3 Keys to a Big, Injury-Free Bench Press

Lift big-ass weights without pain using these three very advanced techniques.

An Epidemic of Pain and Dysfunction

These days you’ll be hard pressed to walk into any type of specialty gym across the country and see people moving iron on the bench press without grimacing from shoulder and/or elbow pain.

There has to be more to this dysfunctional story. What’s more, there has to be (and there is) a fix.

You’re Hurting Yourself

The lack of quality movement patterns and technical mechanics is to blame for a majority of injuries. If this sounds all too familiar, listen up. The bench press isn’t the problem, it’s the way you’re doing it, or rather, not doing it!

What we’ve forgotten is that even the most seemingly pristine mechanical movements usually lack synergistic “three-dimensional” muscle actions. Without the ability to tap into these synergies, your performances and orthopedic health will be capped by a very low glass ceiling.

The Problem with the Planes We Train

Your muscles are oblique in nature and don’t function only in the three cardinal planes of motion that are heavily emphasized in training.

There’s a difference between using the properties of 3D muscle tissue mechanics in an external way and using them internally as the best strength athletes in the world have instinctively mastered through years of self-experimentation.

You must also acknowledge that when you train you’re not just training your muscular system. Muscles represent only a fraction of the entire training spectrum.

Other soft tissues, along with the neuromuscular system, are also involved in high-level training. This becomes clearly evident as the training intensities and loads increase and setting new PRs gets harder and harder to achieve.

And let’s not forget about the role played by the deep fascia that we’re just starting to learn about. It can also enhance strength and power performances.

Optimizing Movement

The question remains, how do some lifters stay healthy moving absurd amounts of iron, while others continue to get injured under loads that wouldn’t impress the personal training manager at Planet Fitness?

The use of synergistic movement patterns combined with optimizing authentic internal movement capacities is the answer.

The human body was designed to dynamically stabilize mobile joints while under extreme loading in order to potentiate the maximal force and tension necessary to complete a given task.

Unfortunately, through the popularization of machine work and isolation exercises, the ability to co-activate muscles surrounding a joint has been lost.

Set Up For Success

In order to achieve the type of internally driven force potentials our bodies are truly capable of, we must first lay a foundation for tissue synergies and enhance the way we prep our bodies for success.

As any great power athlete will tell you, when the loads imposed on the body become near maximal, the set-up becomes the most pivotal aspect of the lift. Without a proper set-up, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable for injury while also leaving potential iron off the bar.

An optimal set-up for shoulder-emphasized movements such as heavy presses requires a proper set-up that includes three things:

  1. Neuromuscular Activation
  2. Joint Centration
  3. Spiral Tension Loading

1. Neuromuscular Activation

Proper activation techniques should place an emphasis on all the active musculature in a given movement.

Though both sides of a joint must be prepped for successful strength and power performances, they’re not programmed the same. This lack of differentiation will leave you under or over prepared for your primary strength or power movements.

The shortening agonist muscle group must be able to recruit a maximal amount of motor units under extreme loading. Without pre-fatiguing the tissues involved in the primary movement, all available fibers must be turned on. This can be achieved through dynamic speed work focused on acceleration, such as med-ball chest press throws.

These throws should be programmed with lighter loading, lower rep ranges, and a significant amount of rest between sets. Maximizing ball speed is the goal, and will translate extremely well into your primary pressing movement of the day.

If you train with a partner, the preferred activation pattern is lying supine on the bench. If you’re a lone wolf, a good activation can still be generated while in the standing position.

Using isolated movements that increase tension will activate the stabilizers to become highly responsive. Programming sub-maximal loads for mid rep ranges between 8-12 can generate the activity that will yield the best performances in the primary strength movement. The tempo of these movements are the focus, so don’t rush your reps.

Less exciting traditional posterior rotator cuff strength movements, such as the Y-T-I complex and rear deltoid flyes, can also be an effective and efficient way to activate the antagonist group for a heavy pressing motion.

2. Joint Centration

The shoulder girdle is one of the most anatomically intimidating regions of the human body. It’s comprised of four synergistic joints, all required to function with pristine rhythm, mobility, and stability.

Each of these four joints must play an active roll in either dynamic mobility or stability. This is necessary in order for the other three adjacent joints to optimally function.

If this seems like a lot to account for every time you hit the bench, you’re right. It’s not likely, nor necessary, to treat each of the four shoulder joints individually. The key is to position your body so that the primary actions of each of these joints can kick in automatically at the most advantageous times, creating a synergistic effect.

Achieving proper shoulder packing will maximize length-tension relationships of the surrounding soft tissues. While the open packed position of the shoulder is used primarily in traditional rehab for taking pressure and tension off muscles, tendons, and joint capsules that have been insulted, the closed, packed position provides the polar opposite effect.

The closed, packed shoulder position occurs naturally when the shoulder is depressed and externally rotated. In this position, muscles, ligaments, fascia and joint capsules increase their tension, thus stabilizing the shoulder joint strongly into the socket. This magic position is a true representation of joint centration.

When loads become maximal, the battle is won or lost before the first rep ever occurs. What the strongest people in the world have mastered over time is how to externally rotate their shoulders while setting up for a rep. The cue, “screw the shoulders down” helps achieve this position.

3. Spiral Tension Loading

Achieving PRs and pushing the limits of your body requires that every single available motor unit throughout the kinetic chain be firing in a synergistic rhythmical sequence.

You may think that activating your finger flexors during a press wouldn’t make that much of a difference during a near-maximal bench, but if you’re fighting for every pound, every single active fiber counts.

More so, utilizing the smaller motor units of the fingers, hands, and wrists to position and activate larger contractile units up the chain can enhance strength performances.

The rest of the joints in the chain must also achieve a semi-externally rotated position for maximal strength performances. This position is the reason for many old school bench-pressing tips such as “pull the bar apart,” and “squeeze the life out of the bar.”

However, just squeezing the bar harder won’t yield the position or results we’re striving to achieve.

In the last decade, more coaches, therapists, and trainees have been tapping into these readily available and easily achievable techniques to enhance movement patterns and strength outputs.

Try using these techniques to achieve proper stabilization and tensional loading and see where it takes you.

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