Your candid thoughts on Bench Press for pitchers

I’m currently writing an article for a top blog in the industry about bench pressing for baseball pitchers and whether it should be used or not. I have my own opinions about it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with it. Good, bad or indifferent.

I’m not done the article yet, so there’s a good chance your responses will help direct some of my content. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

I have read and been told by several different people that regular bench pressing is fine as long as you don’t go all the way down to your chest. As long as you don’t go past parallel on the way down.

I have heard the reasoning behind it is that going all the way down stretches ligaments in your shoulder and that can make it more likely for players who throw a lot(baseball players) more likely to get injuried

Bench, squat, and power clean are excellent excercises for pitchers.

thanks for your comments jimster and BR

I’d have to disagree with all 3. Here are my main reasons for each, and the alternatives I would use with myself and my athletes.

  1. Barbell Bench Press

Ask yourself why? what about the bench press is going to make you a better athlete? If you say: because a bigger chest will help me throw harder, think again. As both a horizontal adductor and internal rotator of the humerus, tight pecs potential decrease external rotation (forearm layback) as well as scapular loading (shoulder horizontal abduction). We know that high velocity throwers rely heavily on both of these mechanical components, making the high-volume chest hypertrophy work that most pitchers use the bench press for, counterproductive.

Now that we understand that chest hypertrophy is a low priority for pitchers, let’s examine the barbell bench press more closely. An open-chain exercise, the bench press fixes the scaps and limits shoulder movement. The way most pitchers perform the movement (with no upper back tension or scapular retraction), there is both limited scapular retraction and protraction, which doesn’t at all represent how the shoulder works from a functional standpoint (i.e. in the pitching motion). Even if performed properly, with upper back tension and scapular retraction to provide a stable base to press from, there is still limited protraction, making it an inferior option to closed-chain options like push-up variations that allow free scapular movement.

In addition, barbells fix the shoulders in an internally rotated position, especially when performed with elbows flared like 90% of athletes do. This shoulder position, under heavy loading (approximation as opposed to a traction force), is an injury waiting to happen. The way most athletes perform the bench press, with excessive weight, grinding reps and chest bouncing, you can see why the bench press may not be the best bet for pitcher development.

How to make the bench press less bad:

-hug the elbows into the sides to minimize the shoulder internal rotation. Even better, use a Swiss Bar which allows a neutral grip.

What you should really be doing:

-dumbbell bench pressing variations
-push-up variations that allows more natural (and functional) shoulder motion while incorporating the anterior core as well in an anti-extension movement.
-upright/half-kneeling neutral grip pressing variations (landmine presses, standing band/cable punches, etc.)

  1. Squat

to keep this post from getting too lengthy, i’m just going to list a couple things I like about the squat and a few big problems I have with it.

What I like:

-it’s a heavy bilateral lift that (potentially) builds lower body mass fast, stimulating a ton of GH release, strengthens the low back, glutes and quads, along with the hamstrings and calves to some extent.
-if done properly, it can improve performance when it comes to sprinting, jumping and lower body explosiveness in general

What I don’t like:

-Most people aren’t ready to squat. They have piss poor ankle and thoracic mobility and poor lumbar stability. On top of that, they have never been taught how to maintain a stable position throughout the entire range of motion
-Because of the issues mentioned above, the majority of athletes end up repeating a loaded and potentially injurious movement pattern (knees collapsing in, lumbar rounding, thoracic rounding, cervical hyperextension, etc.).
-heavy spinal loading, especially when done multiple times per week with no programmed rest periods will expose the susceptible athletes over time (been there, done that).
-Barbell back squats place the shoulders in an external rotated position, placing valgus load on the medial elbow. If performed “properly,” with the elbows tucked down to promote upright posture and a neutral lumbar spine, this places the shoulders in an even more biomechanically compromised, externally rotated position.

Can the majority of athletes (especially high school) get away with loading a faulty movement pattern? Yes. Will this expose the 10 or 20% of athletes that are particularly susceptible to certain injuries? Yes. Maybe more if you have a coach that emphasizes adding weight to knock-kneed half squats before fixing form.

From a risk/reward perspective, the barbell back squat doesn’t make sense, unless you want to deal with at least 2 or 3 injuries per team per year. I’ve been there.

