I’ve written a lot of articles about the deadlift and the squat – and just as many articles regarding the anatomical outliers of these movements, and different cues to make those movements work for said outliers.
The bench press seems to be a neglected subject when it comes to anatomical outliers (that is, people with less than optimal limb length, or skeletal structure).
And let’s be honest – a barrel chested, short-armed lifter will probably have an easier time getting stronger and getting more muscular using that movement than someone who’s not.
I’m not a powerlifter by any means – but with a 6’4” frame and a wingspan that’s 5 inches longer, it’s worth being proud of a 360 pound max bench press.
It’s not every day you’ll find someone of the same dimensions moving above 3 plates with full range of motion and good form.
With that said, it’s worthwhile to examine some truths that I’ve applied, as an outlier myself, to develop this lift.
Got Long Arms? Use a Narrower Grip
When you watch the video below, you’ll see that I actually prefer to use a grip inside the standard “rings” most Olympic bars have. If you’re in a similar long-armed boat as me, keep in mind that the further your elbow moves away from your body, the more vulnerable your shoulder becomes where stress forces are considered.
To press pain-free, get comfortable pressing with a grip that is a couple inches inside the norm. It’s going to allow you to keep the elbows tucked a bit more and make the lift feel much smoother too.
Of course, changing your grip to one that’s narrow means the bar path must correspond to this modification. A closer elbow position will mean a lower point of contact on the torso at the bottom of each rep, if you’re hoping to apply the correct amounts of force into the bar (and maintain a 90 degree elbow angle and vertical line of pressing force). Don’t forget about the physics of the movement.
Injured Shoulders? Sub Out the Barbell Flat Bench for Other Lifts Instead
Here’s a quick science lesson: The rotator cuff is comprised of 4 muscles that all attach on the head of the humerus, or upper arm. These muscles originate on the scapulae, or shoulder blades.
For healthy functioning rotator cuffs and pain-free shoulders, there needs to be a rhythm that exists between the upper arm and the shoulder blade. For every few degrees the arm moves, the shoulder blade should move congruently on a smaller scale.
Proper bench press form disallows this rhythm to happen since the shoulder blades are retracted and pinned to the bench for the duration of the set. This inescapable truth can both contribute to and even be the cause of shoulder dysfunction.
If you’re a lifter who’s suffered from shoulder issues in the past, the last thing you need is an internally rotated hand position attached to a fixed bar, and the reliance on a dysfunctional rotator cuff for stability as the reps progress. Here are some options:
Remove the Stability Factor: Smith Machine Bench Press
For years, I excoriated the Smith machine as a useless piece of equipment that only took up space in gyms. The truth is, it was a narrow-minded way to think.
Workouts need to be judged on a case by case basis, and specific to the person and his goals, needs and contraindications.
For someone with rotator cuff stability issues looking to develop their chest using the bench press, using the fixed track the Smith machine provides (and, in my preference, a low incline) can be a perfect solve to take the stability out of the equation, and focus on the pump and hypertrophy gains.
Remove the Internal Rotation Factor: Dumbbell Bench Press
A shoulder-saver for many comes in the form of simply being able to manipulate the wrist and elbow position while pressing. The dumbbell bench press does just this.
One would think that the lack of a barbell will lead to more unstable pressing and a harder time on the shoulder joint, but here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter who you are, there’s a 95% chance you’ll never dumbbell press as heavy as you barbell press.
With that out of the way, we know that the weight you’ll be lifting in each hand will be lighter and much more honest to your abilities. Turning the wrists to a more neutral position at the bottom of each rep can make the head of the humerus centralize itself much more effectively and avoid impingement.
For long-limbed lifters, that can be a saving grace for shoulder health and a way to have pressing longevity.
Remove the Bottom End Range: Floor Press
If you’re looking to err on the side of caution, opting for a dumbbell or barbell floor press is a surefire way to dodge shoulder stress and still train the press pattern while encouraging other key training benefits too.
Lying flat on the back eliminates the use of leg drive and can have an impact on wrist stability and starting power (due to the dead stop the weights are encouraged to come to at the bottom of each rep).
Many consider the floor press a triceps developer, but a long-limbed lifter will still see plenty of range get covered, and stimulate the chest just fine, while keeping any shoulder issues at bay.
Squeeze IN, Not Out! (Yeah, I Said it!)
If your goal is to stimulate the chest while not aggravating the shoulder joint, there’s a cue that I think is often misapplied or directed to the wrong crowd of people who bench. That’s the cue of pulling the bar apart and squeezing outwards while pressing.
In the powerlifting community, there’s merit in this cue; a wide barbell grip, shorter range of motion due to arm length and body setup, and loading all come into play as a factor.
As an intermediate or advanced trainee looking to add muscle, however, we have to remember that powerlifters don’t have the chest’s direct development or training in first mind when they think about mastering the bench press.
Their goal is to move as much weight as possible using a setup and lift form that allows as many muscles as possible to legally contribute. With the form cues I’ve mentioned above, triggering chest stimulation will be more effective if you apply tension inwards on the bar, and not outwards.
If we think about movements like a dumbbell squeeze press, a single plate press, or even certain advanced push up variations, the combination of pressing and squeezing inwards is already being practiced, but for some reason it’s not a cue that makes its way to barbell bench pressing, and it should.
It can help reduce traction in the shoulder capsule and engage a much higher percentage of the upper and lower chest muscles.
*As a disclaimer, I’m assuming everyone reading this knows how to maintain a good, set back position while benching, so the shoulders don’t lose their retraction when inward force is applied on the bar. If this is still tricky for you, this directive is one you should pay no attention to.
If you’re not familiar with what a good back position should be when bench pressing, take a look at this video for a form check.
One More Thing
In the video you just watched, I took heat from various internet trolls for using my false (thumbless) grip. For the record, it’s not a grip I recommend for beginners, but rather for intermediate and advanced lifters who have a sound background in training.
The reason I use and recommend this grip for select individuals comes down to the pressing physics and the muscles involved. For a detailed explanation, watch this:
It’s not easy being a lifter when lifting is, really and truly, a short man’s game. Many of the best competitive barbell lifters in the world are well under 6 feet tall – ranging from powerlifters, to crossfitters, to Olympic lifters.
Since we’re on a different tip where our training is concerned, we need to make mods that work for us so that we can pass the most important training test there is: The test of time.