The bench press is a feast or famine exercise. People either love it or hate it.
- Arm Length may play a role in someone’s genetic ability to generate consistent force to bench press effectively and make long term progress.
- For power lifters, a proportionally poor bench press maybe a product of bad body mechanics
- Limited thoracic mobility will impact your ability to maximize an arch and retract your scapula to maximize tension through your upper body.
Bench Pressing: The King of upper body workouts?
Bench pressing has taken on a life of it’s own across the globe. The bench press has come along way. From its humble roots of being an anterior upper body lift. It has made its way into being a main theme of conversation among emotionally fragile men. It’s become a male arm’s race. Bench pressing now sits right after net worth and dick size as #3 measurement of how manly you are. Move over pick up trucks, you stand at #4 now. They say the upcoming elections may just be solely determined by how much someone bench presses (maybe better than the picks we’ve had lately).
Lagging Bench Press
You hear people say all the time that their bench press ‘sucks’. Squatting and dead lifting are above average or good, but bench pressing is sub par. It goes way beyond simply performing the exercise regularly. We’re talking about individuals who train this pattern 2-3 times a week with sound programming (very subjective but work with me here) and the bench still moves slower than the RMV at after work hours.
Long Arms Limitation: Curse or Excuse?
Weight training is all levers at the end of the day. We are all a bunch of levers needing specific amounts of force in order to move in space. Individuals whom possess genetically longer arms often times fall victim to this. Long arms play a role in bench pressing for the negative, but it is far from the only reason why you struggle with it.
- We often times naturally gravitate to things we do well with from the start.
- We tend to naturally move away from things we suck at.
- Many people refuse to undue bad habits in fear of “moving less weight”. Since we all know a measure of a man has nothing to do with his work ethic, moral compass, and compassion for others. It has everything to do with how much he benches. Everything else be damned!
The truth is much of a lagging bench press is workable for anyone assuming you have no injuries. If you naturally have long arms, you may not become a record breaker. But much of a lagging bench press is attributed to…
- proper form
- Function of creating tension
#2, #3 in will be spread out over two other posts. But for now we will delve into reason #1.
Functional Limiting Factors: Changeable/Workable
Thoracic Mobility: An Actual Limiting Factor
Thoracic mobility is a word that gets thrown around a lot through trainers, coaches, and PTs.
It’s important for many things. Have you ever heard of the person who has TOO much thoracic mobility? I have, but most do not fall into this category. Most people have too little.
Thoracic Mobility In Relationship to Bench Pressing
In relationship to bench pressing, thoracic mobility is important. If you lack mobility through your spine, you will not be able to optimally arch your back during bench pressing. For power lifting, where the goal is to lift as heavy of a weight as possible, you will continue to suck at it until you can get this component right!
In the picture above we can see how since this lifter is able to create a greater arch in their thoracic spine. This decreases the amount of distance needed for the bar to travel. It also optimizes tension through their upper body. If you lack tension through your upper body your bench will suffer, every…damn…time.
Consideration before proceeding with this notion.
Optimizing an arch in your back is mainly a POWER LIFTING technique. If you are not a power lifter, the arch is not necessary at such a high level. Maintaining strong retraction of your scapula is still incredibly important in improving your bench, which we will touch upon in part 2.
How To Tell if your Thoracic Mobility Is Limited:
The thoracic spine connects our neck to our lumbar spine (low back). Stiffness in this area is common and is a common issue among lifters who fail to optimize their bench.
The SFMA (selective functional movement assessment) is a simple way to check how well your spine moves in extension.
- Stand up tall and with arms straight overhead and reach behind you as far as you can
- A good test would show the front of your hips moving forward at the toes or past them while keeping your legs straight.
- Keep the head neutral, go not pull it back into extension.
If the individual cannot perform this. Bring them on a table into an unloaded position and perform a prone press up. We now want to see if the limitation is mobility or motor control.
Prone Press-up key pointers:
- If the individual can effectively push themselves up off the table while keeping the front of their hip down, this individual can now refer to the exercises down below for correctives.
- A failed test would be if the hips come up off the table while trying to go into extension.
- If the standing extension test is substantially failed along with the prone press up. Programming wise you may want to touch on this before programming someone to hit PRs in the bench press.
Ways to Work On It:
There are a variety of ways to fix a T-spine that is limiting.
Bench T spine mobility
- Do not dip your head
- keep your chin tucked
- sink into the hips without having your back go into lumbar extension
Cat/ Camel Stretch
- On the flexion portion, powerfully exhale as you drive your tail bone towards the wall facing your head.
- As you hold the flexion pattern, perform 3 controlled breaths
- On the extension powerfully inhale through your nose and think about bringing your tailbone to the ceiling.
- Make sure you do not move your hips forward or back, keep them locked in place.
There are literally dozens of ways to train mobility through your thoracic spine. Ideally performing these everyday for a few weeks and in between your sets of bench press will allow your body to learn to maximize its thoracic spine mobility.
Yes it is good to do mobility on off days, but remember no long standing changes will be made without DOING the exercise. If you do not present load to the tissue, all you’re doing is just a glorified grandpa stretch that will go back to normal the next day!
- Long arms MAY impact one’s ability to bench press at first. Longer lever=longer distance traveled=more energy expended. But this is the furthest thing from WHY you fail to progress on it.
- A simple and effective SFMA assessment can demonstrate pretty thoroughly whether or not you have good thoracic extension or not.
- If your thoracic spine is stiff, you will be unable to maximize an arch that can allow you to 1. maintain upper body tension and 2. decrease the distance traveled for the bar.
Stay Tuned for part 2.