How to make it less bad:

-use cambered or safety square bars to place the shoulders in a less compromised position

-do front squats
-emphasize form and bar speed over weight
-don’t start loading up the squat until you have the ankle, hip, hamstring and thoracic mobility to hold an ass-to-grass squat with a neutral lumbar position indefinitely.

What you should really be focusing on:

-unilateral variations, which allow you to actually do more weight per leg (225lbs + on a reverse lunge is not uncommon, but how many people do you see repping 450lbs with perfect squatting form?

lunges, split squats, step ups and single leg (not pistol) squats allow greater loading without the extreme spinal loading - because they allow a neutral lumbar position to be maintained, the low back is no longer the limiting factor, which allows the legs to perform more work
-plyometric variations emphasizing soft landings, neutral lumbar position and minimizing knee valgus collapse (hint: no max effort box jumps followed by a hard landing back to the floor)

  1. Power Clean

I don’t even know where to start on this one, which is in my opinion one of the worst exercises you could have a pitcher do from a risk/reward standpoint. To start, there is very little potential reward from the movement.

Power development has been shown to be plane-specific, meaning that training hip and knee extension (i.e. sagittal plane) might make you more explosive…at activities that require linear hip and knee extension - linear sprinting, vertical and broad jumps, etc. What it won’t do, is help a rotational athlete rotate faster, which is really the only reason I can think any strength coach would put it in his program. Oh, it’s explosive! Olympic lifters are explosive. Therefore, the power clean will carry over into all other explosive activities. Wrong.

What else I hate about the power clean:

-its extremely technical: most coaches can’t teach it right, and most athletes can’t do it right. After two years of performing it (I don’t anymore), and a serious back injury later, my form was still mediocre at best.
-most athletes focus on loading over form: this is always a problem, especially since this is supposed to be an explosive movement
-The mobility and stability needed to power clean properly is quite significant, and adds a tricep and wrist flexor mobility component as well.
-Catching the bar can result in a variety of complications, from medial elbow damage due to the externally rotated position, to collar bone/shoulder bruising/damage from improperly catching the bar in the front rack position, to literally falling over backwards (I have seen this happen…twice).

How to make it less bad:
-if you’re a pitcher, don’t do any variation of the power clean because it puts your shoulders in a compromised position
-if you’re not a pitcher, hang cleans are a slightly less demanding (from a mobility standpoint) alternative that should only be done when taught by an extremely qualified strength coach who has extensive experience with the movement.

What you should really be doing instead:
-single arm dumbbell snatch: allows natural shoulder motion and a less compromised “catch” position. Still should not be done if shoulder mobility is an issue,
-kettlebell swings, speed deadlifts: train explosive hip extension without all the potential for injury. These still require a certain amount of technique and the ability to perform a proper “hip hinge”

Conclusion: stay away from the “big 3” for pitchers…there are other ways to get to the same place without the abysmal risk/reward ratio.

Lanky gave a much more thorough reply. I’ll give a short one…

Bench press doesn’t do much for a rotational athlete like a pitcher.

Great post lanky

Lanky,

Interesting and thoughtful post, but I disagree.

The Bench Press:

I would concede that 2 of the drawbacks to the bench press are pattern overload and that it is open kinetic chain resistance training. But the benefits outweigh the shortcomings.

There are not too many studies that correlate the bench press with throwing athletes, but here is one that illustrates the relationship between throwing velocity, muscle power, and bar velocity during bench press in elite handball players.

Heavy load training is very effective in remodeling fast twitch muscle fiber and enhancing performance. The barbell bench press is the one of the few upper body lifts where you use heavy loads. The pitcher can build more upper body power which has been proven in the case studies to increase velocity for throwing athletes.

In terms of causing injuries, here is a study that looks at kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. The study illustrated that there was no significant difference in torque required at the shoulder.

As a disclaimer, my son uses the top velo program and has had terrific improvement in his mechanics and strength. Most of the info and studies I sited is from his site which has tons of free articles on the benefits of the bench and Olympic lifts. He started at 16 in the summer and has never been injured performing the lifts, in spite of his lack of experience and lack of initial strength.

But, the thing that is great is that we are now debating HOW pitchers should weight train and not IF pitchers should weight train. That is some progress from just a few years ago when ALL weight training was frowned upon. Actually it probably STILL is in many quarters. I’ll have to read your blog.

