T Nation

Time To Fix My Bench Press


#1

My bench press sucks. It has for a long time (I've lifted on and off for longer than many of you have been alive and it's been pretty bad for most of that time). The thing is that I don't have weak triceps, pecs, or even shoulders. With most of these I'll move weights that are MUCH higher than you would expect for as weak as my bench press is, like I went 205 x 22reps seated shoulder press last week, regularly use >225 for reps. I am actually more comfortable with reverse grip bench presses than I am with standard ones (I've done 275 for reps recently), and that gets into what I think is the problem:

I think that repeated shoulder injuries have managed to train me to not be able to bench heavy (though I'm willing to listen to other theories/ideas, I obviously haven't been successful in fixing this myself). Sort of like I believe that power lifting training is not all about getting stronger, some of it is about training the neuromuscular patterns so that you can perform the motion with more weight (which is the big reason I'm asking here).

How do I fix this?

I started pushing heavy shoulder work to get past the shoulder injuries that I'm prone to (I'm 6'4" and have very long arms for my height which makes me prone to shoulder injuries) and found that with some hard work it was fairly easy to build some real strength/power. The reverse grip benches were an effort to do some bench pressing and take some strain off of my shoulders and to teach me to keep my elbows tucked, and although they were tough on my forearms/wrists I found that I could work up to reasonably heavy weights (I would be quite happy if I could consistently get reps with 275-315 with flat bench which I could reverse grip).

To give you guys some details where I'm coming from:
- 43y/o
- 6'4" ~235 (I've lost over 100lbs in the last 4-5 years), I have an armspan just under 7' and a mid 50some inch chest (the most recent suit I had made started as a size 56), and currently wearing size 32-32 waist jeans.
- I worked out consistently 16-mid 20's, was intermittent (usually that meant that I showed up but wasn't serious, life got in the way a lot) through my early/mid 30s' and have been consistent (very serious, have probably missed 2-3 gym days in the last 3 years, and pushing HARD) again the last few years
- I'm fairly strong and look it. I get asked the typical "what do you bench?" all the time and most people figure it's somewhere >400# for a few reps, at work they started calling me "Johnny Bravo" and a couple of friends joke that I am "Brock Sampson" (for those of you that don't know, large cartoon characters that I guess do look a little like me)
- My bench has only been not embarrassing for maybe a couple of years in my early 20's (could do a few reps with 275, 315...), but somehow until recently didn't figure out that my form was all wrong (flared arms which was probably making the tenancy to shoulder injuries MUCH worse). I really can't go heavier than 185 for reps without a spot now. Most of my life I've had a stronger incline press, but right now even that isn't decent. I can shoulder press more (I've tried as high as 275, like I said I can do 205 for 22, I've gotten 52 reps with 135 after doing 225), I can reverse grip bench more (not the same kinds of reps as with shoulders but I'm more comfortable with heavier weights), I can get 200-300 decent pushups in 5-8 sets, another weird one is that I'm more comfortable dumbell bench and incline pressing with one arm at a time than 2, and with either I'm more much comfortable with 100lb dumbells than I am with flat benching 225. I'm reasonably strong with most triceps exercises (I can still do a dozen reps towards the end of my chest/triceps day doing overhead extensions with 130#), the only triceps exercises I can think of that I'm not strong at is a closegrip bench and dips.


#2

IF you can do OHP 205 for a set of 22, but can’t bench 315 for reps, then you must either have the worst bench form on the planet, or a non-existent chest, or both. You should really post a video of your bench so some of us could maybe point out some issues.


#3

[quote]Ecchastang wrote:
You should really post a video of your bench so some of us could maybe point out some issues. [/quote]

Agreed, you mention a lot of stuff so seeing it would make things much easier. From the info above it sounds like your lack of technique is what’s holding you back.


#4

What they said. If I was hitting sets of 205 for 22 reps strict ( I am assuming you mean strict ) then I would image you would be VERY lose to a 400 bench by now. My best is like 225 for 6 or 7 standing and some back bend and I still put up 315 for 5-6 reps and 365 for a paused single.


