Bench Press – Is It the Ultimate Test of Strength, or an Overrated Tradition?
If you’ve lift weights before or are on a strength program currently, chances are you’ve performed the bench press. It is quintessential “lift” of mainstream strength training. Everyone KNOWS the bench press.
The bench press is world-renown. Just take a look at the sport of powerlifting – 1/3 of the sport is based on this lift. Go to any high school’s or college’s weightroom, and I bet you’ll see their athletes benching. It’s obvious this movement is highly respected, but is done so for good reason? Is the bench press an important staple in one’s strength program, or is it not? Let’s examine that question.
The bench press trains your ability to “push” against a horizontal force that is directed towards your chest. The pectorals, triceps, anterior deltoids, and so on, are strengthened with this movement. Plenty of other muscles are used for stabilization as well. So, with that said, one may look at the bench press and say “wow, this exercise totally replicates a ‘pushing’ movement” and give it plenty of attention in his/her strength program.
That’s fairly sound logic, right?
The Kinetic Chain Issue
When you chest-pass a basketball, tackle someone in a game of football, or push a car, you’re using the muscle we listed before – the pectorals, triceps, and deltoids. However, you’re also involving many, many other parts of your musculoskeletal system.
Take the chest-pass for example. When you pass the basketball, your body isn’t “pushed back” in space, because your entire body is braced for the movement. It’s because of the muscles in your legs and torso that you don’t move backwards as you pass the ball. The force is transmitted throughout the entire body.
In the other two examples (pushing the car and tackling someone), the legs generate the force while the upper-body and arms contract isometrically to transmit the force. Nonetheless, the entire body experiences this force.
Now, let’s compare those examples to the bench press. With the bench press, you’re lying face-up on the bench, with your back arched and legs driven into the floor. You unrack the weight, lower it to your chest, and press it back away from you towards the ceiling.
What similarities do we see between the bench press and the examples? The most obvious one, which we probably figured out already, is that they all involve “horizontal pressing”. The muscles that “push” objects away from you – the chest, triceps, and delts – are engaged.
Now, what differences do we see? In each of the “examples” of real-life movements I discussed, force is transmitted through the arms, into the torso, down into the legs. As for the bench press, the force is transmitted through the arms, into the upper portion of the torso, into the bench. The lower body does not really experience the “force” from the barbell during a bench press.
So, we realize that the “kinetic chain” is different between the real-life examples and the bench press. A kinetic chain is a system of structures and joints that undergo force and movement. The kinetic chain, as it relates to the human body, comprises of the musculoskeletal system (AKA the bones, joints, and muscles).
With the bench press, the kinetic chain is pretty much the upper-body. With real-life movement, THE ENTIRE BODY IS THE KINETIC CHAIN. So the bench press alone will not prepare someone to be able to push something whilst bracing the rest of their body against the force, as the bench press and real-life movement have different kinetic chains.
By the way. here’s a fun-fact: the issue of whole-body- vs partial-body-involvement can also be categorized as an issue of closed-kinetic-chain (e.g., pushing a car) vs open-kinetic-chain (e.g., bench pressing). The exception is with the overhead press, in which the trainee is standing and pressing the barbell overhead. The force is being transmitted throughout the entire body, but it is still considered an open-kinetic-chain exercise.
Proper Programming for a Stronger Push
Without a doubt, the bench press develops horizontal-pushing strength. Relying on the bench press alone, however, for building a stronger chest-pass or tackle is a poor choice. We need to involve the entire body in the kinetic chain. Thankfully, most strength programs involve more than a bench press – they involve big lifts like squats and deadlifts, amongst others. What’s so great about those other lifts is that they do involve the entire body.
That leaves us with one final question…
So if you bench, deadlift, and squat, is that enough for athletic capabilities and being able to push someone over, or do we have to push the envelope further to “bridge the gap”?
Let’s simply throw in the standing overhead press then. Is the overhead press, essentially an entire-body kinetic chain exercise that involves “pushing” unlike the bench press, a functional-enough movement to add to our program as to enhance our ability to “push” in real-life?
Or, do we have to go as far as to completely replicate these “real-life” movements, and perform something like a standing-cable-chest-press?
Plenty people get the job done with the basic lifts, while others do just as well while employing the fanciest “functional exercises”. It’s your call. I’ll go with middle-ground. Stick with the basics and sprinkle in a few extra “fancy lifts” for the off-season strength-building. When the season comes, let the athletes fine-tune their skills with actual practice, not simulated movements in the gym.