A Guide to Applying DNS/PRI Principles to Powerlifting (Part 2: Bench Press)

Is there room in a powerlifting bench press program for postural and respiratory work?

If you’re a trainer:

  • As with the hips, respect the structure, build a good foundation/alignment, and generally things will fall into place with more complex skills,
  • Train the sagittal plane and restore a “neutral” thoracic spine curvature and ribcage position before dealing with any rotation or left to right asymmetries,
  • If there is an asymmetry, some transverse plane work with a right rotation bias is a great progression once the sagittal plane has been taken care of
  • Favoring some right ribcage/thoracic rotation with a neutral or even left rotated pelvis in other aspects of the training can be useful in restoring balance and improving performance.

If you’re a powerlifter/meathead/just want to lift without feeling like your body is going to fall apart:

  • Bracing is good, but if you can’t get into a good spine/ribcage/pelvis position, you’re leaving some of that brace on the table,
  • Rounding your shoulders isn’t inherently bad, in fact, it can make for an excellent recovery position from regular powerlifting training,
  • Some asymmetrical work for the shoulders can be useful in balancing out your bench press and making it symmetrical. More specifically, creating more right rotation in your warmups may help to balance things out.

If you haven’t already seen Part 1 to this series, I strongly recommend reading that first as it lays down the groundwork for what we are diving into here.

Today’s installment in the PRI/DNS to Powerlifting series will focus in on the bench press.

One of the central points with PRI is how the human body is asymmetrical. I’m sure you’ve seen people stand in line at the bank and end up posted up on one leg… Well, the leg that they choose (most commonly the right) isn’t completely by chance. Due to the natural asymmetries in the body (read up on Left AIC or Right BC if you care about the nerdy stuff), we tend to favor this hips right, thorax left, head left, right side closed, left side open pattern.

While these patterns aren’t the be all-end all for training and treatment, they can be a good place to look first when dealing with asymmetry and/or dysfunction.

You can see in the picture below how locked down my right side is. This is an exaggerated example of how a full on PRI candidate would look. And no, I’m not mad, that’s just the RBF shining bright.

So, our first order of business is generally going to be to sort out the hips as that can have the biggest impact, followed by shoulders. In the bench press, the same concept can apply, though we would want to focus in on the shoulders more.

For a powerlifting bench press, you need good thoracic extension, scap retraction/depression, and shoulder rotation/extension. What can happen over years of training for powerlifting is you can get stuck in that pattern and try to “bench press your way through every movement you’re doing”. Couple this with some asymmetries and repeated effort and you might run in to some aches and pains, or simply an inability to move well in the bench press.

For today’s article, we are going to divide it into 2 segments:

  1. Restoring movement variability so you can bench press well and not be “stuck” in that extended, retracted, depressed pattern, and
  2. Dealing with the asymmetries so you can bench press with a tighter setup and execution (Hint: you’re not going to have to roll out your upper traps).

So, let’s jump right in. In the classic powerlifting bench press, the shoulders are held back and down, with the upper back extended to create an “arch”, and ribcage protracted. This helps to reduce the range of motion that the shoulders go through, as well as hold the shoulder joint in the least stressful position for the movement.

With repetitive training, the body will adapt to hold the positions that it is trained (as per the SAID principle). As such, your shoulders can tend to get “stuck” in that bench pressing position, which will limit shoulder rotation and overhead mobility.

Start with the red line is the amount of internal rotation we are creating at the humerus, green line is the approximate angle of the ribcage.

When the ribcage is elevates and the spine is sitting in extension, it’s not uncommon to have normal amounts of internal rotation in your shoulders, but it can look like there isn’t enough due to where the ribcage is positioned. Remember, humeral internal rotation should considered relative to the ribcage, not a wall/floor, etc. As such, we want to look at the ribcage and spine first before arbitrarily stretching the shoulder.

It’s for the same reasons that I don’t like the sleeper stretch. Not addressing ribcage/spine position and just cranking on the shoulder capsule isn’t exactly a great time.

The simple starting point would simply to encourage more flexion of the upper back and protraction of the scaps, coupled with ribcage retraction. An easy way to get these positions to stick is to tack on some full inhales/exhales (PRI style, baby!).

Enter the Modified Belly Lift. This will also hammer your abs and can actually be a really good bench or low bar warmup as well.

By restoring a curve to the t-spine, the scapula can move freely on the ribcage which let your shoulders not feel like crap all the time. Now that you have good congruency between the scaps and ribcage, you can start to train through a range of motion that you will need for benching, notably shoulder extension and internal rotation..

Some respiratory 90/90 DB pressing with active humeral internal rotation might be a good place to start as you can encourage a good ribcage/hip position while training the internal rotation which can help you keep your shoulders in position with the bar on your chest. Here, the focus should be on crushing the roller as hard as possible while keeping the elbow on the down arm level with the ears and driving the hand down towards the ground. With the pressing arm, you should keep your eyes looking at it the whole time while reaching up to the ceiling until your reaching side’s shoulder comes off the ground.

By reaching with the opposite arm while creating internal rotation on the grounded limb, you can retract/internally rotate the ribs which helps to create the mobility at the shoulder, and it tends to stick a whole lot better than just passively doing a sleeper stretch.

Part 2: dealing with PRI based asymmetries in the bench press

While the human body may be inherently asymmetrical, a bench press is generally best performed symmetrically. We’ve already touched on the Left AIC in the previous articlebut a quick recap will show that your lower half will tend to rotate to the right. In order to not walk in circles all the time (your brain will always find a way for you to look forward and level with the horizon), your body can compensate with a left ribcage and head rotation (refer back to my RBF picture above).

So, what does this mean for a bench press? 2 things:

  1. Given that the goal is to restore “symmetry”, we would want to encourage a right thoracic rotation to help the shoulders face the bar evenly.
  2. Your “tight right shoulder” might well be related to your left ribcage rotation putting a lot of stress across the right shoulder as it creates a lot of relative abduction. The same goes for left shoulders that feel banged up – you probably can’t create enough tension in your mid traps on the left because of where the ribcage is sitting.

With a left torso rotation, you can see that there is more relative abduction and retraction on the right side with more protraction and internal rotation on the left.

Once the ribcage is centered, the angles on the shoulders are more symmetrical.

Training some thoracic rotation can be a good avenue to explore for general shoulder health, but we want to bias more right rotation for the reasons outlined above. As such, you’ll end up training both directions, but aiming for about a 2:3 ratio of left rotation: right rotation until you start to see a change in resting positions.

This exercise can also double as a good hip stretch for tight quads/hip flexors. Also pay attention to how the hips sit in the movement – always oriented straight forwards.

Typically, I would recommend doing these exercises as part of your warmup and doing about 18 breaths worth of work to the right and 12 or so to the left. This is really just a guideline to follow, not a hard rule

Even as part of a warmup, these drills can create some very powerful short term change which, when you train on that change continuously, will create long term adaptations and a stronger, more symmetrical base to work from in your bench.

Have any questions about the content of the article? Want to learn how to incorporate this work into general powerlifting training? Send me an email for a free consultation at [email protected]