The Bench Press: Benefits and Risks
By Greg Everett
After curls, the bench press might be the most vilified lift among functional training enthusiasts and some in the weightlifting community. First, I like curls and I couldn’t care less about people doing them, whether for reasons of performance (yes, there are legitimate performance reasons for curls) or aesthetics, as long as in the latter situation it doesn’t interfere in any way with performance goals, assuming they exist (this is tough to do, but there are definitely cases of huge pipes preventing secure clean rack positions—but at least you’ll look good when you’re missing your lifts).
I can’t count how many times I‘ve had visitors to my gym who have brought up bench pressing to me. There are two different things that happen. The first is that the individual asks if we ever bench press out of genuine curiosity, assuming weightlifters don’t bench because of things they’ve read on the internet. The second is that the individual assumes we never bench press and proceeds to ridicule bench pressing and those who do it.
The fact is that you don’t see very much bench pressing at Catalyst Athletics. Our fitness clients bench press every fourth training cycle for a period of 6 weeks. It’s a good basic upper body pressing exercise that has plenty of utility. They don’t do it more than they do for a few simple reasons. First, they need exposure to more upper body pressing exercises such as the press, push press and dips and because we’re not running a pure strength program, we can’t do everything all the time. Second, most of our fitness clients come to us with orthopedic issues of some type, very commonly limited shoulder mobility, shoulder injury history and the like (unsurprisingly enough, often partly as a result of years of frequent bench pressing). And finally, it’s a relatively risky exercise simply because the benching athlete is more vulnerable to serious injury in the case of failed lifts than he or she is with lifts like the press or push press. When benching, our clients are required to have a spotter for this reason.
My weightlifters very rarely bench press. First and foremost, they rarely need to. While the bench is a good upper body pressing strength exercise, it’s not high on the priority list because there are exercises more specific to lifting that come first such as the push press, snatch push press and press. Second, with the overhead demands of weightlifting, the shoulders need to be taken care of. Bench pressing is rough on the shoulders for most people—if it’s not a high-priority exercise, it doesn’t make sense to beat up the shoulders with it. Third, shoulder and upper back mobility is critical for weightlifters and the bench press will very quickly reduce shoulder mobility without extremely diligent balancing of exercises and stretching, which can be difficult to enforce to the extent necessary.
That being said, there are cases in which the bench press is valuable for weightlifters and it shouldn’t be dismissed without due consideration. The main reason I would have a lifter bench is to help with mass gain. This can be in the case of a lifter moving up a weight class, or simply to put some muscle on the shoulder girdle for various reasons such as improving bar security in the clean and jerk rack positions. I may also use it for lifters with extremely weak arms extensors and shoulders along with more specific exercises like the push press. Any use of it is for a limited period of time—something in the 6-12-week range.
Generally I prefer incline bench pressing. I find it’s usually easier on lifters’ shoulders and the direction of pressing is a little closer to overhead. And if we’re benching for mass, I’d rather aim to put it more near the top of the chest and the delts.
Always benching should be accompanied by an even greater volume of horizontal and vertical upper body pulling exercises, and ideally with some vertical pressing. Additionally, throwing in basic shoulder pre-hab exercises like external rotations and abduction with bands is a good idea to stay ahead of any potential problems. And of course, the lifter must stretch frequently and seriously during this time. I find the easiest way to ensure this stretching is done is to have the lifter do it after every set. This not only prevents the training session from being extended unnecessarily, but also helps prevent the athlete from conveniently forgetting to do it.
In any case, the bench press should be kept on the list of potential exercises, used when appropriate, and always accompanied by the requisite mobility and balancing strength work.