"Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness." -James Thurber
Every guy loves the Bench Press, but there are many good reasons why you shouldn’t be doing them. Here are five reasons to stop doing the Bench Press and some options for replacing it.
“Blasphemy!” “Treason!” “Burn the writer!” I know, I know, I know, but before you chastise me for committing the ultimate sin, hear me out. For years the bench was just a sacred a lift to me as it may still be to you. Every week there came back around that all important day, bench day. I would sit on the edge of the bench, breathe once, then again really getting my mind right.
Then I would lay back, lift my chest to the bar a few times, check my right hand placement, check my left hand placement, check both again (as if they’d moved), then look at my spotter, nod my head like a bull rider in a bucking shoot and bench.
Most guys have a similar routine before the bench. I worked and worked at it and never got great. My best (because someone will ask) was 295lbs for a single rep while weighing 155lbs, that was nearly a decade ago. Now I bench maybe once a year just for novelty, so what changed and why? Ultimately I kept seeing some of the same philosophical impasses and not satisfied with any answers I comfortably walked away from the bench because I was not dogmatic about it.
These five reasons will better illustrate my point about why you should stop bench pressing.
1) It is NOT a Great Measure of Strength
It seems every guy that has ever been in a weight room has been asked the trite question, “What’s your bench bro?” Ugh. That question alone was nearly enough for me to quit the gym years ago. My response was usually, “don’t know, don’t care.” Or I might have responded, “What is your squat or deadlift?” at which point the conversation just ended.
Now I still get jazzed to see a big bench in a competition. A 600-700 pounds bench press is impressive no matter who you are. However your average gym warrior is not even going to be remotely close, but they could approach a 500 lbs deadlift. Now we are moving some weight. Now we are using a much larger muscle grouping. Now I feel like we can talk about strength. I will yield that in a power lifting meet the bench press remains a keystone, but would like to point out the guys with the best 3 lift totals have deadlifts and squats significantly higher than their bench. Often in an average gym (like a Gold’s for example) I see guys that can bench 225 and can’t fully squat that; something to think about.
2) It Lacks Functionality
When are you ever going to need that exact motion under load in real life? I know we have all heard the story about the guy who benched three days a week and then a tractor fell on him and he bench pressed it off, I have heard that same tale. Really I want you to think about it, think long and hard, when was the last time outside of a gym setting that you took a wide hand placement, palms out, shoulder blades pinched, and stomach out and pressed? Was it in a sport? Perhaps a fight? Maybe you were doing chores around the yard? Chances are you didn’t come up with a real world situation that you mimic the bench press.
Any real push is going to involve your legs if you are standing and if you truly are pinned you are going to try to hip thrust, bridge and wiggle your way free. I am a firm believer in being as strong as possible from every angle possible. I have long held this belief but my good friend Bud Jeffries has really helped foster this idea over the years. This is one of the reasons I will still get on a bench (though super rare) but it is by no means the only method for building pressing strength off your back. My personal favorite it to take a sandbag that weighs the same as your body weight, maybe a little heavier (the one I use is 40lbs heavier than me) lay on your back and with the bag starting on your chest, wrestle yourself free. Try it!
3) Lack of Productivity
Years ago when I worked at a gym, there was this magical time of year when school would let out for the summer and the high school boys would show up in packs to prove their worth and bend some metal. Well so I thought.
I guess things had changed since I was in high school. A couple times a week groups of 5-6 guys would gather around a bench and three hours later they all had done 4-5 sets of 3 to 5. I am not making this up. They maybe got some crunches in too. Seriously that is all they got done.
This certainly was not going to make them a better athlete at any sport. They sat around and chatted and occasionally someone would lift. I spent my summers in high school and between college terms absolutely crushing it, often hours at a time and a few times a day so I could get faster, stronger and out work my competition; none of this idle standing around a bench for hours then leaving. It wasn’t just the young bucks either.
I observed that on International Bench Press Day, also known as Monday that the office jocks just sort of laid and sat around on the bench press for a couple hours before heading home. Try at least super setting or something, anything just get shit done while you are there.
4) You reach your limit quickly
Again, my audience for this piece is the average gym patron; you have a job and you are trying to be the best version of yourself you can be (I am trying to get a little more out of you on top of that). That being said, if you bust your ass, maybe, just maybe you are a 300+ pound bench presser. You damn sure aren’t a 400+ presser (there may be a few that read this, but you are not average Joe), more likely you are a 225-275lbs bench presser at best. That is not a lot of weight. There just seems to be a plateau with the bench that most guys get to and the investment into the lift for a couple extra pounds just isn’t worth the reward.
Nothing else in life would you put so much effort and energy into for such little return. Think about it, how long have you been at 225 but can’t even sniff 245? It’s only 20lbs a tiny little 10 pound plate on each side. Yet, time and time again I have seen guys after a certain point never increase their bench week in and week out. Try something else, try something new, challenge yourself, break the norm and step outside your comfort zone. I think ultimately that is what the bench represents, comfort. We all know it, we all identify with it, we have all done it. Most of us cut our teeth on the bench in dad’s garage or basement, even if just for nostalgia to take me back to those early years of lifting I will still get under a bar. I just don’t put my worth as a lifter or a whole lot of stock in the lift.
5) You are already Anteriorly rotated, you don’t need any more help
So far I have made four pretty good points about why not to do the bench press (or at least do it less). So far I have made four points that regardless of my strengths in rhetoric anyone can disagree with, nothing wrong with that. However this fifth and final point you are just going to have to agree with because this is more fact and less opinion. If you live in the western hemisphere, specifically the United States, it is almost certain that you are anteriorly rotated with the muscles on the front of your body being constantly shortened. This means that your shoulders are rolled forward, your upper back tense and forward, your hip flexors always tight and never fully elongated.
We SIT, way too much as a modern society. We get in the car we drive to work (avg. 25.4 minutes, just one way), we get to the office and sit (avg. American work day 9.4 hours), back in that car again, maybe to the gym where many of us sit on machines, then home for some dinner and TV (average 5 hours/day). All this sitting comes with heavy consequences we have become stuck in this rolled forward posture. So, why would I want to add to dysfunction by doing an exercise such as the bench press which anteriorly rotates us further? Nearly every shoulder injury I have seen in my studio has been from a person with a history of heavy bench pressing over a lifetime. All of them were anteriorly rotated and had very poor external rotation of the shoulders. Often the injury would manifest itself in the form of a bicep tear because that was the eventual weakest link. I have seen it over and over again, I don’t mind helping these people regain their mobility and function of their shoulders but I would rather them come in just to have a good time. Like I mentioned they all have the same two common factors, anterior rotation (stuck in that position), and a lot of bench pressing.
So what do I do instead, you ask?
Before you guys start sending me hate mail and threatening to crucify me, it is my job as a Movement coach to make you ask questions, ask yourself “Why do I still bench press with dogmatic pursuit?” If you don’t have a great answer then perhaps this article is for you. If you decide that a Monday without benching is like a day without oxygen, well maybe re-read this article in a week.
If you are hell bent on developing your chest try these 5 exercises instead:
- Weighted crawls
- Push up variations
- Weighted dips/ring dips
- Ballistic medicine ball passes
- Sprints (you ever seen a sprinter with tiny pecs?)