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The bench press, safe or not?1

When you hear the word “bench press”, do you automatically conjure up images of body builders who can easily lift you and maybe a friend or two?

While the bench press is a popular exercise for those looking to increase their upper body strength — Monday has become the unofficial chest day at many gyms — it is also considered one of the most dangerous moves. Labral and pectoral tears as well as shoulder impingement symptoms and biceps tendonitis are among the common injuries associated with the bench press. Due to its risky nature, is the bench press a good exercise for everyone?

Jon Herting,  a physical therapist and partner at the Training Room told Philly.comthat not everyone is prepared to perform the move.

“Many do not have the prerequisite shoulder mobility, strength and stability to perform this safely and poorly positioned shoulders can lead to injury,” Herting said. “But to write it off as an exercise that should not be performed would be negligent.”

Phil Nicolaou, a master trainer, believes that, if done correctly, bench press workouts can effectively strengthen the shoulder, triceps and chest muscles.

Herting and Nicolaou offer the following tips for proper form:

  • Avoid low back arches and bouncing the bar off the chest for momentum.
  • Keep elbows down to 45 degrees, and your arms, for safety, should never go beyond parallel to the floor.
  • Never place your feet on the bench. Place your feet on side of the bench and bring the floor to you using a step or plate weight.
  • Wrists should be straight, not flexed or extended.
  • Do not allow the top of the arm bone to glide forward on the shoulder socket. This increases stress on the superior anterior labrum and biceps tendon.
  • Exhale through pursed lips, forcing the air out against resistance, while pressing the weight up.
  • Be sure to use a Smith machine or spotter when doing a heavier bench.

When considering your range of motion, Nicolaou told Philly.com that you should weigh the risks against the benefits. He explained that 90 degrees is the safest range of motion without putting excess stress on the shoulder joint, but that people also tend to go beyond 90 degrees (elbows pointing to the floor) which can put the shoulder at greater risk.

What if you don’t realize you are not using proper form? The biggest warning signs, according to Herting and Nicolaou, are shoulder pain and loss of tension throughout the lift.

“There is a myth that says ‘No pain, no gain.’ This is untrue,” Nicolaou explained, “ ‘No fatigue, no gain’ is more like it.”

“You want to work the muscle until fatigue to break it down and force it to grow via proper rest and nutrition,” Nicolaou said. “The body is designed to adapt to stress and once the proper dose of stress is placed on it, it will become stronger and leaner.”

For beginners, a higher repetition with a lighter weight is always the best way to go.

Ultimately, Herting said, there are no right or wrong exercises in any routine, even for beginners. For the general population, he suggests sets of 3 to 12 repetitions anywhere from once a week to three times a week, depending on training goals.

You don’t have to break the world record for heaviest weight lifted in order for this exercise to be effective. Just remember to use proper technique and listen to your body.

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