Bench Press: Flaring your elbows out versus tucking them to your sides. Plus, why you lift less on incline press.

Posted on 25 Mar 2012 20:34

I recently got a bench press question form a member. You know it's funny, I used to get more bench press questions than anything and after a while, I started getting more deadlift questions than anything. Which I liked until I almost have grown sick of talking about the deadlift so it's sort of a treat to get a bench press question again. The question was basically this:

Bench press - Flaring versus tucking the elbow: What exactly do people mean by this? It is confusing me, and I want to get the correct form. When I read 'Tuck Your Elbows in' I'm thinking moving the arms closer to Your body, like the close grip bench, but keeping the same grip width. Is this what it means?

After I answered the question, I figured that it is related to why a person can lift more on the flat bench press than on the incline press. So, I'll knock over two cans with one stone in this post. First to answer the basic question:

What does it mean to "flare your elbows" on bench press?

When people say "flare the elbows" they mean that the elbows themselves are out away from the sides of the body. Obviously, in order to flare your elbows far out you would need to have a wider grip, and many bodybuilders, and some powerlifters adopt this elbows-out position for the bench press, some so that the upper arms come close to being perpendicular to the body.

The reason bodybuilders do it is because it emphasizes the pectorals more, and they only do the bench press to grow their chest. Since both the upper and lower portions of the pectoralis major are very strong adductors of the shoulder, but especially the upper fibers, keeping the arms out brings to bear the pecs by calling on them to adduct the arms/shoulder joint more so than if the elbows were tucked to the body.

pectoralis major muscle

The Pectoralis Major

By the way, keep in mind that from a kinesiological perspective, when I say arms I am always referring to the upper arms. Otherwise I'd say 'forearms'. So having your "arms out" or your "elbows out" on bench press is the same thing. The reason people say "elbows out" is because when you say arms, people want to know 'which part' of the arm. So now you know that 'arm' means upper arm. To help bring this home, the word "brachii" in biceps brachii means just arm. We use a similar convention for the legs, so that when we say leg we mean the upper leg or thigh, not the lower legs or shins/calves.

Okay, so keeping your arms out, away from your side, with the commensurate wider grip, emphasizes the chest more by calling on its ability as an adductor, along with the anterior deltoids. So for bodybuilders, an arms out bench is done for the same reason as a dumbbell fly, except of course much more weight can be used in the bench press, and it also hits the triceps very well.

Some powerlifters use the elbow/arms out style with a wider grip simply because it decreases the distance the bar has to travel and for those with short arms who are suited to this style, it can be very successful.

Those are the reasons for the arms out style, but it is VERY stressful on the shoulder joint and is part of what gave the bench press a reputation as a shoulder killer…since so many people use the bodybuilder style of pressing.

The very opposite of that is having the elbows/arms tucked tight into the sides, which would of course mean you'd need to bring the grip in closer, maybe even closer than shoulder width. Having your arms tucked tight to your sides is a very uncomfortable way to bench and it is actually hard on the shoulders in its own way. It also makes the pectorals less efficient since there is MORE shoulder extension but less adduction. The upper pecs are actually good extensors, but the lower fibers not so much and the deltoids have to do more than their fair share. The overall affect of this, without getting too complicated, is that an arms tucked tight in style means most will lift less weight and stress the shoulders.

It is quite normal for these dichotomies to be set up in strength training. If having your arms flared out bodybuilder style is incorrect and dangerous, then having your arms tucked tight into your sides must be correct, right? Wrong.

The more efficient and safest way to bench press, for most, is to have the arms come out from the body to just around 45 degrees or so..although it does not need to be perfect…whatever angle is most comfortable. So, if having your arms right against your sides is zero degrees, bringing them out about halfway between that and 90°, which would be at right angles to your torso, should be right. For most trainees this will mean a grip width of around shoulder-width, give or take.

When people say "tuck your elbows in" it is hard to be sure what they mean. Some people literally mean to tuck them in tight to your sides. But others may mean relative to having them flared out all the way. So that is an ambiguous cue, at best. The reasons for being able to lift more on the flat bench, as you shall see, is actually related to some of the points I made in this answer. To explore this, I'll go a bit more in-depth on some of the things I introduced above.

