It’s chest day, and that means it’s time to the bench press. You walk into the gym ready to produce so much power that you shift the planet’s orbit—there’ll be no choice for your stubborn chest but to grow.
But afterwards you hobble out, shoulder joints stinging, deltoids and triceps aching, and chest feeling annoyingly fresh. Not exactly what you had in mind, so what went wrong?
Your pectoral muscles are being overpowered by your shoulders and triceps. This not only leads to a lack of chest development, it also tends to overly stress shoulder joints.
The problem is that you’re too focused on lifting the most weight possible.
Moving Weight Vs Stimulating Muscle
Shifting maximum weight and stimulating muscle for strength and growth aren’t necessarily the same thing. There is crossover, and many people happily achieve both without giving it much attention, but it depends on how you’re built.
I’m in the dominant shoulders and arms group. For a long time I avoided benching after concluding I wasn’t made to do it. The movement barely stimulated the target muscles, and always lead to shoulder pain.
This is what we’re taught is the correct bench press form to fully express strength. The cues are:
- Feet flat.
- Back arched.
- Elbows at 45° to torso.
- Strong grip on the bar while trying to pull it apart.
- Maximum tension throughout the body.
- Emphasis on engagement of the legs and upper back to help complete the lift.
You unrack the bar, think of pulling it down (to ensure the back is tense) as if your body is a spring being compressed, then release the spring and visualize pushing yourself through the floor instead of pressing the bar up.
This is the best way to move the greatest load possible, but doesn’t necessarily do much for chest development.
Bench Press for Chest Growth: The Fix
With the right strategy even we shoulder and arm dominant people can use the bench press for chest growth.
The first requirement is a change of focus.
It’s almost opposite to the powerlifting style: instead of using as much of the body as possible to move maximum weight, the goal changes to feeling the pectoral muscles working. This emphasis makes all the difference.
Everything else flows from there.
- Modest stability from core and legs is all that’s required. Instead of visualizing winding up the whole body into a tense spring, now it’s just the chest.
- A wider grip and flaring out the arms (carefully—not to the point of shoulder instability) can help better direct the tension to the pectoral muscles.
- A fast, ballistic movement generates more power through connective tissue elasticity, but it’s rough on joints and leads to shoulders and arms taking over. Therefore ensuring the pecs do as much of the work as possible requires a slower rep speed. There’s no need to take it to an extreme, just slow enough to allow control.
- Less bar weight is a must, at least until the new form is ingrained.
From Shoulder Wrecker to Chest Builder
The bench press is legendary, but for many people their method overemphasizes moving weight and isn’t a good way to train chest. It breaks down the shoulder joints and leaves chest muscles deflated and sagging, growing only ego and physio bills.
Fortunately by modifying technique we can prevent joint damage and use the bench press for chest growth. Less bar weight means your ego may not thank you for it in the short term, but extra chest size might just make up for it.