Whether or not pitchers should Bench Press has been a debate inside and outside of the baseball community for a long time. And when I say Bench Press, I’m referring to the classic version of the exercise—laying supine on a bench, an athlete lowers a barbell to their chest before pressing it away from them.
Without an in-depth look at the evidence, we’re left with extreme opinions on both sides. As with most topics, this one likely requires a bit more investigation and nuance than that.
The Bench Press is a compound movement that provides a ton of benefits with regards to improving strength, power and muscle mass. So why would a baseball pitcher potentially avoid it?
Before we get to the potential cons, let’s lay out the “pros” of the Bench Press.
Bench Press Pro: Hypertrophy
Many pitchers, especially when they begin training, will benefit from gaining some lean mass as higher body weight has been correlated with higher pitching velocity (Werner et al., 2008).
The fact that bench pressing uses multiple muscle groups (pectoralis major, anterior deltoids and triceps brachii) can help with this problem (in conjunction with a caloric surplus). And, the benefits of more lean mass are two-fold for pitchers.
First, greater lean mass generally means more absolute strength, which is the maximum force an athlete can exert, regardless of size. Improved absolute strength provides a greater base for power, and potentially throwing velocity. Second, the slope of the mound adds a gravity-assisted component to pitching, so being heavier may be helpful for creating greater momentum.
Bench Press Pro: Strength
The Barbell Bench Press offers significant loading capabilities, which makes it a good option for increasing maximal or absolute strength in the upper body. Maximal strength is important for pitchers, as it serves as the base for power. The pitching delivery allows limited time to produce force, so the ability to produce a lot of force quickly is imperative. Think about it this way: the more weight you can move maximally, or without time constraints, the more weight you can likely move at a faster speed, or with time constraints.
Lifting heavy weights can improve the efficiency of the neuromuscular system, leading to strength gains independent of mass gains. This is done through the activation of high threshold motor units and improving rate coding. Basically, larger, more powerful groups of muscle fibers are recruited sooner and then signaled by the central nervous system to contract and relax at a higher speed than before, leading to greater force. This means that relative strength can also be improved through benching. Relative strength, or how strong an athlete is compared to their size, is extremely important for pitchers, as the speed with which they move certain portions of their body has a strong correlation with ball velocity (Stodden et al., 2001).
Bench Press Pro: Athletes Like It
Most athletes love bench pressing, so getting buy-in is generally pretty easy. This is a great bonus, as athletes who believe in the program and are highly motivated tend to get better results and make bigger improvements.
Now that we’ve covered the positives of the Bench Press, let’s talk about where it comes up short.
Bench Press Con: Limited Range of Motion
The traditional barbell Bench Press comes up short, literally, in terms of range of motion (ROM) through horizontal abduction. The bar forces the movement to stop at the chest, as opposed to moving through the full ROM.
Horizontal abduction ROM is important for throwing velocity as horizontal adduction angle at foot strike has been shown to correlate strongly with throwing velocity (Stodden et al., 2005). Meaning that the more a pitcher can delay horizontal adduction and hold a stretch on the pectoralis major, the higher the potential velocity. Since this ROM is important for throwing velocity, not training through a full ROM and gaining strength at the end-range may have a detrimental effect with regard to velocity.
Here is what a lot of horizontal abduction at foot strike looks like:
vs what a rather lacking amount of horizontal abduction at foot strike looks like:
Bench Press Con: Injury Potential
The ability to remain healthy while throwing frequently and at a high intensity is perhaps the most important objective of a pitcher’s training program.
If the training you’re doing in the weight room is hindering your ability to perform high quality skill or sport-specific training, your program needs to be adjusted. The weight room should lead to healthier, more robust athletes, not walking injuries waiting to happen.
This is one of the limiting factors of the Bench Press. The hand position required by the straight barbell and the anatomy of the shoulder make it a potentially injurious movement for pitchers.
During pitching, there is an intricate series of movements at the shoulder that happen very fast and require the rotator cuff muscles to “steer” the humerus so it stays centered on the glenoid fossa (socket). If these muscles are unable to do their jobs for any reason, significant injuries can happen during pitching.
One of these “steering” muscles is the supraspinatus. The supraspinatus can be put at risk for an injury during barbell bench pressing. The humerus is forced into an internally rotated position due to the overhand grip required by the straight bar. This can lead to space between the acromion and the supraspinatus being diminished, causing pain in the supraspinatus.
Bench Press Con: Holes in the Research
There are a number of studies showing a positive correlation between Bench Press and throwing velocity. However, many have significant limitations.
One used untrained subjects (Newton and McEvoy, 1994). Another had a control group that did not train at all, and showed benefits of increased strength, but not necessarily from the Bench Press, specifically (Lachowetz et al., 1998). Finally, a third study showed that in a well-trained population, the velocity of the Bench Press is not specific enough to improve shot put throwing performance unless the bar is thrown (Sakamoto et al., 2018).
These all seem to show that the adaptations that may be created through bench pressing can likely be reached through other means.
Other Important Factors
All athletes should be assessed prior to their program being designed, and the findings from that assessment should drive programming. Certain movement patterns or deficiencies may make the Bench Press a less safe option for some athletes.
