The Bench Press is often thought of exclusively as a chest exercise. Unfortunately, those who believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. In addition to the chest, the back and shoulders play critical roles in the Bench Press. (Learn why the back is critical for a big Bench.)
The shoulders—particularly the anterior delts—help to press the bar off your chest. If you perform a bench-pressing motion with your arms, notice how much your shoulders move and how little your chest moves. Yet people still think it’s primarily a chest exercise.
Several factors needs to be taken into account when assessing how to maximize shoulder strength so you can add weight to your Bench Press. (Watch Dwight Freeney’s shoulder workout.)
The first factor is your genetic makeup. If you are built with large, square shoulders, you have a predisposition for greater pressing power. If your shoulders are low and narrow, you’re at a natural disadvantage. Your suit jacket size can tell you a lot about your build. If you wear a size 50 jacket (assuming you are not a fat slob), you will have a greater pressing advantage than your friend who wears a 42 jacket.
A wide and high shoulder build means you have a more upper-back and lat muscles, which are critical for pressing the bar. Most people are largely proportionate, so a wider back and lat area usually implies larger shoulder muscles. You will rarely, if ever, see someone with a small back and massive shoulders.
On the flip side, if you have a sloped-shoulder build, you will have larger trap muscles. This doesn’t mean you can’t be strong on the Bench, but you are not predisposed for a huge bench—not unlike how some folks will never be able to run a 10-second 100-meter dash, no matter how hard they train.
Understanding the biomechanical setup and movement patterns of your body is critical to becoming the best athlete you can be. In my opinion, many shoulder injuries are caused by improper use. Many athletes suffer shoulder injuries and have no idea how they happen. They probably don’t understand their biomechanical structure and the proper approach to training it implies. You have to train hard, but you also have to train smart
Understanding your own personal shoulder structure will allow you formulate the best plan of attack for your training. Although there are certain staples to shoulder training, much of what is required is determined by what your needs are genetically. They should dictate your technique on the Bench Press, the frequency of your shoulder workouts, and their intensity.
Different shoulder builds affect the grip that should be used on the Bench Press. A wide grip is best for large shoulder girdles, a moderate grip for smaller shoulder girdles. A wide grip recruits more back and lats, whereas a moderate grip relies more on the triceps. Neither is right or wrong. The key thing is to maximize your Bench approach based on your own body. (Watch how to properly perform the Bench.)
Volume, Intensity and Frequency
A large shoulder girdle allows you to train your shoulders with heavier weight—and single heavy reps build max strength. People with smaller shoulders do not recover well from single reps, so in order to impact their shoulder strength and size, they need to stick to three to six reps, only max out occasionally and train more frequently.
I don’t perform reps to add size, because I have adequate size and density. Additional rep work only lengthens recovery time. I stick to singles and sometimes triples. One of my colleagues has an angled shoulder build, so he frequently does three to six reps to build his size and strength.
No matter how your shoulders are built, understand that all shoulders respond to frequency, and to a variety of rep speeds and angles. Incorporate steady pace, explosive and timed-pause reps into your shoulder workouts. Multiple speed stimulus works well for developing shoulder strength and power.
The Military Press
You need to perform several different exercises to hit each shoulder muscle. That said, one of the best movements is the tried and true Military Press. Seated or standing, it is a staple in the repertoires of most big benchers. We use it often, many times as a main movement on our heavy days.
The Forgotten Muscles
The rear delts (i.e., the backside of the shoulders) are one of the most overlooked muscle groups. It’s best to work them frequently with low weight and high reps during each workout and on off days. Good exercise options include Rear Delt Raises and Band Pullaparts.
Watch the exercise demonstrations below to see some of my favorite shoulder exercises, which I use at Ultimate Advantage.
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Read part one of this series to learn how to increase your Bench by strengthening and using your back during the exercise.