I have a story to tell you.
I do not have the case of RBF (Resting Bitch Face). Unfortunately, for me, it is the exact opposite. I have NFF (Never-ending Friendly Face). This would explain why I like training in empty gyms. Gyms where people do not approach me, where people do ask me questions, and especially gyms where moronic dudes, who have no understanding of the human body, exercise science, or proper technique, don’t give their unsolicited opinions and advice.
My story begins at a local YMCA. A place notorious for all of the above situations. One day, while minding my own business trying to get my lift in before heading back to work, I caught a glimpse of said dude above at the corner of my eye. Blatantly staring at me in a doorway as I deadlifted. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he approached me, he in his 10” shorter, stocky build, to teach me how to sumo deadlift -as if I had the same leverages as he did. I assured him that what worked for him would not work for me as we are not built the same, not to mention he wasn’t exactly performing at his best mechanical advantages to begin with.
Anyways, he did not stop watching but I continued about my lift trying to avoid eye contact. Looking back I should’ve either went off on him or reported his creepy ass to the front desk.
Moving on. Next up I had bench. (This is when my story flows into today’s topic in case you’re all kinds of confused.) Completely unprovoked, this creep comes up behind the bench I am currently set up at and about to begin and PULLS MY ELBOWS BACK to make them a straight line. I stopped, swung around, and told him “No! That is how you get a shoulder impingement. Elbows stay TUCKED during bench pressing. It places your shoulders in a safer, much more optimal position, to bench smooth, strong, and SAFE.” Ya’ll can imagine the steam coming from my ears at this point. He argues with me that I am incorrect and I will “have a stronger bench with my elbows up.” Obviously I had to give this lunatic a full blown biomechanics lecture. He even at one point told me he was coming back from a shoulder injury and without hesitation I told him I’d bet money it was caused by his elbow position during his benching. Like hello…
This post could go one of two ways: either a discussion in not giving your unsolicited advice in the gym (especially when your only source of information is that of a juiced up meat head carrying around a water jug the size of a toilet bowl), or the one we will take, because I like to think for most the first is common sense, a lesson in elbow and shoulder position and bar path during the bench press.
Lets start at the top. Picture yourself preparing to unracked the bar for your bench press. The first thing we need to do is get into the optimal position for a strong, smooth and safe bench that allows just the right amount of range of motion (ROM) in your shoulders at the lowest portion of the bench press. To do this, before the bar is even unracked, retract and depress your scapula (pull back and down). This lifts your chest and externally rotates your shoulders. At this point, you can safely lift and pull the bar over your chest from the rack, keeping in mind that this activation never lets up.
How does this help anything? Let’s visualize. If you were to watch someone bench from the side, this position would show that your elbows will no longer need to drop so low during the decent as to cause your shoulders to internally rotate to get the bar to your chest. The internal rotation that happens without the scapula engaged is where pain and discomfort begin and AC joint injuries can happen. If this position is new to you, simply think and mimic ‘good posture while lying down’ when setting up to bench press. Roll your shoulders back like your grandma told you to do growing up when she caught you slouching.
Now that your shoulders are in an optimal position we can move into the technique for the decent and accent phase of the bench press. It is crucial to not lose the tension you have created through your posterior deltoids and lats once the bench press actually begins. Take a deep breath to solidify your trunk position, create more tension throughout your body, and lift your chest higher – assisting in decreasing the distance of the bar path – and bring the bar to the nipple line or just beneath it. I tell my female clients to bring the bar to their bra strap. The bar path is important as it maintains the position needed for a safe press. If you bring the bar straight up and down the result will be internal rotation of the shoulders and strain of the AC joint. Instead, a slight angled bar path will keep your elbows tucked, help maintain external rotation in the shoulders and activated lats, promoting what we keep coming back to – a smoother, stronger, safer bench press.
Elbows from the get-go should maintain a slightly tucked position. Greg Nuckols, a prominent figure in the powerlifting world, prefers to use the cue “flare and push” rather than “elbows tucked.” Regardless of what cue elicits the connection for you, the main objective is to keep your elbows at a 60-75 degree angle and remain tight and engaged during the accent as to not allow them to lift to 90 degrees. (2) As we have touched on, a straight line from elbow to elbow (90 degrees) can cause shoulder impingement. The latissimus dorsi (lats, for short) is also an important muscle to consider in keeping this ideal position. Keeping your lats activated throughout the movement will assist in preventing your elbows from flaring out past the degree they are best kept. Consider what you are doing during the lat pull down or seated row exercise. When you work your lats you are performing some kind of pulling motion – as ‘pulling’ or ‘adduction’ is (among) the muscles anatomical function. Even during deadlifts the cue to activate your lats is to assist in pulling the bar up and maintain the bar at the center of gravity. Considering this in relation to bench press technique, if you are using your lats in congruence with scapular retraction under the load of the bar, activation will help maintain the optimal elbow angle throughout the lift.
Activation exercises, mobility, and stretching are highly important before performing powerlifts. If there is something you lack whether it be keeping a muscle engaged or feeling tight in a muscle you need for performance, definitely make the drill you follow before your training a priority.
Below is my personal activation and mobility warm up moves I use before my bench press sessions to activate my upper back muscles, lats and prep my body to get into my bench set up with ease by increasing mobility in my Thoracic spine and lengthen my pectorals.
Mini Band Pull A Parts 1-2setsx15-20reps
Mini Band Lat Press Down 1-2setsx15-20reps
Band Chest Stretch 1-2×5-10
Foam Roll T-Spine Rotation 2-3×10-20seconds
An exercise is not always (rather, ever) as simple as it looks on the surface. Lifts have primary muscle groups involved but it is truly the little details that can make or break you. If you are neglecting the secondary muscles involved in your bench and throwing technique out the window when the load becomes more challenging, then you are without question leaving pounds off the bar and potentially increasing your risk of injury. I would like to close out this post by encouraging you to take a closer look at your bench from start to finish. Take a step back in the weight on the bar and fine tune the details that will make you a better lifter. It will be well worth it in the long run when you have not only increased your maximal strength but have also developed strength and stabilization of all the other muscles involved, ultimately keeping you injury free and increasing the longevity of your training.