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Bench Press for Baseball Players: Is It Safe?

Updated: May 5, 2022

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)


baseball bench press

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.


baseball bench press
Anatomography, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.


baseball bench press
ablight, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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


baseball bench press

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.

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