by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC
Optimize your forearm angle and elbow position for a stronger press and bench.
Imagine you need to push something straight away from you into a pit. But you can't get too close to the pit, because of poisonous fumes, so you have to push it with something to keep your distance. You need to find a stick. Okay, there's one right there. Fine. Now you can push the object, let's say a large trunk containing the fresh corpse of your late hairdresser, tax accountant, or Yoga instructor. Why? Not my problem. You're just the irritable sort. And it just so happens you have a flesh-eating acid pit in your basement for precisely this sort of everyday chore of waste disposal.
Well, that's just fine. I don't judge. You Do You.
Okay, so now you're going to push the trunk across the floor toward the acid pit. The trunk is heavy and the floor is gravelly. In which direction will you point the stick to push the trunk?
Why, straight in the direction I want to push it, straight toward my acid pit, you say.
That makes sense. That makes very common sense, and it also makes mechanical sense. If you apply a force at an angle to the desired work vector, then the amount of force you apply along that vector will decrease as a function of the angle, and some force will be applied along a vector you don't want. You'll push the trunk off course. It will miss the acid pit. That would be sad.
Now, let's replace the trunk with a barbell, and the stick with your forearm. It should make sense that if you are pressing the bar through space, either standing or on the bench, you want your forearm to line up with the direction the bar will move.
This is important, because both of the pressing movements when performed correctly involve a certain finesse in managing your bar path. The squat starts with the bar over the middle of the foot, and if we can just move the bar vertically we're well on the way to having a great squat. The dead also starts with the bar over the middle of the foot, and if we engage the lats and keep the bar against our shins, it will move vertically. Nothing complicated.
Now, think about the standing press. At the beginning of the movement, the bar is in front of the actual shoulder joint by some nonzero amount. If a heavy press is to be locked overhead, this distance has to be zero'd out, or else...well, it won't lock out. The turning force against the shoulder at the top will be too great. The bar will fall down, and possibly you, too. So in the process of pressing the bar, we have to get it directly over the shoulder joint to lock out. This is mostly done through body movement, because we really want the bar to move in a straight vertical line. The bar goes straight up, and we move our bodies (and our shoulders) under it.
The problem is that making the bar go straight up from the bottom position can be technically challenging, and even when we think we're pushing straight up, we're also pushing forward a bit. And "a bit" forward in the press has a disproportionately large effect on the success of the rep. So we often cue to push the bar back, even though we're really just trying to get you to push it straight up.
A big part of this challenge of moving the bar straight is the stick--the forearm. If the forearm is not pointing in the direction the bar has to go, then the bar path will be off the vertical, and the rep may be missed.
But the "forearm" is not the forearm you see. If the entire forearm looks vertical from the side, with elbows directly under the bar, the bar will go out front--increasing, not decreasing the moment arm. And the rep will miss, or at least suck. That's because the critical forearm bone for our purposes is the radius, the bone of the forearm that bears virtually all the weight. It's small at the elbow, but big at the wrist. And it is not straight under the bar, poised to push vertically, unless the elbow is in front of the bar at the bottom.
This is why many of you mutter to yourselves "if he says ELBOWS UP! one more time, I'm going to put him in a trunk and shove him into the acid pit. I'll point the stick straight this time."
That's right. I didn't just fall off the rutabaga cart, you know.
For more on how this works, I invite you to look at https://youtu.be/SHwOV4q9n6Y?t=425.
We are confronted by a similar problem in the bench. Not at the top, but at the bottom. At the top of the bench, a heavy bar will be directly over the shoulder joint, Because Physics. If not, there will be a significant turning force around the shoulder, and the bar, if heavy enough, will fall down and smash into us somewhere between our umbilicus and our Unmentionables. Which is not part of the exercise. So at the top, there's no moment around the shoulder, because the horizontal distance between load and joint is zero.
The bottom, however, is another story. We can't lower the bar directly onto our shoulder joints, because our shoulder isn't built for that, and it would suck, and your shoulder would be damaged, and gains would cease, and there would be Great Sadness. No, we have to live with a bottom position where the bar is just a bit inferior to the shoulder joint, at about the nipple line for those of us cursed with non-voluptuous phenotypes, or approximately between the middle and lower third of the sternum. This means that, at the bottom of the bench, we again have a moment, a turning force, which wants to rotate the bar inferiorly, toward our belly and the floor. To get the bar to lockout, we will have to overcome this turning force, in addition to moving the weight vertically. In other words, we will have a non-vertical bar path on the way up.
So we'll want to have our sticks--our forearms--pointed in the desired direction.
This means that, just like in the press, our elbows will NOT be directly under the bar at the bottom. Instead our elbows will be just a bit inferior to the bar--towards our feet--so that our forearms are aligned to push the bar up and back (superiorly) to the lockout directly over our shoulder joints. This angle off the vertical will not need to be very pronounced if we pinch and tuck our shoulder blades and get an awesome arch and really push our upper back into the bench, because these optimizations will minimize the moment at the bottom. But they won't eliminate it. So you'll need to line up your forearms with the bar path to get the most out of your bench--just like your press.
The moral of the story is: When we bench and press, the elbows will never be directly under the bar at the bottom. In the press, they'll be anterior to the bar--out front. And when we bench, they'll be a bit inferior--toward the foot. These critical technical features really pay off at higher weights, but they are both extremely susceptible to form creep and should be cultivated in every set, from empty bar to PR attempt. Watch your elbows and forearm angles closely on the pressing movements, and you'll be less likely to miss that heavy rep. Which, given your apparent temper and the proximity of your acid pit, is probably in the best interests of all concerned.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.