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Safety: Benching Weights

The weight bench is one piece of equipment nearly every uses. The exercise most-often associated with it is the bench press. Other exercises include bench flyes, various curling exercises, shoulder presses, triceps extensions, leg extensions, leg curls, and various exercises using various attachments.

We'll look at general safety tips first, then look at some of the exercises people do with the bench.

General safety tips

  1. Remember the weight is a resistance that helps you contract the muscle. What is important to your progress is not how much weight you manage to move, but how hard you contract the muscle.
  2. Many safety guides tell you to always use a spotter. Doing so is not possible for some people, and others try to show off for their spotters. Rather than rely on someone to rescue you from bad training habits, use proper technique.
  3. Don't hold your breath, unless you are trying to move the weight to a safety point and there is no other way to get it there. In such a case, you have done your last rep at that weight.
  4. Don't use a cheap bench. While benches are not generally expensive, the cheapest ones are flimsy and can put you in danger. Use a bench that is of sturdy construction. Most are. Also, look for decent padding and a wide enough bench part for your body.
  5.  Always put your weights away. A sure way to get injured is to leave weights out. This is why bodybuilders are downright anal about this.
  6. Use collars and other devices as appropriate.
  7. Don't overtrain. Working the whole body in one day or working the same body part three times a week is overtraining. So is doing huge numbers of sets. Doing huge numbers of reps is simply pointless.
  8. Never do isolation exercises first. These "use up" your stabilizer muscles. For example, don't do leg extensions before doing squats. That brings up another point--if you do squats correctly, you will not be able to do leg extensions. Do flyes after presses--always.


Bench press

This is by far the most common exercise done on the bench. And it's one only a small percentage of exercisers do properly. Most people destroy the stability of their shoulder joints, but forego real development of the chest when they bench.

Three reasons exist for this:

  1. Improper body alignment. Watch the typical gym rat do a bench press, and what do you see? Shoulders rotated forward. This recruits the front deltoids and takes some weight off the chest. It's cheating. And, it sets you up for injury. Keep your shoulders back, by trying to touch your shoulder blades together. Do not push through your feet. Keep your back in its normal arch or even flat. You can cheat to save yourself if you are at the bottom of a rep and can't lift the weight. Save these other muscles for that, and exercise the ones the bench press is meant for.
  2. Too much weight. Most people simply cannot bench their own body weight. If you are benching this much, very likely you are benching incorrectly. You may be able to bench that much, but the odds are against you. The average adult American male cannot bench 100 lbs in good form. In a misguided effort to impress himself or others, he will use improper body alignment to hoist the amount of weight he would be able to hoist if he'd been benching properly to begin with.
  3. Improper motion. Many people try to bench right off the rack. No. Lift the weight up slightly from the rack rests. Straighten your arms immediately. Then, bring your arms forward, so the bar is over your nipples. Then, slowly lower the weight. Do not touch it to your chest--people do this and bounce it off their chests, which is cheating. You will be able to feel a sticking point near the bottom--that's when you stop for a second or so, then slowly push the weight up. Don't lock your arms out at the top.

Other safety tips apply to bench-pressing, but these will allow you to overcome the most common problems associated with this exercise. Always check pins, collars, and other safety devices. Don't assume they are correctly in place.

Bench flyes

Back in the golden age of Nautilus equipment, the "new rule" was to "pre-exhaust" the chest with flyes, then do the bench press. The problem with this approach is you also exhaust the stabilizer muscles and thereby make your bench press unstable. This leads to torn muscles (very painful), ripped cartilage, inflamed tendons, and even dropped weight.

Remember, if you are at the bottom of your bench and can't lift the weight you will need to cheat to save yourself. Pretty hard to do when your delts are already fried.

To do flyes safely:

  1. Keep your shoulders back, just as in the bench press. Too many people pronate their shoulders, then wonder why they don't get much chest action.
  2. Remember this is an isolation exercise. So, isolate.
  3. Keep your elbows straight. Many trainers say to keep your elbows slightly bent, but this leads to cheating. Use less weight and keep them straight.
  4. Don't bounce the weight. Ever.
  5. Arnold often did flyes and no presses for weeks at a time. He focused on bringing his arms in toward his body. That is the movement you must think of to do flyes safely--and get results.

Various curling exercises

Keep your back straight. Period. Too many people curve their backs so they can hoist more weight. This is counterproductive to the curling and it weakens your back.

The key to developing your curling ability is to do back exercises, not curls. Trust me--I can curl half my body weight with either hand. So, don't weaken your back by cheating on bench curls.

Shoulder presses

Keep normal back curvature. Not normal as in what most people do, but as in what the back is designed for. If you adopt the sitting posture most people adopt, whether sitting at the computer or trying to lift weights--you are simply setting yourself up for back problems.

Most people would do better to do presses standing up, rather than sitting down. And never press behind your neck. This is not only a useless unnatural motion, but it puts your back into a compromised position. If you have a trainer who tells you to do this, find a different trainer.

Triceps extensions

Lying on your back and doing triceps extensions on a bench is one way to really hammer your triceps. You can do hanging extensions, where your head hangs over the end of the bench and the weight drops below you. These are relatively safe, provided you use the right weight and don't try to cheat on form. You can also do "widow makers" or "nose breakers." These involve lifting the weight directly over your face. The caution here should be obvious. If it's not, I can't help you.

Leg extensions

Don't jerk the weight. This exercise is rather controversial. It works your quads in a manner that is needless if you are doing squats. It's great for physical rehabilitation, but it's not all that useful to the serious weightlifter. Add them for variety.

Leg curls

These are often done with vigor by people who claim "squats are bad for your knees" (they aren't). These are good for variety, though you will work your hamstrings if you do squats correctly. In the movie, "Pumping Iron," Arnold was doing this exercise with only 30 lbs. Think about that. Get the movie. Notice how his hips never leave the bench. Go thou and do likewise.

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The articles on this site are authoritative, because:

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 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

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