Countless people have written about the bench press, largely as a function of the fact it is a contested lift in powerlifting. Powerlifting’s approach to bench has had an enormous influence on weight room approaches the world over. Many athletes—especially those responsible for their own strength training—often grab their first program in the form of a powerlifting template. This generally results in young athletes exhibiting the shoulder pathologies of those who are much older. Trying to divorce horizontal pressing from its powerlifting sensibilities goes down as well as suggesting we drop the catch from cleans.
There has been heavy reporting of tight anterior shoulders and poor scapular mobility due to an overuse of the bench, and with good reason. Poor pressing technique, over-eager number chasers, questionable ROM, and training imbalances can wreak havoc on an athlete population. The bench press, much like the vertical press, isn’t going anywhere and should form part of a well-balanced and nuanced training approach. Contact athletes—especially those engaged in push and framing type contacts—benefit from powerful pressing, from top to bottom.
If you’ve read any of my articles, you’ll sense an overarching theme of finding intensification and load where we can, so standing one-arm cable pressing and one-armed and landmine presses that look like they came fresh off a physiotherapist’s photocopier are not going to cut it!
Horizontal Pressing and Athletic Performance
The flat bench has taken a battering in the modern age of clickbait-oriented content and trainers looking to gain traction with antithetical commentary. The anti-bench approach is lionized widely, but the bench didn’t get us here—weight room culture is probably more to blame. The kids just won’t stop benching!
You’d think tight anterior shoulders and poor scapular mobility due to an overuse of the bench are an international health crisis the way some coaches go on. In my last pressing article I discussed similar concerns found with appropriate and excessively cautious implementation of the overhead press. It seems anterior pressing is pathologized in general.
Video 1. A good starting point is doing flat bench presses with a grip that is more narrow than traditional benching. Shoulders that can’t tolerate conventional-style bench pressing respond favorably to this alternative.
There are two trends I notice as soon as an athlete suffers a shoulder injury or develops a pathology. One is to give them a work-around to address the deficiency, allowing them to press, but not fixing the problem. Movement pragmatism is fine provided you get under the hood and fix the issue instead of putting a neutral grip Band-Aid on it. The other is to pathologize them to within an inch of their lives and do anemic press variations ad infinitum, largely perpetuated by a fear-of-injury culture. Fix the problem and get the bar loaded.
Any strength coach worth their salt will generally include some sort of pressing. Upper- and lower-body power and maximal dynamic strength variables were positively correlated to punch acceleration, and pressing strength, in particular, has a strong relationship with upper limb speed.Any strength coach worth their salt will generally include some sort of pressing, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Some of the most impressive benching I’ve seen has come from throwers. It makes sense that heavy horizontal pressing and vertical pressing would be a key component for athletes in contact sports and sports requiring high-force, high-velocity movements like throwing, pushing, and opponent head and neck control and stiff arm limb contact. It’s why, to some extent, as context influences programming, bench-pressing is non-existent in programs for athletes that operate at very high velocities. However, this is probably built on a base of pressing in their junior years. So, when coaches suggest they don’t bench-press X athlete, there is probably some disingenuity there. Given the propensity to press, I’ve outlined a few variations below that allow for an athlete-centric horizontal pressing approach.
Old School Inclines—They Work
One of the big questions that hangs over horizontal pressing is its functionality, especially the flat bench, which is ostensibly laying on a bench and pressing upward. But let’s not be the harbinger of reductive absurdism; otherwise, we could pull apart snatches, squats, and planks as not being “specific.”
Likewise, the incline bench seems to benefit from the notion that the torso angle in relation to the arms is more sports-specific, while in combat sports I’ve seen bench derided as a bodybuilding exercise that should be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, I’ve seen suggestions that driving through the feet and angle of execution more closely resembles a punch. We could possibly justify it as compromise between horizontal and vertical pressing. Coaches working with throwing athletes seem to have strong opinions on the matter. They are thoroughly keen on the movement and talk of numbers being moved on an incline bench that would make any powerlifter worth his salt blush.
Video 2. Adding chains to incline pressing is a great way to challenge the end range of the movement. Learn to set up chains properly and you will see the benefits down the road.
Bill Starr has written some classic articles discussing how incline pressing seems to be a lost art. “They don’t know that in the late 1950’s and early 60’s the top strength athletes used the incline as their primary upper-body exercise. Greats such as Parry O’Brien, Dallas Long, Randy Matson, Al Oerter and Harold Connolly handled well over 400 pounds on the incline. Ken Patera used it to enhance his overhead press and ended up with an amazing 507, which will forever stand as the American record in the Olympic press.” Much of the research seems to flit between incline bench recruiting more pec major and delt, while having similar tricep recruitment as its flat bench relative.
