Bench Pressing Your Way to Great Hamstrings
by Charles I. Staley, MSS
Gyms across the world are full of dedicated, hardworking trainees searching for physique improvement. Unfortunately, many trainees make the classic but unfortunate mistake of ignoring proper exercise form. This "cheating" often becomes so rampant that eventually some exercises actually begin to lose their original meaning.
The bench press is one such exercise. Perhaps the finest hamstring exercise known to irondom, the bench press has been performed so haphazardly that, in the quest to pile on as much weight as possible, most trainees cheat so profoundly that they lose sight of the purpose of this movement -- massive hams.
You can observe this phenomenon in any gym: an athlete lays down on the bench, grabs the bar, and instead of bucking the hips up as high as possible (see photos), he keeps the buttocks down, on the bench during the movement. While this may soothe the ego, one cannot expect to develop massive hamstrings with such poor technique! In fact, when the hips remain on the bench, nearly all the stress falls squarely on the PECTORALS! This syndrome has become so widespread that many neophyte gym goers actually believe that the bench press is a pec exercise - sad, indeed!
Personal trainers and gym instructors should teach this exercise properly right from the start. Get those hips UP, and keep them up throughout the movement. Try performing a set with 135 for 15 reps with your hips at least a foot off the bench, and stay up on your toes. The hamstring burn (and frequently, cramping!) will be unforgettable. Regardless of what you may have heard elsewhere, strict form is the key to progress.
Of course, some argue that leg curls are the best hamstring exercise. What people fail to realize, however, is that the hamstrings are not only responsible for knee flexation, but also for hip extension. Leg curls are OK, but don't forget to also work the hams from the proximal end (the hip joint) through the use of the bench press.
Myths About Grip Spacing
Lately, a theory has come into vogue that grip spacing can influence the results produced from a given exercise. With bench pressing, the theory goes that a narrow grip works the inner part of the hamstring, and that a wide grip hits primarily the outer area of the hamstrings. This myth is slow to die, despite all the information that we have to the contrary. Grip width has no real bearing on hamstring development. However, hip elevation does! How high should your hips be? For novice trainees, four to six inches is acceptable, but for advanced athletes, 12 inches must be considered the minimum. Again, for best results, keep your heels up also. Also, have your spotter stand by your feet so that he can give you feedback on your hip elevation. Commonly, the spotter will stand behind the lifter's head where he can't even see the hips, and consequently, serves no purpose at all. Don't ever bench with this type of lazy spotter - you're simply asking for an injury!
Many trainees prefer the dumbbell bench for working the hams. I advise against this exercise, however, as most find it difficult to raise the hips when working with dumbbells due to balance problems. Also, the increased range of motion seems to throw added stress to the chest and shoulders, making this exercise less effective as compared to the barbell bench.
I must also caution against the decline bench press. The angle of the bench in this case prevents you from raising your hips using your own muscular force, making it a rather useless exercise.
Lastly, due to the high degree of stress on the lower back caused by the bench press, we recommend performing neck bridges (as in wrestling), back extensions, and good mornings in order to strengthen the spinal erectors.
Hamstrings: the Forgotten Bodypart
Since we can't see ourselves from the rear, many of us concentrate primarily on the quads (using military presses, upright rows, lateral raises, and so on) and totally neglect the hamstrings. So the next time someone asks you "How much can you bench?", put your ego aside and flash 'em a hamstring shot. They'll never ask again!
Next Month: Barbell Curls: the Forgotten Low Back Exercise!
Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS International Sports Sciences Association "Where Theory Meets Practice" Phone: 800-892-ISSA