Training for the Rider: Master the Bench Press

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When riders hit the weights, we are often most concerned about hitting the muscle groups that we use commonly on the horse (legs, abs, and back). This isn’t a balanced approach to fitness, and not only will it create strength imbalances, but over-training some muscle groups and under-training others can lead to asymmetry – something we are all trying to avoid in the saddle – and even make you prone to injury.

Think of it like this: the body is a complex machine and all of the muscle groups must work in sync for optimum performance. That means that if one muscle group is seriously under-developed, that’s a weak link that other muscles will have to compensate for, putting even more stress on them.

Training the chest is common for riders to pass over, because it’s not the most obvious muscle group that you use while riding (like the legs or glutes). But in order to be the best rider you can possibly be, you need to have a fully-developed system of muscles that all interact properly, which means that skipping a large muscle group like the chest is a big no-no.

Additionally, the bench press stabilizes the shoulder girdle (a huge plus for riders), and teaches leg drive and core stability. Convinced to try the bench press yet? Good, read on!

In this article, we’re just going to look at bench press with dumbbells. Bench press with a barbell is also an extremely valuable exercise, but dumbbells allow you to start at a lower weight if you’re new to the movement as the standard bar is 45 lbs. Here are some key bench press pointers:

  • Feet: Your feet can be in neutral position (flat on the ground with a 90 degree knee angle as you’re laying back), or you can try the powerlifting/competition stance, where your feet are tucked back under your body (as shown in the photo above). I prefer this position when using a barbell especially because it allows you to use leg drive and tighten your glutes to help achieve the body-tightness that you want when lifting heavy. Your butt and upper back should still be touching the bench.
  • Setup: Sit on the edge of a flat bench and pick up your free weights, resting them on your thighs. The palms of your hands should be facing each other. Lie back, flat on your back, making sure your head to your tailbone is supported. Carefully lift the dumbbells up so that your arms are perpendicular to the floor at shoulder width.
  • Movement: Once the dumbbells are overhead at shoulder width with the elbows locked out, turn the palms of your hands to face your feet, knuckles towards your face. Lower the dumbbells to both sides of your chest until the elbows are at 90 degrees. Keep your glutes and abs as tight as possible during this movement – it will help you stabilize. This is your starting position.
  • Press: Once the weights are at either side of your chest, elbows at 90 degrees, breathe out as you press the weights back up. The weights should travel in a straight line from the sides of your chest all the way back up over your body.
  • Repeat. A good rule of thumb is 3 sets of 8 reps.
  • Do not drop the weights down by your sides when you are done. This can seriously harm your shoulders. Instead, come out of the bench press the same way you went in: sit up and rest the weights on your thighs before setting them down.
  • Not sure what weight to use? Using heavy dumbbells to bench press can be dangerous and ideally, once you can push a heavy weight, you switch to a barbell and have a spotter. So start light and focus on getting the form in place. If you have no shoulder or chest injuries, try 12 or 15 lbs in each hand to get started.
Stable & Spice

Fitness and nutrition series for equestrians.

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