I am a proponent, often making use of thick grips to make the positioning more comfortable. Done properly, it is difficult to cheat on the movement, but a prudent strength coach may have to police arching in the uninitiated. “You can squirm, you can jerk about and you can rebound the bar until you cough up blood, but you’re never going to find an effective method of cheating on the incline. That’s what I like about it.” –Bill Starr
The incline bench, plus dips and push-downs, is about as close as we get to a Bill Starr press trivium. It’s not a horrible way to approach arm extension if needed. Yes, total numbers will take a hit initially when switching from flat to incline pressing, but this is worth sacrificing for greater ROM. Talking about angles on the bench, I’m a fan of higher inclines, ranging anywhere from 45 to 70 degrees.
Try Close Grip Incline Bench Press
Close grip incline pressing benefits from the potential crossover of torso to limb angle, as well as the degree of the joint angle from the closer hand position on the bar movement and ROM being much greater than with the flat and regular incline benches. Flat bench can become an exercise in ROM manipulation due to the influence of powerlifting practices in strength and conditioning, which favor total weight moved over work done. Close grip incline pressing gives the athlete few places to hide, due to the extremes of elbow extension and flexion involved.Close grip incline pressing gives the athlete few places to hide, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
This is very evident with the population of combat athletes I work with. They often have long arms and shorter clavicular anatomy so close grip incline bench puts them in a position they despise; no ego lifting here. We know, thanks to the classic Green & Comfort (2007) study, that “Reducing grip width to <=1.5 biacromial width appears to reduce this risk and does not affect muscle recruitment patterns, only resulting in a +/-5% difference in one repetition maximum.”
To quote Mike Robertson: “The close-grip bench is an excellent exercise because it’s very ‘real world.’ When you bench press, for example, usually your arms are deviated away from the midline of your body. On the other hand, when you push things in real life, usually your arms are in tight to your body. A great example is a stiff-arm in football. The arm is in close to the body to create the greatest mechanical advantage. Even though you don’t lie down in football, a close-grip incline is a great exercise to improve your stiff-arm strength.”
This close grip position is something I employ with the MMA fighters and grappling athletes, as a hands-tight-to-body position is crucial in pressing, pulling, and framing in these sports. The scapular positioning is better than what we often see in flat benching; incline pressing without depressing the shoulder blades is difficult. You can argue that this scapular positioning could be detrimental but the transfer correlates, as well as 75% of the stuff we do that doesn’t look anything like the sporting action. There is no reason you can’t iron this out with ballistics later on.
Video 3. Incline pressing with higher-than-typical angles is a great option for athletes. Adding thick grips and chains makes a difference that athletes notice, and is a great compromise for those that don’t do vertical presses enough.
The deeper ROM on incline can aggravate some athletes with cranky shoulders. In this case, to reduce AC joint stress, I employ the close grip bench press with a lot of accommodating resistance, such as chains. This enhances tricep drive in the movement, as the movement has a serious sticking point about halfway through. The use of accommodating resistance can also be a novel way to reduce joint pain and makes incline pressing more tolerable for the uninitiated. In turn, you can combine this with thick and false grip pressing, which leads in to the next section.
Add Fat Grip and False Grip Pressing
Thick grip training is nothing new and has been posited as a novel avenue for improving all-over strength for some time. We know grip strength has a strong relationship to general athleticism and robustness. Rather than slap thick grips on to finish up a set of curls, there’s no reason we can’t employ this across a variety of exercise options.I noticed that thumbs-free thick grip pressing is a boon to athletes with elbow and shoulder issues, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Working largely with a population of fighters, we use a lot of thick grip modalities because it has numerous carryovers to their sport. I also noticed that thumbs-free thick grip pressing was a boon to athletes with elbow and shoulder issues.
Christian Thibaudeau, who has promoted the use of false grip (and thick bars), has remarked on this online: “When you take a regular grip [bench press], your hands turn in slightly. This automatically forces you into an internal shoulder rotation position…This puts stress on the shoulder joint, and if you try to tuck the elbows in—despite the natural inclination for the elbows to be out—you create a lot of torque at the elbow joint. So you either increase the stress on the shoulders or the elbows, neither of which is good. By using a thumbless grip you can easily keep a more neutral hand position, which makes it much more natural to lower the bar while staying tucked. This reduces shoulder stress without increasing torque at the elbows, resulting in a less stressful bench press.”
False thick grip pressing, for instance, seems to be inherently more comfortable and it’s easier on wrists. I’ve been using it extensively with some of my athletes. Despite my initial hesitation, we’ve not had an athlete lose a bar yet. The false grip and the need for intensive stabilization and focus on bar contact make for better pressing. Let’s be clear: The bar is not sitting on the palms as if they were pressing a pair of Faberge eggs. The athlete must wrap their hands around the bar as tight as they can. Pull thumbs under and squeeze actively with fingers down on the bar as much as they can the whole time.
