Tell someone you life weights and they’re going to ask you one question above all others, most likely. “How much do you bench?”
The bench press is considered by many to be the gold standard in strength. The NFL Combine actually tests the bench press, so you know it has to mean something, right?
When you look at training, even my own training program, it’s clear that the bench press is one of the most vital lifts out there.
Of course, the question we don’t ask but probably should is, “Is the bench press overrated?”
Few people will argue that the bench press isn’t important. It’s a great exercise for your chest and triceps. It also engages the upper back and, if done correctly, will train a whole lot more than the chest and arms.
But it’s long been held up as the end-all, be-all lift for so long it’s pathetic.
In gyms all over the nation, Monday will bring in all the bros. They’ll flock to the bench in every commercial gym in American (with the possible exception of Planet Fitness) and trip all over themselves to train their chests. They’ll bench and bench, ignoring every other movement pattern with the exception of the obligatory bicep curls, and act like they’re trained.
People who both understanding a little something about lifting and those who know nothing will ask people, “So, how much do ya bench?” as a way to determine if you’re actually strong or not.
While the bench press is an awesome exercise and one that I happen to enjoy a great deal, I have to say, I think it’s a little overrated. Here are some of my thoughts as to why I feel the way I do.
It uses an arbitrary and non-functional movement pattern.
Take a look at the movement of the bench press for a moment. Now, tell me where in the world we actually use that movement pattern in the real world for a moment.
Oh, no. Pushing yourself off the ground, even with a load on your back, isn’t the same. If you look at the angle of the arm in relation to the chest, you’re looking at something more like a decline press, which is a similar movement but still a different one.
Nope. Pushing something away isn’t quite the same either. At that point, you’re dealing with what looks like identical movement patterns, but since it’s understood that benching doesn’t really increase punching power (I’m simplifying, to be fair), it stands to reason that there’s little to suggest it does much for shoving something.
Besides, most of the time you’re pushing, you’re really using your legs.
Back in the heyday of the strongman, there wasn’t any such thing as a bench press. No one had invented it yet, which is why you see lower pec development in photos of those old-time strongmen. Yet they were undeniably strong.
Part of that is because they didn’t find any examples in “the wild” where they needed to replicate that movement pattern, so they didn’t bother with it.
It’s dangerous as hell.
I’m not going to lie. I’m still a little timid getting under the bar from a bench press. My history is documented here.
However, I’ve since learned that I got off easy.
People die every year while doing the bench press. Now, to be fair, the actual number is fairly low annually, especially when you consider how many people do them. Additionally, the risk can be mitigated by having spotters on hand to keep you out of trouble.
However, that risk still exists and it’s not something you have to worry so much about with squats, deadlifts, or overhead presses.
Now, don’t get me wrong. All those lifts are movements that can cause injury. Some fairly severe–if you were to somehow drop your overhead press down on your noggin, for example–but none of those are known to lead to fatal injuries quite like the bench press.
It’s Not Even Essential For Pec Development
If you’re into bodybuilding to any degree, you already know this. There are a lot of other exercises out there that are safer and arguably offer better development.
While most of these are variations of the bench press, the dumbbell bench press is infinitely safer than the barbell version of the exercise. You don’t end up trapped under the bar–something that has happened to me far more times than I’m comfortable admitting–and you don’t smash your face in or drop the weight on your neck.
Additionally, there are exercises like dumbbell flyes, cable crossovers, and others that work the same muscles, and that doesn’t even touch on the old standby, the pushup. The pushup actually does more to mimic actual movements you might have to make than the bench press ever will, making it, arguably, a superior movement.
So are you saying we should stop doing the bench press?
You see, I’ve laid out a case where the bench press is overrated. I never said it wasn’t a great exercise or that it wasn’t important.
I’m simply arguing that it’s not the most important movement. It’s not a valid measurement of overall strength.
However, the bench press is still a great exercise and one I think you should include in your routine as one of the big four movements. It does a great job in helping build pecs and triceps as well as training other muscles throughout the body.
Additionally, the bench press will help the overhead press, which is the movement I personally think is a better gauge of upper body strength than the bench. And not just because it’s one of my best lifts, to be fair.
While the bench is great for assisting the overhead press, the overhead press seems to have remarkably little carryover to the bench, so if you had to include only one, the bench is going to win out due to that carryover effect.
Strongman competitors, while almost never finding bench press as an event, will still train bench pretty hard. After all, a big chest is a benefit for them because it gives them a larger platform to rest weights on for movements like the log press or the axle during continental clean and presses.
Of course, all this goes out the window if you’re a powerlifter. When you compete in three movements, they’re all important and none of the rest of this stuff matters. You can’t train overhead press because I said it’s a better gauge of someone’s strength and then expect to do well at a meet. That’s stupid and I’ll admit it.
But for the rest of us, what I’d love to see is the questions shift. Instead of “How much do you bench,?” we could get something like what Mark Rippetoe asks. He inquires what someone’s squat is to gauge their strength. Others might ask about their deadlift since it uses so many muscles in the human body anyway, it could arguably tell you more.
Either way, though, I truly believe it’s time to knock the bench press down a peg or two.
It’s not that it’s a bad movement by any stretch of the imagination. I absolutely love to bench. It’s a lot of fun. Not only that, but because society believes it’s important, it almost is that important, so you’d better do it.
But it would be nice if people wouldn’t inflate that importance like they do.