Let’s get right to the point: I believe a moderate arch during the bench press can help you maintain better shoulder health and move more weight, as compared to a flat back bench press.
Why? Anterior humeral glide. That’s a fancy pants way of describing what happens when the ball part of the shoulder joint slides forward in the socket. It can irritate all the structures inside, leading to shoulder pain.
If you experience shoulder pain when you bench press, you’re going to have a hard time moving heavy weight. Now, moving heavy weight in the bench press (or bench pressing at all) isn’t necessary. But let’s be honest – bench pressing is incredibly popular for the general population, it is one third of the sport of powerlifting (in which I compete), and for the hockey players I coach, it’s usually a tested lift. Therefore, we should be setting it up in a way that keeps the shoulders happy, healthy, and pain free while also allowing for big weights. Dean Somerset has written about anterior humeral glide here if you’re looking to learn more.
I want to make it clear that this isn’t for someone who has a diagnosed, acute shoulder injury. I’m pretty damn happy that my shoulders are the best they’ve been in 2 years and that I recently got them there in part due to benching 3 days/week. But if I had tried benching 3 days/week when I separated my shoulder, I would have probably made my condition worse. I was very active in searching out a few fantastic professionals who understand that I want to keep lifting and that sometimes, irritation is the cost of doing business. But I also followed rehab protocols. If you don’t have an acute injury, that’s where this article may come in handy.
Lying down with your upper back flat on the bench and shoulder blades spread apart leads to anterior humeral glide when the bar is at the chest, while retracting the shoulder blades and pinning them on the bench allows for the shoulder to stay in a packed position and better engages surrounding musculature.
In setting up for the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, then pin them to the bench in that position, and get tight so you can keep them like that for your entire set. Doing so, your chest will rise towards the ceiling, and this is the moderate arch I’m referring to. Next, think about melting the bar in your hands – this helps “turn on” the rest of the kinetic chain, and will give you a more active bench press. This includes the rotator cuff, which works to keep the ball in the socket. Next, pull the bar to your chest while puffing your chest up. By making the down portion of the press more similar to a row, again, you’re engaging more musculature and helping to protect the shoulder when it’s at the most vulnerable position. Finally, as you press up, you shouldn’t be letting the shoulder blades spread apart so that you’re in a strong position for all your reps.
As you can see in the picture below, with a flat back and shoulder blades spread wide, the upper arm is left to roll forward in the shoulder socket and the elbow is below the edge of the bench. This is where you will see anterior humeral glide and it can cause irritation to several structures in the front of the shoulder, like the biceps tendon. Especially when you have heavy weights in your hands.
In the next picture, the humerus stays back and packed, the elbow is level with the edge of the bench, and all the sensitive structures can stay healthy and happy.
Every exercise in the gym has a continuum of risk versus reward, how well it is performed, and the benefits you receive from doing it in a particular way – some a lot more than others. Subpar technique for the bench press can limit how much you’re lifting and irritate your shoulders. Take yours closer to the happy tears end of the continuum by giving a moderate arch a try.
Got any questions? Find me at firstname.lastname@example.org