#5

[quote]Ecchastang wrote:
IF you can do OHP 205 for a set of 22, but can’t bench 315 for reps, then you must either have the worst bench form on the planet, or a non-existent chest, or both. You should really post a video of your bench so some of us could maybe point out some issues. [/quote]

No, I can’t do 315 for reps. I’m not sure that I can do a single with 315 (though I probably could reverse grip, I’ve done 5 or 6 with 275).

If I had video I would have posted it, I may be able to get something later in the week (what angle would be the most helpful?) but I’m positive that it’s not my form, I’ve been around this for long enough I know what correct form is, I even know how a powerlifter would get properly setup for a bench press. Although I’m sure my form isn’t perfect, it’s not atrocious either. Either way a small change in form isn’t going to double my weight. Heck, I’m not doing enough weight as compared to my size/strength that form would matter at all for most people.

And I doubt it’s non-existant pecs, someone with no-existant pecs wouldn’t be capable of doing 200-300 pushups in any way in a day, much less in a few sets/minutes, and I’m quite capable of walking over to the fly machine in the gym and repping out a dozen or more reps with the stack + a 45 pound plate on it (I know, very subjective to the actual machine, but this thing does have enough weight on it that the bigger guys in the gym all like it like it is, most are pretty surprised when they see me adding weight to it)…

I honestly believe that it’s that I’ve either managed to mess up the neuromuscular connection somehow so I just can’t recruit the power to do it, or that I’ve managed to teach myself so I “know” that I can’t, so I can’t.

There’s something preventing me from doing it, and I guess i’m looking for how to get around that.

The interesting thing about that is that is that it’s probably been 2 years since I decided “I have weak shoulders, I’m going to fix that” and at the time I was pretty good at most single joint shoulder exercises, but shoulder press seemed pretty difficult even with 135#. It took me less than a year to get to the point that 275 was about as difficult as 135 was when I started. I’ve tried the same approach with bench press and have had no luck (I’ve gone as far as swapping chest and shoulder days, trying the same sort of rep scheme then adjusting thing from there, changing my whole workout schedual making chest days the most important day…).


#6

[quote]Grizzly_Mark wrote:

[quote]Ecchastang wrote:
IF you can do OHP 205 for a set of 22, but can’t bench 315 for reps, then you must either have the worst bench form on the planet, or a non-existent chest, or both. You should really post a video of your bench so some of us could maybe point out some issues. [/quote]

No, I can’t do 315 for reps. I’m not sure that I can do a single with 315 (though I probably could reverse grip, I’ve done 5 or 6 with 275).

If I had video I would have posted it, I may be able to get something later in the week (what angle would be the most helpful?) but I’m positive that it’s not my form, I’ve been around this for long enough I know what correct form is, I even know how a powerlifter would get properly setup for a bench press. Although I’m sure my form isn’t perfect, it’s not atrocious either. Either way a small change in form isn’t going to double my weight. Heck, I’m not doing enough weight as compared to my size/strength that form would matter at all for most people.

And I doubt it’s non-existant pecs, someone with no-existant pecs wouldn’t be capable of doing 200-300 pushups in any way in a day, much less in a few sets/minutes, and I’m quite capable of walking over to the fly machine in the gym and repping out a dozen or more reps with the stack + a 45 pound plate on it (I know, very subjective to the actual machine, but this thing does have enough weight on it that the bigger guys in the gym all like it like it is, most are pretty surprised when they see me adding weight to it)…

I honestly believe that it’s that I’ve either managed to mess up the neuromuscular connection somehow so I just can’t recruit the power to do it, or that I’ve managed to teach myself so I “know” that I can’t, so I can’t.

There’s something preventing me from doing it, and I guess i’m looking for how to get around that.

