Hidden Issues: The Bench Press
Updated: May 11, 2020
Proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism” (McGill). This statement is an important concept to understand as a critical aspect of core function. Stability and strength of the core while acting as an anchor enables the extremities to move in their full range with speed and strength. Silfies et al define the core as including the muscles of the superficial and deep abdominal wall, pelvic floor, erector spinae, back, pelvic girdle/hip, and scapula and define core stability as the "ability to control trunk position and motion for the purpose of optimal production, transfer, and control of forces to and from terminal segments during functional activities".
So what does this mean? Basically, the core needs to be a great anchor for the arms and legs to work their best. With this post, we will look into one way a weak core can effect the upper extremities during the bench press.
Imagine doing a standing dumbbell raise. If the shoulders were strong but the core was weak, with each rep you might round forward on a front raise or tilt to the side on a lateral raise. With this scenario, the core failed to anchor properly resulting in the exercise's function, form, and intent to be compromised. You will also notice that the range of the motion appears compromised in the upper extremity. A limitation in glenohumeral ROM may not be the case since it can be similar to what we discussed in our last blog on hamstring flexibility which you can read here.
Perhaps a more frequent scenario would be to overcompensate for the weakness by extending more during the front raise or leaning to the opposite side before doing the lateral raise.
This is easy to see in a standing position, but what happens when you are lying on a bench? When contracting the pectoralis major, McGill notes that the core needs to be strong and un-moving so that the muscle shortens and moves around the rib cage instead of the rib cage moving towards the pectoralis attachment on the humerus. You can see the comparison in this video.
This is a noticeable example of a core weakness, but lets take it a step further. What if it wasn't so obvious? What if a weak core changed your spinal position on the bench before you even began?
Hidden issues on the bench:
In my practice as an MAT Specialist, I often see athletes with pain in one shoulder at the bottom of the bench during the transition from eccentric to concentric. Frequently I find it correlates with limited ROM into retraction of the same side scapula, horizontal abduction of the humerus, and/or weakness in the core with rotation towards the painful side. Depending on the athlete, I may need to treat each individual range. Often working on core stability provides a lot of improvement. How can that be?
Lets take a look at one scenario when the core can’t maintain your perfectly straight position on a bar bench press.
When the spine is aligned and the core is strong, once you lay down on the bench the scapulas should be in the same position and same distance from the spine so that the bench press motion is equal. In Figure 1, you can see the shoulder blades are the same distance from the mid-line and the bar is horizontal at the top and bottom of the press
If the core is weak and not perfectly straight, then the spine can possibly be slightly rotated on a bench. This can be from fatigue, weakness, or spinal mis-alignment. What is interesting is how the shoulder blades now line up to keep the bar horizontal with the floor (Figure 2).
With the spine rotated to the right, the shoulder blades shift around the rib cage to keep the bar horizontal as well as due to gravity and position of the bench. This can put the right shoulder into protraction and the left shoulder into retraction at rest. In this position, the person might feel shoulder pain in the left shoulder at the bottom of the lift from being forced into more retraction then they may have.
Here is what it would look like at the bottom of the press (Figure 3).
The image on the left shows a neutral spine with the bar on the chest, the weight evenly distributed, and scapular/humeral range equal. The image on the right shows the bottom of the press when the trunk is rotated to the right with the bar on the chest. Here you see the scapulas are shifted around the rib cage. To touch the bar to the chest, notice on the left side how deep into retraction the scapula is and how far into horizontal abduction the humerus is. Examples are exaggerated to be more visible.
In this situation, the left scapula and humerus may hit their maximum range earlier than the right side. Add the weight of the press and this can be like a yoga instructor shoving you into a split when you have reached the end of your motion (imagine that with a 400-500 lb bench!). This position can put a lot of pressure on the muscles of the shoulder, reduces mechanical advantage, and over time may contribute to injury.
What happens at the top of the press?
When you finish the press and the trunk is rotated to the right, here are a couple of possibilities that can occur.
The image on the left of Figure 4 shows what it would look like at the end of the press when both arms lock out. Here the weight is shifted to the right arm which can potentially cause it to work harder. The image on the right shows another scenario which keeps the bar horizontal with the floor. Keeping the bar horizontal means that the “long” left arm is never unloaded throughout all the reps. Both situations could become a possible cause of injury over time.
So now what?
When I have found this with my athletes, I often need to (depending on their situation) engage the core muscles via activation and exercise to improve the anchoring: especially in rotation of the spine in the direction they could not hold. Here is where I would also use the Ki-RO Core Trainer before AND between sets of bench. Using low grade isometrics, I would target the trunk rotators to prepare them and then between sets as active rest to re-activate. In a later blog, I will go into more detail on how we have used the Ki-RO to improve benching.
The purpose of this post was to show a different way to consider hidden issues with the bench press. From my desk I can not tell what you or your client has an issue with. The best options would be to find a health care specialist or exercise professional that can assess restrictions and weaknesses. You can find an MAT Specialist in your area by clicking here. To become an exercise professional that can perhaps assess and be trained in the physics of exercises click here (take RTS!).
Reminder: Always check with your doctor or exercise professional before engaging in an exercise program or adding anything new to your current work out program. Be safe!
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I hope you have benefited from this information!
Kika Mela, BSE, LMT, MATCSm
Kika Mela is Co-Owner of Mela Therapeutics, Inc. and the creator of the Ki-RO Core Trainer. She has a degree in Exercise Science, is a Master Level MAT Specialist, MAT Rx Specialist, and has been a Licensed Massage Therapist for 25 yrs. She has worked extensively with professional and elite athletes, consults on exercise, and is a contributor to the training processes at Bommarito Performance Systems as part of their medical team.
McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Canada: Backfitpro Inc., 2017: 113-114.
Silfies SP, Ebaugh D, Pontillo M, Butowicz CM. Critical review of the impact of core stability on upper extremity athletic injury and performance.Braz J Phys Ther. 2015;19(5):360‐368. doi:10.1590/bjpt-rbf.2014.0108