Shrugged Collective

The Bench Press – You’ve been lied to!


THIS WEEK ON BARBELL SHRUGGED we talk about one of the most infamous lifts in strength and fitness – the barbell bench press.

If you’re into Powerlifting then you already take your benchin’ very seriously. After all, this is a contested lift in that sport, right alongside the back squat and the deadlift. Likewise, you won’t find many Strongman, or even competitive Bodybuilders, that aren’t capable of pressing some big weights. The reason for that is elementary.

To succeed at any strength sport you must develop a strong chest, shoulders and arms. The most fundamental way to do that is with the bench and its variants.

AJ putting up a HUGE 805 pound bench press in competition.

 

But what about Weightlifters and Crossfitters?

The infamy of the bench press is rooted in a lack of balance. Like we said, if you’re a Powerlifter or Strongman then it’s a no-brainer. You need to be pressing heavy, and quite often.

But of course, that isn’t true for all athletes.

If you’re not competing in the press, then you should devote far less training time and resources to that movement. In Weightlifting and Crossfit, there’s just too much other stuff to also practice. As an example, if you’re pressing heavy twice a week for 2 hours then you’re probably not working movements like the Jerk as often as you should. Also, because of mobility and technique considerations in these sports, you might not necessarily want to isolate and maximize upper body muscle mass. This is perfectly reasonable. But that said, there are a few other very obvious points to consider.

First, while not critical to function and performance, the barbell bench press is actually a FULL BODY LIFT, not an isolation exercise. In some respects, it’s quite similar to the push press. To do it correctly, and to produce maximal force through the arms, you have to utilize your legs and back in the movement as well. Once you get the hang of that, you’ll see why benching well can have a positive carryover to your other lifts.

The second point is about balance. Sure, to excel in Weightlifting and Crossfit you certainly don’t need a huge bench. But the opposite is true too – If you suck at this lift, then you very likely have an under-developed chest, along with weak shoulders and triceps. That’s something that will cripple your long-term fitness goals.

Just look around. Your favorite athletes bench more often than you think. And they’re also pretty damn good at it.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.20.34 PM

Fit athletes bench press, don’t kid yourself. 

 

Set-up the right way

It’s true, the bench press is a full-body movement. But that said, it can be very challenging to get a feel for the correct form. This is where the expertise and experience of competitive Powerlifters comes in handy.

Earlier you saw AJ Roberts put up a huge bench press in competition. Now, in the video below, he’s going to break down and demonstrate every technical point of the movement, including the critical element of leg-drive.

Watch, take note, and make sure to practice the next time you go into the gym to press. Your performance will increase pretty much instantly, which is very nice. But more important than that, you’ll also be able to avoid many of the common injuries and maladies associated with poor pressing technique.

Learn to bench the right way. 

 

Also, learn to load while you’re at it!

There’s one more point to be made, and that has to do with how heavy you load the bench press.

Like with any movement, the key to making progress is to practice the lift often, but not too often. Also, you have to carefully control the amount of load you use…the “dose.”

An incredibly easy and effective way to do this is to utilize the table below. If you take a look at the columns you will see some rep/set recommendations based upon a percentage of your best lift. The percentages are pretty easy to figure out. You have ranges that cover light “speed” training (55-70% 1RM), moderate strength work (70-85% or so), and of course, very heavy work (90% or more of your best lift).

Depending on the objective of your training session, you can utilize the recommended ranges to establish a safe loading zone for your barbell work. For example, if you load 80% of your best press onto the barbell, a great starting point for programming would be to “prescribe” 3 sets of 5 repetitions. That would give you an optimal total rep count of 15.

You could also do 4 sets of 5 reps, as long as you realize that this now gives you a total repetition count of 20, which is your upper threshold of work. Press more than that and you might start noticing some recovery issues, or impaired performance on your other upper body lifts.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 6.28.07 PM

A.S. Prilepin’s loading chart –  A simple guide. 

 

Go ahead, give the bench another try. It will do your chest, shoulders and arms some serious good. And best of all, when appropriately programmed this movement will certainly make a positive contribution to your overall strength and fitness goals. Just see for yourself.

Happy benching,

Chris

Chris

Chris Moore is a writer, recovering meathead, fledgling raconteur and rabid imbiber. He's also cohost and resident potty mouth on Barbell Shrugged, a weekly podcast devoted to Crossfit, strength, fitness and all things brash. His experience is drawn from over twenty-years spent training for and competing in American Football, Powerlifting, a bit of strongman and a dash of mixed martial arts. Also, it's possible that he's had one too many cups of coffee. A caffeine fever is a hell of a thing, you know?

26 comments

  • Awesome episode (as always).

    I’m one of those guys who has ignored the bench and want to work on it. I’m thinking of adding it as an accessory lift at least 1x per week. It usually comes up a few times per month with the Crossfit program we follow – but I’m wondering if adding it an additional 1x per week will be beneficial or if I really need to do it consistently 2x per week as you guys suggested today.

    Love how you break things down and give us both the in depth, researched perspectives – and the more visceral, straightforward and frank perspective. Lets be honest – we need both!

  • Hey Chris, really enjoy the podcast, im a physical therapist in Australia, im a big fan, I do not even watch real TV anymore, just this youtube channel. I constantly get in trouble off my partner for watching to much Barbell shrugged, Keep up the good work. Dougs mobility wods are great as well!

