Bench Press Under Fire
The bench press is no doubt the most popular exercise in all of weight training. Most bodybuilders and strength athletes believe it’s the very best upper-body lift for adding size and power to that area. Since the early ’70s it’s replaced the military press as the standard of strength. People no longer ask, “How much can you press?” but rather, “How much can you bench?” to determine your strength level.
The transition came about when the military press was dropped from Olympic competition and at the same time the sport of powerlifting emerged and strength training for all types of sports became the norm. In high schools and colleges with meager equipment, the flat bench could still be done. I knew of several high schools that did the exercise on locker-room benches. It was easy to teach and fit in nicely when the strength coach also happened to be the sports coach.
When Tommy Suggs and I formulated a simple but effective program for coaches that could be done with a minimum of equipment and in a limited space, we selected the bench press as part of the Big Three. Why not the overhead or incline press? At that time the overhead press was getting lots of, well, bad press. Many authorities had declared that pressing heavy weights overhead was harmful to the lower back. So we figured that would create difficulties for athletic directors and coaches. We really preferred the incline over the flat bench, but there was a problem—there weren’t many incline benches available, even in fitness facilities and YMCAs. Shaky as they might be, flat benches were plentiful, and they did build stronger upper bodies. So they became a fixture in strength programs even after incline benches became more prevalent.
Everyone was happy—until lately. A number of people have sent me comments that they’ve pulled off the Internet concerning the damaging effect the bench press is having on the chest, back (primarily the rotator cuffs), shoulders and elbows. They contend that the lift should be eliminated from all programs and replaced with inclines as it’s especially harmful to youngsters and older trainees. They wanted to know what I thought.
As most readers know, I’m a big fan of the incline bench. I like it because it hits the target muscles very directly and because there’s less opportunity to cheat on the incline. Also, the motion of the incline is closer to the actual movements made in nearly every sport, whereas the flat-bench press relates to only a few athletic activities. I’m not, however—by any stretch of the imagination—antibench. It was one of the first exercises I did when I found a weight room, and I include it in all of my routines.
The exercise is not an evil movement just waiting to do harm. When done correctly, the bench press is a safe exercise and helps enhance strength in the chest, shoulders, and arms, the key word being correctly. When it’s grossly overtrained or when trainees repeatedly use sloppy technique, injuries occur—but that’s the case with any exercise. The lift is not at fault; the lifter is.
The reason ugly form shows up so frequently on the bench press is linked to its status as the gauge of strength. Back when the military press held that distinction, the bench press was regarded as an auxiliary exercise and no one paid much attention to how much a person could bench. That’s all changed. It’s the one lift used to test athletes in nearly every sport. Quite often, a football player’s best bench press is listed right next to his time in the 40-yard dash. That makes the bench press extremely important. A lofty bench might catch the attention of a coach at a Division I college and translate to big bucks.
You don’t see form noted alongside the amount on the bench. All that matters is the number. As a result, coaches and parents care little about how the lift is done, just so the poundage is noteworthy. In truth, sloppy technique is encouraged. Excessive bridging, rebounding the bar off the chest, squirming, twisting—anything goes. Big numbers in the bench reflect favorably on the coaches, even if the athletes have to stand on their heads to complete the lift. For those who train in commercial fitness facilities, it’s not the lure of scholarships but peer pressure that results in using poor form. Since, to most, the bench is the only lift that matters, they resort to any means to record a high one. Once bad habits become ingrained, it’s close to impossible to break them. It would be necessary to use much less weight, and the bench is so closely aligned with their egos that few can handle that.