THE BENCH PRESS BIBLE
PART 1: THE RIB CAGE & BREATHING
I’ve benched 200kg or more twice in competition in the last 12 months as a raw drug-tested lifter: 205kg in November of 2020 and 200kg in March of 2021. While I’d normally downplay this, it’s actually a reasonable boast - I’ve worked hard to achieve that standard of lifting, and a 200kg bench is something very few people can claim to have experienced in their lifetime outside of the inner circle of powerlifting.
There’s a few anatomical advantages that I have with the lift, but also some disadvantages. If you were to see the length of my arms & my overall height you would be surprised to know how frequently I bench. More than anything, I simply love the lift.
From the surface view the bench press can seem to be a fairly primitive movement - you pull the bar out of the rack, hit your chest, and press it as hard as you can to get the bar back to the start position.
In my view this is a fairly unjust appraisal of how truly technical the bench press and its variants are.
Why do your squat and deadlift seem to move up when the bench press is always stalling? Why can you only move a fraction of the weight on a bench that you can in other lifts?
Before we start to dive into the movement and its related biomechanical demands this is first and foremost not a defense of the bench press.
We don’t need to defend or justify anything that has nothing inherently wrong with it; rather this is an opportunity to illuminate that the bench press has equally as much if not more technical demand than the squat and deadlift will be outlined below in 3 sections:
- Why your rib cage & breathing matter, NOT just muscles
- Why we cue movement in the scapula, NOT just a fixed position
- Why we address shoulder flexion, NOT just retraction
Skeletons Don’t Work the Way You Think They Do
Don’t be alarmed by this first piece of information
The bench press is primarily dominated by arm movement
Shocking I know
It might seem like a redundant thing to say, but it’s worth mentioning when so much of the arguments around bench pressing focus on whether pecs or lats are driving the movement, how much thoracic extension you can possibly summon, precisely what the traps are doing it gets easy to get hyper-focused on the wrong things
Don’t get it wrong - your pecs, lats, traps & positioning are all crucial elements of the bigger picture, but if we are going to gain a deeper insight into how we can begin to address limitations in the press we should first look to the trail of breadcrumbs the body is leaving for us
Whenever we see movement at the arm we should immediately consider two things; the first being the shoulder girdle, and the second being the rib cage
First though, we also need to assess in this situation is the role of the skeleton and how it interacts with skeletal muscle so that some of this can make more sense for you
“Muscles are slaves to positions” - Dr. Pat Davidson
What Dr Davidson is referring to in the above quote is that while we tend to look at our skeletal structure as being more like a coat-hook for our muscles, it’s actually a responsive system. In fact, it’s an ORGAN - it conducts nerve signalling, it grows, it repairs, it assists in hormone production
We aren’t a stack of bones that gets moved by muscle - it’s closer to say that our muscles are constantly being prompted to move by the signalling of the skeletal system, but even that doesn’t do it justice. The relationship between nerves, pain, movement and many other systems is highly complex, but if we reduce it to a simple definition it would be this:
“The skeleton acts, and the muscles react” - Jaimie Smith (Melbourne Strength Culture)
The brain recognises the need for positional change, the skeleton signals the need for a change in spatial movement and the muscles produce force in order to make it so
Now that we have a working definition of the influence of the skeletal system on movement, we revisit the role of the arms & shoulder complex - now let me reverse engineer some fundamental anatomy for you:
- The arms are peripheral to the rib cage
- They cannot generate the movement required to press independently of the shoulder, so signalling of the system must come from there (the shoulder)
- If the shoulder is required to generate movement, then we must also consider the influence of the scapula which contributes approximately 33% of all shoulder rotation (Shallows, 2020)
- If the scapula contributes a high degree of movement, we first must assess what would influence the relative position of the scapula - this rests primarily on the muscles that influence the shape of the rib cage & what we use to breathe
That means that while we need to address things like the serratus anterior, rhomboid, pec minor & major as well as many others, addressing these muscles alone or in isolation is not a particularly good use of time
What we must look to in these situations is the role of the diaphragm & breath cycle, and how these two things create movement at the sternum (or lack thereof) which then has a knock on effect to the surrounding muscles, leading back to the shoulder and out to the arms
As you breathe, your rib cage moves in some capacity to accommodate your lungs. Fair?
