This article is about chest pressing, in particular, flat back bench pressing and bench press depth with barbell or dumbbell.
- How deep should you go on the flat bench press?
- Should you go past horizontal?
- Should you create more than 90° elbow flexion?
- Should you train the sticking point?
First, let me get this right off the bat, I’m absolutely against going past horizontal with heavy weight in the chest press, and always have been. To those who still believe it’s a good thing, without knowing or being able to explain all the reasons why I’d like to say:
The definition horizontal in the context of this article:
- One horizontal line between both elbows and the scapulae
- Forearms vertical and a 90° angle of elbow flexion
- The sticking point lies below horizontal
If you’re extremely skeptical, which I fully understand, how about you start by answering this: does the following represent a scenario where there is a higher chance of the rope breaking, or coming loose at the anchor, then if the blue bridge was horizontal, yes or no? If no, then it might not be worth reading further.
If you just want the quick answer of what this article says, and don’t want to make up your own mind through information provided, then click here. I highly recommend you do spend the time, and read all details to make up your own mind.
Just quickly, I’m all for:
- Full ROM (range of motion) ☑
- Time under tension ☑
In this article I will explain my reasoning for being against the flat back bar to chest, with clear and basic illustrations, I will even provide a response for some of the answers one would get when asking “why bar to the chest on the bench press?”.
My reason for being against the heavy chest press going past horizontal is because it increases the chance of injury, drastically; does not provide the benefit most think, and there are better ways to achieve the objective of what most think is ‘full ROM’.
“But powerlifters do bar to chest? They can’t be wrong!”
“To get full ROM”
Full range of motion is great, I’m all for it. But let us look at the rest of our body, and let me present a few examples which might have the potential to light a bulb (the Eureka effect or also know as Aha! moment):
- Max elbow extension is a straight arm (without elbow hyperextension)
- Max knee extension is a straight leg (without knee hyperextension)
With the extension on both joints above, the prime movers are all aligned from origin to insertion (keep this in mind, as it will become relevant). If we’re going to search for another joint which can create some similar extension to the shoulder, it would be the hips. You can create safe hip hyperextension, think of that created for the kettlebell racking position. But one does not press from this position!
Video for hip hyperextension demonstration purpose only.
Could it be that the full intended ROM for chest press is horizontal?
Let’s look at some comments:
Why full ROM? Let’s take the stretch of the muscle out as an answer, and focus on the range to create time under tension; the deeper you go, the longer the muscles are under tension. Time under tension is good, this is usually one of your goals when lifting.
I’m not going to say that one can’t make strength gains, but I am going to pose the questions “did the extra range develop the chest more, or did the delt become stronger?”, “did the delt become stronger, and therefore help the pec get stronger?”, you’ll understand why I pose these questions in a bit.
Let’s forget about what’s the best from a hypertrophy, or strength point of view and approach this from a “how can you do the same with a different technique while staying safe” point of view.
The objectives of any and all exercises are:
- Target a muscle or group
It’s a chest press, hence, focus on the chest; for delts, we have shoulder presses.
Depending on your goals, you want to look at time under tension. If you believe going that extra depth provides longer time under tension, you’re right, because you go further, hence, are longer under tension. But, you can achieve the same effect, if not better, by creating time under tension with time, rather than a dangerous weighted range. You do this by pressing slower, you can even do isometrics.
“Otherwise its a no lift.”
Okay, we’re talking powerlifting here, and only using the rule as the reason, there is no other reason presented. And the rule is created to set a standard. 10-4 Understood. The majority of powerlifters lift their chest, arch their back to decrease the depth required, no?
Bar to body is required in powerlifting, to set a standard. But notice how most powerlifters raise their chest, and don’t lay there flat on the bench? They raise their chest to reduce the distance between the bar and body, hence, reduce the depth required. Whether their intention is to make the lift easier or safer, that’s a point we won’t be discussing here today.
High Risk Of Injury
Why does going lower create so much more potential for injury? Let’s face it, everyone knows that the most common point of injury is at the bottom, but why? Why does going past perpendicular create so much more potential for injury, and why especially in the shoulder?
The prime movers for shoulder horizontal adduction are: Pectoralis Major and the Anterior Deltoid.
Fact: The Pectoralis Major is much bigger than the Anterior Deltoid.
Becomes relevant further down.
Good Leverage vs Bad Leverage
Without getting into technical details of mechanical advantages, levers, etc. I will try and illustrate my point with simple illustrations, I think they will say more than words.
For the purpose of our illustration, I’m going to use a drawbridge with a hinge, we’ll call this ‘side A’, and the elevating side we’ll call ‘side B’; the bridge will be raised by two ropes, which we’ll call ‘rope Y’ and ‘rope Z’; and the part where the hinge is connected to, we’ll call ‘platform’. All this illustrates the humerus (your arm) as the bridge, Pectoralis Major as rope Y, Anterior Deltoid as rope Z, and the chest as the platform, looking on from a spotters point of view in a crouched position.
