It’s probably the last thing you want to hear – especially if you’re reading this on a Monday.
But the truth is, the barbell bench press will always be, in my books, one of the most overrated exercises in the gym. I’ve written dozens of articles for the purpose of making it stronger, using advanced lifting methods, and saving your joints – if that’s what you’re into.
But none of that negates the fact that there are better options for chest hypertrophy, shoulder safety, and pressing strength.
Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or an athlete required to bench for a significant portion of their training, it’s a safe bet to leave it as a sparse addition to your program.
Reason 1: It Locks Your Hands in One Place
Using a barbell to do your bench presses can make the elbows and shoulders take on unwanted stress, simply because there’s no freedom for the hands to rotate at the wrist as the upper arm moves down during the eccentric rep.
This sounds like it’s not a big deal, but people with pre-existing shoulder conditions or elbow tightness can benefit quite a bit from even a small amount of rotation during pressing work. When the wrists and elbows are allowed to rotate freely, they don’t experience as much shear force, and the head of the humerus can also rotate in the glenoid fossa to allow for more comfort and less pain.
A superior alternative to barbell bench presses would be the dumbbell variation – even if it means you can’t lift as much weight in total. As you lower them, feel free to slightly tuck the elbows and correspondingly rotate the wrists, then return to the original starting position at the top.
Reason 2: It Pins the Scapulae
Having proper scapulohumeral rhythm is extremely important for a healthy shoulder. If that sounds like gibberish, let me explain…
Your shoulder blade (scapula) and your upper arm (humerus) actually have a relationship between each other. As your arm moves, there should be corresponding degree of movement that the shoulder blade moves too. This happens as you move your arm up, down, forward, or backward.
Even though your scapulae are known to be in need of stability 9 times out of 10, it’s often overlooked that this joint must also be mobile in order to stay healthy in the long run.
Now it’s time to look at the bench press once more. Proper form and technique asks for the shoulder blades to be pulled back, and held this way through the entire duration of the set. Since you’re bearing plenty of external load, it’s important for your safety that such a technique is assumed.
The problem is, practicing this movement often can lead to dysfunction of the scapulohumeral rhythm because of the fact that the scapulae aren’t being allowed to freely move. Check out this video for a visual explanation.
Reason 3: You Just Do it Too Much
Everything we do in life is in front of our bodies. The typical male ego, for some reason, has decided to make the bench press as glamorized as the 100m dash in the Olympics.
The fact that there are very few people in existence who have good posture due to strong, responsive posterior chain musculature should be more than enough to convince a lifter that he needs to work more on his horizontal pulling strength than his pushing strength.
Poor posture is often a product of tightness in muscles like the chest, front deltoids, traps, and even hips. Carrying stress and tension in the shoulders, coupled with sitting down at an office job, in front of the TV, or while reading articles like this one does nothing but contribute to the problem.
With all of this in mind, training the pressing muscles is good for some, but based on the battle most of us are fighting. In other words, it’s probably not the best idea to make it the go-to for your training movements, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Plus, if you concern yourself with further shortening and tightening an already tonic set of muscle groups (like the chest and shoulders), you’re likely going to exacerbate existing muscle imbalances, make your posture worse, and potentiate chronic pain.
Instead, try applying these tips:
- Apply a 2 to 1 ratio of pulls to pushes in your program. That means for every pressing exercise, make sure you’re including 2 pull exercises. You can arrange this however you’d like – I’m talking cumulative. That means you can still have a “chest day” in your rotation. Just make sure you’ve got more volume in your back day, or that you do two pull-based workouts for the week.
- Be sure to static stretch the chest between sets of back exercises. Doing so will help dull the neurological involvement of the chest and keep it less involved while you perform your rows or chins, thus making the lift more effective and generating greater muscular efficiency.
- Start (or continue as the case may be) foam rolling to improve your tissue quality. Using a foam roller on the chest can help improve tissue quality and general suppleness of the chest tissue, making it “take” to flexibility work a lot more readily. It’s a great preparatory step for flexibility work. Likewise, using a lacrosse ball to roll on the muscles surrounding the scapulae can counter poor quality that can exist in a muscle held long and tight (taut). In both cases, it can positively affect circulation and available range of motion.
Just Let It Go Bro…
The next time Monday rolls around, don’t go running for a bench like they’re going out of style. Instead, pick the bar up off the ground a few times, and give your posterior chain a run for its money.
As a side note: a more developed back will not only improve your pressing strength and stability, but it’ll also fix your posture and make your chest appear much more prominent than it ever was. Less bench press for a stronger max and a better looking chest? I’d call that a win-win.