So where were we? I covered the history of the bench press in part one and in part two I took a close look at the sticking point that gives all of us so much difficulty, especially at heavy weights, when bench pressing. Today I would like to start with some information on form and muscle activation and then I’ll see what else I get to talking about on this installment of The Bench Press – The Greatest Lift Ever.
When it comes to bench-pressing, if you look around the gym I’m sure you’ve noticed that no two bench press styles are alike. Some grip wide, some narrow, some have their elbows flared to the sides while some keep their elbows tucked in, some arch their backs, some don’t, some pull their legs under their bodies and drive from their toes and some remain flat-footed and do all of their pushing from their upper bodies. All of the above include the many shades of grey between each extreme described as well.
The reason for our choice regarding set up is largely determined by anatomy. It all depends on the length of your arms, your shoulder width, which muscles in your body are naturally more powerful than others and are therefore favored during the lift and so on. Powerlifters arch their backs while bodybuilders don’t. Powerlifters keep their elbows tucked in to activate more lats and triceps to generate more power and bodybuilders flare their elbows out to the sides. One thing to consider is the health of your joints. Flaring your elbows will indeed activate more pectoral musculature, and that’s the ultimate goal of anyone interested in maximal muscle development, but it also puts the shoulder joint in a much more unstable condition and allows for a greater chance of injury.
Regardless, if it’s pec activation that you seek, flaring your elbows wide and lowering the bar to mid chest or above will allow for the largest amount of pectoral activation. Conversely using a 45-degree shoulder angle allows for much greater shoulder stability at the cost of less chest muscle activation.
I’m personally in the maximal muscle activation group, and the way around this as far as safety is concerned is to use loads that you can safely perform at least four or five reps with. Never put yourself in a situation where you are struggling so severely that your form completely breaks down and you are putting yourself at risk for injury. If this means that you are lifting less in order to build more muscle, as contrary as that may sound, it is in fact the correct way to go about it.
There are other methods to increase your pectoral activity. One such method involves decreasing your triceps contribution by pulling the bar down to your chest by trying to pull the bar apart, or spreading the bar, as it is known. By doing so your pecs will contribute more to the deceleration of the bar than using your triceps as the major muscle on the negative portion of the rep.
By involving your legs less you also turn the bench press into a pure upper body movement. Yes you may lift less weight, but you will be targeting the muscles you wish to grow by doing so. Place your feet flat on the ground underneath your knees and don’t drive through them for the concentric portion of the lift. Allow your upper body to generate all of the force that is needed to move the bar.
Another strategy worth consideration is varying your grip often during the bench press. Most of us have a grip that we find comfortable and just go with that regularly but perhaps to our detriment. A closer grip uses more arms and shoulder while a wider grip requires a greater degree of force production from the pectorals. When your elbows are kept in then your triceps become more activated. By altering your grip you will quickly discover where it is you are weakest. At that point it becomes easier to address the problem and the result will be a heavier bench and greater gains. Until a problem is brought to light, it’s very difficult to work on.
All of the above suggestions may radically alter your strength and gains or have very little results at all. This all depends on muscle imbalances and stability issues that you may or may not have. In the end it is always a good idea to experiment regarding your lifting technique. The majority of us are convinced that the way that we are doing it is the right way, but I’m a firm believer in that doing things the way you’ve always done them will reap the same results you already have. If it’s progress you seek, then it’s progress in your technique that will allow you to actualize those rewards. Until next time when I continue to look further at The Bench Press – The Greatest Lift Ever,
This article was written and researched by Matt Taylor
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