The barbell bench press is one of those exercises that every boy in high school wants to do. In the gym, it’s all about increasing your bench press. I am not certain why every teen boy obsesses with the bench press; I believe ego is part of it.
I am sure most teen boys who continue bench pressing have run into the same issue, shoulder pain. If you barbell bench press long enough, shoulder pain is inevitable.
This is especially true when you do not take preventative actions. I was like this in high school till I graduated college.
I did a lot of bench pressing but never did anything to keep my shoulders healthy. I often had to take time off bench pressing because of pain. I just thought that was the price you pay, and this is what kept me from seeing progress.
Now, what are measures you can take for shoulder health?
Most guys would think of rotator cuff work, and that’s not wrong, but not the whole picture. I would incorporate mobility work for the shoulder and thoracic spine.
You also need to work on stability with your rotator cuff muscles, part of the shoulder blade muscles.
So the first step to increasing your bench press is moving better and being able to bench without pain.
I go into detail on better shoulder health with exercises in my earlier blog post; go check it out here.
STEP 1: STOP (TEMPORARILY) BARBELL BENCH PRESSING
Technically this is the second step your first step was just getting your shoulders feeling good again.
The majority do not take a break from using the barbell, which is part of why there are so many shoulder issues.
The problem with the barbell is that it is in a fixed position. During a barbell bench press, your shoulder joint internally rotates to hold the barbell. Internal rotation isn’t bad, but look at what your shoulders are doing during your day-to-day activities. When you type on a computer and play with your phone or games, you are internally rotating your shoulders.
The overuse of this internal rotation without working on external rotation strength, stability, and mobility is one cause of chronic pain.
I suggest you take time off the barbell, work with dumbbells and kettlebells, and get good with push-ups.
They allow you to have more freedom for movement.
Using dumbbells, you can move the weight that fits your body the best.
That’s not possible with a barbell.
The barbell is in a fixed position, and you have very little freedom on how you can move the weight.
Use the dumbbells to gain strength in the pressing movement while keeping happy shoulders.
STEP 2: UNILATERAL TRAINING FOR BENCH PRESSING
Unilateral training is not just for the lower body the upper body can also benefit.
Barbell pressing requires you to press both arms together, hiding a strength and stability imbalance.
This imbalance could grow into a chronic pain issue that limits mobility and stability. Single arm bench pressing can help resolve this strength and stability issue. Not only does it help build strength and stability on that side, but your also working on your core. The core is working to prevent unwanted rotation of the torso.
Before you jump right into unilateral training, remember you want to stay balanced with your strength.
With this said, you should start with the weaker side, and let that dictate the weight and reps you are doing. Yes, your strong arm can do more reps and weight, but you would be furthering your imbalance. Start with the weaker side, if the weak side can only do 12 out of 15 reps, then the strong side will do the same.
I suggest sticking with unilateral training for a minimum of 4 weeks, getting strong with the single arm pressing.
STEP 3: CHANGE THE REP RANGE WITH BENCH PRESS
Changing your reps is a simple step to take. If your goal is to increase the amount of weight you are pushing, you might be doing reps of 1-5 repeatedly. In the beginning, you got results but quickly hit a plateau. Does this sound what happened?
It is common and happens because your body adapted to those rep ranges. It’s pretty simple, your body does a great job adapting to stress. Lifting weights is a form of stress, and giving the body the same stress will cause the body to adapt.
You want to keep a novel stimulus with your routine. Every 4-6 weeks change the reps. Go opposite what you were doing, let’s say you’ve been doing reps of 5, do 12-15 then go to 8-10.
Get strong and push the weight with the new rep ranges, you’ll notice a big difference in how you feel when you lower the reps.
STEP 4: TIME UNDER TENSION & CONTRAST TRAINING
Lastly, I want to go over time under tension and contrast training. They are different methods but similar and can be paired in a workout that I want to explain in this final step.
Time under tension is the amount of time your body is under tension or load during an exercise set.
Your muscles have 3 different ways to contract to create tension: concentric, eccentric, and isometric. Concentric movement is the typical action you think of when lifting a weight. Let’s use the bicep curl to keep it simple. When you curl the weight up, the biceps shorten with tension, this is a concentric action.
Eccentrics are when the muscle lengthens under tension, using the bicep curl exercise, and the weight lowers slowly. The bicep muscle is lengthening but still under tension due to the load placed on the muscle.
Isometrics is when the muscle is under tension, but the muscle is not moving. Curl the weight halfway and hold it, your muscle is not moving and is under constant tension.
Now that you are familiar with the different muscle contractions, look at what you have been doing with your lifting.
Have you ever focused on slowing down your reps with the eccentric action or pausing a lift for isometric holds?
If not, you are missing out on the gains.
You can do this with dumbbells or barbells, I suggest sticking with dumbbells. Any exercise can benefit from using time under tension methods.
Eccentric work will be a 4-5 second lower for 4-5 reps with a weight that you can do 8-10 reps.
For the isometrics, you can go between 4-10 seconds of a hold in the bottom position of the bench press. Do not rest the weight on your body, you should have constant tension while holding. Keep the reps low with 3-5 reps.
Alright, now let’s get into contrast training. Contrast training is when you perform an exercise such as the bench press with high loads and pair that with a plyometric of a similar movement pattern like horizontal med ball throw.
The goal is to teach your body to produce force at a very high rate. The heavy load increases the recruitment of your motor units to the muscles. When you pair that with an unloaded plyometric, the nervous system thinks it will lift something heavy, resulting in a more explosive movement.
Overall you will develop more power and strength with your bench press. Keep the reps low for both movements, 3-5 reps for 3-5 sets and long rest periods, 3-4 minutes between sets.
I mentioned that time under tension and contrast training go well with each other, and it does. You can do eccentrics and isometric training with a paired plyometric exercise. It works well with each other and can have great results. You can do 2 weeks of eccentrics and 2 weeks of isometrics with the paired plyometrics.
FINAL STEP: BARBELL BENCH PRESS
Finally, after you complete all the steps, you can go back to barbell bench pressing. By the time you get here, you will feel better with shoulder mobility, stability, strength, and explosivity.
This whole process will take time. The best thing for your progress and longevity of your body is to take breaks from the barbell. You can’t progress when you beat your shoulders with the same movement and goes for any barbell lift.
Keep the movements in your mobility exercises from the first step in your routine. Use them as a warmup for your upper body lifting days.
Take a couple of weeks to adjust to the barbell, and get some reps in with 3 sets of 8 reps.
After getting acquainted with the barbell, start loading up. I recommend starting with 5 sets of 3 reps with 85% of your estimated 1 rep max. Each week by the end of the last set, make a note if you feel you can do 3 or more reps. If you can, increase the weight for the next week by 5lbs. Do this for 4-6 weeks, and in the last week, test your 3 rep max.
Unless you are a powerlifter, I do not suggest doing a single rep max, the risk outweighs the reward. I recommend doing 3 reps because the risk is not as high, and you can still determine your strength based on 3 reps. Again, each step will take time, but if you are consistent you will increase your bench press.
If you want something more detailed and need a program to complement your goals, apply for training with me. Click here to apply and I will get back to you within 24hrs.