3 More Reasons We Don’t Have Our Baseball Players Bench Press
Written on January 27, 2017 at 6:44 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest article comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach Tony Bonvechio. Tony is also one of the contributors to the new Cressey Sports Performance Innovations resource, which is on sale for $50 off through this Sunday at midnight. Enjoy! -EC
I wouldn’t break the Internet if I told you that we don’t use the barbell bench press to train baseball players at Cressey Sports Performance.
As a powerlifter, I love the bench press. It’s a solid choice for general fitness folks, too. But by now, it’s widely accepted in the baseball world that the reward of getting really strong on the bench press is outweighed by the risk the exercise poses to the shoulders and elbows. And if you dig a little deeper, there’s some more specific reasoning why the bench press doesn’t show up in most programs at CSP.
1. It Exacerbates Negative Adaptations to Throwing
When you throw a baseball for a living, it’s likely that a handful of things will happen, including:
So basically, you get a shoulder that’s loose in the front and tight in the back, along with an elbow that doesn’t straighten all the way. But what happens at the torso and lower body?
• Decreased scapular upward rotation
• Decreased soft tissue quality (lats, rotator cuff, pec major and minor, among others)
• Abnormal spinal curvature (i.e. lumber and/or thoracic hyperextension)
• Decreased hip rotation (most often loss of hip internal rotation)
Now we have scaps and hips that don’t move well, gritty tissue surrounding the shoulder, and a spine that’s stuck in extension. This paints a grim picture and it’s not as bad as it sounds, but what does bench pressing do to help this situation?
The answer? Nothing. In fact, it feeds into many of these dysfunctions.
Coach someone into a proper bench press setup and what do you get? Global spinal extension, scapular retraction and depression, humeral motion WITHOUT scap motion, and heavy loads placed on the pecs, delts, lats and triceps. The stresses are eerily similar to throwing, albeit at slower speeds and heavier loads.
We spend a lot of time each offseason trying to restore movement quality in our baseball players, which means staying away from many of these gross extension patterns and exercises that lock the scaps in place. You can’t justify strength gains at the expense of movement quality. As Gray Cook says, don’t build strength on top of dysfunction.
2. It’s Not Speed- or Plane-Specific
In order for a movement to transfer to sport, it needs to have some degree of specificity. We have to look at the plane in which the movement occurs (sagittal, frontal or transverse) and where the movement falls on the force-velocity curve.
Granted, simply getting stronger has direct transfer to sport without being specific. Otherwise, strength coaches wouldn’t have jobs. However, research shows us that power development is highly plane-specific and that traditional sagittal plane power exercises (jumps, sprints, cleans, snatches, etc.) have limited transfer to throwing a baseball. We've seen plenty of pitchers with sub-20-inch verticals and 90-mile-per-hour fastballs to back this up. Research from Lehman et al. (2012) backed this up as well.
Rather, frontal and transverse plane movements like Heidens and med ball throws work better. So building a fast, crisp bench press might make a football player incredibly powerful, but it won’t transfer much to baseball.
Also, bench pressing is simply too slow to have much transfer. If you look at the force-velocity curve (also known as the strength-speed continuum), throwing a baseball is all the way at the velocity end. It’s a light load moved incredibly fast. Benching is on the other end: a heavy load moved slowly.
High-load, low-speed lifting might benefit some athletes who have spent their entire training career on the pure velocity end (i.e. the travel team athlete who plays all year and never lifts weights), but we can still “fill in” this gap with push-ups and dumbbell bench pressing. And while we can train our athletes to develop force quickly and move heavy weights with ballistic intent, it’s too far removed from baseball to have much of an impact, especially for athletes who are already pretty strong.
3. It’s Not Very Self-Limiting
In my experience as a lifter and coach, I’d wager that most of the poor decisions in the gym occur on or near the bench press. People are much more likely to overestimate their strength capabilities while benching than they are squatting, deadlifting or lunging. If health and performance are our two top priorities, we need to pick exercises that don’t unleash our athletes’ inner meathead.
An incorrectly performed bench press can put an athlete in some lousy positions. Elbows flared, body squirming with hundreds of pounds hovering over their throat; that’s the LAST place I want my athletes. Sure, any heavy exercise can be risky, but a missed rep on a push-up or landmine press has less potential for disaster. Even the dumbbell bench press requires a light enough load to get into the starting position, making it a more self-limiting choice.
If you coach multiple athletes at once, you won’t see every rep of every set. As hard as you might try, it’s impossible to see everything in a high school or college weight room. That said, picking exercises that are self-limiting while still effective makes for a safer training environment. For our athletes at CSP, that means more push-ups and landmine presses than barbell bench variations.
The exclusion of the bench press in our baseball programs goes beyond “it’s dangerous for your shoulders.” Even if coached and performed perfectly, our athletes won’t get as much transfer from it as they would from other pressing exercises.
If you DO bench press and use it with your athletes, you won’t want to miss our newest product: Cressey Sports Performance Innovations. It’s a collection of 11 webinars from the staff members at CSP with tons of great fitness and business content, including my presentation, “10 Things I’ve Learned About the Bench Press.”
CSP Innovations is on sale for $50 off until Sunday at midnight, so click here to grab your copy now!
About the Author
Tony Bonvechio (@BonvecStrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at the Hudson, MA location of Cressey Sports Performance. More of his writing can be found on www.BonvecStrength.com.
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