Bench Press vs. Incline Press
Bill StarrA Better Angle on Strength and Chest Size
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.
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.