Updated: Jul 3
Controversy Around Bench Press in Baseball Players
There is significant controversy around bench pressing for baseball players. If you go on social media, you will find people in one camp or the other. Those who support it will point to overall strength and the correlation to throwing or hitting power. Those who are against it will mention injury risks and other factors, which I have discussed below. I want to highlight each of these points and then provide some research and my current understanding of the topic.
Fear of shoulder impingement is often cited. It is thought that the bottom position of the bench press creates stress on the shoulder joint due to the rounding of shoulders. If you want to learn more about shoulder impingement, check out my blog post on it here. Look at the picture below and note how his shoulders come forward while the barbell is touching his chest (image courtesy of stack.com)
Many people theorize that this is stressing the front of your shoulder which is already an area of concern in baseball players.
I recently saw a post where someone mentioned damage to the biceps tendon from bench pressing. He stated that the position pictured above also compresses the tendon, which can be irritated in many baseball players. I talked about biceps tendonitis in baseball players here if you want to learn more.
Another common argument is that bench press should simply be replaced by push ups as they are less stressful. If a similar effect can be achieved with a safer exercise, then why not abandon the more dangerous exercise?
Finally, many people argue that the bench press is not sport specific. After all, you do not press the ball off of the mound or press the bat around your body. While strength is important, we should be doing everything we can to mimic on-field movements in the weight room.
After coming up with these common criticisms of bench press for baseball players, I wanted to do some research and figure out what evidence there is to support or refute these claims. Unfortunately, many people simply copy what others think and they do not realize that something was only an opinion. Just because an “expert” on social media says something, does not mean that he researched it or has advanced knowledge on the subject. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of simply repeating what you read from “experts” and thinking that it is research. In order to combat this, I will provide some evidence and then give you my opinions at the end of this post.
Shoulder Impingement in Baseball Players From Bench Pressing
First, I want to talk about impingement. As I pointed out in my previous blog post about shoulder impingement that I linked to above, it is a poor term. We understand very little about the movements of the shoulder and we do a poor job of predicting how individuals will tolerate movements. Therefore, the term impingement is being phased out by many healthcare providers. For these and other reasons, there is no study saying whether bench press causes impingement because that would be impossible to examine. However, we can make some educated guesses.
A study by Kolber, et al. asked subjects to report their typical workout routine. They then performed several tests that have been linked to diagnosing shoulder impingement. After that, they compared which exercises correlated to the individuals who had the signs of shoulder impingement along with reports of pain. Interestingly, flat and incline bench press did not have any relationship to impingement symptoms or reports of shoulder pain. The average subject had lifted weights for 9 years, so there would probably be some changes from repetitive lifting.
This study obviously does not show a pure causal relationship between bench press and shoulder impingement, but it shows an interesting trend. If we consider shoulder injuries in people who have lifted weights for a prolonged period of time, we should have a sample to show whether shoulder impingement is a result of bench press.
I want to take a look at an even larger sample size. A study by Platt, et al. determined that in the 2018-2019 MLB seasons, the injury rate was 5.13 per thousand games. In 2020 the rate jumped to 8.66 possibly due to the altered schedule from COVID-19. A systematic review by Aasa, et al. reported that the injury rate for weightlifters was 2.4-3.3 per 1,000 hours of training.
It is important to remember that the baseball injuries were based on games played, so the rate should be decreased because games take multiple hours. However, a large portion of a baseball game is spent standing, so I would consider the numbers fair. The injury rate in weightlifters is significantly less than in baseball players. If you are curious, injury rates from the study by Aasa were: 3.57 per thousand hours for track and field, 9.6 per thousand hours for American football, and 5.7 per thousand hours for wrestling. Weightlifting is lower than all of those other sports.
If you believe that bench pressing causes shoulder injuries, then why are weightlifters some of the least injured athletes? Shouldn’t they all have impingement and pain due to their frequent bench pressing? As I mentioned before, this is not an exact comparison, but it does prove the point that bench pressing in itself is not more dangerous than pitching. In fact, it is probably less dangerous.
Role of the Biceps in Bench Press and How it Compares To Push Ups
The idea of bench pressing causing damage to the biceps tendon is concerning. After all, we put incredible stress on the biceps eccentrically with every pitch. Biceps tendon issues are one of the leading causes of shoulder pain in baseball players. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a study showing the exact effect of bench pressing on the biceps tendon. However, I was able to find an interesting study that looked at the differences between bench press and push ups as they relate to muscle growth.
Kikuchi and Nakazato had 2 sets of participants. One group trained their 40% one rep max bench press twice a week for 8 weeks. The other group performed modified push ups to represent 40% of their one rep max at the same frequency. At the end of that time, they were analyzed to determine what changes occurred.
Both groups saw improved strength and growth of the pectoralis major and triceps muscle thickness. Neither had a significant change in power, probably due to the low load that was used for training. Interestingly, the bench press group had a significant increase in biceps muscle thickness, while the push up group saw no such result.