[quote=“BR TROJANS1”]Lanky,

Interesting and thoughtful post, but I disagree.

The Bench Press:

I would concede that 2 of the drawbacks to the bench press are pattern overload and that it is open kinetic chain resistance training. But the benefits outweigh the shortcomings.

There are not too many studies that correlate the bench press with throwing athletes, but here is one that illustrates the relationship between throwing velocity, muscle power, and bar velocity during bench press in elite handball players.

Heavy load training is very effective in remodeling fast twitch muscle fiber and enhancing performance. The barbell bench press is the one of the few upper body lifts where you use heavy loads. The pitcher can build more upper body power which has been proven in the case studies to increase velocity for throwing athletes.

In terms of causing injuries, here is a study that looks at kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. The study illustrated that there was no significant difference in torque required at the shoulder.

As a disclaimer, my son uses the top velo program and has had terrific improvement in his mechanics and strength. Most of the info and studies I sited is from his site which has tons of free articles on the benefits of the bench and Olympic lifts. He started at 16 in the summer and has never been injured performing the lifts, in spite of his lack of experience and lack of initial strength.

But, the thing that is great is that we are now debating HOW pitchers should weight train and not IF pitchers should weight train. That is some progress from just a few years ago when ALL weight training was frowned upon. Actually it probably STILL is in many quarters. I’ll have to read your blog.[/quote]

The authors’ conclusion from the first study you mentioned (on handball players)

“Thus, a training regimen designed to improve ball-throwing velocity in elite male team-handball players should include exercises that are aimed at increasing both strength and power in the upper body.”

Here, we are in agreement. Upper body exercises aimed at increasing both strength and power should be included. The question is still, why use this specific pressing movement that places the shoulders in a vulnerable position when there are better alternatives for reasons I’ve already mentioned.

From the second study you posted, there is a comparison between “Expert” and “novice” bench-pressers, but there is no control or alternate exercise group. That is, it’s comparing the bench press to the bench press, which doesn’t really tell us anything useful when it comes to deciding whether or not to use an alternative in an exercise program.

Again, just because a lift has a poor risk/reward ratio does not mean that it will always result in an injury or fail to increase performance. Indeed, the bench press is a potent strength builder, but the injury risk is what makes it a contraindicated exercise for most pitchers. It exposes vulnerable athletes over time.

Same thing goes for the power clean- it’s all about risk vs. reward. The balance is skewed far to the risk side in my perspective, but plenty of players can power clean for years without issue

Lanky,

The point of the first study is to establish that heavy load training is very effective in remodeling fast twitch muscle fiber and enhancing (throwing/pitching) performance. The barbell bench press is the most effective of these heavy load upper body lifts compared to dumbell presses.

The point of the second study is to dispel the notion that the barbell bench press is somehow a riskier lift. The point was to take a group of “experts” and “novices” and show that even a novice lifter was at no greater risk than an expert at the lift. Thus the conclusion:

" There was no significant difference in torque required at the shoulder".

You are correct that neither study was designed to compare the risk reward ratio of the bench press versus the dumbell press.

If you want to decrease the risk you can use proper form and a 3 board. The 3 board prevents the arms from flexing past a 90 degree angle. This will prevent over stressing the shoulder with excessive torque.

BTW, your log is quite good. Will Take a while to go through it all!

Is this your opinion? Or is there something more to substantiate this claim.

I might be able to leg press twice what I can squat, but it doesn’t mean the leg press is a superior exercise just because you can load it more.

[quote=“BR TROJANS1”]The point of the second study is to dispel the notion that the barbell bench press is somehow a riskier lift. The point was to take a group of “experts” and “novices” and show that even a novice lifter was at no greater risk than an expert at the lift. Thus the conclusion:

" There was no significant difference in torque required at the shoulder".

You are correct that neither study was designed to compare the risk reward ratio of the bench press versus the dumbell press.

If you want to decrease the risk you can use proper form and a 3 board. The 3 board prevents the arms from flexing past a 90 degree angle. This will prevent over stressing the shoulder with excessive torque. [/quote]

You say the point of the study was to dispel the notion that the barbell bench press was a riskier lift, yet all it compares are expert and novices. So the study doesn’t really say anything substantial about if the bench press is a riskier lift than any other lift, or even if it is particularly risky at all. It just says that experts aren’t at a greater risk than novices, which is to be expected given their better form and more experience performing the lift.

