Written by Team Juggernaut
Jason Reynolds DC, DACBSP, EMT
The Bench Press is probably the most universally utilized exercise used to measure one’s raw strength. No matter what sport or recreational activity you train for, no matter what level of athletic prowess, the bench press (or some variation of it) is a staple in your training regimen. Squat, Push, Pull, the three basic human movements with a myriad of exercises to train them for either sports performance, or general health with activities of daily life. Of these three, pushing exercises put the body in the most vulnerable positions for overuse injury, mainly in the shoulder. This does not insinuate that pushing exercises like bench press be avoided, it simply puts more of an emphasis on proper lifting mechanics, as well as prehabilitating the body to execute the lift with the least amount of predisposition to injury. We are going to take a look at a few faults associated with the bench press as well as a few prehab exercises and mobility drills you can utilize to stay healthy.
When we talk about shoulder mobility the main issues are with pectoral musculature tightness, and posterior capsule tightness. This is a recipe that leads to common overuse injuries such as bicipital tendonitis, impingement syndrome, anterior instability and in more acute traumatic cases, shoulder labrum pathology. The irony of mobility issues for the shoulder is that pressing exercises perpetuate the problem. This is why it is crucial that pectoral and capsule tightness is addressed, especially if you have a healthy volume of bench press in your training. Tight pectorals and a tight posterior capsule place the head of your humerus anterior in the glenoid fossa abnormal mechanics in this position lead to the overuse injuries we mentioned before. Proper mobility of the shoulder is key to prehab; static stretching of the pectorals, sleeper stretch for the capsule, and wall angels are a few exercises you can utilize.
The Serratus anterior is a forgotten muscle. Its development will not necessarily send your bench numbers through the roof, however a proper functioning serratus will prevent you from injuring your shoulder. The serratus anterior “boxer muscle” as its affectionately referred to by some because of its development in boxers, the striations of muscle which look like ribs beneath the armpit of elite boxers that’s the serratus. This muscle’s main function is to keep the scapula from winging off of the ribs and spine. If the serratus is not functioning properly it allows the scapula to wing, which accentuates the elevation and protraction of the scapula. Protraction and elevation (like posterior capsule/pectoral tightness) predispose the shoulder to bicipital tendonitis, impingement syndrome, anterior instability and in more acute traumatic cases, shoulder labrum pathology. Training the serratus is simple. EMG studies show the highest activation of the serratus with overhead pressing, push up-plus, and the dynamic hug. Using these exercises will alleviate any serratus dysfunction.
The biggest problem I see with the bench press or any other pressing exercises is the lack of scapular setting. We took a look last week in our article on scapular positioning and executing a posture where the scapula are drawn in medially and depressed, this functional position allows for the greatest biomechanical advantage of the Glenohumeral joint. So why not give yourself the advantage. Scapular setting can be achieved the same way lying supine on your back, as it is prone or upright. Before the bar is off the rack take 1 second to set the scapula and then press. To train this positioning refer back to are article from last month.
I may receive some flack for this crucial point I am about to make, but you have to understand that I am speaking from my doctor hat, concerned only with the health of your shoulder as it relates to performance gains. Grip width on pressing exercises should be just outside of shoulder width. And the pressing motion should be executed with the elbows as close to the body as possible. Wider grips will inevitably recruit more motor units because of the angle of stress imposed on the musculature involved in the press, however that stress is also transmitted to the less malleable capsule of the shoulder. There is a point of balance where performance closely nears the edge of injury and wide grip, elbows out bench pressing can lead to overuse injuries like we mentioned before.
With any and all sports performance and injury prevention regimens, the most important factor is what you do as an athlete, or individual trying to stay healthy, on your own time. Meaning the prehab work you do, mobility drills, and post workout care for yourself needs to be just as important as the actual training, it should all be one in the same. The advantage of utilizing a chiropractor, sports doctor, performance coach, etc., is to make sure you are doing the right things in your prehab and mobility, performing the right exercises correctly and utilizing therapies that compound the benefits of your training. Passive care for the shoulder especially with individuals with heavy doses of bench press is an absolute must to keep away nagging injuries and improve performance. Chiropractic adjustments, shoulder mobilizations, stretching and soft tissue mobilizations are all passive care therapies that should be part of your injury prevention and performance enhancement regimen. Please refer to this video for a sample treatment of the shoulder complex.