    • In 1970’s us teens had no money and parents didn’t have credit cards to buy us — excercise equipment, there were NO modern gyms everywhere like now. > Built my own bench press when I was 16 yrs old, wood > a 2×10 for the bench, and vertical 2×4’s nailed to the bench to support the barbell. I carved a ‘U’ shape at top of 2×4’s to hold the bar. A steel mill nearby, I wandered in, they gave me steel scrap which I drilled 1″ holes thru center for bar. Free weights ! Saw ad in back of Popular Mechanics [ 1976 } for a weightlifting course called “Universal Bodybuilding” sent them $10.
      It was a good basic course; lift 3X a week. They emphasized bench press first ! I started benching, 3 to 5 sets, 5-10 reps. By age 17 I benched 295 at body weight 145 while lifting ALONE in parents basement. I had zero fear back then. I fear a lot of things now LoL. Anyway, quit lifting after HS, haven’t lifted since then, [except my construction job, masonry is heavy work} until joined Crossfit 3 yrs ago. I qualified for the Masters Crossfit Games twice, placing last and recently 4th { out of 2300 } in the 55-59 division.
      We rarely bench at the gym, too hard for the trainers to program it in with many people in workouts at same time and limited space and only 3 benches. But I think I’ll start benching again, I’m looking very middle age with the thinned graying hair, maybe some vanity curls and bench for the chest pump will – – maybe – bring back the ‘swole’ look of my youth LOL

  • Hey Chris, I tuned into this podcast and was packed with great info. I tuned in mainly because I want to relearn what I know about benching because I took a partial tear to my left peck tendon in January 2015. You explained a lot about avoiding injury, but how do I come back. I want to be able to have total body strength again and get faster. I tore it benching on my fifth rep of only 185. A few week before that I tried 225 and I found out that I could do 4 reps. I am new to this podcast, but one dude on there talked about overcoming an injury. And yes, I have gone to my personal doctor and a good shoulder doctor. My personal doctor did not specialize in shoulders, but told me more about recovery than the shoulder doctor I went to. I believe that his patients were usually athletes that needed to come back from an injury. I am trying to be a cop and I am a graduate student in computer science. I would like to be able to bench 220 so I can pass the fitness test again, instead of keeping this study and give up on being a cop. So I was a bit angry of the at the doctor for not showing interest in my injury. Again, the podcast was great!

    • Sounds like it was simply an acute soft-tissue injury. First off, however you train, I would focus on warming up and mobilizing properly. Sounds like you need to be very proactive here on out with your chest and shoulders. Basically, after you train, learn some basic practices for taking care of the pecs, ensuring range of motion, etc. Just search for MobilityWOD+Chest, as Kelly probably as a few videos already out there on simple moves (all you need). Other than that you should make sure that you’re training with some progressive, patient programming. Something like 531. Start back lifting light. Take your time. Check your form. Slowly add weight to the barbell as your strength increase and chest permit. In time, you’ll be right back on track. Just my impression that maybe you were light on self-care, and maybe eager to add load. Hope that helps.

      • Thanks a lot Chris. I will try to be proactive and check out what you told me to search. I guess patience wouldn’t hurt me, I am too determined to get back up there.

  • I’ve heard people say doing Pendlay rows will help your bench? What is the correlation to working your back and increasing overall bench performance and will weighted pull ups help with bench too?

    • The stronger your back, the more stable you will be while pressing. One, you will have a nice, muscular, strong “platform” from which to push. Second, a strong back will help to engage and control the barbell as it’s being lowered. More control, from hands to feet, means you press more.

  • Wanted to post an update.

    After this episode I started dedicating Thursdays to increasing my bench up to 1.5 body weight (was at 1.25). Adding 5# per week since the episode aired – i’m now up to #250 (1.38x) and feel like i can keep making linear progress for a few more weeks.

    Thanks for the suggestions. Working to a daily max (aiming for 5# increase). Then backing off to 80% of that number and doing three sets of 5. Working very well. And my shoulders are managing the added volume without any issue.

  • This is easily one of my favorite episodes. I hadn’t benched in over a year since I started focusing on Olympic lifting. I decided to revisit it and powerlifting in general after this episode. I have say that the thoracic mobility I’ve needed for the snatch has made me more comfortable benching and since I’ve started benching I feel stronger and more stable with the snatch. I just do this for my health so I’m not trying to do anything other than be healthy and have fun. That said, if I could leave a suggestion, it’d be that I’d to see an episode on super total training, I.e. Training for both powerlifting and Olympic lifting.

  • Chris thanks for great info on your podcasts. Can you answer a question in regards to using the chart, should you max out every workout , then go to the working sets with the listed percentages of that days max?

    • You don’t need to do that, know. Determine your best once, then train for 12 weeks or so using that number. There are many ways to do that. In short, focus on loads that range around 75-85% or so. Don’t train the bench super heavy. Just progressively.

  • Looking to piece together a garage gym. Thinking of getting a squat stand vs a full power rack for space considerations, but when it comes to the bench, is it worth spending more for a FID adjustable bench, or is a flat bench all that is needed. for argument sake, lets compare a solid flat bench like Rogue for $175 to a FID bench for $320 or Rogue’s Adjustable bench for $545? Which would be the best route to take? Thanks!

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