The interesting thing about that is that is that it’s probably been 2 years since I decided “I have weak shoulders, I’m going to fix that” and at the time I was pretty good at most single joint shoulder exercises, but shoulder press seemed pretty difficult even with 135#. It took me less than a year to get to the point that 275 was about as difficult as 135 was when I started. I’ve tried the same approach with bench press and have had no luck (I’ve gone as far as swapping chest and shoulder days, trying the same sort of rep scheme then adjusting thing from there, changing my whole workout schedual making chest days the most important day…). [/quote]

To me it sounds like a form and technique issue. If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells, grip, stance. rear delt, trap and foot position might need some work.
If you can post a video or a still pic, we should be able to figure it out for you.

Power4ull
SQ - 970
BP - 740
DL - 848


#7

Consider benching from pins, like Christian Thibaudeau often suggests in his programs - not a partial, but from just slightly off the chest, bottom up from a dead start. This should get you used to utilizing the correct muscles throughout the press (just make sure you start in a good position, not relying on shoulders too heavily), and more effort is required at the start to get it moving, so you’ll be patterning the intense contraction needed for a standard bench. Also, there won’t be the fear of injury when lowering a heavy weight - if you can’t get it up from a dead start, you won’t have to lower it.

You could also try a simple linear progression, starting very light, with paused bench - presumably you will eventually adapt and be able to cope (mentally and otherwise) with weights that are in proportion to your overhead lifts etc. if you add weight consistently in small intervals…? If you do try this, I’d suggest you bench at least 4 days a week to start with; the weights should be manageable anyway, and you seem to need the practice.

Good luck, it’s a peculiar situation given your seriously impressive OHP, but I can only imagine you’ll sort it out given enough focus.


#8

What do you do for back and shoulder stabilization work?


#9

[quote]power4ull73 wrote:
To me it sounds like a form and technique issue. If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells, grip, stance. rear delt, trap and foot position might need some work.
If you can post a video or a still pic, we should be able to figure it out for you.
[/quote]

power4ull73, can you explain why you said “If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells…”

I’m generally of the mind that dumbell work takes more stabilization then less, and I’ve been doing dumbells with one arm at a time to stress stabilization and core strength even more. I can very comfortably do one armed flat bench and incline with 85#, and I’ve never tried more then 100 like that but I can still get a reasonable set.


#10

[quote]halcj wrote:
Consider benching from pins, like Christian Thibaudeau often suggests in his programs - not a partial, but from just slightly off the chest, bottom up from a dead start. This should get you used to utilizing the correct muscles throughout the press (just make sure you start in a good position, not relying on shoulders too heavily), and more effort is required at the start to get it moving, so you’ll be patterning the intense contraction needed for a standard bench. Also, there won’t be the fear of injury when lowering a heavy weight - if you can’t get it up from a dead start, you won’t have to lower it.[/quote]

Can you clarify something here, are you suggesting starting with the bar down on the pins or on the rests and lowering/setting it on the pins and going from there? I’ve been considering trying something like a shoulder saver pad or board presses, which I think would accomplish something similar, I didn’t even think about using the pins in a rack like that…

Man do I wish the gym that I regularly lift at had a power rack… that would make this kind of thing easy. There are 2 squat racks that do have adjustable pins, but I hate to hog them like that and have to drag a bench from the other end of the gym…

Thinking out loud, what if I did this kind of thing in a smith machine? I’m not a big fan of them, and it would limit the sort of natural “j” motion that a bench press has, but it would be very easy to setup, just set the safety stops right above my chest and go… What do you guys think?


#11

“with paused bench” - I’m assuming that you mean regular bench with pause reps?

