Bill Starr on Pressing
Bill Starr on Pressing
Question: For a long time, at least twenty years, seems like shoulder injuries and lifting weights go pretty much hand in hand. The bench press usually gets the blame yet some authorities insist overhead lifting is harder on the shoulders than bench pressing. The lab coat types will doubtless argue this to a draw.
I just wonder if these injuries were more common, less common, or about the same back when people did less bench pressing and more standing pressing, as well as more of the snatch and clean and jerk. Any other insights into keeping healthy shoulders welcome.
Bill Starr: The bench press per se is not a risky exercise. When done right, it can help improve upper body strength and size. It's only when form takes a back seat to numbers and when it's grossly overtrained that problems result. Injuries occur in the shoulders and elbows when the bench press is overtrained, poor technique is used, such as rebounding the bar off the chest and bridging, no other exercises for the upper body are included in the program, and there are no core exercises done for the upper back. Quite often, it's a combination all these factors.
Question: I'm more curious about what went on back in the day when lifters did both. Did overhead work have a protective effect on the shoulders? I work out with a group of masters olympic lifters. The oldest has been competing for about fifty years, not kidding, seriously, since the 1950s. Most of these guys have zero shoulder problems and have never heard of their rotator cuff. By and large they are much more pain free than powerlifters of similar caliber twenty years younger.
Bill Starr: When the overhead press was the primary upper body exercise, there were no such things as rotator cuff injuries, because that lift worked the small muscles that make up the rotator cuff and made them stronger. The bench press does not hit those groups. A great many athletes who give priority to flat benches do not bother to do anything for their upper backs. This results in a disproportionate strength in the shoulders and sooner or later will spell trouble. This problem can be rectified with some heavy work on the upper back: high pulls, shrugs, and bent-over rows.
Also, building variety into the upper body routine helps to prevent injuries. Once an athlete has graduated into the intermediate stage, I have him do: flat benches, inclines, overhead presses, and dips. He starts out with freehand dips, then when he is able to do 20, I have him do weighted dips. Working all the different angles of the upper body assure a more balanced development and all of the exercises help the others improve. I also make sure that the upper back receives plenty of attention. Of course, as always, using correct form is critical to safety. If an athlete learns to pause the bar on his chest on the flat bench from the very beginning, he will greatly reduce the risk of injury and be able to handle more weight in the long run.
I have written many times that I prefer the incline over the flat bench for young athletes. It is a pure shoulder exercise which is more suitable to sports such as baseball, basketball, and lacrosse. It is difficult to cheat on the incline, and this is a good thing. The reason the flat bench is part of The Big Three rather than the incline is because when Tommy Suggs and I devised this program, there simply weren't any inclines available in high school. There weren't even many in commercial gyms back then.
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