't just swing the bat with arms. In fact, many baseball experts will talk about using force from the belly button down, and how the hips and legs are so important in hitting a baseball with any sort of violence. The same thing is true in the bench press. We’ve got to make sure that our feet, hips, legs, trunk, and upper body are all working together.

One of the things that we do to make sure we have success in our bench press, is to set some standards. We have a standard position we're going to be in, we have a standard posture, and we have a variety of different grips. We work in specific grips and we use measurables on the bar to make sure that we know exactly what grip we are using, so we know what body part we're trying to improve, and what type of strength we're trying to display.

The other thing that we make sure we do is to make sure we use our opposing muscle groups. When we press, I want to make sure that we're doing two times (2x) as many of the opposing muscle groups as we are the pressing group. Pressing versus rowing – and two times as many rows as presses because it is really important and critical to have healthy shoulders, because we work with a lot of baseball players at this point. We don't do as much full range of motion barbell bench press, but when we do, we think it's critical that we master our bodyweight in a push up. We master a floor press. We master dumbbell work at different angles. Before we get into the barbell bench press, make sure that you've mastered a variety of different movements because of the complexity of the exercise.

It seems pretty straightforward at first - just lay under the bar and press the bar away. There’s really a lot more to it than that. See our video above for to see the entire process.