Ode to the Bench Press

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The Bench Press is a gym legend.

But, nowadays it catches a lot of flak.

For no good reason, in my opinion.

Two men performing the bench press in the gym
Bench bros of the world unite! The bench press is back – and I’ll explain why.

The mighty bench press was the first thing I ever did in the gym (30+ years ago).

And, god willing, it’ll be the last thing I do too.

Let’s discuss why the bench press rules.

First of all – you can build massive pecs.

Bench press form
The bench press builds massive pecs AND you get to lay down while doing it. This shows proper form – feet flat on floor, thumbs around grip, etc.

You also get to lay down.

In fact, it’s not correct form to do anything other than lay down on the padded bench.

Are you seeing the benefits now?

It’s the most weight you can move with your upper body.

A heavy competition bench press
Nothing demonstrates upper body strength like a heavy bench press. Wearing a powerlifting “onesie” is optional.

Dips, curls, overhead press – all great.

But nobody is every going to overhead press 1,000 lbs.

Oh – but that’s wearing an artificial performance device like a bench shirt?

Fine, take the shirt away – nobody is going to overhead press 700 lbs.

The bench press is the king of upper body exercises.

But what about all those destroyed shoulders?

The haters would have you believe the bench press leaves a trail of ruptured rotator cuffs in it’s wake.

And it will – if you don’t do it right.

So, use some back arch.

Proper bench press form requires arching your back
Here in the year 2019 we arch our backs when we bench press. Also squeeze your shoulder blades together. And use your lats.

Pinch your shoulder blades together.

Use your lats – yes, that’s right – the bench press is an awesome total upper body exercise.

Shoulders still too gnarly for bench press? Get a specialty bar, or football/swiss/multi-grip bar and go to town.

Hopefully now you’re seeing things my way.

Hell, even CrossFit featured the bench press in a WOD.

The bench press is a great exercise to do with your buddies.

Ever had someone spot your squat?


Not so the bench press. Just be sure you are on the right side of the barbell.

a woman assisting a man with bench pressing in the gym.
The official stock photo caption for this is “Female trainer helping guy to train in the gym”. I’d like the gym’s address, please.

This is why Mondays have been declared INTERNATIONAL BENCH PRESS DAY.

Because people like to do it and it is fun.

It gives you something to look forward to on a Monday.

Ever seen someone squatting or deadlifting in the gym on a Monday?

Of course not.

That’s not fun.

Now, I’m the first to admit – proper form and technique (and equipment) are essential.

Dumbbell press done on aerobic steps
Don’t press like this. Use a barbell and a bench. Regardless, I give these ladies an “A” for effort.

Don’t lower the bar to your neck or your navel – it should land right under the nipples.

Don’t use too wide of a hand grip , nor too narrow.

And don’t do 50 sets of 10 reps, as we did in high school.

Yep, it turns out you should not bench press every day.

And don’t “max out” every day either.

dumbbell press on an aerobic step
Hmmm… doesn’t quite look right from this angle either. Try again ladies.

It is counter-productive.

But, you do need to use an Olympic barbell and bench.

Yep – that big, scary man-sized barbell.

A woman performing the bench press on an bench with an olympic barbell
Now we’re talking… Here we see an Olympic barbell in use with a thumbs around grip, upper back and butt flat on the bench, with a mild arch to promote shoulder safety and maximum mechanical advantage.

Start with just the bar? Sure, no problem. It weights 45lbs.

Everybody has to start somewhere.

But, for the love of god – when you can lift a plate, use the biggest (diameter) plate you can.

Don’t load the damn thing up with the “change” plates.

Use the “big wheels”.

Too heavy? Use bumper plates if you have to.

There are really only two downsides to the bench press.

It’s a dangerous exercise.

Yes, it pains me to say this.

But, if you don’t have safeties in place and/or a spotter – you can potentially drop the bar on your neck, face, or upper chest.

A thumbless grip is not recommended for the bench press
The thumbless grip is not recommended for the bench press – it’s an accident waiting to happen.

So, don’t use a thumbless grip for the bench press.

Do it the right way – always have safeties in place if you can – even if you have a spotter.

Secondly, the bench press is probably hands down responsible for more torn and ruptured muscles than any other exercise.

This seems to be a consequence of lifting too heavy.

So, keep it reasonable.

And, you too can reap the benefits of the king of all exercises – the bench press.

Some people complain – the bench press hurts their shoulders, their elbows, their wrists.

Waaaah – my wrists hurt.

The good news: there’s a whole lot of ways to fix that.

First, make sure you are using the proper form.

Nowadays – we bench with an arched back (and squeeze your shoulder blades together.)

This provides the dual advantages of giving your pecs a better mechanical advantage in the lift (so you can lift more weight), but it also helps protect your shoulders.

Use a back arch when bench pressing for the best results.
This back arch doesn’t just look pretty – it puts your muscles in a better mechanical position and it helps protect your shoulders.

If you have to, use the right supportive equipment.

Wrist wraps, bench shirts, football (multi-grip) bars, and even that Mark Bell giant rubber band thing.

So quit your cryin’

And get to benchin’

Don’t have a bench?

Get one – it’s probably the 2nd most common piece of workout equipment.

You can find them on e-bay, craigslist, facebook marketplace- and out on the curb on trash day.

Some people say the flat bench isn’t a very versatile piece of workout equipment.

But how else would you do one arm dumbbell rows?

The bench used in the bench press also makes a great support for one arm dumbbell rows.
Who says the bench isn’t versatile? You can also row your 2 lb pink dumbbells on it…

The flat bench is also great for a variety of ab exercises.

The same bench used for pressing can also be used for abdominal exercises.
Ab exercises – fun to watch, not so much to do them.

Yeah, I’ve never done that one either.

Lastly, let me make this one final point.

If the bench press weren’t important there wouldn’t be world records and competitions associated with it.

‘Nuff said.

Bench press in a powerlifting competition
We know the bench press is important – there are competitions and world records that involve it.

Photo Credits

All of these amusing stock photos come from bigstockphoto.com.

“Excuse me miss – do you mind giving me a spot?”

1 Comment

  1. Another excellent article. I wished I knew it 2 months ago. I was overdoing bench press for weeks with pain in my shoulders hoping the pain would go away. It did not. And I ended up visiting orthopedic surgeon. Fortunately I did not tear my rotator cuff fully, but probably have a partial tear. Now, only narrow/medium grip for me on a multi-bar.

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