The Breaking the Push Plateau.
The bench-press: for some the most important piece of equipment in the gym and a staple exercise for all.
It’s the piece of equipment we gravitate towards during our first visit to the gym, an early strength comparison with our peers and a measure of success for our pain and sweat.
Its also sculpts a great chest!
Because this is our early focus we start creating a shocking muscle imbalance from day one!
Good shoulder health and function requires balance; its like a tug of war we don’t want to win, but when everyone pulls we stay centred.
When focusing on muscle groups that provide the best aesthetic (pecs, upper traps and lats) we leave behind the muscles that control the shoulder itself; serratus anterior, lower traps and the rotator cuff.
These muscles are often the key to smashing through any bench press plateau and will assist in resolving frontal shoulder impingement pain (trapping the tendons) by controlling the angle of the socket and so opening up the joint (sub-acromial space).
Your shoulder is a complex pulley system that has 17 muscles attached to the scapular (blade) alone.
Imagine building a rally car; focusing mainly on power muscles is like upgrading the horsepower but leaving the steering and breaks at factory settings. At some point this imbalance will limit your ability to set a better lap time, or you’ll be let down and break as your speed exceeds your control.
In most cases a bench press is limited by three things:
- Poor technique:
- This means not being efficient in how you transition the force of the press (you aren’t moving the bar from A to B in the best way).
- Muscle imbalance:
- Some of the muscles involved in the movement can’t keep up with the more developed ones (it’s no good if your pec and triceps are strong enough to press the weight if your cuff is struggling to hold the joint together under the weight).
- Often due to trapping the supraspinatus or bicep tendon and inflaming the bursa typically because pecs and upper traps are over active and serratus anterior and lower traps are weak.
This tilts your shoulder blade forwards and traps the tendons between the ball and socket joint.
Like any muscle we need to apply sufficient load and stress to create training adaptation.
The key muscles that support the shoulder:
Comprises of 4 muscles that rotate the arm and more importantly, act as the power steering for the shoulder joint (they control the movement).
They originate on the scapula (shoulder blade) and attach to the humorous (arm). They look to keep the ball, centred within the middle of the socket during arm motion.
Imagine as you press the bar up, gravity and the weight of the bar are pushing back down into your shoulder, effectively trying to push the ball out of the back of the socket.
It’s your rotator cuff that is acting to keep the joint together and control the direction of the bar.
- Cable rotations:
- Set the cable pully to elbow height, keep shoulders pinned back, elbow tucked into the side and pull the cable across your body horizontally.
- Don’t let pecs engage!
- Repeat a pull into the body until fatigue and then turn 180 degrees and repeat pulling out and away from your trunk.
- I am not worthy:
- Hold a pair of light dumbells, (start with 3kg), at head height with your shoulders at 90 degrees, elbows bent and your thumbs pointing at your ears.
- Perform a straight leg deadlift keeping your thumbs in line with your ears and your elbows back throughout, i.e. resist gravity.
- Hold for a few seconds and repeat: try and make the whole action take 8-10 seconds.
- Flying “V”:
- Buy a loop band that’s approximately 12 inches long.
- Put your hands inside with elbows bent and thumbs pointing out.
- Apply tension to the band taking your wrists out wider than your elbows, thus creating a “V”.
- Lift the “V” into the air and don’t let your elbows come out.
- Don’t lose the “V” shape!
- Ensure your have a cuff strong enough to tolerate the weight you are able to push: these aren’t anecdotal exercises but how your arm is attached to your body.
- Stand holding a pair of dumbells and rotate your arms. The line of force is straight down and so not as effective: instead try the above.
- Perform fast jerky movements. These muscles are stabilisers and so need to be exercised with control.
- Let dominant muscles like pecs and upper traps take over.
This muscle looks like fingers that reach around your ribs and under your pec.
Its job is to keep the shoulder blade flat to the chest wall.
If your shoulder blade is winging at the back you are closing down the space at the front and so creating impingement and a sub-optimal socket position to press from. (NB true winging is a nerve injury and should be diagnosed via nerve conduction studies: see your GP or registered health professional).
- Straight arm push up:
- On your hands and knees, keep your elbows straight and lower your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Now push away taking your chest up, shoulder blades go wide and keep your elbows straight.
- Bear crawls:
- On your hands and the balls of your feet, walk up and down on all fours pushing the ground away as you go.
- Straight arm press:
- Lie on your back with your arm vertical and a dumbbell in hand, keep your elbow straight and push up, lifting your shoulder off the floor.
- Check your shoulder blades. If they are winging you need to add in this rehab or see a registered professional.
- Practice the action of shoulder protraction. Learn what it feels like to activate and squeeze this muscle. Chances are you will find it tricky at first if you have an underactive serratus.
- Add the serratus squeeze into your bench press action.
- Confuse this with simply pressing the arms.
- Give up. You have spent years developing pecs that are strong enough and tight enough to create this issue: the fix will take time too.
This anchors your scapula, assisting with reducing “winging” and also helps to keep your shoulder blade retracted, thus opening up the front and preventing impingement.
- Straight arm chin ups:
- Hang from a wide arm bar.
- Keeping elbows straight, pull your shoulder blades together and down lifting your trunk a few inches into the air.
- Seated row:
- Perform a seated row thinking about keeping an open chest and pulling your shoulder blades back and down.
- A coaching point would be to visualise your nipples going up and out as you squeeze the blades back and down.
- Over head TRX Y’s:
- Holding the TRX with both hands over head and facing the rig, lean back.
- Then, focusing on the same shoulder blade “back and down” pull your arms back above your head returning you to the upright starting position.
- Don’t Shrug!
- Focus on putting shoulder blades in your back pockets, pulling back and down.
- Visualise nipples moving up and out.
- Enjoy the delayed onset of muscle soreness that’s coming your way.
- Shrug!!! Avoid upper traps kicking in and taking over!
- Going too heavy too soon, there is a skill to learning these movements: nail that and the weight will fly up!
Finally, this isn’t always a question of strength. Muscle patterning (i.e. when and how much a muscle fires during a sequence of movement) plays a key role here.
You might simply be in a bad habit, like having a limp, therefore addressing this poor movement pattern can provide startlingly quick results once you regain an optimal movement pattern and lose the “limp”.
It wont be painful if it’s working properly and the better it works, the heavier the push!
Jason Beaumont BHSc Hons, PG Cert, MCSP, HCPC
Jason is a Director at Regen Physio ltd based out of Ultra Flex Gym York and Normanton, Clinical Director at Regeneration Physiotherapy ltd and former Head Physiotherapist at the English institute of sport. His Sport C.V. includes,
- 3 years Head Physiotherapist for Paralympic Table Tennis, (including Rio 2016 Paralympic Games)
- 4 years English Institute of Sport contractor Physiotherapist with GB Boxing, Swimming and Multisport
- 2 years Head of Medical Services for England Women Rugby Football League (including the 2013 World Cup)
- International travel with the Professional Squash Association