In Defense of the Bench Press

 

The bench press has gotten a bad reputation. The name alone evokes a meat-head stereotype and countless lists of "exercises you should STOP doing." Performance coaches everywhere are dealing with kids who have tight anterior shoulders and poor scapular mobility due to an overuse of the bench press. This has resulted in a sweeping anti-bench philosophy under the pretense that the bench press lacks functionality and is over-utilized in training. And I am in agreement...kind of.

Bench pressing for the sake of bench pressing is a losing battle. But to its credit, few methods are as effective at strengthening the upper body. Done right, the bench press can develop a great deal of foundational upper body strength and, in turn, can enable an athlete to produce more power through the torso. Sure, it's true that a strong bench press doesn't directly correlate to skill acquisition or proficiency, but developing  general upper body strength IS highly functional. Increased strength enables easier transition into more dynamic movementsa strong bench press won't increase your throwing velocity, but being strong helps increase throwing velocity potential.

Another win for the bench press is the ease with which it can be learned. And you get to lie down, making it all the more comfortable for a novice athlete! But this ease of execution is a big part of the problem reputation-wise for the bench press. Since the skill acquisition needed to bench is very low in relation to how much strength can be developed, athletes gravitate towards it. Give an athlete the option to squat or bench, and which movement do you think they are going to choose? Answer: not squatsthose are hard. So when athletes are not training on a good program, they will default to bench pressing more often than not. Hence our society's current state of over-benching and under-squatting.

Honestly, I personally prefer overhead pressing movements to the bench press. But if i'm dealing with an athlete that has little core stability, going overhead right away can become risky. Benching plays a key role in teaching proper elbow position, scapular stability, and breathing patterns when moving a barbell. If an athlete can learn how to use their arms to exert force against the barbell, that skill can be then transferred to standing movementswhich offer more applicability to most athletes. In Volt programs, we typically utilize the bench press to build a general level of upper body strength and we track bench press progress as a representation of an athlete's development in that area. This allows us to then determine optimal training loads for other upper-body pressing variations. As a tool for tracking and demonstrating upper body strength, the bench press is a very good standard.



Like most movements, bench pressing isn't inherently evil. But you can do it wrong. Too much intensity, volume, and/or frequency of bench pressing can turn a useful lift into an injury waiting to happen. However, if you have pre-existing injuries or precursors to future injuries, implementing variations of the bench press can help drive upper body strength while staying safe. A great variation is the BB Floor Press (or BB Towel Bench Press) which allows for good loading of the upper body while restricting the amount of deep internal rotation of the shoulder. I also recommend dumbbell variations to increase your bilateral coordination and postural control. 

 

In general, athletes must be careful with the ratio of all pressing (not just bench press) to pulling movements. We recommend maintaining a 3:1 pull-to-push ratio for throwing or overhead striking athletes to reduce stress to the anterior structures in the shoulder. Pulling movements are key to developing the muscles that decelerate the arm. With this balance in program design, there is no reason to cut bench pressing out of a program entirely. Although when you see examples like this, it's not hard to see why benching gets a bad name!

The bench press is a good toolif you use it right. Just because everyone loves to hate it doesn't mean benching won't help you become stronger than ever. But use it wisely and GET A SPOTTER because the bench press is probably the only lift that can actually kill you. Seriously. Check your ego at the door and don't let your bench number define your training. Sport performance is a holistic endeavor, so do us all a favor and focus more on developing a balanced athletic profile instead of bragging about how much you bench. 


Join over 70,000 coaches and athletes using Volt's intelligent training app. For more information, click here.

 

Jace Derwin is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. He is a CSCS-certified strength coach, the lead Sports Performance Specialist at Volt and a Lift Big Eat Big athlete.
Learn more about Jace and read his other posts | @VoltCoachJace