Eric is a weight lifter and former college athlete with an interest in a wide range of sports.
The Bench Press
The barbell bench press is probably the most popular weight-lifting exercise in the world. It is a lift we learn in the first days we begin strength training, and it has become a standard by which lifters measure each other’s prowess. Putting up big numbers in the bench press will earn you some serious respect as a young lifter, and, to be honest, even older guys who move heavy weights are pretty darned impressive.
But, as you become more experienced in strength training, asking someone how much they bench starts to seem like somewhat of a meathead move. Especially when it comes to sports preparation, there are many exercises strength coaches may regard as far more important. Some bodybuilders even feel like their time is better spent elsewhere when it comes to building up their chests.
On the other hand, the NFL makes the bench press a key part of their rookie testing at the Combine each year, and most strength coaches continue to center their upper-body work on the lift, even if disciplines like Olympic-style lifting are regarded as more useful for developing athletic strength and power. So what gives? Is the bench press still as important as you thought it was back in high school, or is it overrated?
In this article, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of the barbell bench press, and by the time we’re done hopefully, you’ll have a better idea of how much you want to emphasize this lift in your own training.
Muscles and Movements
Most lifters know that the notable prime movers in the bench press are the pectoralis major, deltoid (anterior) and triceps. While these are the muscles that you will see benefitting from your workouts when you look in the mirror, other muscles such as pectoralis minor and latissimus dorsi get a workout too.
In fact, most muscles in your upper body will benefit from your benching to varying degrees, even if just in gripping the bar as with your forearms. In many ways, this makes the bench press the king of upper-body lifts in the same manner the squat is the king of lower-body movements. These are both big-league compound lifts, and for a long while prevailing wisdom has told us that compound lifts are the best way to build muscle and get stronger.
In other words, if you base your routine on benching and squatting you have a chance to put on some serious muscle mass.
Biomechanically, most obviously the bench press makes you stronger when it comes to pushing things away from you, or pushing yourself against gravity as in doing a pushup. For athletes and trainers, it is important to consider training movements, not just muscles. So how does increased strength in the bench press apply to sports performance?
Training for Sports
Understanding how the bench press benefits you from a biomechanical standpoint can help you better understand whether or not it should be an important part of your training for your specific sport. Choosing training exercises and techniques that most directly relate to your sport is known as sport-specific training. So, does that mean the bench press is useless to you if your sport doesn’t involve shoving people or things away from you?
Not exactly, and to understand why we can break down the movements included in the exercise a little more precisely: The contraction of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid results in increased strength in activities requiring horizontal adduction of the shoulder. (Think of putting your arms out to your sides and clapping your hands together.) Working your triceps means you’re getting stronger in motions where you extend your elbow joint.
What this means is by training your bench press you will not only get better in sports like football where you are pushing a player away from you, or wrestling where you may need to support your own and possibly your opponent’s body weight against gravity. It also means you can improve your performance in activities such as throwing a baseball or hitting a forehand in tennis.
But the question is whether or not the bench press is the best use of your time in training for your sport. In some cases, it may not be. For example, if training horizontal adduction at the shoulder joint is your main goal, exercises like dumbbell flies or cable crossovers target this movement a bit more efficiently than the bench press.
In these cases, if nothing else the bench press can be used as an excellent primer for athletes who need to gain general strength and/or size before moving on to more sport-specific exercises. And, if you are limited on time and can only perform a few movements, working on your bench press is great option.
Pectoralis Major and Deltoid in Horizontal Shoulder Adduction
Obviously one group of athletes who can’t get by without doing bench presses are powerlifters. It is, after all, one of the three competition lifts. But many casual lifters care about how much they can bench press too, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If the main motivation that gets you to the gym is increasing your bench, rest assured you are getting your money’s worth out of this exercise from a fitness standpoint.
If you are interested in pure muscular development it’s a different story. Aside from the barbell bench press, you can perform the exercise with dumbbells or machines, and at a variety of different angles. Hang around any gym and you’re likely to hear a dozen different opinions on which versions are best for building muscle.
One matter of intense personal opinion involves the debate between barbell and dumbbell bench press effectiveness. Basically, proponents of the dumbbell bench press suggest that because handling dumbbells requires each arm to work independently, it allows for a better stretch at the bottom of the movement and recruits numerous stabilizer muscles it is more effective at building muscle mass.
The argument for the barbell bench is that you can pile on heavy weights in ways you simply can’t with dumbbells.
So, which is right? The only thing you can do is try different theories and decide for yourself. Bodybuilding in a grand experiment and you are the subject. The only way you can know exactly how your body will react to different exercises is to give them a shot for a while and compare results.
The bench press is a potentially dangerous exercise. Learn to perform the lift correctly, use good form and always train with a spotter!
Injuries and Concerns
Before you start incorporating bench pressing into your training program you should be aware of some of the potential issues. First of all, you need to be sure you are cleared to perform strenuous exercise. If you are not sure, ask your doctor.
Two: Find a certified strength coach or trainer who can educate you on the proper way to perform the lift. This is very important. Using the correct form can help you avoid injury and get the best results.
Some other concerns:
- Avoid using a super-wide grip, as this can potentially lead to shoulder problems.
- Do not excessively arch your back during the lift.
- Keep your feet on the floor throughout the lift.
- Do not lift your hips from the bench during the lift.
- Do not ever use a thumb-less “suicide grip”. This technique is very dangerous and could lead to serious injury or worse.
And of course there is the number-one safety rule of bench pressing: Always train with a spotter! Bad things can and do happen when weights get out of control. Don’t take the chance!
Another issue has to do with developing a muscle imbalance. As we discussed, in benching you are working muscles responsible for horizontal adduction of your shoulder joint. You also need to make sure you are working the antagonistic muscles responsible for abduction. This means working hard on movements like rows and lat pulldowns. Otherwise, building a big, powerful chest through benching may result in chronic pain or outright injury.
Should You Bench?
Hopefully, you understand a little more about whether or not the barbell bench press can be an important part of your training program, or if it is an overrated exercise and you should spend your time elsewhere. The decision is yours and the answer is dependent on your training goals.
When it comes to sports preparation, while athletes should also spend time working on lower-body and total-body lifts, it is tough to beat the bench press. Depending on your sport it may be all you need to do. Or, you may wish to incorporate more sport-specific exercises.
As for recreational lifters, let your body be your guide. Experiment and see what works best, and what you enjoy the most. There is no right or wrong answer, and what works for one person may not work best for you.
The journey is yours alone. Good luck and be safe!
Your Opinion: Is the Bench Press Important?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Insane Mundane from Earth on May 22, 2016:
Either way, I know for sure that weighted dips and pull-ups on a Power Tower is not overrated. Anybody that can perform numerous dips and pull-ups with excessive weight added to their own body weight will never be considered for using overrated training methods... Ha! As for the bench press stuff, you summed it up pretty well. In a thumbnail, it's a bit overrated but it's a very efficient exercise nonetheless, especially when people are short for time, detest calisthenics and/or hate involving too many muscles that actually makes sense in a real-life scenario... LOL!