THE BENCH PRESS BIBLE
PART 3: SHOULDER FLEXION & DYNAMIC SHOULDER MOVEMENT
Now that we have looked in our first two parts on pressing about structural anatomy as well as how our body begins to organise strategies for movement, let us now look to finish by taking a look at the role of shoulder flexion & global movement.
This is less about the importance of shoulder flexion as an individual movement, but more to instead encourage you to begin thinking about the need to look at all of these parts working together to create a bigger picture instead of fixating on one particular thing.
Start Thinking About the Bigger Picture
Before we go down some massive biomechanics rabbit hole, I am absolutely NOT against retracting in a bench press; it’s a necessary component of movement.
What I am ultimately rallying against is the unnecessary over cueing of retraction of the scapula as the be-all of pressing, when in reality if that is all we had to do every man and his dog would be a world champion presser, especially with the prevalence of extension biases we see in day to day movement. Further to that, extension bias is completely NORMAL and ridiculously common, which should further enforce the idea that maybe our lifters don’t need a tremendous amount of retraction and thoracic compression because most of them are simply walking around in that state day to day.
When we focus on one detail, we lose sight of the whole.
When we focus on retraction and tell ourselves that retraction is the key, that the person would bench better if they retracted more and that the goal to improving the press is to create more retraction then all of our behaviours and observations will pass through this same lens and become self-limiting.
Retraction in the press is just one aspect of the whole, and rather than trying to create a single fixed position of the scapula we would be far better served by beginning to look at the more global movements of the shoulder to give better context to the demands placed on scapular movement to begin with.
Piecing Things Together
My stance is that we are often over emphasising the role of retraction in the press because we misunderstand how to manipulate and address the rib cage to improve shoulder flexion. We see a lack of what is fundamentally shoulder flexion, but address it with a strategy that elevates and anteriorly expands the ribcage which only further limits the ability of the shoulder to flex, then wonder why we see bottlenecks to progress.
We are placing too many constraints on the system and giving it fewer options to self-organize or, in other words, we are trying to jam a square peg into a circle hole.
Before we go too far, to clarify, this is shoulder flexion/extension.
At lockout, your bench is most dominant in shoulder flexion & external rotation with the opposite being true when the bar is at the chest.
Ideally we want to be able to bring the chest up, expanding anteriorly to reduce the ROM - this is partially why people tend to bias so much retraction because it acts to draw the shoulder back as far as possible and create a higher touch point for the chest & bar. However, this also overloads internal rotation of the shoulder for a number of reasons.
As the shoulder draws back further into retraction, it places more passive restriction on external rotation of the shoulder - the shoulder is placed into a position where it’s only strategy for movement is now internal rotation. The eccentric portion of the bench necessitates a degree of external rotation to create torsion against the bar for a controlled touch at the chest. When this is not present and people are biasing too much shoulder internal rotation eccentrically, we tend to see a much heavier touch to the chest with some heaving/sinking of the bar.
At full shoulder flexion we are at our most internally rotated, but as the chest rises this reduces both the angle of shoulder flexion and therefore the degree of external rotation at the shoulder. Not only does this facilitate more activity from the pec minor and SCM which will reduce your capacity to expand the sternum/manubrium (your breastbone) but we are once again doubling down on an internal rotation strategy at the shoulder when we require both IR & ER, at least relatively.
To simplify, if my strategy eccentrically starts me in a position of shoulder IR, and I then need to move further into IR as the bar descends but also create more IR to get the bar off of my chest, I will have nothing left to summon - I’ve played the ace up my sleeve far too early. This is exactly what over cueing a single action, such as retraction, forces the lifter to do.
For any competent bench press the chest still needs to be driving for the bar - I am not suggesting a flatter position is better or stronger, but we need to be conscious of the physical restraints that positions and ideas will create.
You need to be able to see the forest AND the trees.
Isn’t Focusing Only on Shoulder Flexion just as Limiting?
Yes, that’s completely my point.
If we are going to focus our attention on one area, we must also be aware of what is happening globally and how that will affect movement up and downstream of it.
It’s more important to expose the shoulder to a more dynamic environment over time because that is ultimately what will allow for the greatest expressions of strength. Focusing solely on a single cue or idea is akin to conducting an experiment on a group in a completely controlled and air-tight environment then wondering why your findings don’t apply to a broader context.
The shoulder & scapular thrive in dynamic, rather than fixed movement. This is not to say that more movement is better because there will always be a ‘cliff’ to this - more movement is great until it isn’t. But again, the fundamental idea here is that we need to understand greater degrees of subtlety in movement to create better results across broader groups of people.
The first two articles dealt largely with how we can create more sound structure in the bench press, and stressed the importance of looking at understanding fundamental biomechanics and kinematics so that you aren’t wasting your time thinking about muscles when you should be addressing the things they’re attached to.
But this doesn’t mean that we now need to communicate in a more complex manner. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you’ll likely see better results in the bench press when you structure your programming around addressing the STRUCTURAL whilst simply focusing on output and training quality within that.
Our programming and exercise selections here are simply an expression of different constraints, obstacles and mazes that we are encouraging the body to take so that we can produce a desired outcome.
Once you have taken care of those constraints from a programming perspective, you need to
1. Allow the lifter to experience them
2. Give them an appropriate amount of time to create change
We are in far too much of a rush to offer solutions when in reality our best movement, particularly with bench pressing, will be reactive, dynamic and natural.
Your job in taking in all of this information is not to use different cues, but rather come to place people in positions that make more sense
Once you can understand the true intention of the movement and the demands required of the body to achieve that, the rest must be allowed to fall into place over time.
A singular cue isn’t going to resolve the bench press, nor is one single idea within this series of articles going to be the thing you require to suddenly remove all limitations from your movement. It’s going to take a lot of time
I hope you found this series helpful and educational.
If you have any requests for future detailed breakdowns, please feel free to send them through to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy pressing, my friends. If it matters, be relentless!