Benching has always been one of my least favorite exercises, which is why I had such a hard time admitting that it was actually necessary for getting strong. For the longest time I had convinced myself that it was a stupid lift, mainly by relying on some vague point about it not being ‘functional’ enough.
Truth is, I was bad at benching and didn’t especially like the way it made my shoulders and elbows feel. Creating the narrative that benching was actually ‘bad’ was an easy way to absolve myself of any responsibility to figure out the lift WHILE feeding my elitist sensibilities (I really enjoyed looking down my nose at the common bench-pressing plebs as I bogarted the squat rack for 90 minutes of overhead pressing).
“You’re never going to be lying on your back in real life!!”
True. But you aren’t going to be hoisting a perfectly balanced, factory milled, thin piece of metal either. The point of lifting weights isn’t to practice perfect specificity; it’s to add some mass and improve your ability to produce force and you’re going to be best off in the gym finding things that do that well, regardless of how close it is to your preferred sport or hobby. Making your new found strength carry over to some other activity is simply a matter of practicing that activity.
It took a couple of hard contest losses to set me straight. Despite my skill with the jerk, wich allowed me to win most axle pressing events, I lacked the base of general pressing strength to maneuver anything that didn’t look like a barbell. I routinely bombed log press and circus dumbbell events and my pecs were so under-developed that I couldn’t put enough squeeze on medium sized stones and sandbags to keep up with the novices.
After one particular disappointing loss, I looked in the mirror and forced my gaze to my flat chest and shoe-string triceps. I was leaving points on the table because my upper body was poorly developed. My training approach had to change.
The solution was to go back to my early training habits, which I had spent my late teens and early 20s ignoring. I had to return to basic bodybuilding protocols, using a lot of exercises for a wide variety of sets and reps. I had to stick around and do my isolation work. I had to commit to bringing up weak areas. And when I wrote down 5 working sets, I better damn well finish all 5 sets.
Full bench days made an appearance again and they looked just like the first workouts I had copied from late 90s bodybuilding magazines:
Bench press, dumbbell press, machine press, chest fly, skull crushers, french presses, pressdowns.
3 to 5 sets of 8-12 reps. After years of low reps with basic barbell movements, the variety, fatigue and novelty of this simple plan took my program out of a rut and shot my strength to the moon.
Of course, this isn’t a ‘strength-specific’ plan, but it doesn’t have to be if it fixes a big hole in your game. This arrangement of work is really good at building muscle fast, so if muscle is the thing you’re lacking, this is the quickest route to hitting new PRs.
Benching has remained a staple in my training but I ran into a few problems. Overhead pressing is my primary competitive movement, so I’ve had to find a way to keep sufficient volumes of both lifts without my shoulders creaking like rusty barn doors. I also reached a point where generic bench pressing stopped translating to performance in other lifts, so I had to find variations that were more relevant to what I was trying to do.
Here’s a short list of things I did to keep my shoulders feeling good while benching.
1.) Warmup Part I: Rotator Cuff and Rear Delts
Bench pressing benefits the most from intelligent warm-ups compared to other lifts. The small joints of the shoulders, elbows and wrists can become prone to overuse issues and there’s nothing that can sideline a big workout like inflamed tendons and achy joints.
Doing liberal amounts of rotator cuff and rear delt work at the beginning of your bench press workout can drive a lot of blood into problem areas. You get a nice one-two punch here; vital training volume is given to areas that are typically neglected, which leads to lack of performance and injury, and you start your heavy press work with the joint cushioned by increased blood flow.
The increase in blood flow doesn’t just feel good, it’s all so restorative. Tendons take so long to recover because they are not irrigated well with blood vessels. As a general rule, more work that can drive blood into the affected area is going to be necessary for recovery.
2.) Warmup Part II: Prefatigue Pecs and/or Delts
I got this tip from an older retired bodybuilder. The pecs are another area that tend to develop into a weakness so any volume that you add to the week that targets them specifically has the potential to increase your bench pressing ability. Starting the workout with some light, high rep sets of flys can be plenty to stimulate growth if they are a neglected area for you. Doing it first means that you are less likely to skip it, which makes the mild fatigue during the rest of the workout well worth it.
In the past, I’ve used very light dumbbells for shallow depth with a strict tempo with good results. I’m also a big fan of cable variations and machines as they load the muscle more at the point of peak contraction which drives in more blood. That means more stress with less total weight.
