The bench press is one of (if not the) most common/popular exercises for any gym goer. For this reason, people want to constantly push the weight higher and lift as much as possible.
One issue you may have noticed when doing this though is that your arms start to shake or give out when you are bench pressing heavier weight. So, why do your arms shake when bench pressing?
This can happen to both novice and experienced lifters and we’re going to uncover some answers as to why this happens and how to avoid it.
Let’s delve into this and see why it’s happening in the first place.
Why Do Your Arms Shake When Bench Pressing
In the simplest way possible; when your arms start to shake during the bench press, it is a sign of muscle fatigue.
Muscle fatigue usually occurs because you’re either lifting at your maximal load (like a 1 rep max) or you’re lifting to failure (doing as many reps as you can until your chest and arms give out). This is a temporary side effect of putting yourself through repeated strenuous work.
Once you’ve given yourself some time to rest in between sets your muscles have had a chance to partially recover and are ready for another beating – with the first few reps feeling quite smooth and comfortable until you get closer to your fatigue limit again.
Now we’ve covered a bit of the understanding around why this can happen, let’s have a look at some underlying reasons for why you may be experiencing this:
1. Under Developed Stabilizer Muscles
Bench pressing is a compound movement; meaning that more than one muscle group is used to perform the lift.
The main muscles stimulated would be the chest, front deltoids, and triceps but you’re also incorporating a lot of stabilizer muscles, too.
Muscles like your traps, lats, and your core all help with controlling the barbell on the way down as well as providing a good base for you to push the bar back up.
In previous articles, we have talked about how including a pulling movement (like a barbell row) can help with your pushing movements (like the bench press).
Here is a prime example of that statement coming into fruition (We talked about this when we were comparing Chest Dips and Tricep Dips).
If you don’t have a strong base when performing the movement, you’re going to experience the shakes as your body struggles to keep the weight moving consistently in the right trajectory.
Bigger muscle groups tend to increase in strength at a faster pace in comparison to the stabilizing muscles which is why it’s important to directly train these stabilizers so they can do their job efficiently.
2. Incorrectly Setting Your Shoulder Blades
Just like with any movement – it’s best performed with correct form. If you want to set yourself up for success, remember to get the foundation in place first!
Pulling your shoulder blades back and down on the rib cage is the most optimal starting position for a strong bench.
There’s a specific term for this positioning and it’s known as scapular retraction and depression; in the sense that you are retracting your shoulder blades back which in turn then pulls your shoulders back and extends your chest.
By retracting your scapular you are preventing the shoulder blades from moving off of the ribcage or possibly rounding forward. If you’re doing this when you bench press you aren’t recruiting the stabilizer muscles correctly.
Just like how you wouldn’t deadlift with a rounded back – you don’t bench press with rounded shoulders.
3. Your Nutrition is Lacking
Food is fuel for your body like gas is fuel for your car. If you want to get the most out of your workout it’s important to fuel the body correctly before a good set of compound lifts.
If you’ve not provided an adequate amount of nutrients before your session you may experience premature muscle fatigue simply because there’s not enough fuel in the tank.
It’s a good idea to get some calories in the system before going to train.
How many calories depends on the individual, some people may prefer a large meal before a workout whereas others may find a large meal makes them sluggish when training.
Some may opt for a smaller meal whereas others may find a small meal just isn’t enough to fuel all those compounds.
We’re all different so this just comes down to trial and error and understanding your body. If you’re into Intermittent fasting; this may be the main reason you’re shaking during workouts as maybe you train on an empty stomach.
This is where the savior that is coffee or pre-workout can be utilized as that caffeine boost can provide that energy kick needed when lacking proper nutrition.
4. Ego Lifting
We mentioned earlier about the correct positioning for your shoulders but there are also a lot of other variables that need to be taken into account.
For some reason the bench press has become the powerhouse of defining an individual’s strength and, what can usually come with this is that little thing we like to call the ego.
Leave that ego at the door and focus on quality over quantity.
Often, you’ll see people bouncing the weight off their chest at the bottom of the movement.
Not only is this really unsafe for your ribcage, but you’re also relying on momentum more than muscle engagement and you’re probably lifting more weight than you’re capable of – hence relying on momentum.
The shakes will come into play as you get toward the top of the movement as the additional momentum has dropped off – now you’re solely relying on your now fatigued arms to push through the last portion of the exercise.
Do your CNS a favor and drop the weight down and get your form right. You want to work the target muscles and not rely on momentum or ligaments/tendons taking over as this is a recipe for injury.
5. Weak Triceps
Strong triceps are a necessity for assisting with pushing movements just like strong biceps and forearms are a necessity for pulling movements.
If you find you’re experiencing the shakes when performing the latter portion of the movement (pushing the bar from your chest back to the starting position) then maybe your triceps are lacking.
Not all muscle fibers fatigue at the same rate; when some of these muscle fibers start to give out it adds even more stress to the fibers still strong enough to keep going.
You’ll find that your weak points give out quicker than your stronger areas; which is a given when you think about it.
If your triceps are underdeveloped, you’ll find that they give out quicker than your chest – which in turn can make it difficult to perform the explosive movements needed within this exercise.
Related – Tricep exercises for elbow pain
If this seems to be your issue; try adding some additional tricep work into your weekly routine and keep track of any noticeable strength gains within your bench press. You’ll find that stronger triceps coincide with an impressive bench.
There are additional reasons you may be experiencing the shakes when bench pressing but these are some of the most common that you’ll come across.
The be-all and end-all of it is that it happens down to muscle fatigue – which can happen for a number of reasons.
The main reason is that your arms are not strong enough to handle the same weight as your chest and front deltoid.
When the triceps and forearms start to fatigue, you’ll likely start to shake as the muscle fibers can’t produce enough force to move the weight smoothly and consistently.
Hopefully, the information contained within this article has answered some of the questions you may have been asking yourself, as well as help identify the areas you need to focus on to help improve your bench press and minimize the shakes.
Just note that even elite powerlifters and strongmen will get the shakes. This is because they are lifting close to maximal weight so regardless of your experience, some shaking will be expected when lifting close to your limits.
If this is a recurring issue though, you may also be interested in our article on how to train your chest without bench pressing for some effective exercises to grow your chest without benching!
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