Exercise Analysis - Bench Presses

Squats may be the king of all exercises, but bench presses are the movement that receives the most attention in the weight room. Part of this lure is the frequent use of this exercise as a barometer of strength. But bench presses are also extremely effective for developing some major muscles, so their standing as the principal upper body movement is well earned.

The bench press is actually a descendant of what might be the most basic exercise known to man. Regardless of whether your point of reference is grade school gym class, Army boot camp or the Rocky movies we all know and love, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with push-ups. Bench presses are knock-offs of this old favorite, with one major exception. Instead of your hands staying fixed and your body traveling upward against the pull of gravity, your body stays fixed and your hands are free to move. To recognize why this difference is critical, you must revisit the ultimate goal of exercise designed to build muscular size and strength.

Research indicates that muscles grow when they are subject to fatigue-inducing contractions. Contrary to popular belief, heavy opposing loads are not requisite for achieving this criterion. Investigators have recently elicited impressive strength/muscle gains by applying extremely light loads in opposition to contraction in conjunction with occluded blood flow, which increases the accumulation of fatigue-related metabolites. Nevertheless, in the practical setting, using a sufficient opposing load is still the best way to ensure that the appropriate degree of effort is present when lifting weights. And that’s where push-ups fall short. If you can only do the exercise for a continuous period of 90 seconds or less before fatigue forces you to stop, the weight of your body represents an opposing load that will still make your muscles grow. But once you can go longer, you’re out of luck. It is simply a function of the type of fatigue that is brought about by the effort. If it isn’t rapid, the applied stimulus will not be specific for eliciting the desired response.

Push-ups employ the muscles of the chest (pectoralis major) and those situated on the rear portion of the upper arm (triceps). Bench presses work the same areas, but allow for adjustment of the opposing load. The only way to accomplish this on a push-up would be to position weights on your back, an impractical alternative, for sure.

Bench presses also provide options for introducing variety into your chest training. The pecs are a multi-directional muscle with design similar to the configuration of a peacock’s tail. From an insertion point on the front portion of the upper arm, they fan out and attach to the collarbone, sternum and ribs, so when they develop tension to shorten, they draw the arm across the body at a wide range of angles. That is why pecs can be worked when the arm is drawn inward from high to low, low to high or directly across. Bench presses allow for this variety because you can easily change the angle of the surface supporting your body.

Another way to bring variety into your bench pressing regimen is by changing the way you apply the opposing load. Typically, if you mention bench presses, lifters envision pressing a barbell off the chest with the body lying supine. However, the same movement can be done with dumbbells or on a machine. Dumbbells allow for greater movement range and also require completely independent movement by both arms. Seated vertical press machines are also useful, although ones where movement arms do not move independently should be used with discretion. If you have a discrepancy between your left and right sides, the imbalance will be masked if the machine’s movement arms are attached and it’s a sure bet your strong side will do more than half the work.

It is easy to fall in love with benching, but care should be taken not to become infatuated. If you excessively develop the muscles of your chest and front shoulders while neglecting those that move your arms in the opposite direction, you will become imbalanced and your posture will suffer. This common condition increases the likelihood of injury and creates a gorilla-like appearance that is less than desirable. It is also detrimental to become fanatical about the amount of weight you can bench. Strength gain is a natural consequence of muscle growth, so using more resistance once your muscles adapt to training is necessary to continue to make them work hard enough to respond. But lifting more weight, per se, does not ensure a greater training stimulus. Repeated performance of the same lift over time results in the “discovery” of a more efficient movement pattern that can actually decrease the relative effort associated with performance. You can combat this by periodically introducing different movements into your program (bench presses with dumbbells as opposed to a barbell, for example). A preoccupation with weight can also lead to cheat practices like bouncing the bar off the rib cage or arching the back as the bar travels upward. These increase injury risk while decreasing the stimulus your target muscles receive. 

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.




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