Bench Press vs. Incline Press

Bill Starr

A Better Angle on Strength and Chest Size

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Recently, I’ve received a number of letters from readers concerning my belief that the incline-bench press was more beneficial to athletes than the flat-bench press. They all wanted to know why I used the flat bench in the Big Three if I thought the incline was a better upper-body exercise.

Fair question.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the program dubbed the Big Three in The Strongest Shall Survive was a result of my collaboration with Tommy Suggs when we worked together at the York Barbell Company in the late 1960s. We were anxious to spread the gospel of strength training to the coaches and athletes in the area, as well as to the entire country through the pages of Strength & Health, which we edited. We began attending coaches’ conventions within driving range and putting on clinics and exhibitions at high schools.

At the time a large majority of sports coaches thought that lifting weights would be detrimental to their athletes. The idea was that weight training, particularly with heavy weights, would slow them down and hinder agility and flexibility.

Armed with plenty of research, we set about converting the unbelievers. At the conventions and high schools we did the Olympic lifts and sometimes benches and squats. Once the coaches saw us do split or squat snatches and clean and jerks with impressive poundages, all notions that weightlifting limited range of motion or restricted coordination, agility or foot speed vanished. We started getting bombarded with requests for programs.

The Big Three evolved after Tommy and I had talked with hundreds of coaches and visited countless high schools. The program we came up with could be done with a minimum of equipment, in a small space and in a short amount of time. One exercise for each of the three major muscle groups—shoulder girdle, back and hips and legs—would be enough.

The flat-bench press became our primary upper-body exercise by default. While we both felt that the incline was a more beneficial shoulder girdle exercise than the flat bench, there was a major problem. No incline benches were available for the high school coaches to use. I mean zero. We never saw a single incline bench in any high school weight room we inspected. In fact, there was a severe lack of inclines, period. Most commercial gyms didn’t have them, and the gym at York had only one, the type that you stand up in with your feet on metal plates. That may seem rather strange because now any fitness facility worth its salt has a row of inclines, but at the time the overhead press was the primary exercise used to build upper-body strength for all athletes, and it was still part of official Olympic-lifting competitions.

Which raises the question, Why didn’t we use the overhead press in the Big Three? We did consider it, of course, since we were both Olympic lifters, but there were drawbacks, the biggest one being the fact that the press was under fire from athletic trainers and sportsmedicine authorities who claimed that it was unduly stressful to the lower back and especially harmful to young athletes.

We already had one highly controversial exercise in the program—the full squat—and didn’t want another. Another factor was the technique involved in the overhead or military press. Contrary to popular belief, the press is a difficult lift to master. I can teach athletes proper form on the bench or incline in one-fourth the time it takes them to learn to do an overhead press correctly. After weighing the pros and cons, we selected the flat bench. When done right, it’s safe, easy to teach and works the upper body well. It was gaining in popularity because of the new sport of powerlifting. Plus, more weight could be handled on the flat bench than on any other upper-body exercise, and young athletes liked that.

Most important for our purposes, the high school weight rooms did have benches of some shape or form. True, most were crude, often fashioned from wood, and others were shaky, but never­theless they were available. A few coaches even improvised and used the benches from the locker rooms. Certainly not ideal, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it got the job done.


Snap Judgment

Becky Holman

Snap Judgment

Sure, the guy chatting on his cell phone as he reclines on your favorite bench-press bench is annoying—even if it’s not Carrot Top. The guy’s hogging the piece of equipment you need, using it as a phone booth. But that’s not why gyms have started banning cell phones. It turns out the camera-ready phones—the ones that can take digital pictures—are being used to snap naughty shots in locker rooms, and that’s an obvious invasion of privacy.

Dead Weight

Jerry Brainum

Dead Weight

Lifting weights doesn’t seem to involve any type of death risk, yet statistics show that some people do die during a workout—a result of accidents that occur while actually lifting. A group of sportsmedicine researchers presented some findings regarding weight-training fatalities at the 2002 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Press Power Tools

the Editors

Press Power Tools

Face it, you want your bench press to go huge. You know, red zone—like four big wheels on each side of an Olympic bar growling that guttural roar as you crank out rep after powerful rep. But it seems as if it’s taking forever to get there. You’ve been stuck at the same paltry weight for months. Is the solution more assistance work? Partials? Explosive reps?

Power Surge

Sean Katterle

Power Surge

Bench-pressing began in a crude form in the 1930s, when lifters literally lay on a wooden “bench” or box and pressed a barbell up off their chests. For decades before that men had trained on different versions of the floor press. Some lifted while lying flat on the ground, and others would arch during the lift the way a wrestler bridges. The bridged version of the lift was often referred to as a “belly toss” because the pressing portion of the movement began with a back and leg arching maneuver to get the bar started upward.

Joe Mazza Hits World’s Best Bench Press

Steve Downs

Joe Mazza Hits World’s Best Bench Press

On June 27 MHP-sponsored powerlifting superstar Joe Mazza gripped the bar over his chest at the IPA Worlds, lowered it to his pecs and promptly pressed a world-record bench press of 685 pounds—in the 165-pound class!

The New Jersey–based strength phenom set the new record on his opening attempt at the IPA-sanctioned event in York, Pennsylvania, pressing a mind-blowing 4.15 times his bodyweight. There are only a handful of men in the world who’ve ever benched four times their weight, and Joe is the lightest lifter ever to do it. Before that 685 bench, Joe previously owned the 165-pound-class record of 675, set last October 18.