4 days a week huh, next you guys will be suggesting the Bulgarian program :wink: Honestly, I’m not sure my old body will tolerate that. Remember, I’m 43 and have never had a good bench. Typically I’ve found that if I work most of my larger body parts more than 1-2 days a week I end up with perpetually sore joints/tendons associated with it (I don’t think it’s normal but all my life I’ve been prone to tendon pain, even with a lot of warmup my tendons are more likely to end up sore than my muscles, and sore tendons don’t feel better anywhere near as fast as sore muscles). Right now I’ve been getting the best gains with hitting each major part 1x per week (I have one shoulder day…) with the exception of things like calves, abs and deadlifts (at one point I decided to start every workout with deadlifts and found that everything got stronger doing that), well and biceps get hit every day I do pulling motions and triceps every time I do pushing motions.

thank you… I actually really appreciate the encouragement. The reason I’m asking for help is that this is the one thing that I’ve never managed to get any traction with… I’m hoping that this is finally the time.


#12

[quote]lift206 wrote:
What do you do for back and shoulder stabilization work?[/quote]

Wow, that’s a loaded question…

To give you a little more history, back in my early 20’s I had a pretty serious back injury, that thanks to some bad advice from a doctor eventually lead to me tearing my left rotator cuff, and then my right… and it kind of went from there.

Recently I found that trying some joint supplements was like a sudden night and day difference WRT to how my shoulders felt, and that suddenly I could train heavy shoulders and do other things that I haven’t been able to do for years (possibly ever).

That said, shoulder stabilization work has been a staple for me, and I’D LOVE SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT YOU GUYS THINK IS A GOOD IDEA (I’m always interested in hearing more ideas).

currently I cycle through different things, but my staples are the typical internal/external rotations for rotator cuffs (typically every workout day), and then a few different exercises that I cycle through as I see things working/not working/I get used to them (usually paired with shoulders or back during the week)… RIGHT NOW they are cable work:

  • a standing front row with a triceps rope (pulley set a little below shoulder height),
  • either cross cable rear delt deal with the pulleys set all the way up or a single arm motion similar to that using the rope again, and
  • a, well for lack of a better way of describing it reverse shrug- basically set up like a dip but instead of bending at the elbows you let your shoulders drop down and shrug them back up, you really feel a strong contraction in the lower traps (middle of the back) as well as a lesser contraction in the rear delts (and I can’t really explain it but i also feel them in my front delts)

I take shoulder stabilization work pretty seriously, because I have to


#13

[quote]Grizzly_Mark wrote:

“with paused bench” - I’m assuming that you mean regular bench with pause reps?

4 days a week huh, next you guys will be suggesting the Bulgarian program :wink: Honestly, I’m not sure my old body will tolerate that. Remember, I’m 43 and have never had a good bench. Typically I’ve found that if I work most of my larger body parts more than 1-2 days a week I end up with perpetually sore joints/tendons associated with it (I don’t think it’s normal but all my life I’ve been prone to tendon pain, even with a lot of warmup my tendons are more likely to end up sore than my muscles, and sore tendons don’t feel better anywhere near as fast as sore muscles). Right now I’ve been getting the best gains with hitting each major part 1x per week (I have one shoulder day…) with the exception of things like calves, abs and deadlifts (at one point I decided to start every workout with deadlifts and found that everything got stronger doing that), well and biceps get hit every day I do pulling motions and triceps every time I do pushing motions.

thank you… I actually really appreciate the encouragement. The reason I’m asking for help is that this is the one thing that I’ve never managed to get any traction with… I’m hoping that this is finally the time.
[/quote]

First off, yes, I meant the bench from bottom position to be in a rack; a smith machine would defeat the purpose really (you wouldn’t be practicing technique for normal bench).

“Paused bench” = powerlifting style bench press, with a short pause on the chest.

Frequency wise, while I like high frequency / moderate-high intensity training myself, I meant that you should consider frequent LIGHTER work, i.e. nothing that would produce major soreness and certainly no assistance exercises on the extra days (just train these as usual, once/twice a week). Once you’ve progressed to a weight that would be, say, a heavy set of 6 (for 3 reps) or a heavy set of 8 (for 5 reps), consider reducing frequency. If this really seems too much, just try a few sets with the bar every time you go to the gym, and if you’re feeling good put some 45s on or whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s all about becoming more confident with the lift, not necessarily getting physically stronger.


