by RN Graham
The Big 4
Now that you have a strong foundation of strength theory, I would like to start with the basic core Strength Movements. If you talk to anyone in the fitness world about the four most important strength training exercises, they will probably list
“The Big 4;”
3. Bench press
4. Shoulder press
These are hands-down the best movements for building strength!
You will notice that most strength training routines will incorporate some variation of these exercises. These four compound exercises not only help build strength and power, but they also help to build confidence while sculpting and impressive physique. During this series on “The Big 4,” we will be discussing the exercise, required equipment, proper execution, safety concerns, and variations of each exercise.
The Bench Press
Required Equipment for Bench Press Success
Weight bench or Smith machine, Barbell or Dumbbells
The bench press has long been the greatest measure of strength in the gym setting. “How much do you bench?”, is a common question that I would receive. My answer shocks most people because even though I am built like someone that spends a considerable time lifting heavy weight, I don’t.
Why don’t I bench heavy? Well, functional movements, have always been my claim to fame, especially when it comes to the bench press. Allow me to expand upon the functional versus non-functional components to the bench press.
As an example of non-functional benching, there are very few situations in life where you will need lift 300 plus pounds off of your chest. In fact, I can’t think of one rational situation when you would need to lift heavy weight like that. However, I do know that there are plenty of situations where you may need to push yourself up from the ground (functional).
Bench Press Core Muscle Groups
At its core, the bench press is a compound exercise that incorporates the use the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. This exercise helps to builds strength while encouraging the growth of the muscles described. The increase in strength and stamina of these muscles will help with daily activities that require carrying and/or pushing (functional). When built properly, muscle growth is not only desired by the singlet wearing bro, but also by strength trainers over age 40 when sarcopenia is a concern.
How to Execute the Proper Lift
If you are a beginner, my recommendation would be to start this exercise by learning with a barbell with no weight or light dumbbells. This will allow you to get the feel of the exercise and learn the movement with good control.
Let me accentuate that this exercise, if done correctly, will induce muscle growth and strength gains in a short amount of time…BUT if done incorrectly, the bench press can be dangerous.
This is not a competition with anyone but yourself, be realistic with what you are capable of as well as your goals. As always, before starting any workout routine please see a medical professional to discuss any concerns and to evaluate your overall health. Previous shoulder injuries are always a concern and heavy bench press should be avoided. If you suffer any shoulder pain while performing the bench press, replace the weights, end the exercise, and see your physician at your earliest convenience. As stated above, if you are bench pressing a heavy weight or trying to set a personal best, do so only with the assistance of a spotter.
Steps Toward a Correct Bench Press
1. Lie flat on the bench under the rack with your eyes aligned with the front of the barbell. Your head, shoulders, and rear should be flat on the bench with a slight bend in the spine. Feet should be placed flat on the floor and relatively shoulder width apart. Surprisingly this is where you generate a lot of power for this lift.
2. A tight overhand locking grip of the bar is recommended. This involves placing your thumbs on the outside of your closed fist with arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. For your safety the appropriately named “death grip”, the thumbs behind the bar or locked beneath the fingers, should be avoided. The upper arms should be 45 degrees to the body.
3. Next, lift the barbell from the rack keeping your wrist straight and lock the elbows out prior to lowering the bar to the chest. Do not lock suddenly or explosively! The bar should then be lowered in a controlled fashion to the nipple line. Avoid moving the bar in an arc from the rack directly to the chest position.
4. With the bar lowered to your chest pause for a one second, take a deep breath and extend the arms raising the bar above the chest. Keep your head straight with eyes focused consistently at the same spot on the ceiling. Exhale while you push upward.
5. Return the bar just above the chest and repeat the exercise. Depending on the goal of your strength training and your level of experience reps of 8-12 are generally recommended.
6. When finished, replace the bar on the rack from the locked-out position. The proper way to do this is to move the bar backward slowly until you feel the rack uprights, then lower the bar down to the rack rest.
Bench Press Variations
So, you’ve mastered the Bench Press! In a matter of weeks, you’ve likely seen a noticeable gain in strength and even a change in your body’s composition. Like most, you are probably getting bored of the same exercise. Maybe you have even hit a plateau. This is a sign that you are ready to move onto a variation of the bench press.
There are quite a few variations to the Bench Press with the 3 most popular being:
1. Incline Press
2. Decline Press
3. Close Grip
Each emphasize increase in strength, stamina, and growth within different areas of the targeted muscle group, the pectoralis. Note that each of these variations, much like the Chest Press, can be performed using dumbbells as well.
The pectoralis major muscle is comprised of a clavicular and a sternocostal head, we will simplify these terms into upper and lower chest.
Breaking Down Bench Press Variations
· Incline Press (which can also be executed with dumbbells) is a variation designed to target the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. Placing the bench at a 15 to 30-degree incline causes the body to activate the shoulders, making this exercise more comparable to the overhead press. Performing an incline press also puts less stress on your rotator cuff, a common area for injury when the bench is flat. A bit of caution…the Incline Press requires more muscle activation, making it harder to lift more weight. Because you are working your deltoids as well at this angle, it is recommended not to do shoulders the following day.
· Decline Press is an excellent variation for strengthening your lower pectoralis muscles. By simply lowering the head of the bench below your legs, 15 to 30 degrees, you will activate the lower chest muscles as you push weights away from the body. Compared with the other variations of the Chest Press the decline version is less stressful on the back and shoulders. This variation should be performed with a spotter as it may at first feel like an awkward movement.
· Close Grip Chest Press differs from the traditional bench press in that you grasp the bar with a slightly more narrow grip. This position places an emphasis on building strength and size in the tricep muscles, as well as the chest. A common misconception with the grip for this variation is that the hands must be very close to each other or touching, this is false. Hand placement should be at least 6 inches apart. In fact, The Sport Journal did a study in 2018 comparing loading ranges and peak power outputs between the Chest Press and Close-grip Chest Press. During this study, authors defined close-grip bench press width as being roughly 95% of a lifter’s biacromial distance (the distance between shoulder joints). Placing the hands too close together puts unwanted stress on the shoulder joint.
The bench press will always be a stable in the fitness world and when done correctly there will be numerous benefits to reap but remember that when done incorrectly there can be long lasting unwanted and dangerous results. Your only competition once again should be with yourself. After all, nobody wants to be that person gets yelling for assistance after being stuck beneath the bar.
In the second part of our “Big 4” series we will discuss the Overhead/Shoulder Press. Until then remember to make the best of your day, Eat Right, Sleep Tight, Train the Best, Control the Stress, and as always, stay Maximal.
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