Updated: Jun 25
The bench press is certainly the lift that feels the most awkward for people, especially when they first start lifting. It's not a movement we perform that often in our day to day lives whereas squatting and deadlifting (hinging) are absolutely functional movements. Of course though as your skill level starts to improve, that changes, and the bench starts feeling more natural. That's normal of any new skill.
In the sport of Powerlifting we manipulate our body position (and therefore joint angles) to give us the greatest mechanical advantage. This is referred to as leverage, as it's the levers in our body that enable us to perform movement and hence is the basis of bio-mechanics - how we move!
The lever arms that exist are what allow us to move, so we refer to them as necessary levers. When lifting we manipulate our position under the bar in order to maximise this leverage - which basically means making it easier to move more weight (putting it simply).
This brings us to the topic of this blog, the bench press bar path.
It's the only lift where we introduce what we call an unnecessary necessary lever. Let us explain why.
When you bench, you hold the bar at arms length over the shoulder, because that's where it requires very little energy to balance - over the base of support essentially. Now it would be far more efficient if when we benched the bar followed a path directly down towards the shoulder and then back up giving it a vertical bar path. That makes complete sense.
However, benching with a vertical bar path can result in shoulder impingement due to the decaying reduction in space within the subacromial space as you lower the bar to the chest. The acromium process can then impinge the soft tissues and moreso the bursa, resulting in conditions such as bursitis - an inflammation of the bursa with symptoms such as pain (localised and referred down the side of the arm), swelling of the bursa, redness, heat and stiffness. Not a great position to be in.
Treating a condition such as bursitis and the rehab process are important but we won't be discussing them in this blog post.
What we actually want to do is avoid a scenario where we put the shoulder at risk. We do this by following an angled bar path away from the shoulder (as is indicated by the red line in the image). This angled bar path minimises impingement at the shoulder, keeping us healthy! Remember, longevity is the key so learning how to lift economically and safely are very important.
Some people teach a "J bar path" where off the chest the lifter throws the back backwards over the shoulder as quickly as possible to gain leverage, then press upwards. We don't teach this because what you will find is that when the weight on the bar starts creeping up, in an attempt to gain leverage, your body will throw the bar back in a J type bar path automatically. The important part is, as long as you are pressing diagonally backwards that's all that really matters.
A question we often receive is "how far down the chest should the bar hit?". It's a good question and it's really dictated for the most part by your hand position. When pressing, you should maintain bar->wrist->elbow alignment perpendicular to the floor. This puts you in the best position to press and transfer force through to the bar. The elbow and shoulder provide the movement whereas the wrist needs to be stable and in a near neutral position. To help keep the wrist stable, many lifters use a wrist wrap. Just ensure when wrapping you actually cross the joint otherwise you just have a very expensive and useless sweat band.
If you maintain that bar->wrist->elbow alignment you will find the bar naturally falls on an angled bar path away from the shoulder. Magic! The wider your hand position the closer to the shoulder the bar path will be, the narrower your hand position the further down your body the bar will touch. This is why we use a close grip bench to target our triceps - due to the lever arm to the elbow being at it's greatest.
Obviously we are all built differently so a big part of our coaching service is to teach the principles and then help the lifter apply them to their own lifting.
Our Powerlifting Fundamentals Course also covers a lot of thess topics. For more information on the course check out https://www.ruccisgym.com/powerlifting-course-fundamentals
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