Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The “Standing Bench Press”

by Robert Santana, PhD, RD, SSC | March 07, 2023

lifter second layback in the middle of a press

The debate between single-joint exercise advocates and multi-joint exercise advocates has stood the test of time. In one corner, you have strength coaches, like myself, that spend most of our time teaching lifters to perform compound movements comprised of multiple joint actions. In the other corner, you have bodybuilders, physical therapists, “corrective exercise specialists,” and some spin-off of all the above that promote exercising isolated joint actions.

The term “muscle isolation” is a misnomer because it is impossible to train any muscle in isolation from other muscles. Joint actions can be isolated, whereas muscle actions cannot. For instance, the “strict” barbell biceps curl, which only allows for elbow flexion, is a classic “isolation exercise” where the brachialis and the biceps brachii are the primary muscles involved in flexing the elbows – note that there are two primary muscles. However, the forearms contract to keep the bar secured in the hands and the brachioradialis participates in both elbow flexion as well as supination of the hand. The postural muscles of the back and waist, along with the hips, participate by keeping your torso stable while raising the forearm.

This is one of many examples of “isolation” exercises. The point is that, for better or worse, isolating individual joint actions remains popular in many weight rooms. These exercises certainly have their place, but anyone who has trained long enough fully understands that these movements supplement the stronger, and more functional, multi-joint movements that drive overall strength and muscle acquisition. (This is where someone will cite academic arguments based upon poorly designed professional research studies. Have at it.)

The press is a compound movement that primarily consists of shoulder flexion and elbow extension. The postural muscles of the back and waist contract to maintain spinal stability and the muscles of hips and thighs contract to maintain the stability of the lower extremities. The elbow and shoulder joints are used to move the barbell, and the spine, hips, and knees are used to stabilize the body. The aspect of the lift that gets the keyboard warriors riled up is when a heavy weight gets loaded on the barbell.

In a strict “military press,” the torso stays completely vertical and the barbell travels around the face and back around the head. If a lifter attempts to progress this movement to heavier weights, he eventually reaches a point where the bar cannot move through that range of motion because gravity steps in and the moment arm between the barbell and the shoulder joint, as well as the barbell and the mid-foot balance point becomes impossible to overcome. This is where torso movement becomes mandatory to progress beyond that critical threshold.

In a “strict press” the movement starts with the hips slightly forward, and the thoracic spine in extension, placing the trunk in a more horizontal position, allowing the bar to stay over the middle of the foot and closer to the shoulders as the lifter presses upward. As the bar gets higher the hips begin to flex back into a neutral position to move the lifter under the bar. The key feature here is that the hips are moving the torso, not the back. Many heavy presses have been completed with this method. However, additional methods exist to overcome the inertia of a stationary barbell in the hands at the bottom of the lift.

The “double-layback press” originated in the early days of Olympic weightlifting when the clean & press was included as a competition lift. Lifters figured out that a dynamic hip extension preceding the movement allowed the barbell to get closer to the axis of rotation (i.e. the glenohumeral joint). A rapid eccentric shoulder extension (a vertical dip of the bar towards the chest) accompanies the initial layback (“the first layback”) from the start position and elicits a stretch reflex that propels the bar off the shoulders and into the air. The stretch reflex from the hips works synergistically with the stretch reflex from the shoulders and arms to increase force production.

This movement also places the glenohumeral joint under the barbell, thus increasing mechanical efficiency during the ascent. Then something interesting happens that awakens every troll in cyberspace: The lifter’s trunk becomes more horizontal a second time as the barbell is moving through space. As with the first layback, this places the glenohumeral joint under the barbell to allow for a more efficient bar path. This is referred to as “the second layback,” and is required to gain entry to “Snap City” on your favorite social media platform. Your favorite (insert credential here) will probably share your video with his millions of followers to attract tourism to Snap City. As fun as it may seem to visit such a place, many of us who perform a double layback press will likely be denied entry.

The same people advertising Snap City will also characterize the lift as a “standing bench press” despite the absence of a bench in the movement, or even in the same room. The mis-characterization comes from the display of a less-than-perfectly-vertical torso position with the bar over the anterior deltoids and pecs during the second layback.

Aside from the fact that there is not a physical bench in the movement, the lifter’s spine can remain relatively neutral if the lifter is performing the lift correctly. First, the hips are moving, not the spine; the hips move forward, which places the torso in a more horizontal position and the muscles of the back and waist contract isometrically to maintain spinal position while this occurs. Variability in the degree of layback exists, with some lifters being more flexible than others and short torsos assuming a horizontal position more easily than long torsos.

The goal of the press is to build upper body strength, primarily in the shoulders. When it gets heavy enough, a second layback will occur, and the degree of layback will vary between lifters. This does not subtract from the overall strength and muscle building aspects of the lift. Rather it optimizes both, by allowing the lifter to apply additional stress, provided the lift is performed in such a manner where the shoulders and hips complete their respective ranges of motion simultaneously. A sufficiently stabilized spine prevents the spine from going into overextension and reduces injury risk during the second layback. So next time someone invites you to perform a Standing Bench Press in Snap City, you know which sign to show to decline the invitation.  

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