Should Baseball Players Bench Press?
I’ve been keeping this blog post in my back pocket for a week or two now because I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach writing it. Lets be honest: talking smack about the beloved bench press is the fitness equivalent of talking smack about Princess Diana or worse, kittens.
You just don’t do it!
However, since Eric Cressey (one of my best friends, and business partner) wrote THIS post yesterday on why baseball players shouldn’t include dips into their strength training programs, I figured this was as a good a time as any to strike while the iron is hot.
To save face, though, let me be clear up front: I LOVE the bench press. Well, let me back track a little bit. From a personal standpoint I freaking hate the bench press.
I’m an admittedly horrible bencher (god awful in fact), and if it came down to choosing between bench pressing or tossing my body in front of a mack truck, I’d seriously consider the latter.
Every time I look at my program and see the words “bench press” written down this is pretty much my standard reaction:
Temper tantrums aside, I do recognize that the bench press is an important strength building (and for those more aesthetically minded individuals reading, chest building*) exercises out there. I think we can all agree that the bench press is a super star and is one of the staple exercises behind any well-rounded program.
But is it for everyone?
One of the more common questions we receive at Cressey Performance when people come in to observe is:
Tony, why do you coach with your shirt off? Tony, how come you don’t allow your baseball guys to bench press?
It’s a loaded question, but one that can be answered relatively easily.
1. Lets start with the most obvious answer, and something I won’t spend a lot of time on. Bench pressing won’t help someone throw a baseball harder or allow them to hit a baseball further. Maybe in a roundabout way we can say that the bench press will help someone gain weight (assuming they’re focusing on compound movements and eating ample calories), which in turn will help improve performance to some capacity.
But to say that the bench press is a key factor in helping baseball players be better baseball players is a bit of an overstatement. If I only have an hour with an athlete on any given day, and I’m only working with him for a few months out of the year to help get him healthy and then stronger/faster/etc, you can probably assume that I need to be judicious with what exercises I choose.
Bench pressing isn’t going to be high on the list from a “sport specificity” standpoint.
And while we’re on that topic, can I just say how much I abhor the term “sport specific training.”
Nothing is more “sport specific” than playing the actual sport. I always chuckle a little bit to myself/a small piece of my soul dies whenever a parent asks me “do you guys include any sport specific exercises for baseball players in your programming?”
My job is to make them a BETTER ATHLETE, not just a better baseball player.
Bench pressing can certainly enter the equation with other sports, but for baseball players it’s really not high on my “to do” list.
But lets take a closer look at why the bench press isn’t a good fit for baseball players.
2. If you look at the act of throwing a baseball and what actually goes down in the shoulder (and by extension, the elbow joint) you’d see that it ain’t pretty.
Baseball pitching is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, as the humerus internally rotates at velocities in excess of 7,000°/second.
What’s more, if we look at the elbow, the amount of valgus stress placed on it is equivalent to if we hung a 40 lb dumbbell from the hand towards the ground.
It’s pretty significant stuff, and explains why we’re very, very careful with the type of exercises we place into our programs at Cressey Performance – especially as it relates to our baseball guys.
With particular attention to the shoulder, it’s safe to assume that we have to be cognizant that it’s a fairly “claustrophobic” joint when you consider the amount of space between the acromion process and the rotator cuff muscle – specifically the supraspinatus muscle – passing through it.
It’s literally millimeters, and there’s really not a lot of wiggle room in order for things to move smoothly.
This tends to be a problematic area for just about every person that lifts weights on a consistent basis, and not just baseball players.
I should make a point of saying that “impingement” is a garbage term and that it doesn’t speak to why and what causes it – as there are many factors that come into play from lack of thoracic mobility and poor scapular positioning to piss poor tissue quality and atrocious programming.
Additionally, and maybe even more prudent to the discussion, there’s ALWAYS going to be some degree of “impingement” going on – it’s just a matter to what degree and whether or not someone presents with symptoms. But that’s a topic for another time.
Think about what happens when you grab a barbell and “fix” yourself into a pronated grip. You’re locking yourself into internal rotation and shortening the already close gap between the acromion and supraspinatus.
Essentially you’re increasing the probability of “impingement” coming into the picture.
This is generally something we prefer to avoid – especially when working with million dollar arms or with those who’s livelihood depends on keeping their healthy.
For me, there’s absolutely no reason to risk anything.
Moreover, think about the scapulae. Bench pressing is an open-chain exercise (distally, the hands are free to move) where you lie on your back, and as a result, the scaps are glued to the bench and unable to move.
Not exactly an ideal scenario for an athlete who relies on his ability get his arms over his head and have optimal scapulo-humeral rhythm.
What’s more, if you coach the bench press correctly, you’ll coach your clients to retract AND depress their scapulae in order to provide more stability during the lift.
This “together and down” cue – while awesome for bench pressing performance – can also be detrimental to baseball players who have LIVED in extension for the better part of their careers.
Both Eric and I have alluded to this point in recent months, but we’ve seen a common theme amongst many of our baseball guys where the lats are just dominating everything, the low traps have no chance to do their job, and the upper traps are getting the shaft, too.
What we see is more of a downwardly sloped shoulder girdle which isn’t necessarily ideal – and will affect overall shoulder kinematics, especially one’s ability to upwardly rotate the scapulae.
Photo credit to me for the shoulders (and awesome t-shirt).
Okay, So What Now?
While it may seem like I just took a massive dookie on the bench press, believe it or not we still have our baseball guys perform a fair amount of horizontal pressing movements in their programming.
We have the luxury of having a multi-purpose bar to bench with, which allows our guys to bench with a more neutral hand position.
Similarly, we love dumbbell pressing variations if for nothing else than they allow us to utilize a more “neutral” grip which encourages for a bit more opening in that acromion space discussed above.
On that same note, I LOVE offset (1-Arm) dumbbell pressing variations. Here, we get a bit more for our training buck in that with the offset loading the core comes into play to a larger degree, and we can schooch over on the bench a bit more and allow the scapula some room to breath. This won’t fall into how I’d normally coach someone how to press (scapulae set), but it’s definitely an option nonetheless.
Taking that a step further, we also LOVE push-up variations. Push-ups are closed chain (distally, the hands do NOT move) and allow for the scapulae to move freely.
Anyone who says push-ups are a waste of time are delusional and have never done them at Cressey Performance.
So, you see, we still do perform a fair amount of “pressing” movements with our baseball guys. We just steer clear of STRAIGHT BAR pressing.
Hopefully this helped clear the air somewhat and better explains our rationale for nixing the bench press with our baseball guys.