Why Can You Lift More on Flat Bench Press Than on Incline Bench Press?

The answer to this question, which I'm sure most bench press warriors have wondered about from time to time, is one of simple kinesiology and muscle recruitment. Although most people think of the bench press as a chest exercise, the movement is really one of the shoulder and the muscles involved are shoulder muscles. Yes, your pecs (pectoralis major) are shoulder muscles. As you move the weight upwards in the bench press, the triceps must extend the elbow, yet we can assume that the act of extending the elbow is pretty much the same in the flat and incline bench. So, something must change at the shoulder.

To figure out what is going on, the first thing to do is figure out what primary shoulder movements are taking place. Some of this depends on your technique and arm position when doing the bench press. Let's assume there are three positions in which you can place your arms: elbows out like a bodybuilder, elbows pinned to your sides, like a goofball, and elbows out around 45 degrees or so, like a sensible person. Here, we'll consider only arms out and arms at 45, as that is all we need to answer the question and because hardly anybody bench presses with their arms pinned to their torso, as it is uncomfortable to most of us.

Elbows Out Bodybuilder Style

If you have a "bodybuilder style" press, with a wider grip and the elbows flared outwards, the primary shoulder movement becomes horizontal adduction. Horizontal adduction is a movement of the humerus toward the midline of the body from a position of abduction (like a dumbbell fly). Of course, you could also introduce more flexion by not allowing the bar to go up in a straight line, but let us assume you lift the bar in a more or less fixed path. Now, the pectoralis major has two heads and therefore two "sets of fibers." The sternal head (lower fibers) and the clavicular head (upper fibers). Both parts are big-time horizontal adductors and so can produce a good amount of force during the "elbows out" bench press, which explains why bodybuilders do it, and during the chest fly, which is all about horizontal adduction. The anterior (front) deltoid is also, of course, a horizontal adductor. The elbows out style, as you may have heard, puts a lot of stress on the shoulder joint (some people talk about "middle fibers" but let's not over-complicate things).

During the flat bench press with the elbows out, you have all the fibers of the pecs and the anterior deltoids working to produce this horizontal adduction of the humerus. But what happens when you place the body on an incline, with your head higher than your torso? Well, instead of doing mostly horizontal adduction you do a combo of horizontal adduction and flexion (moving the humerus straight up in front of you). While the clavicular head (upper part) of the pectoralis major is active in shoulder flexion, acting to flex, horizontally adduct and medially rotate the joint, the lower sternal head does not have the exact same roles. Instead, it is more of an oblique adductor.

Okay, what the heck is the difference between horizontal adduction and oblique adduction? Think of horizontal adduction as moving your arm across your chest toward your opposite shoulder. Oblique adduction, on the other hand, is moving your arm across you body toward the opposite HIP. The reasons the lower fibers of the pecs act this way is because of the way they are attached to the humerus and their orientation. While the upper fibers are attached more to the front of the humerus the lower fibers are attached a little more to the rear of the bone. Plus, they attach a bit higher up. This makes them poor flexors and changes the way they act in adduction. As your arm is flexed in front of your body during the incline press, the sternal head starts to drop out of the picture, leaving you with only the anterior deltoids and upper fibers of the pecs. So essentially, the incline press leaves you with less muscle to work with and you have to rely more on your comparatively small anterior deltoids as you increase the incline.

Ah, but does this explain how the incline press builds the upper pecs more? Not really, you see, while the entire pectoral is maximally recruited during a flat bench press, during an incline press the lower pecs contribute less force, but this doesn't mean the upper pecs are recruited more, it simply means the entire muscle complex is at a disadvantage. The debate as to whether you can isolate and "build" the upper chest or lower chest may never be resolved, but simple observation seems to say that such isolation is folly. The pectoral fibers work together and, despite the slight differences that can explain the different lifting capacities during the flat and incline bench, their overall action is one of adduction and medial rotation. Medial rotation, by the way, is another way of saying internal rotation.

This page created 25 Mar 2012 20:34
Last updated 28 Apr 2016 19:16

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