When we bench press we want to bias the idea of creating as expanded and broad a rib cage as possible. We want a greater surface area for contact with the bar, a reduced ROM, a greater level of contact with the upper back & shoulders to provide support - the list goes on
This is known as a wide infra-sternal angle, or ISA - the angle between the bottom of the sternum and lower rib cage. A simple way to understand it is the space created around your solar plexus - if that space gets better then you are creating a relatively wider ISA, which means the front of the rib cage is both expanding/widening AND lifting
The issue, however, is that as the anterior rib cage expands this means that the posterior rib cage compresses and gets tighter, along with the shortening of the muscles that are required to assist in breathing and elevating the rib cage which in this case will focus on pec minor, rhomboid & SCM (big ropey muscles attaching your neck and clavicle)
As the posterior muscles of the rib cage shorten and compress this passively internally rotates and elevates the humeral head, creating instability and inhibiting the recruitment of serratus anterior. We NEED internal rotation of the shoulder to bench effectively, but if we internally rotate at the shoulder too early during the movement we leave ourselves with nowhere to go - we have played our ace in the sleeve too soon and now have overplayed our hand.
In order to create a stable shoulder capsule we need to effectively redirect the breath cycle. We want to effectively set up as high on the traps as practicable to draw the head of the shoulder back into the posterior capsule of the shoulder so that it can then move ANTERIORLY into an ideal press position, but this requires a greater degree of control at the rib cage along with the lengthening and strengthening of the posterior muscles of the back (lats & rhomboids especially) along with the serratus anterior (primarily responsible for preventing the humerus from gliding forward and assisting the shoulder in flexion i.e. your starting bench position)
If all of this seems a little complex, it is, but let’s reduce it to a few more easily digestible points
- The bench requires extension and a wider ISA (some relative flaring of the rib cage)
- Many of us breathe in a way that already biases a wide ISA and elevation of the rib cage
- As the rib cage elevates, the posterior muscles of the back move into their end range and internally rotate the shoulder
As we set up for the bench and flare/expand the rib cage even more we are trying to extend something that is already heavily extended which then creates dysfunction and restriction
To begin to resolve this, we have to create a greater level of variability in the rib cage. In order to extend with a greater and more stable range of motion, we actually need to be able to retract & internally rotate the rib cage, expand the lower posterior ribs and free up a more stable expression of strength at the shoulder
Effectively warming up for the bench press should address:
- Shoulder flexion & external rotation - Y raises, supine breathing
- Thoracic flexion & extension - Z-Pressing, corner pressing
- Thoracic expansion - Chest supported row variations & quadruped breathing
As the lungs expand we want them to create an increase in thoracic pressure within the rib cage to stabilise the joints of the shoulder as well as simply provide room for the shoulder to ‘move into’ both flexion and extension - as the lats lengthen they reduce the passive internal rotation of the shoulder thereby increasing control in extension (the eccentric portion of the bench) and increase flexion/external rotation in their eccentric range (the concentric portion of the bench press, or press/lockout)
Focusing on ‘pulling’ in a breath into the upper back between the shoulders is a helpful idea, especially when focusing on creating as much depression of the shoulder as possible - as you set up for the bench, ensure that you are actively pulling the shoulders away from the ears
This will not only more easily allow the shoulder to safely move, it will cause the rib cage to retract/internally rotate and drive air deeper into the diaphragm
Stay Tuned - Part 2 is Coming
Next we will discuss the movement of the scapula, why RELATIVE movement is important (and what it actually means) and why you should run for the hills if someone tells you to lock your shoulder blades