Of all the exercises in weight lifting, the bench press is one of the most well known. Its long been a favorite among men of all ages, as a measure of strength. A lot of women are now fond of bench pressing too, with some of the top females out lifting the average male. Many see the bench press as a chest (pectoral) building exercise, but a competitive lifter understands that it takes a full body effort to lift a true max weight.
Other exercises may be more effective chest builders, but the bench press has become popular in its own right as a sport. The simple reason for its popularity is that its fun. Compared to the other competitive lifts – the squat, and deadlift in powerlifting and the snatch and clean and jerk in Olympic lifting – its less taxing to train or perform. The other lifts are full body movements with, arguably a greater amount of risk involved. While the bench press can be damaging in its own right, especially when using a bench shirt, it places less stress on the body. People feel safer with the load over their chest rather then on their back or over their head.
The golden days of bodybuilding during the 70’s and 80’s made having a muscular chest popular. Its something males are naturally admiring of as well, so it adds to the attraction of benching even more.
Despite its popularity more people then not perform it incorrectly. Inexperienced trainers will usually flare the elbows out wide of the body and touch the bar too high on the chest. This places the pectoral muscles and shoulders under unnecessary stress. Tucking the elbows closer to the body and placing the bar closer to the sternum, as seen in powerlifting puts the lifter in a stronger position, with better leverage. Pec tears, or AC (acromioclavicular) joint injuries are common place among gym goers. These potentially serious injuries can be partly avoided by lifting with the correct technique.
Another point of difference with competitive bench pressers is the use of their feet and legs. Leg drive is vital to stabilizing, supporting, then lifting a huge weight. By driving hard through the feet force is channeled along the body into the upper back, which provides energy, as well as stability when driving the bar off the chest. An arched back is another tool used by elite athletes. While the height of the arch may vary, every lifter uses it to add tightness (tension) to their whole body, plus as a means to transfer force from the legs into the bench (upper back) directly under the path of the bar.
Benching maximum weights (loads a lifter can only move once) is a technical exercise that takes time, practice and patience to master. There are a long list of other points that are not detailed here, like, hand width, gripping the bar, breathing, using wraps, back strength, along with many more. A skilled “bencher” is as much an athlete as any other who commits fully to a sport.
The bench press is, and probably always will be looked at by the general public as something of a “jock lift”, a favorite of meat-heads and bodybuilders. How much someone benches can generate a surprising amount of respect from fellow lifters. But its really just another activity that has become an enjoyable challenge for many. It takes dedication, hard work, time and all the other qualities we should develop in ourselves to acquire a big bench. Go to any competition or meet, and the uninitiated will be surprised at the type of people they encounter. In our gym we have accountants, successful businessmen, builders, stay at home fathers, truck drivers, teachers, boat builders, all training and competition together. Most clubs are much the same.
Bench pressing can be an opportunity for people to benefit from a sport that builds camaraderie, with confidence, and enjoyment. Young, old, blind, physically disabled, deaf, or otherwise impaired, you will find a welcoming community among competitive lifters. There’s plenty of satisfaction to be gained by those who want a challenge, something to strive for, without the need to rely on team mates, good weather, or costly equipment. Fun, simple, challenging and cheap – the good old bench press.