I would also ask you to compare these three scenarios

Player A: 6 feet, 200lbs

Bench Pressing 185lbs for 6 reps
Dumbbell Pressing 80lbs for 6 reps
Push-ups with bodyweight (~140lbs of weight) plus a 45lb plate on his back for 6 reps

Given what you know about the risky position the barbell bench press places the shoulder in (internally rotated, fixed open chain exercise), why would you settle on board presses (a powerlifting movement) that aims to reduce range of motion? Sure, it might be better on the shoulder than a full ROM bench, but are we really getting what we want out of the exercise? There’s a reason people tend to avoid half-squats and half-chinups - they’re inferior. The alternatives I mentioned both load the upper half musculature similarly, incorporate synergists and in the case of pushups, create significant anterior core stimulation all while putting the shoulder in a safer position and working the muscles through a full range of motion.

I get that the barbell bench press has worked for you…it also hurts a lot of people (partly because of form, partly because of the nature of the exercise).

It’s worth considering these alternatives.

[quote=“BR TROJANS1”]BTW, your log is quite good. Will Take a while to go through it all![/quote] thank you for the kind words!

Hi Lefty,

Yes, The barbell bench press is the most effective of these heavy load upper body lifts compared to dumbell presses. That is not an opinion. Heavy load training is very effective in remodeling fast twitch muscle fiber and enhancing performance. With the barbell bench press you are using heavier loads, hence more effect to fast twitch muscle fibers. Do you have a study that indicates otherwise?

I don’t know of a single study, power lifter, or certified weight trainer that would argue that the dumbell presses are more effective in building strength and power quicker than barbell presses. I will concede that there are pros and cons to each lift, which I will list. The bottom line to me is the risk reward ratio that you mentioned. All things considered, I do not believe the risks outweigh the reward in performing the barbell bench press.

Barbell:

Pros:

Can use more weight and are able to place a greater load on the muscles.

Since you can load more weight onto the bar with a barbell bench press, you tax more muscles and more muscle fibers within those muscles.

Cons:

Places a greater load on the shoulders.

Need a spotter.

Freak accidents can happen with heavier weight so caution and attention is advised.

Dumbell

Pros:

Allows for more range of motion.

Gentler on the shoulder.

Can be performed without a spotter.

Freak accidents can be avoided by dropping the dumbell.

Cons:

As a lifter gets stronger, it becomes harder and harder to add more weight.

Larger dumbbells become unwieldy.

Once the dumbbells get physically large enough as you move up in weight, the extra range of motion provided by dumbbells is lost.

Many gyms do not carry heavier dumbbells

I think you are missing the point of the second study. I am not giving you a study that is trying to prove that the barbell press is less riskier than the dumbell press. Or any other lift. The study is to show that novice lifters are at no greater risk than experts when it comes to the barbell press. Not the other way around.

I get that the barbell bench press has not worked for you. But, it has worked for many others, quite effectively, and without injury. To be honest, I do not know of any person who has experienced any serious issue with the lift. The 3 board is a way to perform the lift that is less taxing on the shoulder. But, I do not know myself of any person who has had to use one due to injury or safety issues.

This has been an interesting debate. And the point is that ALL weight training comes with BOTH risks and rewards. As does pitching. And in your experience and opinion you believe that the risks of the BB press outweigh the rewards. And that the DB press is a suitable alternative. I believe that in my experience and opinion that the rewards of the BB press outweigh the risks. And that the DB press is a suitable (though less effective) alternative for those who have concerns you mentioned.

Thanks

I’ll agree that dumbbells can’t be loaded up quite as heavy, and aren’t generally as effective at building up max pressing strength. That being said, I’m not going to spend time working a faulty or potentially injurious movement pattern, even if it is a great strength builder. I feel the same way with Dips - great for strength, crappy for anyone with congenital joint laxity (most collegiate pitchers) or long humeri (most collegiate pitchers and tall guys).

With Dumbbells, I can get up to about 85’s per arm right now for reps. Undoubtedly, I could load up more than 170lbs on the bench press.

