Is the bench press right for you? Maybe. But maybe not. Here’s what you need to know.
In part one, I explained how the term “king of lifts” is defined as an exercise that’s not only superior to all other alternatives but also the best exercise for everyone. It means that not doing it will prevent you from getting good results.
But again, such an exercise doesn’t exist.
Much of what determines the relative worth of an exercise depends on your body structure, objectives, and experience. What’s “best” for you might not be the same for your friend.
For instance, the deadlift will not effectively develop your posterior chain if your limbs are short and you have a long torso. For you, the Romanian deadlift is a better choice.
Similarly, the bench press isn’t the best exercise for many people. Here’s why.
I feel weird talking smack about the bench press because it’s been my favorite lift for most of my career. And I was pretty good at it, topping out with a 445-pound lift at Dave Tate’s compound.
Before I explain why it’s not a great muscle-builder for everybody, we need to first understand that the bench press wasn’t always the “king” of upper body lifts that it is today. In fact, the bench press was considered an oddity in the early days of weight training and was, at best, an assistance lift for the more important overhead press.
Consider that from the 1800s to the 1940s, the two most important training goals were:
- The amount of weight you could pick up from the floor.
- The amount of weight you could lift over your head.
There were many accepted ways to accomplish those two goals: one-handed, two-handed, strict, or with a swing; using a barbell, dumbbell, odd object, you name it.
But pressing a weight from a lying-down position wasn’t considered an important movement to master. The explanation might be as simple as they had no benches specifically designed for the lift. If and when they wanted to press from a lying-down position, they’d do it from the floor.
They would lie down and either put the bar on their hips and “hip thrust” it to the starting position, or they’d position the bar on the floor near the top of their head and do a pullover to bring it to the starting position.
These methods would obviously limit the amount of weight they could use. That might’ve understandably diminished its importance.
However, things changed in the 1950s and 60s as the bench press – but more so the incline press – began to be utilized as an assistance lift for the standing press, which was then a competition lift. (Weightlifting competitions back then consisted of the press, snatch, and jerk).
But then, in the early 1970s, the overhead press was dropped from weightlifting competitions. It had just become too hard to judge because lifters were finding ways to “cheat legally.”
Originally, the press was meant to be a strict lift, done without momentum. The rules simply stated that you couldn’t unlock the knees to use the legs to press the bar.
Lifters eventually learned a technique to initiate the movement by quickly pushing the hips far forward while leaning back with the torso. This brought the body under the bar, thus shortening the distance needed to press the bar overhead.
As time passed, lifters began to use the same movement explosively to create an upward momentum of the bar. While this wasn’t against the rules, it was against the “spirit” of the rules. They soon decided to drop the press from competition, leaving only the snatch and the jerk.
The press was (at least originally) the only pure-strength movement of the three competition lifts. It allowed those with a strong upper body to compete against the quicker, more athletic, and more technical lifters. When they got rid of the press, the strong but less explosive or less mobile guys couldn’t keep up.
That is when powerlifting became more popular. The strong guys went looking for a different way to test their strength and, in 1973, the International Powerlifting Federation was born.
The popularity of weightlifting then started to decline in the U.S. while bodybuilding and powerlifting began their ascent, bringing along with them the bench press.
While it’s a fine lift, tons of strength athletes don’t use the bench press. Pretty much no Olympic weightlifter trains the bench press seriously. Most strongman competitors don’t really train it, either.
Jean-Francois Caron (Canada’s Strongest Man) told me that it would hurt his overhead performance if he focused on his bench press. It affects his mobility and hampers the recovery of his shoulders, which has an impact on the rest of his training.
It makes perfect sense. Overhead lifting is much more important for strongman competitors than the bench, which you pretty much never see in competition.
Despite all that, the bench press is probably the most popular lift among today’s non-Olympic style lifters, but is it the “king” of exercises for you?
While the bench press can be a good pec exercise for people with longer arms, people with shorter arms will find that it hits mostly the triceps and delts.
Case in point, when I was at my strongest on the bench press, I had very little pectoral development. In fact, I really didn’t have much pec development until I started to focus less on the bench and more on isolation movements.
For people with short limbs, the chest dip is a better movement to build the pectorals.
The dumbbell bench press is a better option, too. If you have short arms and dominant deltoids, the decline bench press might be your best bet to build your chest.
The decline angle greatly diminishes the contribution of the deltoids and puts more emphasis on the pecs. Use a slightly wider than normal grip to stretch the pecs more and the triceps less (the muscle you stretch the most will grow the most).
If you have longer limbs, the bench will actually be a solid chest exercise, but you might be at greater risk of shoulder issues. That’s why the floor press or the incline press is a better movement for people with long limbs (for short-limbed people, they each become more of a deltoid movement).
Remember, unless an exercise is part of your sport (e.g., powerlifting), its general purpose is to stimulate a muscle to either make it bigger or stronger.
If an exercise doesn’t load the right muscles properly, that exercise isn’t suited to you.