Injuries and tweaks happen during the dumbbell bench press at two common instances: Picking the dumbells off the floor or a low rack during the bench setup.
If you get injured just picking up a heavy dumbbell in preparation for a bench press then you need more than a short explanation on proper lifting. You need to get back to basics, and if I am to venture a guess, get off the machines. Strong strength trainees don’t get bad injuries picking up dumbells. Strength training is supposed to prepare you to pick up heavy things.
But setting up the exercise can be tricky when you are on your own. As the dumbells required become very heavy it gets to be more and more difficult. The heavier the dumbbells get the harder it is to get them up into a position from which to press them, let alone actually do the exercise. Having a training partner to hand the dumbbells off to you is better. As well, there used to be a great product called Power Hooks. These allowed you to hang the dumbells off an overhead bar by hooks so that you can grab them from the reclined position on the bench. Unfortunately, the manufacturer discontinued them so, unless you have a partner or can recruit a friendly person at the gym, you’re on your own.
With that in mind, there, there are right and wrong ways to get yourself into position for the dumbbell bench press. First I will explain the proper setup in a step by step process.
How To Pick Up Dumbbells for Bench Press
Let’s start with how you should pick up the dumbbells in the first place. I’ve seen people pick up very heavy dumbbells from a standing position and then walk over to the bench, straddle it, and awkwardly try to get themselves into a seated position on the area of the bench they need to be on. I do it myself this way often, but there are more efficient and safer ways to go. So instead:
1. Place the weights at the end of the bench so that you can lift them from a position that is almost straddling the bench…ready to sit down.
2. Bring the weights to your knees so that the dumbbell ends rest on the knees and sit back onto the bench so that the bells are planted on your knees and you have a “hammer” grip. (If use adjustable dumbbell handles then the ends of the handles should be on the knees, you can place the flat part of the plate on the knees instead of the end of the dumbbell handle, which is uncomfortable).
Dumbbell Bench Press Setup
3. From the seated position with weights resting on knees, take some breaths and brace your core and rock back using your knees to bring the weights back into position. Here is the key: you are not using your hip flexors and legging them up. You are setting your core rigid and rocking back using momentum to do it. Don’t ROLL back. ROCK back.
4. As you rock back try to simultaneously retract your scapula and depress them. In other words, pinch your shoulder blades together and down bringing your elbows alongside your torso and the dumbells into pressing position.
From the seated position to the setup, with practice, can be done in one smooth motion.
Mistakes in the Dumbbell Bench Setup
What most trainees do wrong is to try to use their abdominals and hip flexors in a flexing and curling movement. You must REMAIN RIGID during the setup. Otherwise, you have very little control over the shoulder complex and you cannot set the scapula.
What is going to happen is that you are going to flex your RA which is also going to “curl” your chest forward and also tend to make you posture your neck. From that position and also manipulating heavy weights you are fighting a losing battle trying to have any control over your scapula. You can’t extend the thoracic so you lose a big factor in creating a stable base. You may also end up muscling up the dumbbells using shoulder flexion, which, depending on how heavy they are, could end up tweaking a shoulder by accident one day. There is nothing more annoying than getting injured while trying to get ready to do a simple exercise!
Try it as an experiment right now. As you are sitting put your arms in front of you as if you are driving a race car and flex your abs like you are trying to curl up like one of those rolly-polly bugs. Do it hard. Then try to swing up your knees and while you are doing all this see what happens to your thoracic spine and how much control you have over your scapula.
Following the process above should make your dumbbell bench press set up much smoother and eliminate those annoying little neck and shoulder tweaks.