Lately there has been a lot of controversy about the bench press exercise for baseball players. I believe this controversy has begun because of the relationship between the pec major muscle and its action, which is consistent with a motion used in throwing. The sternal head of the pec major is responsible for adduction (moving towards the center of the body) and internal rotation of the arm. These motions occur simultaneously during the arm acceleration phase of throwing. So, it can theoretically be concluded that the pec major muscle is heavily activated during throwing.
But is it really?
When the arm is held to 90 degrees of abduction (away from the body) and internally rotated, like the pitching motion, the pec only has low to moderate amount of activity.1 The amount of activation increases for the pec as the arm approaches the body. In expert handball throwers, the maximal pec activation during the acceleration phase of throwing was only about 30% of MVIC (which basically means maximal contraction)2. So, it is still being used during the throwing motion, but it is not the end all be all muscle. I would argue that the internal rotators of the rotator cuff are more important for both dynamic stabilization of the shoulder, and effectively transferring forces into the ball with decreased risk of injury. Relying on the larger muscles like the pec and lat to do the job of the rotator cuff leaves the shoulder vulnerable for overcompensation and improper shoulder position. The Pecs and the lats are both huge muscles used for internal rotation. Becoming overly aggressive with these muscles, and relying on them to do the work, makes these muscles susceptible for strain and the shoulder more susceptible to injuries related to dynamic stabilization.
The bench press exercise in relationship to throwing.
As we talked about the bench press is an exercise that extensively targets the pec muscle so were going to leave that piece out of it for the sake of repetition. Let’s take a general look at the flat bench, bench press in relationship to the spine. As you lay down on the bench you load weight onto a bar or through dumbbells horizontally into the spine and shoulder blade that is pinned to the bench. This is where my true argument against the bench press lies.
Typically, baseball players present with decreased curvature of the thoracic spine due to constantly cranking the arm into extremes of external rotation and using thoracic spine extension as a compensation to reach even greater extremes. Pinning the thoracic spine against the bench only further enhances that thoracic spine extension because of the horizontal loading against a stable surface, creating an immobile position. This further enhances a deficit or dysfunction that is common in baseball players. This dysfunction of an extended thoracic spine leads to an in congruency between the scapula (shoulder blade) and rib cage/thorax. This in congruency creates and unstable surface for your scapula to deliver the arm and consequentially, the ball. Predisposing the athlete to a greater likelihood of shoulder or elbow injuries.
Furthermore, along with the thoracic spine being pinned to the bench, the scapula is also experiencing the same type of forces. Loading the scapula against a stable surface like the bench creates immobility. The scapula requires consistent upward mobility over the course of a season to maintain arm and shoulder health. Research has shown that decreased shoulder and scapula mobility may escalate the chances of injuries such as internal impingements, rotator cuff tears, UCL strains, SLAP lesions and more.
The scapula starting position is extremely important in the throwing motion but as we discussed the overall mobility is equally as important, that doesn’t just pertain to the upward rotation of the scapula but also to the tilt of the scapula. The horizontal loading of the scapula during the bench press does not allow the anterior tilt that occurs from the phase of arm acceleration to ball release.
Lastly, I wanted to mention that proper deceleration of the arm during throwing is extremely important. If a bench press, or any pec specific exercise, is over programmed it is very possible that increased muscle bulk of the pec will inhibit a proper deceleration pattern due to soft tissue approximation.
Is there a better way?
Like I stated before I believe the pec plays an important role in throwing, and I don’t think the muscle group should be disregarded in anyway. I think cable column or band presses (along with many other exercises) are a suitable alternative to target the pec muscles but to also allow for proper movement and mobility of the thoracic spine, rib cage and scapula. Performing exercises in an unrestricted position such as standing or half kneeling will allow the proper movements of those joints but will also challenge the anterior core to provide a stable base and good ribcage positon.
Is there ever a time to bench press?
Of course, the bench press, or some variation of the bench press may be a great exercise for someone that meets an inclusion criteria for the exercise. There are no basic movements that can be specifically ruled in or ruled out of a program for everyone, there should not be a cookie cutter program, especially when dealing with high level athletes. There are many fantastic organizations that will consistently program the bench press and they are not wrong. Every exercise must be examined, in detail, to the athlete performing it. Find the exercise and program that works for you.