Flexibility may limit your ability to touch the bar to your chest.
It's not uncommon to walk into a gym and overhear men barking orders at their gym partner to touch the bar to their chest when benching. The bar-to-chest approach will benefit many lifters, but for others, it may be a ticket to the physical therapist. Learn whether touching the bar to your chest is helping you build strength or setting you up for a future injury.
To Touch or Not to Touch
The barbell should lightly touch the middle of your chest when performing the barbell flat bench press. By touching the bar to your chest, you ensure a full range of motion, which, in turn, activates more muscle fibers. Unfortunately, many lifters have inadequate shoulder mobility that leads to excessive strain on the shoulder joint when touching the bar to their chest. Due to discrepancy between exercisers' shoulder mobility, it's impossible to blindly know whether the bar to chest method is best for you. Luckily, there's a simple and accurate test that can help you determine the optimal bench press depth for your specific needs.
The Shoulder Mobility Test
Lie on a flat bench facing upward with your feet flat on the floor. Raise your arms as if you were grabbing an invisible bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Simulate the lowering phase of a bench press and let your arms hang in the bottom position. Allow your arms to relax and don't force extra range of motion. Take notice of your hand position. This is your natural bench press range of motion. If your hands reach chest level, you're cleared -- you possess requisite shoulder mobility for the bar-to-chest method. If your hands rest above chest level, you're not cleared and you should refrain from touching the bar to your chest when benching.
The Quick-Fix for Limited Mobility
If the shoulder mobility test placed you in the "not cleared" category, you will need to bench press with a shortened range of motion for the time being. The towel bench press is a sound alternative to allow for continued strength gains. Tightly roll a towel so that the diameter is about two to eight inches. Lie down on the flat bench and prepare for the lift. Place the tightly rolled towel on your chest -- in between your pectoralis muscles and in line with your sternum. Grab the bar as you normally would and have a spotter help unrack the barbell. Slowly lower the bar until it taps the towel. Press the barbell to the upright position by straightening your arms. See to it that the towel doesn't fall off of your chest throughout the set.
Getting Mobility With A Long-Term Cure
Although the towel bench press provides a quick fix, you will need to attack the underlying issue by improving your shoulder mobility. Perform the doorway chest stretch to gain flexibility in your pectorals and anterior deltoids. Stand in a doorway facing perpendicular to the wall. Raise your arms and bend your elbows to 90 degrees so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Place the inside of your arms on the surface of the wall or doorjamb. Lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat for three sets. Perform the doorway chest stretch three to five days per week. After a few weeks, you should begin to see flexibility improvements.