In Part 2, we covered the king of all exercises (the squat) in detail. In this part, we will move on to the upper body and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of barbell pressing.
Then I will give you some simple tips and tricks to increase the effectiveness of these movements while simultaneously minimizing the risk of injuries.
We will focus on two barbell pressing exercises: the bench press and the standing overhead press. Although Im partial to overhead pressing, we will start with the bench press due to its incredible popularity.
The Bench Press
The barbell bench press is by far the most popular exercise performed in public gyms and weight rooms around the world. There is some validity to its popularity. Over the years, it has earned the reputation of being the greatest builder of upper body pressing strength. Additionally, the bench press works the show muscles (the ones you see in the mirror) quite well, making it a favorite for aesthetic seekers.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to bench pressing. And this dark side involves a high risk of serious injuries. Injuries to the wrists, elbows or pecs can and do occur, but the most common injuries from bench pressing involve the shoulder.
Because of the significant risk of shoulder injury, I recommend minimizing your exposure to the barbell bench press. In fact, I typically only recommend it to beginners who are looking to gain size and strength as fast as possible, athletes who will be tested on this exercise and of course, powerlifters.
The only exception to the above rule would be a person who has healthy shoulders, perfect bench press technique, and balanced strength portfolios. This particular type of trainee can occasionally incorporate the bench press into his routine, but I still wouldnt recommend barbell benching for more that 16 weeks per year.
The Standing Press
There was a time (before the actual bench was even invented) when the standing press was considered the true benchmark of ones upper body strength.
Although the popularity of the bench has changed this standard, I still believe that the standing press is the most useful upper body barbell exercise.
The standing press is also safer for the shoulders than the barbell press. However, the standing press still puts the shoulder at risk.
Here are the types of injuries you could obtain from both pressing exercises and how to avoid them.
The most common shoulder injuries from barbell pressing are: labrum tears, impingement syndrome, bicipital tendinitis, rotator cuff tears and excessive AC joint wear and tear.
Eventually, after years of training (especially with people who over-utilize the press and don’t have picture-perfect form), it is not uncommon to see severe arthritic changes in the AC and the glenohumeral joints.
Some people are just born more susceptible to these types of injuries. This susceptibility is based on individual anatomical makeup, and little can be done to change that. But bad form and strength imbalances, along with other controllable factors, can make all of us vulnerable to injury.
Heres what you can do to minimize the risk while maximizing your results:
1) Listen to your body- If you feel shoulder pain during pressing, back off and get your shoulder checked out. Sometimes these are just minor inflammatory issues that will only require you to switch to dumbbell pressing for a while. But other cases may require some rest, rehab or even more aggressive treatments.
I hope Im not insulting your intelligence with this point, because to many trainees, this is simply a matter of common sense. But it seems that when I give everyone the common sense benefit of the doubt, I see someone who makes me question my generosity!
And the guy Im referring to here is not all that uncommon. You may have even seen him. Hes the guy you see in the locker room who can barely take his shirt off because he has so much shoulder pain. Then he sits in there for 20 minutes marinating his shoulders in Ben-Gay.
When he finally walks out on the gym floor and makes it over to the bench, he grimaces in pain on every warm-up rep/set. During this self-abusive process, he will constantly remind his training partners, Dont worry, my shoulders will feel great after I warm them up more. Although this individual may be a numbnuts, I do appreciate his desire to train, and at least he recognizes the importance of warming up. This brings us to our next point.
2) Warm up- In addition to your general and specific warm up, safe and proper barbell pressing requires you to perform a specific shoulder warm up. This entire warm-up takes only five minutes and it is well worth the effort. Heres a good joint prep warm up for the shoulders:
a) Shoulder dislocations- 25 reps of this exercise is a great way to begin this routine. Start by using a band and within a few workouts progress to holding onto a broomstick.
b) YTWL Shoulder Stability Matrix- 1 matrix consisting of 12 reps for each movement is all you need to do here. Be sure to maintain control and joint alignment while performing these movements.
c) Prone Subscap Internal Rotations- 1 set of 12 reps on each arm will do the trick here. This exercise trains the subscapularis which is an internal rotator of the shoulder. It is the most neglected of the rotator cuff muscles because typical advice is to strengthen the external rotators and lengthen the internal rotators (pecs and lats). Generally speaking, this is not bad advice but I dont believe that the subscapularis should be grouped with the other internal rotators due to its unique function.
3) Balance out your pressing with pulling- In other words, for every set of pressing you should do a set of pulling.
To be more specific, for every set of horizontal pressing (benching) do a set of horizontal pulling (rows), and for every set of vertical pressing (standing press) do a set of vertical pulling (chin ups).
This is critical for balanced strength and posture, but the benefits go beyond that. Adhering to this recommendation also helps prevent shoulder impingement. You see, whenever you perform a press, the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone) gets jammed into the shoulder socket. Over time, this can cause the tendons of the rotator cuff to get impinged.
Conversely, pulling exercises provide traction (the exact opposite effect) to the shoulder joint. In fact, traction is so effective for treating impingement that rehab specialists often begin a rehab program with light traction.
4) Tuck your elbows when you press- The tucked elbows position is critical for both types of pressing. Unfortunately (or fortunately if youre an orthopedic surgeon) this is typically the exact opposite technique that most bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use. Many shoulder injuries could be avoided just from this one simple tip.
For the bench press, tuck your elbows close to your sides during the decent. As you press up and get close to the lockout position, you can flare your elbows back out and repeat.
5) Use a closer grip- Some competitive powerlifters have found that by using an ultra wide grip, they can reduce the distance the bar has to travel, thus allowing them to press more weight. Since these guys are the best bench pressers in the world, many non-competitive lifters adopt this technique.
But since these weekend warriors dont wear bench shirts and arent pros who are willing to get more weight up at ALL costs, there is no need for them to use ultra wide grips. In fact, this grip will destroy your shoulders in time. The widest your grip should ever be is 25 inches, and I encourage most people to use an even narrower grip than that.
This list of tips and tricks is far from exhaustive, but it will definitely get you started on the right path. Begin integrating these techniques into your pressing routines today. You physique and your shoulders will thank you for it!
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