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The bench press is a staple of strength training and hypertrophy programs. However, some people claim that it’s dangerous and that its benefits aren’t worth the risks, especially for the shoulders. Is that true though? Is the bench press an injury waiting to happen? In this podcast, I’ll answer that and provide my tips for bench pressing as safely and effectively as possible.
I’ve written and recorded a lot of evidence-based content over the years on just about everything you can imagine related to building muscle, losing fat, and getting healthy.
I’ve also worked with thousands of men and women of all ages and circumstances and helped them get into the best shape of their lives.
That doesn’t mean you should blindly swallow everything I say, though, because let’s face it—nobody is always right about everything. And especially in fields like diet and exercise, which are constantly evolving thanks to the efforts of honest and hardworking researchers and thought leaders.
This is why I’m always happy to hear from people who disagree with me, especially when they have good arguments and evidence to back up their assertions.
Sometimes I can’t get on board with their positions, but sometimes I end up learning something, and either way, I always appreciate the discussion.
That gave me the idea for this series of podcast episodes: publicly addressing things people disagree with me on and sharing my perspective.
Think of it like a spicier version of a Q&A.
So, here’s what I’m doing:
Every couple of weeks, I’m asking my Instagram followers what they disagree with me on, and then picking the more common or interesting contentions to address here on the podcast.
And in this episode, I’ll be tackling the following . . .
- The risks posed to the shoulders outweigh the benefits of the bench press.
0:00 – My free meal planning tool: buylegion.com/mealplan
2:46 – What is the barbell bench press?
4:21 – What are the downsides and risks of bench pressing?
6:31 – How do you bench press correctly?
12:33 – How should I program bench pressing into my training?
21:35 – What are some tips to bench press without creating shoulder pain?
Mentioned on the Show:
Want a free meal planning tool that figures out your calories, macros, and micros, and allows you to create custom meal plans for cutting, lean gaining, and maintaining in under 5 minutes? Go to https://buylegion.com/mealplan and download the tool for free!
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Mike: [00:00:00] Hey there. I’m Mike Matthews. This is muscle for life. Thank you for joining me today for another says you episode where I address something that somebody disagrees with me on. So what I do is every month or so over on Instagram at muscle for life fitness. Come follow me. I post asking people to tell me things, they disagree with me on, in the comments.
And then I take things out of the comments and I bring them over here to the podcast and every month or so. On the podcast. I talk about one of the things and explain my position in detail. And in today’s episode, I am going to be talking about the bench press and specifically the claim that the risks posed to the shoulders outweigh the benefits of the bench press.
And if you have something that you want to share with me that you disagree with me on that maybe I could address in. [00:01:00] A future episode, a future says you episode, head over to Instagram at muscle for life. That’s my username. Give me a follow and look for that post again, every month or two ish, I put up the says you post and get enough material for at least another month or two.
Before we get to it. How would you like a free meal planning tool that figures out your calories, your macros, even your micros, and then allows you to create 100% custom meal plans for cutting lean gaining or maintaining in under five minutes? Well, all you gotta do is go to buy legion.com/meal. Plan B Y legion.com/meal plan and download the.
And if I may say this tool really is fantastic. My team and I spent over six months on this thing, working with an Excel wizard and inferior versions of this are often sold for 50, 60, even a hundred dollars, [00:02:00] or you have to download an app and pay every month or sign up for a weight loss service and pay every month, 10, 20, 40, 50, even $60 a month for what is essentially.
In this free tool. So if you are struggling to improve your body composition, if you are struggling to lose fat or gain muscle, the. Meal plan can change everything. Dieting can go from feeling like running in the sand in a sandstorm to riding a bike on a breezy day down a hill. So again, if you want my free meal planning tool, go to BI legion.com/meal.
Plan B Y legion.com/meal plan. Enter your email address and you will get instant access. Okay. So most people understand that the barbell bench press is one of the best upper body exercises. You can do it trains almost every major muscle group in your upper body. It [00:03:00] trains your pecks. It trains your shoulders, your.
Triceps, even your lats to a slight degree. And it’s also a great exercise because it allows you to use heavy weight safely, which is great for progressive overload, of course, because you can continue to get stronger on the bench press. For many years, most people will need probably five to seven years, maybe even up to 10 years to max out their.
Practically speaking on the bench press. And because adding weight to the bar is the most effective way to progressively overload your muscle. It’s not the only way you can do more reps. You can do more sets, but adding weight to the bar is the most effective and the most practical way to do that. And because progressive overload is necessary for muscle growth, then we see why the barbell bench press is.
