Bench Press Comparison: Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, and Shot Put
The bench press is probably the most common and popular lift out there, and because of that everybody loves critiquing peoples form and ranting on which bench press technique is the best. I’m going to put my neck out there and say that there is more than one correct way to bench press depending on what your goals are. The bench press for powerlifters, bodybuilders, and shot putters all look a little bit different because they are performed with different end goals in mind.
The main goal for a powerlifter in the bench press is to get as high a number on the bar as possible while staying within the regulations of the sport. The two most prominent rules are that the butt and shoulders must remain in contact with the bench and the bar cannot be bounced off of the chest. This creates two main consideration in the lift. The first is that the powerlifter wants to incorporate their entire body into the lift. The more muscle groups that are actively contributing means more force can be developed and they can bench more weight. What this looks like is that a powerlifter will bring their feet as far underneath them as possible, almost creating a “C” look to their body, only making sure that their butt doesn’t rise off the bench. With this posture, the entire body is flexed rock solid, and when the press commences, they are firing every muscle from the triceps, delts, and pecs, to the core, glutes, and calves as well.
The second consideration, which is limiting, is that the bar must be controlled as it is lowered, and after making contact with the sternum, the lifter must wait for a signal from the judge before initiating the press. This both takes a little more energy from the lift to lower the weight eccentrically, and also takes away the stretch reflex, or bounce, that could otherwise be taken advantage of. Therefore although a powerlifter’s main objective is to lift as much weight as possible, and will incorporate their entire body to do so, the rules of the sport are limiting to a certain extend. Because of this, a powerlifter’s bench number might not be quite as high as a shot putters, since a shot putter is not bound to certain regulations on technique.
The main goal for a bodybuilder is hypertrophy, or getting the target muscle in the lift to get as big as possible. The primary active muscles in the bench press are the pectorals, anterior deltoids, and the triceps. Variations can be used in the lift to target one of these groups more than the other, but the focus is still the chest. Since the target muscle in the lift is key, activating the rest of the body in order to lift a heavier weight is pointless. The biggest mistake young bodybuilders make is getting too caught up in the numbers, when it is the muscle they should be trying to train. One method of targeting the chest more and not using the rest of the body is to rest the feet on the top of the bench so they are unable to contribute.
The key to hypertrophy is time under tension, or making the muscles work for as long as possible through the course of a rep. Therefore the rep should be completed slowly and controlled both on the eccentric and concentric phases. The bar should not be bounced off the chest as that aids the lift by means other than the target muscle. In fact, the bar should only graze the chest, ensuring full range of motion but not allowing the muscle to rest at the bottom of the lift. The elbows should also not lock out the entire way at the top of the lift as that will take the tension off of the muscles as well. The key to bodybuilding is to work the muscles, not the weight on the bar.
The goal of a shot putter is to throw the shot put far, which makes the application of the bench press a little more complex. What we try to consider with every exercise we have shot putters perform is the amount of transfer the exercise has to throwing the shot put. An exercise like throwing a medicine ball has a high transfer because the movement is similar, the explosive nature is maintained, and the ball is being accelerated quickly like the shot put. Jogging, for example, has a very low transfer because the movement is different, the movement is slow, and it works different energy systems. The bench press lies in the middle of those two exercises as far as the specificity and transfer of the movement is concerned. However, even within the bench press, different techniques will have more or less transfer to throwing the shot put.
The factors we like to incorporate into the bench press to maintain the transfer to the event include using the entire body, tapping into the stretch reflex, and developing force as rapidly as possible. The most crucial and explosive point of force development in the bench press is the instant when the bar is leaving the chest and the concentric portion of the lift begins. This position mimics the point in the throw at the power position, when the non-dominant foot grounds, and the final acceleration of the implement into the release begins. At the point of driving the bar off the chest, the stretch reflex is primed across the chest, and the whole body is activated in one explosive movement to create as much force as possible to initiate the drive upwards. A possible side effect of this action is that the butt could rise off the bench. This should not be avoided as just like the throw, the hip drive is crucial to transferring energy through the body. However, just like anything, lifting the butt too far off the bench can inhibit the lift and cause stress on the lower back which should be avoided. In order to maximize the stretch reflex across the chest, the bar is also going to be bounced off of the chest prior to the concentric phase. Again, although bouncing is necessary to develop as much force as possible, it should be a controlled bounce in order to not damage the sternum.
It is sometimes argued that when the hips come off the bench, the angle of the chest decreases, which is less specific to the shot put. To make up for this we use incline presses often to add variation to the exercise and mimic the angle of release more specifically. There is also still a time in place to develop the chest muscles more specifically if we determine for an athlete that those muscles are lacking. So although the standard bench press for a shot putter is fast and explosive, we also incorporate slowed and more controlled reps if needed.
The strength world is huge and has a variety of different people trying to reach different goals. A common lift like the bench press should not be restricted to a single technique. The goal of the athlete is the only thing that matters, and their bench form should align with those goals.
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