#14

[quote]Grizzly_Mark wrote:

[quote]lift206 wrote:
What do you do for back and shoulder stabilization work?[/quote]

Wow, that’s a loaded question…

To give you a little more history, back in my early 20’s I had a pretty serious back injury, that thanks to some bad advice from a doctor eventually lead to me tearing my left rotator cuff, and then my right… and it kind of went from there.

Recently I found that trying some joint supplements was like a sudden night and day difference WRT to how my shoulders felt, and that suddenly I could train heavy shoulders and do other things that I haven’t been able to do for years (possibly ever).

That said, shoulder stabilization work has been a staple for me, and I’D LOVE SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT YOU GUYS THINK IS A GOOD IDEA (I’m always interested in hearing more ideas).

currently I cycle through different things, but my staples are the typical internal/external rotations for rotator cuffs (typically every workout day), and then a few different exercises that I cycle through as I see things working/not working/I get used to them (usually paired with shoulders or back during the week)… RIGHT NOW they are cable work:

  • a standing front row with a triceps rope (pulley set a little below shoulder height),
  • either cross cable rear delt deal with the pulleys set all the way up or a single arm motion similar to that using the rope again, and
  • a, well for lack of a better way of describing it reverse shrug- basically set up like a dip but instead of bending at the elbows you let your shoulders drop down and shrug them back up, you really feel a strong contraction in the lower traps (middle of the back) as well as a lesser contraction in the rear delts (and I can’t really explain it but i also feel them in my front delts)

I take shoulder stabilization work pretty seriously, because I have to[/quote]

Yeah it seems like you do get a lot of stabilization work done. I am not a strong bencher but I am aware that stability is important. The traps contribute more to stabilization than the lats for bench but the lats will still help to some degree where it ties in to the humerus. Do you engage the lats at all at the bottom of the lift?

The strong benchers on here would probably be able to assess your problem quick with a video.


#15

[quote]Grizzly_Mark wrote:

[quote]power4ull73 wrote:
To me it sounds like a form and technique issue. If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells, grip, stance. rear delt, trap and foot position might need some work.
If you can post a video or a still pic, we should be able to figure it out for you.
[/quote]

power4ull73, can you explain why you said “If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells…”

I’m generally of the mind that dumbell work takes more stabilization then less, and I’ve been doing dumbells with one arm at a time to stress stabilization and core strength even more. I can very comfortably do one armed flat bench and incline with 85#, and I’ve never tried more then 100 like that but I can still get a reasonable set.
[/quote]

What I meant was, if you are comfortable with 100lb dumb bell presses, stabilization is not really the underlying problem for your press. Its going to be figuring out is it off your chest where the problem lays or is it locking it out. I have always found that board press, floor press and some overloaded decline can help work most problems. Sitting back on your traps and rear delts on the bench, with your feet behind your knees keeps you tight and in position. If anything else comes to mind, I’ll comment.

Power4ull
SQ - 970
BP - 740
DL - 848


#16

Do you do enough upper back and lat work? I do it ever day I train and make sure to get in 500 reps of back work a week. In 5 months I put 33 lbs on my bench and 22 lbs on my deadlift in competition.


#17

[quote]halcj wrote:
First off, yes, I meant the bench from bottom position to be in a rack; a smith machine would defeat the purpose really (you wouldn’t be practicing technique for normal bench).