Tried and tested. We see why it is a [00:04:00] staple in basically all successful, effective strength training, and often even hypertrophy programs. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do the bench press. Of course you can get plenty fit and plenty strong without bench pressing. But again, it’s just a very. Give an efficient way to train your upper body.
But what about the downsides? What about the risks and specifically, what about the risks of hurting your shoulders? Some people say that the bench press is outright bad. For your shoulders, just like how some people say the deadlift is outright bad for your back. It’s not, or the squat, the barbell squat is outright bad for your hips or knees.
It’s not. So with the bench press, is it bad for your shoulders? Is it kind of bad for your shoulders? Is it sometimes bad for your shoulders? Well, let’s talk about that. [00:05:00] The bench press certainly can be bad for your shoulders, just as the deadlift can be bad for your back. The squat can be bad for your knees and hips.
It depends on how you do it. If you know how to bench press properly. And that means technically, so you know how to execute. The bench press properly. And that means strategically meaning workout programming. You know how to program your bench pressing properly. If you know how to do both of those things, your risk of injury to your shoulders or anything else is very low and you will be able to experience all of the great benefits of bench pressing safe.
And healthfully. Now, an exception I should mention right away is in people who already have shoulder problems and who simply can’t bench press without pain. In that case, of course, then bench pressing is sometimes out of the question. And there’s nothing that is going to change that no amount of mobility [00:06:00] work, no amount of physical therapy is going to change the fact.
The bench press. Usually it’s the barbell bench press irritates their shoulders. And that is a perfectly good reason to not do it. But if you can currently bench press without pain, unless you hurt your shoulders and that doesn’t have to be on the bench press, it could be doing anything. You should be able to continue bench pressing more or less indefinitely without any issues again, so long as you know how to go about it correctly.
So let’s talk about that. How to bench press correctly and let’s start with. Technique, let’s start with some common mistakes that people make in their technique that can cause issues with their shoulders. So the first one is failing to retract and depress your shoulder blades and what you want to feel when you are bench pressing.
And this is before you rack the weight. So when you are getting into position, what you want to feel is that your shoulder blades are being pinch. Together as if you’re trying to squeeze a pencil [00:07:00] between your shoulder blades and you also want to move them away from your ears, right? So that is depressing them when you pinch them, that’s retracting and then moving them down away from your ears.
That’s depressing them. And to bench press safely, you have to do this. You have to retract and depress your shoulder blades before you load. Your body before you load your shoulders and you have to maintain that position throughout each rep and throughout each set. And the reason why those things are important is they prevent the head of your humorous, which is the top of the bone in your upper arm that fits into your shoulder joint.
It prevents. The head of that bone, the top of that bone from rolling forward, as you lower the weight towards your chest. Because when that happens, it puts a lot of stress on the muscles, around the shoulder, joint and retracting and depressing. Your shoulder blades also provides a very solid base to press from when you do it right.
You will notice. You [00:08:00] feel stronger, you feel Stabler. And that of course allows you to perform better and progress better on the exercise, which of course produces better results. And if you have tried to do this and you just can’t. Quite get the right feeling. If my little cues don’t work for you, a simple little exercise you can do is take an exercise band and then pull it apart in front of your chest and hold that position.
And what you should feel is that your upper back muscles are squeezing together. So that’s the feeling you want. When you set up for the bench press, that’s the retraction feeling. And then the depression feeling is when you are fully extended with that resistance band. Imagine trying to put your shoulder blades in your back pocket.
So really try to push them down and put ’em in your back. Pockets. And when you feel them noticeably down, basically as far down as you can get them, that is the depressed position that you want to be in when you bench, press, [00:09:00] and one other tip for getting into this position. When you are benching is to slightly arch your lower back.
When you are on the bench about enough to fit your fist in between your back and the bench that will help you get into this correct position, although it doesn’t directly affect your shoulders. So the next technique, mistake that many people make that makes the bench press harder than it should be on their shoulders is they grip the bar too wide.
And what this does is it shortens the range of motion that’s required to perform the exercise. And so often what people will do is put more weight on the bar because now they feel like they can handle more weight, but it also increases shoulder torque by one and a half times that of a narrow. Grip. And it requires your rotator cuff muscles and biceps tendons to work far harder to stabilize your shoulders than with an narrow grip.
And so while you see strength, athletes do it intentionally because [00:10:00] they can lift more weight in that position, you will see power lifters, do this. You will see them train a wide grip bench press. I don’t recommend it for us, recreational. Weightlifters or us lifestyle, body builders, whatever we wanna call ourselves.
I recommend a more traditional grip, which is about one and a half times shoulder width. And, you know, you have the right grip width when your forearms are perfectly perpendicular to the ground. So they’re not angled a little bit inward. Like they are with a close grip bench press or outward. Like they are with a wide grip bench press.
