Risk-Benefit Ratio of Various Bench-Press Techniques
Almost every weight-training exercise you can perform in various ways. Pick any exercise and we can instantly offer you at least five different techniques for this exercise. Some techniques are beneficial for the development of strength, while other techniques are more suited for muscular hypertrophy. The benefit and inherent risk of each exercise modification such as grip width, foot position, arm position, range of motion, head position, and trunk motion will alter dependent on the person’s experience, body type, and outcomes desired. In this article we examine the risk-benefit ratio of specific bench-press techniques. In other words you’ll find out from which bench-press techniques you can expect the highest benefits and from which you can expect the highest probability for obtaining weight-lifting injury.
Variations in technique offer foundation for optimal implementation in an individual training program. Remember that high risk for some bench-press techniques (variations) does not automatically mean that the person will be injured. It simply means that the potential for injury may be higher due to specific techniques needed for increased strength and development. The benefits and risks are often inversely proportional. However, there are many cases in which the risks are very high but the benefits are almost zero.
Bench-Press Techniques: Risks vs. Benefits
Our coding system allows the weightlifter to determine whether a certain technique will be of benefit to him and at what risk. Certain bench-press techniques offer a large benefit but also carry a large risk. However, if a person’s expertise is high enough, the trade-off may be worthwhile.
Here is the risk-benefit ratio of various bench-press techniques.
Medium-width hand grip
This technique keeps the forearm perpendicular to the floor at the bottom with minimal wrist stress.
Close hand grip
As a result, the triceps and shoulders take over a part of the work from pectoral muscle. You should avoid this technique if you have problems with your wrists (this is a joint wrecker), and use a lighter weight than in the basic exercise. The narrowed grip relative to the standard bench press can cause excessive extension of the shoulders, especially in long-limbed lanky trainees.
The conclusion is straightforward: Having your hands this close is very dangerous. It will damage your elbows and wrists. The elbows are nowhere near to being directly below the wrists.
Wide hand grip
The wrist is under stress because of the angle of the forearm. The benefit is a shorter arm stroke for potentially lifting more weight. In theory, this variant helps expand the chest. Wider grips also target the outer section of the muscle. This technique displaces a part of the effort to the deltoids and takes some of the strain off the triceps.
There is no single grip width that’s going to apply to every single lifter across the board, because it does depend on your body structure and your limb length but the basic goal is to find the grip width that causes your forearms to be vertical at the very bottom of the rep with your wrists and your elbows directly stacked on top of each other.
Mid-chest contact point
A point of contact is a place on the body that make direct contact with the barbell. In this case the barbell makes the contact with the body somewhere around the middle of the sternum or breastbone.
This is the most common and effective contact point of the bar on the chest.
High-chest contact point
This means that the body makes direct contact wit the barbell at the top of the sternum (breastbone) or even higher to the neck area.
The risk is increased stress on the shoulder capsule and A/C joint. The benefit is a small increase in stress on the upper pectoral muscle. So although this technically does hit your chest harder in terms of raw muscle stimulation, it’s basically going to be suicide for your shoulders over the long term as you start progressing to really heavy weights.
Upper arms at 45 degrees to the body (at 4:00 and 8:00)
The benefit is increased power with decreased stress on the shoulder joint and capsule. This is commonly called the powerlifting style. Therefore, keep your elbows and upper arms at about 45-degree angle to your torso.
Upper arms at 90 degrees to the body (at 3:00 and 9:00)
This means flaring elbows out! The risk is increased stress on the shoulder capsule. In this top position you’re leaving yourself no room for the rotator cuff to really operate. Theoretically, keeping your elbows flared out actually does increase the tension on your pecs. This is because the main function of the pecs is to bring your upper arm across the front of your body. So when you do it that way you do end up getting a larger range of motion, but unfortunately that also puts a lot more stress on your shoulder joints as well. This is commonly called the bodybuilding style.
You might be totally fine right now benching with flare elbows, but as you go heavier and heavier over consistent weeks and months and years of training, it’s going to catch up to you eventually. So you’re better off to just correct it right now from the get-go. The goal with the proper bench press is to find the right balance between maximizing chest stimulation while also doing it safely at the same time.
Rising hips off the bench during ascent
The risk is increased stress on the low-back joints. The greater the arch, the more dangerous the stress on the spine. The benefit is recovering from a technique flaw when the person allows the bar to bounce and go over the abdomen instead of the chest during ascent. The person tries to recover by changing the bar ascent angle by pushing up the hips to assist in pushing the bar back toward the chest.
Having your lower back arced and not in contact with the bench is fine because it helps to keep your chest up. Your glutes, on the other hand, should be tight and pinned against the bench throughout the entire set.
Benching with flat upper back
It’s better to retract your scapula by pinching your shoulder blades back slightly and then driving them back into the bench. When you perform your bench press with your shoulder blades completely flat against the bench, it actually increases the stress on your shoulder joints because they lose their solid contact with the bench and they don’t have anything to properly drive back against. A good form cue for this is to think about squeezing your shoulder blades together and putting them down into your back pocket, and also keeping a small arc in your lower back.
Wrists hyperextended when pressing
The risk is increased stress on the wrist joint, which can potentially injure the metacarpal bones in the wrist. The bar is going to roll backward and immediately you don’t have the support of your forearm under the hand any more. The bar is about 2-3 inches behind that and it weakens your pushing power. Wrist hyperextension risk (wrists end up being bent backward) is diminished with individuals who have small hands and large wrists, which reduces the leverage and stress on the joints. Bent wrists during the bench press will limit your ability to bench press heavy weights for a long time. Also, if the bar rolls off your palms it could cause serious injury.
Wrists straight when pressing
The benefit are decreased stress on the wrist joint and more control on the bar as it is being pushed up. Consciously focus on keeping your wrists in a neutral position. One thing that really helps with this is to position the bar across the lower medial portion of your palm rather than higher up toward your fingers.
Benching with your legs up in the air
Not keeping solid base with feet, or even worse, benching with your legs up in the air is both dangerous and pointless. This exercise variation puts you in an unstable position and it also decreases your strength. This is because you can’t get that additional force from driving your feet into the ground.
It is even more difficult to maintain that neutral wrist position mentioned earlier. More importantly, it is going to increase the chances losing your grip altogether and dropping the bar on yourself. Not a single benefit is known from benching that way.
Bouncing the bar off your chest
If you need to use momentum to bounce the bar off your chest on each rep then you’re going way too heavy and you need to lighten the weight up. From a pure strength perspective, bouncing the bar off your chest doesn’t even count as a legal lift in the first place. From a muscle building perspective, it’s going to reduce the tension that you can produce on your chest in comparison to lifting under more control. And from an injury prevention perspective, bouncing the bar is also going to a lot more likely to hurt your shoulders or even your rib cage if you end up dropping the bar too hard.
Closing thoughts: risk-benefit ratio of specific bench-press techniques
In this article we have presented the risk-benefit ratio of specific bench-press techniques. You should understand that higher risk for some bench-press techniques does not automatically mean that the person will develop injury. It simply means that the potential for injury may be higher due to specific techniques needed for increased strength and development. However, bodybuilding is not a financial asset. The benefits and risks are not always inversely proportional. It is up to you to reasonably consider all the potential benefits and risks before embarking on an adventure of heavy bench pressing.