Bench Press; A Deep Dive with Programming Considerations

This post was written by Kyle Rogers, CSCS. Kyle is the Lead Strength Trainer at Driveline Baseball.

Bench press is one of the most widely debated exercises in the world of training baseball players, specifically pitchers. Not only is the bench press part of our assessment process but some pressing variation is included in almost all of our athletes programs to some extent. Much like weighted balls, the bench press is all about smart programming, proper execution, and the right population.

Benefits of Bench Press

The first thing I want to dive into is the benefits of the bench press. The prime movers in a bench press are pec major, pec minor and anterior deltoid while the triceps and serratus anterior work to stabilize the movement. The antagonist muscles are latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoids, and biceps. The rhomboids help keep the scapula retracted during the movement.

What Does this Mean for throwing and Mobility?

The latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major are two of the muscles that help accelerate the shoulder into internal rotation. The shoulder internally rotates at a max speed of around 4200-4600 °/s during the throwing movement. The serratus anterior is one of the three muscles that help upwardly rotate the scapula when the shoulder goes into flexion or abduction.

Research has shown that having shoulder flexion under 170 degrees puts an athlete at higher risk for injury. We want our athletes to have 90 degrees of shoulder abduction throughout the delivery for the most efficiency of movement. If the serratus anterior is weak it could limit the ability to have sufficient flexion or abduction of the shoulder. The rhomboids are a prime mover in scap retraction which will aid in shoulder horizontal abduction in the delivery, also known as a scap load.

Why Test It?

A big reason why we test the bench press is that it’s a great representation of overall upper body strength. As far as performance goes, there is a study done by Mário C. Marques, et. al that shows a relationship between bench press bar speed and throwing velocity in elite handball players.

From an injury prevention standpoint, because the muscles being used in the bench press help internally rotate the shoulder and stabilize the scapula as well as aid in upward rotation, it’s important to see if those muscles can apply force quickly as the throwing delivery is a very fast movement.

Programming Considerations

What we program for our athletes always depends on the athletes training age, injury history, and their movement assessment. There are many progressions and regressions for the bench press and we want to match the athlete with the most ideal pressing exercise we can.

If an athlete has a previous shoulder injury we may regress him to a push up or swiss bar bench press to get him in a more shoulder friendly position. If an athlete’s assessment shows that he has poor shoulder flexion or abduction, we may regress him to a landmine pressing variation to get him to work on scapular upward rotation in a more direct way. If an athlete has a young training age, we may regress him to dumbbell bench press or dumbbell floor press that have a smaller learning curve.

As far as progressions go, once an athlete has perfected technique and their strength is sufficient, we can start to work on more dynamic effort and focus on bar speed. We can also add accommodating resistance with chains and/or bands. A few exercises that can be added as progressions are spoto bench press and incline and decline variations. These exercises are great for adding variety while also helping to improve the bench press.

Technical Cues:

As I said earlier, the problem with bench press is not the exercise but rather the execution of the exercise and generally how it is used in programming. Most people are generally not very technically sound when it comes to bench press because it is much more complex than laying on a bench and pushing a barbell.

The first thing I want to talk about is the setup. Like most exercises, the setup is crucial, if you don’t start in a good position, you likely won’t move well during the movement. The goals of the setup are to have an arch in your thoracic spine, keep the scapula retracted, and have your feet in a good position to put force into the floor; people forget that the bench press is a full body exercise.

The setup will be a bit different for everybody depending on what feels like the best position to press the weight while protecting the shoulders. To get extension through the thoracic spine, it is best to start with the bar at head height and use your feet to drive your body back until the bar is at eye height. Foot position can vary depending on body types. Feet can be out front, wide, with the feet flat, wide, back in line with the hips, with feet flat, or narrow, back in line with the hips, with the heels off the floor. To get the shoulder blades retracted, it’s easiest to leverage the rack and push the shoulder blades back and down into retraction.

Picture 1: wide flat out front. Picture 2: Wide Flat Back. Picture 3: Narrow Heels Up Back

Execution of the lift starts with the unracking of the bar. It’s important to think of pulling the bar off the rack by using your lats rather than pushing up and losing retraction to bring the bar out. Once the bar is unracked, I like to use the cue of “breaking the bar” or “bending the bar in half” to and engage the lats. The eccentric portion of the movement should be similar to a row; thinking of “pulling” the bar to your chest can help with this. This will also help stabilize the muscles that are retracting the shoulder blades. As long as tension is maintained in the lats, the upper arms should be about 45 degrees to the torso as you lower and press. Pressing the bar will start with leg drive. The biggest mistake that is made with leg drive is people will often go into hip extension and have their butt come off the bench. To fix this, think of knee extension and drive through the quads instead. From there, think of keeping the muscles in the back tight to avoid going into elbow flare and imagine pushing yourself away from the bar. The shoulders should remain protracted as the arms lockout at the top of the rep.

Final Thoughts:

Bench press is one of the biggest bang for your buck exercises for the upper body. It can be used in hypertrophy and strength phases for beginner athletes looking to increase their strength base. It can be used for dynamic effort with more elite level athletes looking for an increase in performance. How the exercise is implemented and executed will always be dependent of the athletes assessment, training age, injury history as well as each athletes individual goals.

Kyle graduated from NCAA DII Belmont Abbey College in 2014 where he was a pitcher. He spent 3 years working as the Pitching and Strength Coordinator at Diamond Sports Training Center in Sumner, WA before taking a job as a Throwing and Strength Trainer at Driveline Baseball in February of 2017. In the Summer of 2017, he transitioned to a full time Strength Trainer and was named the Lead Strength Trainer in February of 2018. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association