The barbell bench press, or "bench press," is a fundamental lift that serves as one of several "core" exercises. The name "core exercise" is not given to it because it's an abdominal exercise, but because it is an exercise that works several large muscle areas and the movement involves more than one joint. The bench press is fundamental because it can be used to train for a variety of sports and activities. Practicing the bench press can look easy, but there are some underlying techniques that are important to understand.
The bench-press exercise involves lying face up on a bench and slowly lowering and raising a barbell to and from your chest. The primary muscles involved are the pectoral major, anterior deltoid and triceps. These muscles, working together, can generate an enormous amount of force if trained properly.
To prevent injury, the bar should never be bounced off the chest. This move can be extremely dangerous due to momentum changes in the bar as it accelerates toward the chest. It's best not to allow the bar to depress the breastbone whatsoever. By slowly lowering the bar and allowing it to just barely touch the chest, your shoulders will be exposed to much less stress.
The grip width and where the bar touches the chest are really the same issue. If you decide to grip the bar slightly wider, you will have to touch the bar closer to the top of the breastbone. As you bring your hands in closer on the bar, such as in a close grip bench press (shoulder width grip), the bar will touch more toward the bottom of the breastbone.
When performing the bench press, it's extremely important to have a spotter, especially if you are unsure how much weight you can handle. Either one spotter should stand behind the bar or two spotters should stand near both ends of the bar. Always make sure everyone is paying attention to the individual who is bench pressing. With a spotter, help can be offered when the weight cannot be lifted.
To prevent one of the most common injuries associated with doing a bench press — shoulder injuries — a hidden technique can be used to help stabilize the shoulder girdle. By pulling your shoulder blades back during the entire lift, you can greatly decrease the risk of injury. This works well because of the increased stability of the shoulder. You should feel your shoulder blade flatten out against the bench. If you don't do this, your shoulder will be relying on some of the smaller muscles around it, which cannot tolerate as much weight. It is a good idea to practice this move with light weights before progressing to a higher intensity.
The muscles involved in the bench press are also involved in a basketball pass, a lineman blocking, a boxer delivering a punch and simply pushing a heavy door. These muscles are also used in other exercises, such as the pushup, which involves much more core stability to perform. The dumbbell bench press, chest fly, cable chest press and dip are all other exercises that can be done with very similar movement to the barbell bench press.
While the bench press is just one of many fundamental exercises that should be practiced when strength training, many more are needed to balance the muscles of the body completely. It is never recommended to do too much of one type of exercise, in this case a pushing type. Those who concentrate solely on the bench press will begin to have rounded shoulders because of the tightness that develops in the chest muscles. This, in turn, tends to create other problems, primarily shoulder problems. So while I encourage this exercise, it's important to make sure that it is integrated into a well-rounded exercise program to prevent any unwanted joint problems.
Ted Santaniello, CSCS, is a certified personal trainer and the fitness manager at the Wellness Center at PARC, located at 295 New York Road (next to ARC) in Plattsburgh. For more information, call him at 324-2024.