The Bench Press and Overhead Athletes
Written by Pablo Matos, CSCS February 10, 2017
With baseball season right around the corner, It’s a perfect time to talk training for overhead athletes. For starters, I’d like to start with why we don’t bench press our overhead athletes. The bench press itself is not the issue. It is actually an excellent exercise to get big and strong. Which is why it is one of the big 3 lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) and also a big component of our weightlifting program with other athletes. This also does not mean we do not press with our overhead athletes. However, when it comes to overhead athletes its just a different ballgame. The reward of bench pressing just does not outweigh the risk it has on overhead athletes. Baseball Players depend on their arm being strong and healthy throughout the season. It is our job as strength coaches to not only get them strong, but it is imperative that we also reduce their risk of injury as best we can. As Dan John puts it,
“The Goal is the Goal”
Weight training is a means to an end.
Is the goal to bench press more, or is the end goal throwing harder, staying healthy, and dominating on the field?
If it’s the ladder, by all means bench press. Really, It’s okay! However, if transference and resilience are the utmost priority, we have to look at exercises that give our athletes the most bang for our buck. Here are a couple of reasons that the bench press lacks to benefit overhead athletes and strategies that will be more effective.
1. Shoulder blades are meant to move
The scapula (Shoulder blades) is a bone in the scapulotharacic region that is popular for being the home of your rotator cuff. However, The rotator cuff is merely one set of muscles out of the many that attach to the scapula.
Fun fact: is the scapula has about 17 muscles attaching to it altogether. Seventeen!
Before we get into the scapula and the bench press we have to talk about what the shoulder blades are meant to do when going overhead. When going overhead the scapula is supposed to posteriorly tilt, so it can then upwardly rotate and glide around the rib cage to allow your arm get overhead, simply put, the scapula has to elevate and go around the rib cage so the arm can go up overhead effectively. It is crucial that the scapula moves properly. With around 17 muscles attaching, if the scapula does not move or sit properly, problems arise, and not just in the rotator cuff. This is when we see impingement of some sort, scapular dyskinesis, and even tears. In the words of Eric Cressey, “let scap move!”
With that said, let’s look at the set up for the bench press. To properly set up we want to retract and pull down the scapulae to properly set up for the bench press. This means we are pinning the shoulder blades in place to avoid injury. Seeing as how the shoulder blades have to move to get the arm overhead safely. Locking them down is counter intuitive. With this in mind, we want to use other pressing variations that help us achieve the goal for overhead athletes.
2. Reinforces anterior pelvic tilt
When we look at the lay back phase of throwing we typically find a couple of things. One is a ton of external rotation of the shoulder. The second, when that external rotation ends, players who lack anterior core stability will try to find more stability and ROM by arching or extending their low back. The outcome after continually repeating this motion over and over throughout a season is an extended posture. The hips rock forward into anterior pelvic tilt causing excessive lordosis or extension through the lumbar spine.
In the off-season, we want to restore tissue quality and reinforce good movement patterns for the athlete. The problem with the bench press is that it actually reinforces this extended posture. In the bench press spinal extension is ideal for a strong bench. With baseball players we want to get them out of this posture not reinforce it.
We coach this by teaching our athletes a neutral spine and reinforcing that neutral spine with exercises that challenge the anterior chain. Instead of the bench press, give these landmine variations or push-up variations a try.
Though it is not a horizontal press like the bench press. You can actually see the scapula upwardly rotating and going around the rib cage. Also notice the stance. Seems a lot more “functional”. This is also a good exercise to reinforce good hip position. This exercise will transfer over to a baseball player than the bench press will.
I feel that the push-up does not get the credit it deserves when it comes to training. I guess too much of a good thing… You know, that whole chestnut.
The Push-up deserves more praise as it has very low risk and high reward for baseball players. It gives us some good protraction and upward rotation of the scapula at the top portion of the exercise by allowing Serratus anterior muscle to work to drive the scapula into upward rotation. The push-up also teaches the athlete how to create stiffness of the anterior core by maintaining a neutral spine. Let alone there are many different ways to challenge the push-up. From single leg, to yoga push-ups, to chain resisted… The list goes on. It is a must-do exercise especially for the overhead population.
It is important to understand that the bench press, though very good for strength, can be counter effective to the overhead population. Instead, use exercises that allow for upward rotation of the scapula like the landmine press, push-ups and to drive good habits and help athletes achieve success on the field.