The Bench Press requires that an athlete be able to hold the scapulae in retraction (squeezed into the bench) to create a stable base to press from. Some athletes may have problems maintaining neutral or slightly posteriorly tilted scapulae and may dump their shoulders forward allowing the humeral head to move forward in the shoulder capsule. This can lead to laxity in the anterior part of the capsule, impingement, and the ingraining of a faulty pattern.
Bench pressing when this pattern is present may make it difficult for the scapula to perform its job effectively during the pitching delivery.
The ability to posteriorly tilt the scapula is imperative for health and velocity, as prior to the arm being accelerated, the scapula must tilt posteriorly in order to make more room for the humerus to externally rotate.
To illustrate this point, slump forward, rounding your shoulders, and see how far you can lay your arm back. Now, sit up straight and lay your arm back.
You’ll notice that when you sit upright, you can lay your arm back farther. This is in part due to the posterior tilt of the scapula.
Another potential problem to consider is overactive rhomboids, or athletes who present with shoulder blades pinched together. Having these athletes perform a lift that requires them to remain in retraction may make their problems worse. A movement with free movement of scapulae, such as Push-Ups or Landmine Presses, may be a better option for these athletes.
Shorter-limbed, thicker-chested athletes use even less ROM than their taller counterparts. Elite ROM is likely more important for shorter athletes, as they do not have the benefit of longer levers. Therefore, they need greater ROM to apply force to the ball over a greater distance in order for higher velocity to be expressed.
The Barbell Bench Press may limit these shorter-limbed athletes by not allowing them to improve the arc of motion over which they can apply force to the baseball.
Athletes with a lot of laxity, or “loose joints,” may not need to worry about mobility restrictions that could result from the bench press’s ROM and may actually benefit from some added strength and stability, or even “stiffness.” Less mobile athletes may need to be more selective in their movements as to not exacerbate their restrictions.
While symmetry is not a realistic expectation for anyone, and may not even be advantageous, significant side-to-side strength imbalances may be problematic from a performance standpoint. The bilateral nature of barbells may allow the body to cover up these imbalances and not address them. For athletes with strength imbalances, dumbbell bench pressing or other unilateral movements may be better options.
Athletes who have a history of shoulder pathology are likely not great candidates for the Bench Press, as discussed previously in the article. The injury history of an athlete is always worth exploring prior to designing a training program.
The less time an athlete has been training, the more basic they probably need to begin. Basic movement patterns, like Push-Ups should be mastered before moving onto the Bench Press. Training with a barbell is earned by moving well through bodyweight and dumbbell movements.
On the other end of the spectrum, advanced training age is worth considering as well. Absolute strength eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns and makes a shift in training focus a necessity. For example, if a pitcher can bench press 300 pounds, attempting to push that number higher is probably not the most effective use of their time. Improving mobility, power or devoting more time to sport-specific training is probably a better idea.
So, Should Pitchers Bench Press?
Like I said in the introduction, there needs to be some nuance here. Just because you Bench Press does not mean you’ll get injured, just as not benching doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay healthy and perform better.
Athletes who don’t present with any of the limiting factors listed above and who need to gain strength may be fine using the Bench Press. However, it still may not be optimal.
A significant portion of shoulder motion comes from the scapulothoracic joint, so the locked down position the scapulae are forced into during benching may present a problem for pitchers. In moderation this is probably not a major issue, but it should be balanced with movements that allow free scapular movement.
We’re ultimately seeking the adaptations that come from bench pressing, and since similar adaptations can be achieved via alternative means that carry less concern, there’s no need to obsess over the move itself.
We should find the best way to achieve these adaptations while reducing injury risk as much as possible. For this reason, I don’t use the Barbell Bench Press with my pitchers. Instead, I use the variations below.
What to Do Instead of Bench Press
DB Bench Press Variations
Dumbbells are extremely versatile, allow greater ROM than their barbell counterpart, and offer quite a few different variations to keep athletes from getting bored while still delivering benefits. While this variation can’t be loaded quite as heavy as the barbell, it still offers most of the strength-improving benefits.
Push-Ups are another great horizontal pressing option that offers the additional benefit of free scapular movement. Meaning the scapulae aren’t pinned into a bench but can move freely into protraction. While standard Push-Ups are great and have a ton of benefits they still limit ROM, so adding some plates or dumbbells under an athlete’s hands can be helpful with loading full horizontal abduction.
Medicine Ball Chest Pass Variations
As Sakamoto et al., showed, once certain strength benchmarks are reached, the specificity of movement velocity may become more important to throwing performance. In this case, medicine ball variations, such as the supine chest pass, may be a good alternative to bench presses with a throw.
Swiss Bar Bench Press with Added ROM
Using a cambered Swiss bar can eliminate two of the major limiting factors of the standard barbell bench press. The Swiss bar offers a neutral grip, which allows friendlier shoulder movement, while the bump-out allows greater ROM. And it still has most of the loading capacity of its straight bar counterpart.
Here’s a photo example of a cambered Swiss bar.
There are other movements that also work well in place of the Barbell Bench Press, but these should be enough to get you started.
Photo Credit: Ridofranz/iStock