Bench Press Tip - Elbow Position
This tip about the bench press is taking a look at elbow position and what is optimal in terms of strength and reduction of injuries. Having trained a lot of young athletes lately, a common theme I am seeing with the bench press is an elbows-under-the-bar position or a flaring out of the elbows. It is like some of the advice you may read in a bodybuilding magazine when they speak about isolating the chest or targeting the chest more. There is nothing wrong with this type of technique if you are training for aesthetics or even if you are using it as a variation in your training but when it comes to moving bigger loads and for carry over onto the athletic field I don’t believe it is the best way to bench.
The approach I like to take with my athletes is to have them tuck their elbows in at the bottom of the movement. When I say tuck them in, their elbows are at about a 45 degree angle in relation to their torso. By doing this it decreases shoulder rotation, allowing them to keep their shoulder blades squeezed tightly back together and takes stress off the shoulder joint. Having a few pec tears during my rugby league days I also think this position helps take pressure/stress off the pec tendon and decreases your chances of tearing a pec while benching. This was made clear to me while making my way back from my first pec tear in 2012. If I kept good technique I could bench pain free but if my elbows flared out more toward 90 degree in relation to my torso in the bottom position I would have pec pain after the session for sure.
Keeping your elbows tucked in at the bottom allows you to lift more weight as it improves your leverage and allows you to bring more triceps into the movement as well. To me this position is also more natural. If you dive onto the ground and go to pick yourself up, take a look at where your elbows are positioned. More than likely they are at roughly a 45 degree angle not flared out and in line with your shoulders.
As many coaches have said over the years when the bar is at your chest your elbows, wrists, and the bar should all be in a perfectly straight vertical line when viewed from the side. Keeping a stiff wrist is also important as many people bend their wrists back increasing stress on this joint and decreasing the potential amount they can lift.
By tucking the elbows in at the bottom of the bench press the bar path is also improved. When lifters flare their elbows the bar tends to land high on the chest more towards the base of the neck. The more efficient spot is at, or just below the nipple line for most people. From here you are able to press in an arch or “J” press, moving the weight from just below the nipple line to in line with the base of the neck for most people. This will obviously change slightly from person to person but in general this is a good bar path. By tucking your elbows in at the bottom, as you lift the weight and reach your sticking point, you are able to then flare your elbows to help drive through this point and continue to lock out, something I learnt from Charles Poliquin.
There is a lot more technique to the bench press then most people think. This is just one aspect of the bench but something I feel should be addressed early on as it can improve not only performance of this lift but also reduce injuries. For me personally here at THP I train a lot of athletes and their main goal is to perform on the field or on the mat, staying healthy in the gym while still making strength gains is a priority.