With so much information available and circulating widely, much of which dictates what is correct and what is not, how can one truly know how to maximize muscle engagement during this king of chest exercises? The most common form of chest press involves the 90° arm angle with elbows out. This form engages the deltoids while lessening muscle fiber recruitment in the pectoral area. It puts a rigorous amount of strain on the front deltoids as well as straining the muscles of the rotator cuff during the eccentric part of the movement. This not only will lend to potential shoulder injury, but does not allow for maximum pectoral involvement. Another method of chest press includes the powerlifter form. This pressing form minimizes the distance between the bar and chest by an over-exaggerated arch in the lumbar region of the back, and with the knees bent at an extreme angle, allows for the feet to be brought beneath the torso. This form in no way allows for maximum muscle fiber recruitment, but does allow for quick explosive movement with a heavier than usual load. It may be effective in driving numbers, yet fails in the development of the chest due to the lack of muscle fiber recruitment. Additionally, this method of hyperextension of the spine causes the discs of the lumbar region to press together. When the weight is lowered in the eccentric phase of the movement, pressure increases in the lumbar spine leading to the potential of a slipped disc and the possibility for pinched nerves. The muscles involved through this unnatural movement are the deltoids, back, and legs with minimal chest involvement.
The only form that I recommend that is not only safest, but recruits maximum muscle fiber involvement in the pectoral region, is also the most natural body form and placement. While lying on the bench, the knees are bent at a slightly less than 90° angle (knee angle is dependent upon the height of the person performing the exercise) with feet firmly planted on the ground (flat if possible) and slightly pointed outward. The back should have the natural lumbar arch and body placement should be where the eyes are directly beneath the bar. Hand position should be placed on the bar to allow for an approximate 45° angle between the arms and the torso while the bar is at the lowest position (the bar is touching the chest). Be sure to experiment where your hand position will be before gripping the bar by first lying on the bench, and without the bar, place the arms in a mock lowered position and adjust the arms until they are at the correct angle. Note the distance between the hands in that mock lowered position as this will be the proper grip placement on the bar. With that same grip placement, lift the bar from the standards, set yourself, and begin the eccentric movement bringing the bar down to the lowest point of the pectorals just above the solar plexus region. Press the bar upward while squeezing the pectorals throughout the concentric phase. To maximize muscle recruitment and engagement, pay attention during the eccentric phase of the exercise by resisting gravity throughout the lowering movement. Be sure to touch the chest for full engagement and muscle fiber activation. Again press the bar up while squeezing the pectorals. When maximum exertion is needed just before and through the “sticking point,” hold your breath as this momentary breath-hold will allow for a greater generation of power (force) and better control throughout the concentric phase. Be sure to maintain the squeeze in the pectorals. To maximize the profit that bench pressing yields requires that ego be set aside to allow for better position on the bench and more controlled movement. This may mean significantly reducing the weight until position and control is improved.
Andrew is available for personal fitness training for all ages and levels of men’s fitness. He specializes in bodybuilding, powerbuilding, powerlifting, and sports performance. He is also available for consultation and training for specific female athlete needs and concerns.