They are straight up and down as against the floor. Throughout the entire rep, another technique mistake you can make when bench pressing that can mess up your shoulders is flaring your elbows, raising your elbows towards your ears. And one of the benefits of a narrower grip, not a narrow grip, but narrower than.
The wider grips that you sometimes see power lifters [00:11:00] and strong people use is you can get your elbows closer to your body, and you want them to be somewhere between 30 to 60 degrees relative to your torso. And what you do not wanna do is what many people often do. They raise their elbows up to about 90 degrees compared to their torso, especially when they’re trying to get through that sticking point, that few inches of the exercise when you are coming off your chest, when it is the hardest and anatomically speaking, one of the advantages of keeping your elbows in that window, that 30 to 60 degree window relative to your torso is it decreases the amount of stress put on the long head of your biceps as you perform the exercise.
Number four on the list of technique, mistakes that you don’t wanna make when you’re bench pressing is touching the bar too high on your chest. And this is basically a corollary to the last point to tucking your elbows [00:12:00] close-ish to your torso. Because when you do that, you’re able to then touch the.
Lower on your chest. So nipple height, rather than collarbone height. And by doing that, by touching the bar a little bit lower, rather than a little bit higher on your chest, you reduce the amount of compressive force at the outer edge of the clavicle, which forms part of the shoulder. And you also reduce the amount of.
Torque on the shoulder joint. So just less wear and tear on your shoulders by touching the bar a little bit lower rather than a little bit higher on your chest. Okay. So that’s it for the major technique points for making the bench press as shoulder friendly as possible. Now let’s talk programming. The biggest mistake you can make when programming the bench press is just doing too much.
And this is especially true for the bench press because research shows that the shoulders in particular are especially susceptible to repetitive strain injuries, which are injuries that [00:13:00] occur through continuous activity. They’re not acute injuries. They accumulate little by little over time until they heard enough for you to recognize that something is wrong and RSIs are inevit.
To some degree, if you are going to be doing a lot of strength training, but you can definitely mitigate their frequency and you can mitigate their severity by doing various things, including not doing too much of any individual exercise or any individual specific movement pattern. And so in the case of the bench press, most people don’t need to do more than.
Maybe three to six, max nine sets of bench pressing per week to get a lot out of the exercise, to get strong on the exercise, to build muscle with the exercise. Now, of course you can do other pressing exercises. You could do an incline bench press, right? That’s a different movement. That’s a [00:14:00] different.
Angle than the flat bench press. You could do a dumbbell press. That is a different movement pattern than a barbell press. You could do a dip and you could do other Peck exercises. So I’m not saying to do just three, six or nine sets for your pecks every week, but three to six. That’s my general recommendation.
Really? Three to six sets. Flat barbell bench pressing or incline barbell bench pressing per week. And if you limit yourself to that amount of volume, again, you can make great progress on the exercise and also greatly reduce the chances of it. Irritating your shoulders. Another bench, press programming, mistake that many people make.
Although I guess it’s execution really, but it does start in the planning. So I think it’s still a programming mistake and this is a mistake that people make with many exercises by the way. But we’re talking about the bench press and that is training too close to failure. Too often. I see this [00:15:00] all of the time in my gym.
And especially among the younger kids, they are doing three, four or five, six sets of bench pressing in one workout. And in every set are pushing to the point of either absolute failure. So sometimes they’ll ask me for a spot and they push. Until they simply can’t move the bar anymore. And I have to finish, I have to do a little biceps curl to finish their final rep for them, or they’re pushing in every set right up to the point where their final rep is an absolute grinder.
And if they were to go for another rep, they would not get it. So zero good reps left. You can do that sometimes with some exercises. In some cases you can do it fairly often, a biceps curl, for example, are you really going to cause any damage or greatly increase your risk of injury by taking one or two sets of biceps, curls to absolute failure?
Every week, no, but the bench press is not a biceps curl. It is not a squat. It is [00:16:00] not a deadlift. It is not as difficult as those exercises, but it is a difficult exercise. And it does put a lot of stress and strain on your body, on your upper body. And your shoulders do have to work hard in the bench press.
And so if you are pushing to absolute failure or to that zero good reps. Left point too often on your bench, press your chances of getting hurt, do go up. I wouldn’t necessarily say that is downright dangerous in the same way as deadlift with an arched lower back is dangerous, but it is risky. Put that in scare quotes.
It is risky enough for me to not want to do. In my training, for example, I almost always have one or two good reps left in my final sets of my bench pressing. And in my first sets, I’m often around three good reps still in the tank. So if I did a set of [00:17:00] four, I felt like I could have gotten seven, maybe even eight.
