One of the fundamental rules of weight training is to always use a full range of motion. What’s not so simple is figuring out what constitutes a “full range of motion.” It is not necessarily going as far as you can go; it’s as far as you can go in good form, with adequate strength and stability in the joints.
It isn’t unusual to discuss the maximum safe range of motion for some exercises. For example, most would agree you don’t want to squat lower than the range where you can keep a flat back. You don’t hear much talk about the safe range for the bench press. One exception is this article from Paul Chek. In the article, Chek details how it may be better to stop the bar a few inches short of the chest. If you look, you’ll find a lot of evidence to substantiate this.
In this T-nation article powerlifter Jack Reape talks about using the floor press to limit the ROM. I think his reasoning is consistent with Chek’s.
I was first introduced to this idea by a gym owner and football coach that followed the Bigger Faster Stronger strength training program. Bigger Faster Stronger advocated using a rolled up towel resting on the chest to limit the ROM in bench pressing. He got good results with their program for his team.
He had been a very good bencher in his youth but had quit the exercise for over 15 years. He decided to try towel benching and managed to match his best numbers from his younger days in his forties, setting a master’s record in the process. He found that towel benching carried over very well to his regular bench. I have passed this along to several lifters who were just about ready to quit the lift, and all have been pleasantly surprised.
A lot of people will tell you that dumbbell bench presses give them shoulder relief. Part of this may be due to the reason they just don’t use as much weight - as a rule, most people can only use about 80% of their barbell poundages. However, if you watch people closely, although the edge of the dumbbell may get to chest level, very few let their hands sink to chest level. Without the bar, they just go to where they feel a good stretch - well short of the range they cover with a barbell.
Powerlifters have been using board presses quite a bit in recent years, a method similar to the towel. Board benching with one to five stacked 2″x6″ boards is an art all its own, especially for the lifters that use the most supportive bench shirts. Now there can be no doubt, these guys are doing it primarily to lift more weight. However, I have met a couple masters powerlifters who can no longer bench raw (without a special bench shirt) without problems, but are still very strong doing all their bench training shirted. The shirt greatly reduces the tension in the bottom couple inches and allows them to work without pain.
So if you’re going to bench press, rethink what the right range of motion really is - maybe it will save your shoulders.