The new year is commonly a time of renewed – if often briefly – dedication to fitness. The gym floor becomes inundated with members trying, not surprisingly, all the almost iconic exercises such as squats, push-ups, pull-ups and lunges. Some are legendary for good reason. Others are, best-case scenario, not overly effective and, worst-case scenario, dangerous.
The decline bench press is an example of an old chestnut in need of retirement.
What is it?
The decline bench press is an iteration on the traditional flat bench press, which is a pushing motion. Decline bench is performed lying on a flat bench that has been, predictably, placed on a decline. For safety, there is a pad at the top of the bench to secure one's ankles. Typically, decline bench is done on a chest or upper-body day after flat or incline bench presses.
Why steer clear?
Risk of heart attack and stroke: Being in a decline position – especially if you are not breathing properly – creates high intrinsic pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, especially for individuals with compromised cardiovascular systems.
Back and spine health: Getting in and out of the declined position is precarious for everyone, but potentially problematic for anyone with a history of lower-back instability or pain, disc herniation or osteoporosis (lower-than-normal bone density). Curling up and down holding weight could potentially cause an osteoporotic spine to fracture or a reoccurrence of a disc issue.
Lack of gains: If you're lifting weights to elicit muscle strength or hypertrophy (muscle bulk), choose an exercise in which the weight you can lift – and not the weight you can manoeuvre in and out of the starting position – is your limiting factor. Without a spotter, it is almost impossible to lift heavy enough weights to achieve strength or hypertrophy gains.
Safety, crushing injuries and death by asphyxiation: Weight lifting is always somewhat precarious, but pressing weights directly over your head in a position that is hard to get out of quickly makes decline bench particularly dangerous.
Posture: Unless you have very specific goals – such as prepping for a bodybuilding competition – chest exercises should not be a priority. We all sit too much, which often results in rounded shoulders. Chest exercises, including decline bench, exacerbate this problem. Sure, do one or two chest exercises (e.g., flat bench) but don't do multiples of such exercises. Instead, move on and improve your posture with an upper-back exercise.
The main take-away: Ditch the decline bench. Try cable flys from different angles, bench press on a stability ball and incline or decline push-ups. Better yet, replace the decline bench with an extra back exercise. If you decide to do the decline bench, have a spotter and prioritize proper breathing.
A few other things to be wary of…
Behind-the-head lat pull-downs. Save your neck and shoulders; pull the bar to the front of your body, and don't allow your shoulders to roll forward.
Leg extensions. Save your knees. Avoid the exercise altogether or, if you are determined to try it, use moderate weight, always complement it with hamstring exercises and prioritize multijoint functional movements such as squats, lunges and bridges.
Skipping your warm-up. Warm-ups are essential for performance and safety. They are particularly important for anyone with a compromised cardiovascular system.
Dips. Unless your sport requires this motion, save your shoulders by doing alternative triceps exercises such as French press or triceps push-ups.