And if that sounds suboptimal to you, if you hear that and think that I’m probably leaving some gains on the table by training like that, I would disagree because research shows that so long as we take our sets, our working sets, not our warmup sets, but we take our working sets close to muscular failure, and that’s anywhere between probably one and three good reps left.
We are effectively training. The muscles that pushing to absolute failure or pushing to that zero good reps left point. That final rep is a real grinder point is actually not more effective for building muscle and gaining strength. It is simply not necessary. And so again, in my training, the only times.
Purposely pushed to zero good reps left is when I am testing my strength. So [00:18:00] every four months in my programming, I do some am wrap sets with heavyweight as many reps as possible am wrap is the acronym with heavy weight and I get a spotter and I go for it. I go until I am grinding out a rep and I.
Pretty certain that I couldn’t get another. And again, that’s once every four months and while I would like to do it more often, it is fun. I have become more disciplined as I’ve gotten older and wiser, and I use it to test my strength basically to see. If I’ve gained anything on the exercise over the last four months of training.
And because I mentioned deadlift and squatting, you might be wondering if I do the same thing on my deadlift and squat. I do, but I don’t push to zero good reps left. I push to one good rep left. So I put a fair amount of weight on the. You know, that’s for me. So I actually just did this week and on my deadlift, I put 3 75 on the bar [00:19:00] and I got seven.
And at the end of number seven, I felt like I definitely could get one more. Maybe could get two more. That second though, would’ve been a real grinder and I stopped. There, because for my purposes, that was enough. That was a good test of my strength. I’m able to put that into a one rep max calculator [email protected] of course, and know that my one RM actually haven’t done it yet, but I’m guessing that’s probably four 50 to four 60 and you know, I’m gonna put.
Eight or nine reps into that one. RM not the seven that I did because I knew that I could get at least one more. So I’ll credit myself. Probably what I’ll put in is eight and nine is questionable. And that allows me to program my next training block accordingly. I’m gonna do the same thing tomorrow with my front squat, I’m going to put heavy weight on the bar, heavy for me and go for it.
I’m not gonna go up to the point of absolute failure. I’m not gonna even go up to the point of zero good reps left. I’m not going [00:20:00] to grind out that last rep, but I am gonna push and I am gonna grind a little bit and I will end that set with one, maybe two. Good reps left and my prediction on my calculated one, RM from that set is going to be around three 30.
That’s what my gut is telling me. We’ll see if I’m right now. If you’re wondering why I don’t push a little bit harder in those sets, why not go up until zero good reps left? Why not grind out a set on the deadlift on the squat? It’s once every four months. Well, that’s not a mistake for everyone under all circumstances.
If I were a competitive strength athlete or a power lifter or something, I would have to do that, I would have to get used to what that feels like, because that’s what you gotta go do in your competitions. But as somebody who is not competing to be super strong, I just don’t think. Rewards. I don’t really even know if there would be any rewards [00:21:00] beyond the psychological of just like, oh, that was cool.
I pushed really hard for my purposes for continuing to make at least small improvements to my body composition and to my performance. It’s simply not necessary to push all the way up to the brink on those exercises. I can do everything I wanna do. By doing what I’m doing by ending. Those am wraps with one or two good reps still in the tank.
And I’m willing to push a little bit harder on the bench press because it’s less risky. It is just a little bit riskier to do that on the deadlift or the squat versus the bench press. Okay. So I mentioned earlier that some people can’t bench press without pain, they follow all of the advice that I’ve shared in this episode and because of their anatomy or because of past injuries, bench pressing.
It does not feel right for them. And if you are one of those people, I have two tips that might help you. One is to reduce the range of motion by four to six inches. So instead [00:22:00] of bringing the bar to your chest, stop with the bar four to six inches. Above your chest. And some people actually, they will take a pad that’s about four to six inches thick, or they’ll take a towel and they’ll put it under their shirt or on top of their shirt and bench until they touch it just so they can ingrain in their mind what that feels like.
But by doing that, by shortening that range of motion, it can prevent your shoulders from extending too far beyond your torso. And that then can reduce the amount of strain put on your rotator cuff muscles and research shows that it can. Reduce the chances of shoulder injury and reduce shoulder discomfort.
And one other tip for making the bench press more shoulder friendly is to simply have a spotter rack, the weight for you and help you get it into the position. It needs to be in for you to start your rep because moving it from the rack to that [00:23:00] position can irritate the shoulders. Well, I hope you liked this episode.
I hope you found it helpful. And if you did subscribe to the show, because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email Mike muscle for life.com, muscle F or life.com. And let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode. And I hope to hear from you.