Powerlifting comprises of three main lifts: squat, deadlift and bench press, which we will examine today. The bench press is undoubtedly the universal epitome of the modern go-to exercise and the question “how much do you bench?” is regularly thrown around gym changing rooms across the country.
The bench press is, fortunately, far more than a bragging right. A properly executed press reinforces tension, proper shoulder mechanics, force generation and, in fact, trains the body as a whole not just the disco muscles.
Flat bench vs arched bench
Ever seen somebody in the gym benching like they are possessed? There is a huge difference between a common bodybuilding flat bench press and our bench press as competitive powerlifters.
As we can see from the images above, there is a vast contrast between techniques and thus resultant biomechanics. Gabrielle Ervine is one of, if not the, best bench presser in Ireland and this is in part due to her efficient technique and dedication to her sport. Gabrielle’s bench press is tailored to reduce the range of movement of the bar, allowing her to move heavier weights over less distance = less energy expenditure.
This shortened bar path is considered “cheating” to some, much the same way a sumo deadlift is, however if you’re looking to win and the technique is legal, then this is classed as a competitive edge in elite sport.
Top down analysis of powerlifting style bench:
We will begin at the grip, travel down the elbow in the shoulder, followed by addressing the “arch” and finally leg/foot position and use.
Grip position and importance
Grip distance is highly individualistic and depends largely on your personal anthropometry. As a very basic guide for beginners, when the bar is resting on your chest, your elbows should be at around 90 degrees so that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor (assuming a perfectly vertical angle).
Everything again comes back to physics. The bar is a constant downwards force that you want to counteract, so you want your line of drive to be directly into the bar, keeping the forearms facing upwards to give the most efficient transfer of energy. The bar should rest in the pocket between your thumb and your hand (see pic) not rested across your finger pads (see pic, this is what we call suicide grip) as, when it is rested in here, we have no stabilisation from the thumb. More importantly, the weight is resting off the line of the forearm creating a new, and unnecessary, fulcrum.
Unlike the bodybuilding press, the elbows on a powerlifting bench are kept relatively tight to the body (not too tight though), as this is both protective and a stronger position to push from. The more the elbows “flare” in the bench press, the greater the resultant force across the shoulder joint. More on this when we address the shoulder.
So, you get bad elbow pain when you bench press? It’s on the inside of the elbow? Please refer back to the paragraph on grip! By holding the bar across the finger pad, that new fulcrum you have created must be counteracted by something – your flexor muscles that attach on your elbow! Change your technique and ice your elbow, things should clear up soon enough. If you are squatting with extended wrists too then you need to change this before things will settle down.
The most important part of the press lies in the shoulder joint (glenohumeral/scapulothoracic). First we will define what these joints are and where they sit on the body.
The scapulothoracic joint is not a “true” joint, it is the connection between your shoulder blade and your ribcage. Your scapulothoracic joint or STJ is of upmost importance and neglected by the general public. When your STJ tightens up, it makes your shoulder joint (glenohumeral- GH) work too hard, leading to injuries. The joint mediates movement in the shoulder and creates a rhythm with the GH joint which allows you to move your shoulder joint in all manner of motions.
In the powerlifting bench press, we aim to retract the scapula pulling it towards the spine (like a rhomboid squeeze) while at the same time pulling it downwards. Imagine tucking the scapula into the pocket of the opposite leg – this should give you a good idea of how it feels to engage the correct muscles.
This is the “true” joint of the shoulder and the one we most commonly refer to as the shoulder. It is comprised of the ball and socket joint between the humerus and the scapula. This ball and socket joint is fantastic for movement as the shoulder joint is very mobile, however this comes at a cost – that being too much movement and a lack of stability.
The GH joint needs to be locked in place, tightly, by the simultaneous contraction of all the rotator cuff muscles and latissimus dorsi. How can we cue you to do this? There is a number of ways of thinking about this.
- First “squeeze the bar” by gripping the bar as tightly as you possibility can to increase the activity of the rotator cuff, priming the area for the stability needed in the bench press. There is an intricate relationship between grip activity and rotator cuff stimulation/co ordination, another reason for avoiding straps in my opinion.
- Imagine “bending the bar” with each end of the bar being pulled towards your body, this cue aims to stimulate latissimus activation, vitally important for a big bench.
The powerlifting arch
However controversial a topic, the arch is used ubiquitously by competitive powerlifters from across the world, therefore we must accept that this technique, when done correctly, is relatively “safe” and is the best possible way to lift more weight.
To set up the arch, the participant should place their upper shoulders (traps) on the bench, with the next point of contact the glutes.
The arch should be global not local. I have only anecdotal evidence, combined with theoretical assumptions, as the research is relatively thin in this area (as far as I am aware from my quick couple of searches).
A good example of a global powerlifting arch by Owen Hubbard (world number one under 23 83kg powerlifter) Instagram: Instagram.com/ohubb
If the spine is kept in a global arch, each vertebral segment is only put into a small amount of extension as the arch is distributed across the whole back. Thus each segment stays relatively within its “neutral zone”. When we see a local arch, focused in the lower back, for example, alarm bells start to ring. There will always be exceptions to the rule, and some fantastic benchers have local arches. If we imagine visualising a local arch, we would see a couple of segments pushed far out of their neutral zone, risking injury.
This image perfectly displays a global arch in a structure, which is founded on tensegrity, much the same as the human spine. As you can see there are alternating patterns of compression (solid cylindrical bars) followed by bands of tension (wires connecting the bars). In this structure, any changes are distributed throughout the whole system.
Another reason the bench press can be completed without your discs spontaneously exploding is, as the spine is locked tight, tension/tensegrity holds the segments firm. Stuart McGill used fluoroscopic examination (continuous x- rays) on weightlifters while they lifted, and was lucky enough to film an injury in real time as it happened. This was shown to be a split second of uncoordinated movement in one vertebral joint, so no movement – no acute injury.
The competitive arch is used in order to reduce the range of motion and also to tilt the ribcage. When the ribcage is tilted (bottom going more vertical) we see some integral muscle attachments in the shoulder line up, in order to give a stronger base of support (this is why decline bench is easier than flat bench, with an arch you are creating your own decline bench)
All too commonly, we see lifters laying on the bench press, legs flailing off the end, occasionally gesticulating in an attempt to coax the weight upwards. This is probably one of the easiest quick fixes to pick up an extra 10kg on your one rep max. First plant your feet. Most people feel comfortable with toes pointing outwards slightly. I won’t go too deep into lower limb mechanics, but make sure the connection between the ground and your feet is solid, just as solid as the connection between your hand and the bar.
As soon as you unrack the weight, you should be pushing slightly into the floor to reinforce that whole body tension approach. Once the weight is lowered onto your chest, you should drive forcefully into the floor with both feet, which will create a horizontal force across your whole body up the bench.
This force is harvested in order to give your bench a little more “pop” of your chest. The horizontal force is transformed into the vertical uplift from the chest. The leg drive should continue throughout the press until the weight is returned to the rack.
Keep trying to bench, but bogged down by pain at the front of your shoulder? Been told by a friend/physio/sports therapist you have rotator cuff issues, but never really had it sorted? Keep an eye out for a future article on this topic.
Luke Thomas Neal (Associate Doctor of Chiropractic)
North Down Chiropractic Clinic
43 Grays Hill, Bangor