The bench press is a classic test of upper body strength. It is the second exercise contested in powerlifting competitions and often the first thing people ask you about when they hear you lift weights is, "How much can you bench?" While the bench press is mostly about strength, to be a good presser, you also need a reasonable amount of flexibility and mobility. Stretching can help prepare you for the coming workout and it may also prevent bench-pressing related injuries -- both chronic and acute.
Before you go under the heavy iron, you need to make sure your muscles and joints are properly prepared. This is what warming up is all about. Because static stretches may reduce muscle contractility and, as a result, also reduce your strength, dynamic stretches are best for warm ups. To dynamically stretch your bench press muscles -- the pectoralis major and anterior deltoids -- while mobilizing your shoulders and elbows, perform dynamic chest presses. Stand with your straight arms raised out to your sides so they are parallel with the floor. Swing your arms forward so your hands meet and then pull your arms back and squeeze your shoulders together. Alternate inward and outward movements for five to 10 repetitions or until your shoulders and arms feel warm.
You can use a foam roller to give yourself a kind of massage called self-myofascial release or SMR for short. It is typically used as part of a cool down to target stiff or sore muscles, but foam rolling can also increase your bench press performance. Renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin, suggests performing thoracic release stretches before heavy lifting to open up the intervertebral spaces and enhance nerve conductivity. Poliquin states this will increase your strength by two to three percent. Lie on a foam roller positioned vertically so it runs from the back of your head to the bottom of your spine. Allow gravity to pull your shoulders back toward the floor. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Rotator Cuff Stretches
Your rotator cuff takes a beating when you bench press and as these muscles are important for controlling and stabilizing your glenohumeral or shoulder joints, it helps to keep these muscles in good shape. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. These are collectively known by the acronym, S.I.T.S. Stretch these muscles by pulling your extended arm across your chest, performing the single or double-armed doorway shoulder and chest stretch and internally and externally rotating your upper arm when it is held perpendicularly to your body.
Once your workout is complete, rather than head straight for the showers, it pays to spend a few minutes stretching the muscles you have just been working, which include your pecs and front deltoids. The repetitive motion of bench pressing can promote muscle tightness. If these muscles become overly tight, your posture and shoulder health can suffer. There are numerous static stretches you can perform, but as you may be fatigued after your workout, a supine or lying stretch may be your best choice. Lie on your back so your arms are bent to 90 degrees and are resting on the floor. Make your elbows level with your shoulders. Press the backs of your hands into the floor. Slide your hands up along the floor stopping just before your hands or arms begin to lift off the floor. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Patrick Dale is an experienced writer who has written for a plethora of international publications. A lecturer and trainer of trainers, he is a contributor to "Ultra-FIT" magazine and has been involved in fitness for more than 22 years. He authored the books "Military Fitness", "Live Long, Live Strong" and "No Gym? No Problem!" and served in the Royal Marines for five years.