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Bench Press Dips

To Go Deep Or Not To Go Deep… That Is The Confusion!

Have you heard of this debate (sometimes it’s an argument) regarding the bench press or dips and just how deep you should go during the eccentric phase (down-phase)?  Some say “go deep to maximize the stretch and overload on the muscle for optimal results” while others say “don’t do the exercise at all because it will destroy your shoulders”.  If so, perhaps I can offer a solution to this controversy and these “All or Nothing” statements.

“This is the way the exercise is SUPPOSED to be performed.”

bench pressOften, debates of this nature are the result of “all-or-nothing” thinking; that is, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to performing an exercise.  Some gym members and instructors argue, “This is the way the exercise is SUPPOSED to be performed.” Really? Why? And for whom? Can arthritics, seniors and bodybuilders all conform to this absolute?

No Right or Wrong Exercise

Consider this concept:

When it comes to exercise, there generally is no right or wrong exercise only:

  • Higher risk versus lower risk
  • More effective versus less effective
  • More appropriate versus less appropriate

for that particular client’s age, body weight,  skill level, goal, injury status, muscle imbalances, fitness level & even attitude; with time and practice, what was once high risk may become low risk.  And for some, what is high risk will always be high risk.

There Are No Absolutes Here

There always seems to be someone who defies all logic and should, by all norms, have destroyed him/herself with a high-risk exercise.  But, there they are pounding themselves into the ground, seemingly without injury, and telling everyone else to do the same. They are the minority and not the majority of exercisers.  In most cases, when you place a joint into a compromised position, add load, speed, muscular imbalance and poor conditioning, the risk for injury is greater.  Before giving an exercise to someone, the fitness professional needs to address these factors and provide modifications accordingly.

Before We Can Make a Decision As to What to Recommend, Consider Some Key facts About The Shoulder:

  • The healthy glenohumeral joint (shoulder), during the bench press, is designed to move 120° (4) that is 30° below parallel and 10◦ if loaded with weight.
  • As the workload increases, more stress is applied to the joint and its capsule ligament (1)
  • Muscle, (when in a stretched position like deep bench press), cannot produce as much force as when it is in its mid-range of contraction (3)
  • Workloads that are greater than 80% of 1rm (fatigue occurs within 8 reps or less) will put the joint under greater stress when dropping arms past parallel (2)
  • There is a mismatch of forces at the shoulder when the arms drop below parallel; the mechanical angle of (100°-120° puts a strong stretch on the primary muscles, decreasing their force production, while at the same time the resistance is having its greatest impact (5)
  • Those with humeral heads (shoulder knobs) that have glided too far forward (shoulders appear quite knobby or rolled forward) experience greater overloads on the shoulder joint sooner in the range of motion (ROM); those who have shoulders that sit well back into the socket and in-line with the ear have a stronger mechanical advantage (2)
  • As a person ages, atrophy may occur in the shoulder muscles making them less able to produce the forces needed to protect the shoulder in more vulnerable joint ROM’s such as deep dips, behind-the-neck presses, db bench presses, pec deck etc. (2)
  • As we all age, our tissues/cells do not regenerate as they did when we were in our twenties, with long term high-intensity resistance exercise, the body tissues experience wear and tear that is not as quickly repaired, those individuals who continue to use the workloads of their youth, may be at a higher risk for injury
  • Thickness of the thorax and arm length will enhance or reduce ones mechanical advantage for producing force at the shoulder; the lifter who has a stocky, barrel chest and short arms, will have the advantage over the lifter who is tall with a shallow chest and long arms; the bar will touch the chest of the stocky lifter sooner in the ROM, while the tall lifter will have to drop his arms well below parallel to get the bar to the chest, putting his shoulder at a greater risk for injury
  • Most shoulder injuries (during chest exercises) occur when the arms are at 100°-120° and the resistance is above 80% 1RM (1,2); rarely does someone injure themselves using a dowel rod in these deeper ROM positions

Chest Exercises, Like The Bench Press, Need To Be Modified

Chest exercises need to be modified according to the individual, some (the fortunate few that have the genetics and mechanics), will always be able to bring the bar to the chest with heavy loads and never have a problem.  However, the majority of individuals are at higher risk for injury at deeper ROMs and need to be made aware of these risks.

Convincing the Masses

To explain these concepts to the “less responsive to suggestions” client/staff etc., try using one or more of the facts or points above to support your position.   Perhaps you could just post this article on the wall where it will be noticed.  Encourage people to ask you for clarification of these points (a sign above the article will do nicely).  If you, the fitness professional, have questions about this article, email them to me at the address below, I would be happy to elaborate further on this topic.

“I’ve Been Doing This For 15 Years And Never Had An Injury…”

Sound familiar?  Some people “who have never had a shoulder injury” while performing deep Bench Presses etc. usually have one or more of the following advantages over the rest of us:

  • Very large, thick thorax, with shorter lever arms that do not drop the shoulder below the 110° position
  • The head of the humerus sits solidly into the socket of the scapula and is located in line with the ear or behind when standing with arms to the side
  • Large muscle mass surrounding the shoulder which can offset the imposed stresses on the joint structures
  • Strong regeneration capacity of collagen in connective tissue around the joint

As long as these individuals do not experience any signs or symptoms of acute or chronic shoulder pain, there is NO reason for them to not go deep.  Those of us who don’t have these advantages or experience shoulder pain when bench pressing, may be better off modifying the chest exercise ROM when working with loads above 80% of 1RM.

Your Role as a Fitness Professional

As an instructor, your role is to provide your clients/participants with the knowledge, guidance, support and resources so that they can protect themselves when exercising.  It is up to the participant or client to then decide what they would like to do with this information. You are not responsible for their actions and decisions; they are the ones who make their own choices.  You merely act as a guide.

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Just one, but that light bulb has got to want to change!

Often, people respond better to your suggestions when you present new information in an educational manner and place no expectations or judgements on them to take these suggestions.

So… when addressing the question “to go deep or not to go deep” you can respond “that depends…”

References

  1. NSCA: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning; HK Publishers, Chapter 3, pp.42, 1994
  2. Purvis T: Body Parts: Analysis I & II, Video Series. Focus on Fitness, 21 W Wilshire Blvd, Oklahoma 73116, 1996.
  3. Tortora/Grabowski. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (9th)., 2000 John Wiley and Sons, pp.278-280
  4. Vives D. Commentary. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, February 2000. 22:1, pp. 55-56
  5. Westcott W. Strength Fitness: Physiological Principles and Training Techniques (3rd ed) WC Brown Publ. 1987

written by Andre Noel Potvin. MSc, BCRPA TFL. ACSM, ACE Certified Personal Trainer

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