- Rope Y = Pectoralis Major
- Rope Z = Anterior Delt
- Pull action = Muscle contraction
- Bridge = Humerus
- Hinge = Shoulder joint
- Platform = Chest
- Stickman = Origin/Tendon
- End of rope = Insertion/Tendon
- 90° angle = Hard/Poor leverage
- 45° angle = Moderate/Moderate leverage
- 0° angle = Easy/Good leverage
- 135° angle = Bad leverage
- The angle of the rope creates a shear force at the endpoint
- Rope Y no longer had a good angle to work from
- Rope Z has a better angle from it’s higher position
- Most, if not all of the work is now passed to rope Z
Let’s re-iterate, we’re covering the chest press, it’s called chest press, because we’re targeting the chest. Let me approach this from another angle before I explain the illustration above. If we take the barbell chest press, tuck the elbows in with a narrow grip, and elbows shaving the ribs on each rep, all of a sudden we have a triceps press! It’s called a tricep press because the triceps become the prime mover. Why do they become the main driver all of a sudden? Is it because we want them to be, do we tell ourselves not to use the pecs for the lift? No, it’s because the pecs are taken out as prime mover due to the angle of the muscle, or to be more specific, the line between origin and inserting of the muscle. Now apply this same concept to the chest press, where the line between origin and insertion of the muscle is broken/bent due to the depth.
Back to my illustration 4), rope Y (pec) no longer has a good angle to pull (contract) from, rope Z (delt) has a better angle as it’s positioned higher; all the load is moved to rope Z, and there is a big potential for the rope or it’s attachment to break or damage. We all know this feeling, you’re close to perpendicular, things start to get harder, you go past, and all of a sudden you feel weak, like someone just added another 100kg, but it’s still the same weight, what happened? The pecs said:
“Hell no, I’m not working in this angle, buddy you take over.”
And the delt replied:
“Okay mate, but I can’t really carry all the load we carried together.”
… The rest is history.
Some solutions to the issues at hand are:
If you want to go heavy and need an assistance tool to stop the bar rather than chest or force, use blocks or pins.
Working Full ROM
If you want to get that stretch in the pecs, stretch the pecs, if you want to get that full ROM for mobility, do bent-over rows! With bent-over rows you get that range, and you get the support from a muscle that works in that angle, the posterior delt.
Let us not forget, what’s covered in this article only applies to heavy weight, and what heavy weight is, is different for each person.
The post that started me wanting to finally write about the chest press is:
Which also bring me to, unilateral chest presses are great to allow natural adjustments of the pressing path. I love the floor chest press with a kettlebell, as it provides me with a natural limit of depth. There is also the added range you get at the top, i.e. a barbell press never ends like the kettlebell press, right above the shoulders. Of course, there are weight limits etc. but for what I need from the chest press, this is the perfect press for me.
What Is Full ROM, And Full Activation?
“To get full activation of your pecs, you fully stress the muscle to it’s maximal capacity”
My opinion. Full activation and full ROM is where the origin and insertion are aligned, going past that and breaking the alignment, you’re actually de-activation the muscle in our context.
So what did I base my opinion in this article on? I based it on years of experience, starting out under the guidance of powerlifters, old-skool bodybuilders, and experiencing shoulder problems. Then analyzing, adjusting and making a decision based on common sense and physics. I based it upon seeing others experiencing injury, and not seeing injuries with my clients who perform different exercises or don’t go past horizontal. Are there studies that say full range is best, yes! I’m not contradicting full range, I’m saying that the safe full range for a chest press is horizontal. Are there going to be any studies that say, going past horizontal in the chest press is full range, and it’s safe!? I don’t know, I’m yet to come across one. If there is, I’d still stand by my opinion, studies are not always fool proof, and neither is my opinion.
“What a bullshit, been doing it like this all my life, never had any problems!”
Great! Keep doing what you’re doing. There is no denying the physics which show that the leverage on a deep angle is not sound. There is no denying that the deeper the angle, the more injury prone it becomes. If none of this convinced you, so be it, I know that I stay injury free with my shoulders. Before anyone says it, I’ll say it myself, I don’t have a chest like Arnold Schwarzenegger, neither is that my goal, my goals lie in the martial arts world, high intensity and endurance. The heaviest I chest pressed with one kettlebell is 40kg (120kg barbell), and I’m okay with that. Does that make me any less knowledgable?
Do you like more controversial stuff, or want to learn more? Have a look at why you should not be forward lunging in-place with heavy weight.
What did I say?
If you just want the quick run down, or the above is not clear, here is what I said:
- The chest press is an exercise targeting the pecs
- Going further than horizontal takes out the pecs
- Going further than horizontal makes it more of a shoulder exercise
- Going further than horizontal is where the danger lies
- I also said that all this only applies with heavy weight
- Full safe ROM for the chest press is one horizontal line between elbows and scapula
- Use bent-over rows if you want to work that deep range for mobility
- Just because that’s a possible range of motion does not mean we need to use it for this exercise
- You need to add shoulder exercises to work what that bottom bit would otherwise work for you
- Read the full article to make up your own mind
What did I not say?
- Powerlifters don’t know what they’re doing
- That you should not explore all possible ranges
What are we not doing if we skip the sticking point?
- ‘Trying’ to put the pecs under heavy load in a maximum stretched state
- Transferring the load to the anterior delt
I’m all for progressing to the max range in any exercise, I’m all for creating strength from every possible angle, but, for me, this just is one that I do not recommend within the context described.