Increasingly thick grip pressing and other work has been shown to be highly impactful in athletes we wouldn’t expect, such as golfers, as recently highlighted by Cummings et al.’s recent Fat Grip Training study. This, however, was a full-body approach to thick grip work. There is a small amount of research looking at thick grip, and very little on thumbs-free pressing.
Video 4. In this video, I share my wisdom on pressing, as I work with an array of athletes in different sports.
I’m being pragmatic here, but something special comes from a stabilization standpoint when we apply eccentrics or pauses with the use of thick grip work in the press, largely as a great need for focus, stability, and lat recruitment. Most of my athletes report that it is a far more full-body affair.
What About Loaded Push-Ups?
Loaded push-ups and suspended push-ups, in particular, became a darling for many “functional” training experts. I’m all for bodyweight intensification, to a point.
Loaded push-ups offer scapular freedom, simplicity, and very low technical coaching investment. This should be the base upon which you build most horizontal pressing variations.
Video 5. Even advanced athletes should still integrate push-ups into their training. You can insert loaded push-ups into nearly any program, and they are timeless options.
Mladen Jovanic suggests that suspended push-ups are a worthwhile replacement, or at least the next best supplementary exercise to bench. He suggests that “Using rings forces you to use shoulder stabilizers more and allows for ‘natural’ movement of the scapula, and also allows shoulder rotation which can allow lower joint stress (penalty) compared to barbell bench press. Since the stability is compromised, the load used will probably be less than in bench press, hence bench press should still be performed to provide an overload (depend on the athlete need to upper body push strength).” I do, however, disagree with Mladen on his opinion of the incline press, which he seems to think is worthless.
While push-ups possibly offer similar levels of muscular activity compared to bench and freedom of the scapular, loading push-ups, especially with intensive means, becomes difficult. Draping chains over the athlete while palming bands over their back and wearing a loaded vest becomes impractical.
Push-ups make for great volume-based options, but we need to be clear that, aside from abstractions into callisthenic trickery such as feet elevated, one-handed push-ups in a weighted vest and the like, push-ups are hard to really load heavy.
Floor Pressing – Try It and See
Floor presses really allow you overload the triceps without placing undue stress on the elbows or shoulder. This is a common complaint among heavy pressers and it makes sense that floor pressing can give your shoulders a well-deserved rest with shorter ROM. This shortened row means that stress across the anterior shoulder is kept to a minimum, which is the reason I use it for athletes with shoulder issues. Much like other presses, thick grips seem to make this better.
Video 6. Anyone with a grappling or MMA background can see why floor pressing makes sense. It’s a pressing position off the back that requires powerful chest and tricep recruitment, often from a dead start. This has applicability for making a frame when in the bottom position, stiff arming, bench press mount escaping, and so on.
The floor press teaches tightness and tension on the floor, and the lack of leg drive and any real arch means that movement cannot be assisted: It’s just you, your triceps, your chest, and your shoulders. You can further increase tricep recruitment by bringing your grip closer. You can perform it with a hip bridge, turning it into a bridged floor press—a movement that requires neither a rack nor a spotter and but does require a lot more lat stabilization.
I usually use the floor press as an accessory exercise for the bench press or sometimes cycle it into a program as the main pressing movement. I use it often with grapplers, peaking them with reverse band floor presses done explosively. Give it a try and experiment with it, as it is one exercise that is purely pragmatic in application because research on the movement is scant at best. Most of the information we have on it comes largely from powerlifting sources, aside from dumbbell floor pressing popping up in a few NSCA and physiotherapy manuals.
Important Caveats to Pressing
Pressing comes with a big question mark, as Bob Alejo highlighted in his recent post, “Myths and Misconceptions of Training the Overhead Athlete.” “Based on the evidence and common sense, it’s likely that pull volume should be significantly higher than pressing volume (I recommend a 2:1 ratio) to reduce the risk of poor shoulder function, pain, and injury.”
As I stated in the press article, pressing needs to be earned with progressions coming from the floor up to unilateral to bilateral underload, offset by a diet of heavy pulling both vertically and horizontally. Bad posture, weak scapular stabilization, and poor rotator cuff function are your responsibility to fix or move towards fixing; pressing should be earned. And, as Bob mentions in his article, pressing is built on a foundation of not only rowing, but also the action of the upper body doing heavy hinging. In short, a strong upper back and posterior chain is the price we pay for a quality press.In short, a strong upper back and #PosteriorChain is the price we pay for a quality press, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Taking this into account, much of the pressing I prescribe comes with a heavy dose of eccentric upper back work, hinge, and overhead pressing. Extensive usage of heavy neutral grip lowering, which Carl Valle touches upon in this eccentric exercise article, is noteworthy. I find a mix of NG lowering and close grip incline pressing makes a pretty effective combination for many athletes. Heavy RDLs and snatch grip RDLs, which require extensive shoulder and scapular bracing, are another addition to this.
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