The bench press is the “holy grail” of all weight training exercises. When you hear weight lifters or gym rats discussing their workout routine with one another, one of the first things you always hear is them talking about how much they can bench press. How much you can bench press is something that we “gym rats” take great pride in. While it is important to push yourself in order to maximize your abilities – it is more important to take the proper precautions so you don’t end up on the wrong side of a horrific injury.
The bench press injury that USC star running back Stefan Johnson suffered in 2009 was a real eye opener in the fitness community, and made us realize how important proper safety is. Johnson was injured during a routine workout in which he was bench pressing 275 lbs. The bar fell on his throat and caused some very life threatening injuries. Johnson had to have emergency surgery to repair a crushed vocal cord, Adam’s apple and torn muscles. Doctors credited his incredible survival with strong muscles in his upper body and neck which helped to keep open breathing passages.
I imagine I have your attention now! This story is not meant to scare you – it’s meant to show that you need to take the proper precautions because if this can happen to a star college running back at one of the nation’s most touted programs, it can happen to anyone.
1. NEVER lift without a spotter.
Even if you are lifting relatively light weight, it is important to get in the habit of having a spotter present with you bench press. The spotter should place both hands firmly on the bar when you life the weight off, and not release until it is 100% clear that you have control of the bench press bar. Even if you are lifting light weight for your strength level, it is easy to have a hand slip or even a shoulder/elbow give out. The bench press is a very physically daunting exercise, and a lot of things can get injured during the movement. The bench press puts a lot of stress on upper body joints so having a spotter around at all times is absolutely necessary!
Another good rule of thumb is to know your spotter, and try to lift with the same person every time. If you ask a stranger to spot you, you are taking a chance because you don’t know their experience level and they don’t know how much weight you’re accustomed to lifting.
If for one reason or another you are bench pressing by yourself, make sure to do so on a “power rack.” Most gyms have power racks and they contain safety pins that catch the bar if it happens to drop. Make sure to set the safety pin on the power rack so it does not interfere with your repetitions on the way down.
2. KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS!
I can’t stress this enough. We all feel like Superman once in a while in the gym and think we can push it farther than we ever have. The majority of all injuries have happened when people are attempting to life more weight than they ever have before. If the most weight you have ever attempted to bench press in 250 lbs., don’t be the fool who attempts to lift 285 lbs. and ends up with a torn pectoral muscle or has the bar violently dropped on your chest. Attempting to lift even 25 lbs. more on the bench press than you have ever done is very physically demanding, and most people underestimate this. If you want to attempt a one rep bench press max, don’t go more than 5 lbs. over your current maximum lift at a time. If you complete the lift going up 5 lbs., then you can try to lift 5 lbs. more – but NEVER without a spotter.
If you are attempting a career high bench press, make sure to let your spotter know. A good spotter should keep his hands on the bar and guide you down to make sure that you are able to stabilize the weight. On the way up, the spotter should keep his hands on the bar without helping – unless you need the help. This can prevent a lot of injuries, and if the bar comes crashing down on your chest because its too heavy, the spotter will already be in perfect position and can help prevent a bad injury.
3. Always wear workout gloves.
Some of the bars become very slick when they are worn, and if your hands start to sweat they can become very slippery. A good pair of workout gloves will give you an iron grip on the bar, plus a nice psychological boost to to lift more weight as well. When you are attempting to lift heavy weight on the bench press, a good pair of workout gloves is key. Wearing gloves is a great preventative measure to take, and should eliminate any kind of hand slippage on the bar.
4. Make sure you’ve stretched.
Take the time to get your entire upper body loose before jumping on the bench. You should stretch out your shoulders, back, chest and legs, as all of these muscle groups are involved in the movement. Many injuries can be avoided by understanding and practicing this often overlooked step.
Before your next session, remember to review all 4 of these rules to help prevent any accidents or injuries. The bench press is meant to be a fun fitness challenge, just make sure to do it safely!