The authors point out that this was an unexpected change and runs counter to other research. However, I think that it is important to show that bench press may increase biceps muscle thickness compared to push ups. If the biceps tendon was being compressed or damaged, then there would probably not be muscular growth from the exercise.
This is important for baseball players because a strong muscle is a more resilient muscle. If you can increase your biceps strength, then you are less likely to suffer an injury on the field. Any training that promotes muscular growth of the biceps is important for injury prevention. Image below courtesy of businessinsider.com
How a Strong Bench Press Relates to Baseball
The last hurdle to address is the idea of transfer between the weight room and the field. Even if bench pressing is a safe exercise, does it even help with baseball? Fortunately, I found a couple of studies that provide some valuable information.
The first study is by Miyaguchi and Demura and it examines the relationship between bench press strength and power output with rapid elbow flexion. Each subject had their one rep maximum bench press tested. Then, they held onto a pulley that would rapidly add weight that they had to resist. Resisting the pulley required them to flex their elbow as if performing a biceps curl.
At first glance, this study is odd because bench press may have some relationship with the biceps as we discussed earlier, but it is not an exercise that primarily strengthens the biceps. However, the study showed that the subjects with a higher bench press were able to create more power utilizing the stretch-shortening cycle.
The stretch-shortening cycle refers to the plyometric power of a muscle that is rapidly elongated and then shortened. Imagine rapidly squatting down to jump up as high as you can. The quick stretching of your quadriceps and glutes allow you to contract them and jump higher than if you moved slowly.
Typically, we know that getting stronger will increase your power, as they both utilize Type II muscle fibers otherwise known as quick twitch fibers. This study showed that increased bench press strength is related to improved power development in the upper body. Therefore, a strong bench press defies the idea of sport specificity and helps with upper body power in other movements.
While that study sheds a fascinating light on the relationship between upper body strength and power, the next one that is also by Miyaguchi and Demura related more specifically to baseball. This time, they looked at high school aged baseball players and divided them into good and mediocre hitters. They looked at one rep maximum bench press strength along with bench power as they related to swing speed.
The mediocre hitter group showed a positive correlation between one rep maximum bench press and swing speed. However, the good hitters did not have a similar relationship. Instead, they showed significantly higher bench power compared to the mediocre hitters. Bench press strength did not demonstrate a relationship to swing speed in the good hitters, but their power seemed to separate them from the mediocre hitters.
My interpretation of this study is that strength is the first bucket we should fill if we are looking to improve a mediocre hitter. After all, there is a direct relationship between bench press strength and swing speed in mediocre hitters. However, once someone reaches the point of being a good hitter, then power should become more of a training priority. This aligns with basic training philosophies as power requires a baseline of strength to move something quickly. If you are very weak, then you will not be able to swing a bat quickly. If you are very strong, then you at least have the potential to swing the bat quickly, but you may need to work on speed and power in order to do so.
My Thoughts on Bench Pressing and Baseball Players
After doing all of this research, I have a confession to make. I came into this believing that bench press was beneficial for baseball players. While it is important to acknowledge your biases, I think that the research confirmed my hypothesis. It seems that bench pressing is not only safe, but it can improve performance as a pitcher and hitter.
Context does matter and if you are an athlete who has pain with bench pressing, then you probably should modify it in some way. Our bodies are all different and some people may not get the same benefit from bench pressing as others. I am not saying that it is a perfect exercise that every baseball player should do. I do think it is important to compare the wear and tear of exercise to what occurs on the field. Your shoulder suffers tremendous trauma from pitching, but we consider that normal and unavoidable. Performing 30 repetitions of bench press a couple of times a week is probably doing much less damage than throwing 100 pitches in a game. Perspective should matter with training as well as playing.
Finally, I have found that improving strength is the easiest way to improve someone’s power on the field. Most athletes that I see are underdeveloped in overall strength. Before trying power exercises, they benefit most from basic strength training. This allows for a solid foundation that leads to power development in the future. It is important to understand your personal limitations, but rarely is getting stronger a bad idea.
As always, if you are suffering from pain, nerve symptoms (numbness, tingling, or weakness), or anything else significant, please see a healthcare provider. This blog is meant to be educational and is not a substitute for medical advice.
Hopefully you learned something about bench pressing for baseball players. I believe that it is not only safe but beneficial for the majority of baseball players. If you disagree, that is ok. However, I think that using research is crucial in practice and it provides a much stronger foundation than anecdotal evidence. If you disagree or want to discuss this more, comment below or send me a message and we can have a discussion. If you found this blog helpful, please share it with someone. We hope to continue to grow and help people better understand how our bodies move and work. If you want to subscribe so that you don’t miss any other posts, click the sign in button on the top right of this page. Once you have created an account, click the drop-down menu in the top right next to your name and go to your settings page. Click the subscribe button next to “Blog Subscription” and you won’t miss any future posts! If you are in the Sterling, Virginia area and would like to work with me or you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com or follow me on Instagram or Twitter @drdannydpt.