“Paused bench” = powerlifting style bench press, with a short pause on the chest.[/quote]

Huh, well I did do chest on monday night (before this reply) and I played with 2 things that did seem to have an effect on things (of course, 1 workout… who knows what will happen long term):

  • I tried “paused bench” (I avoided this in the past based on a mistaken assumption that going deeper was worse for my shoulders and that bouncing off my chest or resting on my chest is a “rest” or cheat which will decrease time under tension, both I feel are wrong now)- this was interesting. I really exaggerated the pause, I let it come down and almost rest on my chest for a second or 2 before starting my press. It felt great, no/very little pain in my shoulder (it can be either, but maybe 85% of the time its my left), and I could do significantly better sets (I was happy to get 2 sets of 10 and one 13 with 225, I know at that rep range I probably should be going heavier but for a first day trying it I didn’t want to and didn’t have a spot…)
  • I did try what I mentioned with the smith machine (now I’m debating if I should keep doing it), starting with the bar resting on the safety stops. It was interesting. I was fairly strong (for me) I was surprised that I was able to get 225 and even 275 moving for a bunch of reps, but was very surprised how fast this wore me out. After 3 sets I was struggling to get 2 with 275, and then tried 225 again and struggled to get 3 again (I pushed out a 4th but it was not clean, I had to squirm to get it moving).

After that I did some single joint stuff (mostly low cables…) and felt great for a chest workout, and was walking around with a pump in my chest like an 800lb gorilla. :stuck_out_tongue:

Right now I’m thinking about doing a couple of sets of 135 paused reps at the end of every non-chest workout…


#18

[quote]power4ull73 wrote:

[quote]Grizzly_Mark wrote:
power4ull73, can you explain why you said “If you are comfortable with 100lb dumb-bells…”

I’m generally of the mind that dumbell work takes more stabilization then less, and I’ve been doing dumbells with one arm at a time to stress stabilization and core strength even more. I can very comfortably do one armed flat bench and incline with 85#, and I’ve never tried more then 100 like that but I can still get a reasonable set.
[/quote]

What I meant was, if you are comfortable with 100lb dumb bell presses, stabilization is not really the underlying problem for your press. Its going to be figuring out is it off your chest where the problem lays or is it locking it out. I have always found that board press, floor press and some overloaded decline can help work most problems. Sitting back on your traps and rear delts on the bench, with your feet behind your knees keeps you tight and in position. If anything else comes to mind, I’ll comment
[/quote]

For most of my life I’ve been unable to do declines at all, they would pull my left shoulder joint apart and I’d be done for a few weeks, so I just didn’t do them.

Recently I’ve tried then and been able to do them without pain or messing up the shoulder joint, but I haven’t dared to try more than 185 because I’m worried about my previous experience with them.

I paid more attention to foot position, got setup with my feet back of my knees, got everything lined up and then planted my heals firmly on monday before doing every set. I’m not sure why but it just felt like it clicked for once (usually it just feels awkward), though I did notice that every set a rep or 2 in I felt like I was off to one side on the bench (I don’t know if I really was, but it had me squirming some)


#19

[quote]jeremyxgoss wrote:
Do you do enough upper back and lat work? I do it ever day I train and make sure to get in 500 reps of back work a week. In 5 months I put 33 lbs on my bench and 22 lbs on my deadlift in competition. [/quote]

I don’t know, what’s enough? I don’t do nearly what you do, but like I’ve already said, I’m no powerlifter.

not really upper back/lats but when I’m not running late (I tend to be one of the gym’s closers, 3y/o twins, bedtime stories… does that to you) I do deadlifts at the beginning of every workout.

Otherwise, tonight will be my back day and I’ll likely start with some dumbell rows, maybe some straight bar bent over rows, then probably some pulldowns and then some standing pulldowns (leaning back, they seem to hit the mid back pretty hard). But that is just what I’m doing right now, I’m likely to change that up quite a bit. I don’t really do heavy back work any other day of the week, but I do hit a lot of lighter mid back stuff with the shoulder stabilization stuff I do most days.

I tend to do more of a bodybuilder type workout than most of you, lately I’ve been hooked on doing at least one pause/rest set with each exercise, but usually I do drop sets with most everything (essentially taking each set to failure multiple times, and the total rep counts get high very fast that way. The rest of my body has reacted very positively to that)


#20

Dumb question, but it must be asked. When you said you had torn both rotators at some point, did you have them surgically repaired? Not everyone who has a minimal or partial tear has it fixed, so I don’t wanna assume you did.