With weighted push-ups, which provide more stability and allow similar loading to a bench press in a more functional and shoulder friendly movement pattern, I’m able to load up upwards of 80lbs of chains for 10+ reps. This is equivalent to 70% of my bodyweight (145lbs) +80lbs = 225lbs at the top of each rep. The stability is there that one could conceivably approach 300lbs or more of total loading on this exercise with a spotter.

My question is what pitcher needs to be pressing more than 195-225 for 10, given what we know about the negatives (postural and mobility-wise) that come with overworking the pressing muscles.

If you have to bench press, there’s no reason I can think of for why you would choose the straight bar over the swiss bar, provided you owned one or had access to it.

All this being said, you’re right that there are lots of ways to reach the same goal.

Hi Lefty,

A few things that you mentioned:

1-I’m not going to spend time working a faulty or potentially injurious movement pattern.

I have been in a lot of gyms for over 30 years and lifted with every type of athlete from golfers to competitive power lifters (who I worked out with). These athletes include pitchers, and I have never seen or heard of any serious injury attributable to the BB bench press. Are you seeing some rash of injuries with the HS or College athletes you work out with?

2- allow similar loading to a bench press in a more functional and shoulder friendly movement pattern.

You seem to be discounting the notion that the BB bench press can actually strengthen the muscles in the shoulder area and are beneficial. Instead, you seem to be of the opinion that they are weakening or tearing down the muscles and causing injuries. This is the point that I don’t see or agree with.

3- My question is what pitcher needs to be pressing more than 195-225 for 10.

Good point, and I wouldn’t advocate that either. I would ascribe to heavy loads with low reps. The goal is not to fatigue the muscle with high reps, but to strengthen it.

4- I can’t think why you would choose the straight bar over the swiss bar.

I’m a bit old school so I never used a swiss bar. I found with good form, as demonstrated in the video clip, that it’s a non issue. but I’ll check it out.

5- All this being said, you’re right that there are lots of ways to reach the same goal.

Exactly. If there was one set way of doing things, then everyone would be following it. You have found something that works for you. And it may not work for someone else. Or be as effective in the time frame they need it to be. Again, at least we are debating HOW to lift and not IF you should lift. Believe it or not that fact places you and my kids (and other pitchers who weight train) in a much smaller group than you may think. A very small group!

My question is why would a pitcher risk bench pressing when there are so many other movements more beneficial and have less potential for injury?

Risk to the shoulder IMO greatly outweighs the benefits of the bench press.

Because some people do not feel that the bench press poses a “risk” and is more effective than other lifts.

Your yourself in an earlier post on this thread listed greater load to the shoulder as a con of bench pressing. Greater, unnecessary load has potential for damaging the shoulder.

How is the bench press more effective for pitchers than other lifts?

1- I listed as a con “Places a greater load on the shoulders”. That is an issue for someone who has improper form with the lift. And if you have improper form with any lift you run a similiar risk of injury.

2- I listed as a pro “Can use more weight and are able to place a greater load on the muscles”. Greater load would allow for the muscle to develop and get stronger. A greater load performed properly can be beneficial.

3- Why is the bench press more effective than other lifts:

Can use more weight and are able to place a greater load on the muscles.
Since you can load more weight onto the bar with a barbell bench press, you tax more muscles and more muscle fibers within those muscles. Would you agree that when you perform the lift properly, you can actually strenthen the shoulder muscles?

Do you have some study that indicates:

1- A high rate of injury for pitchers performing the BB bench press? or
2- That other lifts are more effective than the BB bech press?

Bottom line for me, is that I haven’t seen any rash of injuries due to the BB bench press and feel the reward outweighs the risk.

No I have no studies that indicate anything. What I do have is anecdotal evidence from former and current pro and college pitchers who are pretty much in agreement that for pitchers, barbell bench presses are less effective than other exercises, for instance DB presses and weighted push up variations.

We will probably not come to agreement on this issue and that’s fine too. After all differing opinions is what makes this sport more interesting.

How about we all trip back to realityville and ask…just exactly how much conditioning/development time is assigned to bench work? Are we obsessing over a mear fraction of all conditioning work…come on folks…bench pressing won’t get you a trip to Birmingham…unless you are just crap for form, you will get injured from failing to get properly conditioned and maintaining it.
I consider this a red herring argument. How many studies is necessary to see this is mice nuts in the scope of potential injurious activity a pitcher faces.