6 Training Mistakes

About the Author: Eric Cressey

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I recently had an article, 6 Mistakes: Fitting Round Pegs into Square Holes, featured at T-Nation.
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EricCressey.com Exclusive Q&A

Q: Do you every run into the problem of one arm pushing faster than the other arm in the bench press with your high school athletes? What did you do to fix this technical flaw or imbalance?

A: The traditional school of thought is simply that side is weaker than another and that simply doing more one-armed work on that side will iron out the imbalance. I don’t really agree with specificity in this regard, as there are several other factors that could contribute to the problem.

The first thing I look at is scapular positioning. It’s very common to see people benching without their shoulder blades tucked down and back; this “loose set-up” is a problem that I addressed in detail (with videos) in Shoulder Savers: Part 1, for those who haven’t read it. However, in those articles, I only spoke to it being a bilateral problem.

In reality, a lot of people have this problem unilaterally. For instance, baseball pitchers don’t posteriorly tilt the scapula on their throwing side very well – and office workers often have a greater scapular dyskinesis on the side that reaches for the mouse at their keyboard each day. And, chronic shoulder problems can lead to “shut-down” of key scapular stabilizers (most notably serratus anterior) over time, so you’ll see these issues more commonly with those who have an injury history. The analogy is overused nowadays, but you can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.

Typically, when there is a scapular instability, the weak side appears higher. If the scapula is anteriorly tilted, everything is going to be pushed up. So, the “down side” might actually be the strong side. Assess, though; don’t assume. In years past, a lot of people might have tried to pin scoliosis down as a cause for this. In other words, a high shoulder was because your back was out of whack – but in reality the spine is near or at neutral and the scapula is abducted and/or elevated.

Second, if you see this in someone who has a lot of training experience – particularly with the bench press, you’ll want to check for a humeral anterior glide issue (something Mike Robertson and I discussed in detail in Building the Efficient Athlete).

Previous research showed that subscapularis cross sectional area was the only tested factor that correlated with powerlifting success; so, in other words, this rotator cuff muscle does a lot of work. As a result, over time, it can go through repeated microtrauma and start to shut down. While some of the other rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor) can do extra work to depress the humeral head in spite of subscapularis weakness, they will tend to pull the humeral head anteriorly (forward) during these dynamic activities. Over time, this can lead to some serious anterior shoulder instability – and in my experience, it’s a common finding in those with chronic AC joint problems. The solution is simple: improve soft tissue quality of the posterior cuff and subscapularis, stretch out the posterior rotator cuff/capsule with sleeper stretches, and do prone internal rotations to activate/strengthen the subscapularis.

Third, keep in mind that many people – even world-class bench-pressers – often have elbows that lack full extension range-of-motion (ROM). Recent research has actually shown that baseball pitchers who don’t stretch post-throwing lose an average of 2.5° of elbow extension ROM – presumably due to all the eccentric muscle action needed in the elbow flexors to decelerate some crazy elbow extension velocities. Some people be able to stretch out and get more extension, and others might be stuck with that limitation in range of motion due to osseous (bony) changes.

Fourth, asymmetric foot positioning driving me nuts – almost as nuts, in fact, as when people kick their feet up off the floor. If you are pushing more with one leg, not pushing with your legs at all, or have your feet awkwardly set up on the floor, it’s no wonder that the bar isn’t traveling where you want it to go. Poor force transfer from the lower extremities is a common problem; I’ve heard elite benchers say that as much as 1/3 of bench press strength comes from the legs. So, fix the feet first and think about pushing your heels through the floor.

Fifth, we have the traditional rationale: true strength discrepancies. It’s one of the last things I look at in an otherwise healthy individual. This issue is more prominent in someone who is injured or coming back from an injury – and to be honest, barbell work isn’t the best idea for these folks, anyway.

As an important aside to all of this, one thing I should mention is that speed work fixes everything! A lot of people couldn’t understand why I included it in the Maximum Strength program. My reasoning wasn’t just that it would help teach lifters to accelerate the bar quickly, but moreso because I knew that speed work gives lifters a chance to groove perfect technique with submaximal loads and sufficient rest between sets. In other words, it’s much easier to teach perfect movement patterns with eight sets of three and not three sets of eight.

So, all in all, you have functional, structural, and basic technique issues that can contribute to an uneven bench press. Assess each and see where it takes you.

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