This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. The basic premise is this: I don’t flat bench dumbbell press with my clients (or myself for that matter) almost ever.
I really like the idea of dumbbell pressing. In fact, I use dumbbell incline and floor presses frequently. So why the issue with flat bench?
It’s all in the setup.
You see, when you bench press with a barbell, you have the opportunity to retract your shoulders blades and effectively “pack” your upper back before you unrack the bar. By doing this, we safely “gain” range of motion near the bottom of the movement (when the bar is close to the chest).
When our scapulae are in a neutral position (which they frequently aren’t, but we’ll just assume they always are for this post), they’re internally rotated about 30 degrees. This means that for perfect congruence between the humeral head and glenoid fossa, the arms wouldn’t abduct in the frontal plane, but 30 degrees in front of it. Make sense?
Now, couple this fact with the fact that normal extension and horizontal abduction ranges-of-motion are only about 45 degrees. If your shoulder blades are neutral, then you’re effectively only getting about 15 degrees of true horizontal abduction before the shoulder blade needs to retract or the humeral head needs to move in the socket. It’s like long-jumping from 15 feet behind the mark and wondering why your standing broad jump is better.
So how does this relate to benching? Well, think of it this way. In order to bring the barbell all the way down to your chest, you’ll probably need all or almost all of those 45 degrees of horizontal abduction and extension. And it’s no problem on the barbell bench press because your scaps are retracted already anyway (or they should be).
But what happens when we dumbbell bench? As usual, the devil is in the details. And by details, I mean setup. The traditional way to set up for a dumbbell bench press is to start with the dumbbells held vertically on the tops of the thighs while sitting on the end of the bench. From there, you lay yourself back and use your legs to help ease the dumbbells into place (or kick them up into place violently while yelling “Light weight!” at yourself because you think you’re Ronnie Coleman).
The problem with this is that it’s difficult to retract the shoulder blades into that “packed” position while simultaneously attempting to maneuver the dumbbells into place right above your face. And once you’ve laid back and you have some weight in your hands (especially if it’s heavy), you probably won’t be able to readjust your shoulder blades on the bench.
This means that, as in our example above, you’re starting 30 degrees behind the line in terms of horizontal abduction and extension of the shoulder and that will make it difficult (or near impossible) to get the necessary movement from the shoulder without compensating with movement somewhere else (a.k.a. the humeral head will glide forward and start irritating all that stuff in the front of your shoulder).
What Are The Possible Solutions?
If you’re performing a four-week cycle of dumbbell bench pressing as assistance work for something else, it probably won’t be an issue unless you’ve had a previous shoulder injury. So you don’t need to rewrite your entire program to avoid dumbbell pressing.
The issue could come after years and years and workout after workout with poor positioning. And dumbbell pressing is even more of an issue because the range-of-motion isn’t controlled like in a bench press. When you’re benching, the bar will stop at your chest, no questions asked. With a dumbbell press, the dumbbells will go as far as your shoulder will allow, which could be pretty far.
And in case anyone’s wondering, yes, the same thing could go for chest flys.
But not to fear, there are a bunch of viable solutions to your problem!
Solution #1: Cut your range-of-motion short.
Pft, really Josh?
Yeah, you’re right, that was ridiculous. Moving on …
On a real note, I use floor presses ALL the time to supplement my benching. The range-of-motion is shorter (duh!) and it’s a great way to work on lockout strength and still get some of that shoulder stability work while those dumbbells hover above your noggin. Try using paused dumbbell floor presses. They’re awesome.
Solution #2: Use an incline when doing dumbbell work.
Even if it’s a slight incline, the angle of your body will reduce the demand for extension. At the same time, your arms are moving further toward a flexed position (i.e. overhead) at the top of the movement. It’s simply shifting the range-of-motion. Just be sure that you aren’t arching your back like a banana while doing incline work. That diminishes the point of inclining the bench.
Many guys swear by slight incline benching, even if it’s just by 15 degrees, as a replacement for the flat bench.
This could work for flys too.
Plus, the incline work will totally hit that clavicular head of the pectoralis major and it’ll make you look like Ronnie Coleman!
Solution #3: Stick to other implements.
Try using other exercises like straight bar presses, landmine pressing movements, pushup variations, and even cable machines.
Normally, recommending straight bar pressing over dumbbells sounds ridiculous in terms of feeling good. But if dumbbell pressing bothers your shoulders, don’t do it! The barbell will limit your range of motion and you can perform incline, overhead, and mixed grip presses to keep your workouts fresh!
Landmine, pushup, and cable pressing/fly variations all come with the benefit of a free shoulder blade! I’ve talked before about making sure you alternate between fixed and mobile shoulder blade pressing movements, so this could be a good chance to add some in.
Solution #4: Have somebody hand you dumbbells on the flat bench.
This isn’t a terrible idea, but it might look a little strange in more of a hardcore gym. Also, handing people anything above a 60 or 70 lb dumbbell starts to become cumbersome, in my opinion.
On the other hand, it would give the lifter a chance to pack the shoulder blades before the set.
But did I mention how strange it might look?
Of course, it’s possible to retract the shoulder blades as you lay back and kick the dumbbells up into place. It’s just difficult and takes practice. Especially if you’re still unsure of what I’m even talking about.
The question, as always, is this: is there a safer way to achieve the same result. The answer in this case is yes. The point here is that there are plenty of other ways to work on your horizontal pressing strength or your beach muscles beside dumbbell bench pressing.
And although dumbbells are often easier on the shoulders, the front part of your shoulder will be thanking you for not repeatedly jamming the humeral head into it.
Lastly, I’m not attempting to become the anti-dumbbell-bench-press guy, simply providing some food for thought in terms of your upper body programming and long-term shoulder health!