Okay, I know that I am going to spark some controversy with this one. And it’s not often that a fitness professional will tell you not to do an exercise…
But here goes.
You can stop doing the barbell chest press.
The barbell bench press is widely viewed as one of the gold-standard exercises of fitness. It’s the only strength exercise that football players test at the yearly NFL Scouting Combine. And it’s the first thing a gym-bro will ask about when he meets you: “What’s your max bench press?” is one of the most popular questions in the gym.
But this may come as a bit of a surprise:
The bench press is not the best choice for building chest muscle.
Yes, you heard that right!
When you use a barbell on the bench press you restrict full range of motion. Your upper arm (humerus) can only come down to the point where the bar touches your chest. This is far short of full pectoral contraction.
Another problem with the bench press is that your hands are stuck in one position. That may not be the optimal (or even safe) position for an athletes wrists, hands and arms. Improper positioning like that can put tremendous strain on the shoulders.
The bar path in the flat barbell bench press encourages the front deltoids to take over in the exercise. That’s why your front delts and not your chest feel sore after a workout!
And, if you think about it, there is very little functional reason to press a bar of heavy weights off of your chest!
For these reasons, a lot of trainers recommend the dumbbell bench press as a superior muscle builder to the barbell bench.
Dumbbells have the advantage of allowing the weights to be lowered further, increasing the range of motion and effectiveness of the movement. Additionally, hands can be in the traditional position for bench press, facing each other or even rotating through the press for additional benefit.
Another advantage is that the dumbbell chest press encourages sagittal symmetry. Using a flat bar to bench can actually to increase the imbalance in strength between your right and left sides. Using dumbbells doesn’t give those imbalances anywhere to hide.
And that’s another problem with the barbell bench press: Most people move the barbell ineffectively. The barbell is a rigid tool that assumes that your body is perfectly symmetrical. But very often, one of your shoulders will have different mobility and strength than the other. Forced into the barbell, that can lead to injury—my rotator cuffs were screaming with every press.
For older athletes, people with elbow or shoulder injuries (past or present) the dumbbell chest press is a far better option.
Don’t worry, the gym gods won’t rain lightning bolts on your head if you never bench again. Grab some dumbbells and see what a difference that will make in your gains and in injury prevention.