How hard you go on these is going to be determined by what type of workout you are about to have. If you are banking on going heavy on a primary strength day, you’re going to want to keep your efforts conservative. 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps at a relatively low rpe will be enough to get blood in with out impacting your strength. Every workout you will find that you can handle more work without you’re benching ability being diminished.
However, if you have a volume bench day lined up and are not concerned about performance as much as just creating as much rote fatigue as possible, then you can go a little harder here.
3.) Allocate some bench-specific work to reduced ROM.
This was a game-changer for me as I stubbornly committed to full range bench press is for years before finally implementing reduce range of motion. The video above chronicles my love of pin presses, which had the unique ability to expose me to more loads, thus increasing neurological adaptations, while simultaneously feeling easier on my joints.
Another variation that I really like is the Spoto press where the bar comes within a few inches of the chest and changes direction completely under control. This eliminates the bouncing action that many people rely on with touch-and-go bench presses that can put a ton of stress on the tendon of the pec. It also requires much more effort and conditions speed and control at the start of your bench press.
Where you my might be inclined to think that the lifter is cheating, benching this way actually requires more strength as a moderately bounced touch-and-go rep with the same weight. This is to bench pressing what Romanian deadlifts are to deadlifts.
4.) Make light weight work for you
This is important both with your main lifts variations and with the smaller accessory exercises. If your only knowledge of programming is to go hard and heavy as often as possible, you’re going to be at a loss for what to do when your joints start to push back. The fact is, you can get substantial increases in strength and muscularity without training at or above 85%. You just have to know how to make lighter loads work for you.
You can experiment with high reps, short rest periods, disadvantaged grips and density strategies that create a ton of fatigue with lighter weights. You can do this in a hypertrophy block that is almost entirely dedicated to training in this range or you can have an alternating scheme were you limit your heavy work to one exercise on one day and have the follow-up work comprised of lighter work.
Also keep in mind with smaller follow-up exercises that really heavy overloaded tricep and shoulder movements might be difficult in the midst of frequent benching. But you can always find a range of motion and the tempo that creates a necessary fatigue for growth without killing the joints. While JM Presses or Skull Crushers might be out of the question, you can elicit meaningful tricep growth by doing enough quality sets of lighter extension exercises.
5.) Bands, cables and machines ftw
Don’t hesitate to include modes of training that are easier on the joints. Free weights are great for growth but eventually, if you continue hammering the same structures the same way, you will be left with pain and inflammation and a reduced ability to push the workouts. Switching to an exercise that changes the strength curve can be a welcome break to problem areas. You can benefit from the growth that comes from a novel method of training while also getting the recovery on those tender areas that were previously overworked with the free-weight variations. Bands, cables and machines are great for this by driving blood to affected areas and creating a ton of targeted stress.
6.) Modify technique aggressively
Don’t make the mistake of getting stubborn with your technique because you think it’s the way the movement should go. You should be open to implementing different variations if the way you’ve been doing things is causing problems. You might find that continuously tucking your elbows in the true-blue powerlifter style doesn’t feel so great on your front delts and you might find that softening your elbow tuck actually gives you a stronger, more compact pressing position that doesn’t feel quite as bad on the joints.
Conversely, you might find the opposite to be true and a tightly-controlled tuck is the path to saving your shoulders. It’s up to you to find out your particular circumstances and adjust accordingly. The same is also true for all variations and accessories. Don’t think that just because you seen I’m moving executed one-way by your favorite guru that that’s the only way it can be done. The best technique is going to be the one that you can do without falling apart. It’s out there it just requires some experimentation.
7.) Know what frequency you can handle and stick to it
Frequency is one of the biggest variables that can affect joint recovery. Some people can handle relatively high frequency without ill effects. In that scenario higher frequency training tends to be a faster route to your goals. Others are going to be very prone to overuse issues and have to be careful with how much hard effort they put out on a daily basis.
Yes, the body adapts and eventually tendons and bones become thicker and can handle more work more often. But the body does not adapt infinitely and everybody has a different rate of adaptation. If that logic was universal, than anybody who ever took on a job in tiling or construction would simply get a bulletproof lower back and knees and would not suffer any problems. But we know that people get work-related injuries all the time when the repetitive stress outpaces the body’s ability to adapt.
If you feel that that second or third day of pressing is causing more problems than good, don’t hesitate to nix it. You can absolutely grow off a once per week bench pressing program. If you feel like you’re really leaving too much on the table by doing that, you can limit your compound movements to one day and have the second day be filled with lighter variations that are more blood flow focused and place less stress on the joints. There are a lot of work arounds if you are sensitive to frequency, you just have to pay attention.