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The best damn bench press article

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Whether you like it or not, the bench press is the gold standard of upper body strength exercises. Critics regularly try to downplay the importance of this exercise, calling it "overrated", "harmful" or "non-functional", but none of this detracts from its popularity.

And for good reason. There is no better upper body exercise than the bench press. What other upper body exercise requires a good amount of pressure from the legs, activates the latissimus, shoulder muscles, pecs and triceps, is stable enough to allow for huge weights and is specific to so many sports due to the horizontal pressing nature of the movement? The answer is "none"!

  • Powerlifters perform bench presses as one of the "big 3" exercises of their sport and have developed numerous variations to increase their strength
  • Bodybuilders use bench presses to build their pecs and triceps
  • Bench presses are so popular with pretty much every gym-goer that the first day of the week has been declared "International Bench Press Monday".
  • Bench presses are used as a measure of upper body strength as part of the American National Football League's NFL Combine test, and bench press performance correlates with many different markers of athletic performance.

Interestingly, despite all this, the bench press was not immediately accepted by the strength training community.

The history of the bench press

At the time that presses from a prone position appeared on the scene in the weightlifting community, standing exercises were the only exercises that were considered exercises for real men. Weightlifters made fun of the milksops who lay down on a bench to "stretch their pecs." However, when women began to rave about bodybuilders with well-developed pecs, weightlifters jumped on the bench press bandwagon as well.

Interestingly, the bench press has evolved over the years from variations such as floor presses (lying on the floor), bridge variations and variations where the weight was more or less thrown upwards from the abdomen, to what is used by bodybuilders and powerlifters today.

At first, strict floor presses (bench press lying backwards on the floor) were the most popular method. In 1899, Georg Hackenschmidt - the inventor of the barbell Hackenschmidt squat - performed one repetition of strict floor presses with 361 pounds (about 165 kilos) using a barbell with 50 centimeter discs that he rolled over his face (which was turned to the side). This record remained unbroken for 18 years until Joe Nordquest beat it by 2 pounds in 1916.

At this time, new methods began to gain ground. Strength athletes found that strong glutes could help them move the bar up from the floor. They would lie on the floor and position the bar over their abs and then perform an explosive movement towards a gluteus bridge, catapulting the bar up overhead to catch it at the highest point of the movement with outstretched arms.

The heaviest weight moved in this way is attributed to the wrestler and strongman Georg Lurich, who hurled 443 pounds (about 201 kilos) upwards with his stomach in 1902. Critics argued that this variation was more of a hip strength exercise than an upper body strength exercise, as the triceps were simply used to support the weight at the highest point of the movement.

In a lighter weight class, Arthur Saxon pressed 386 pounds (about 175 kilos) using this "belly fling" method - a record that was later broken by Joe Nordquest with a weight 2 pounds higher in 1917. This technique remained popular into the twenties and thirties of the 20th century.

Soon it became the norm to assume the position of a bridge and perform a "press from the back" variation of the bench press, which basically turned this exercise into a modified version of the reverse incline bench press. The other option was to engage the hips for a push through a bridge movement. This variation differed from the other two methods described last in that the bridge movement (hip thrust) was controlled and held in position while the pecs and triceps contracted concentrically to complete the movement.

However, when Bill Lilly began to set new records with a bridge movement of his exceptionally flexible spine and hips, keeping the bar in contact with his abs all the way to the highest position, people began to realize the absurdity of this method as a demonstration of upper body strength.

Fortunately, Lily's extremely flexible spine and hips led to changes in the acceptable form of the bench press, even though Lily's 484 pounds (about 220 kilos) remained unthreatened throughout the 1930s.

The AAU eventually banned this bridge maneuver in 1939 by standardizing the technique. In this technique, the legs remain straight, the feet together and the buttocks on the ground. Nevertheless, many wrestlers continued to use a bridge movement in which their upper body only made contact with the ground with their head. This became known as the "wrestler's bridge" and required incredible strength in the neck muscles.

At some point, the floor pressers realized that small boxes could be used to increase range of motion and pec activity and it wasn't long before special training equipment was developed. During the 1940s, several types of horizontal presses were popular: strict floor presses, the abdominal swing variation, back presses, bridge presses and bench presses.


In the 1950s, the rise of bodybuilding began and the full range of motion bench press was considered the best method for hypertrophy. At this time, the bench press was crowned the queen of upper body exercises. As bench presses became more robust, training partners expanded their expertise, form improved and supportive equipment came on the market, bench press weights have continued to increase.

In the 1950s, Doug Hepburn was the first man to bench press 400 and 500 pounds with a rest on his chest. The 600 pound sound barrier was broken by Pat Casey in the sixties and the first bench press of 700 pounds is credited to Ted Arcidi in the eighties. In the late nineties, Tim Isaac was the first man to bench press 800 pounds and in the early 21st century, Gene Rychlak became the first person to bench press 900 and then 1000 pounds.

The current world record is held by Ryan Kennelly, who bench pressed 1075 pounds in 2008, while Scot Medelson holds the "raw" record without equipment, which stands at 715 pounds.

In fact, bench pressing has caused some controversy throughout its history. From day one, exercisers have claimed that it leads to an unbalanced ratio of chest development to back development and promotes poor posture. This debate continues to this day, while there are trainers who question the functional carryover, safety and optimal technique.

Just as the arched back technique was questioned long ago before benches were ever used, the current arched back technique used in powerlifting is frowned upon by many, as is the use of press shirts.

One thing is for sure - exercisers will always be looking for ways to increase their strength on the bench. But before we look at the different methods of increasing bench press strength, I would first like to take a look at what the literature has to say about this exercise.

A look at the literature on the bench press

Substantial research has been done on the bench press and its variations. Probably the most important, but most often overlooked, component of bench press performance is the vital importance of technique. Less experienced exercisers differ from experienced exercisers in their preparation strategy, execution strategies and overall technique (Madsen & McLaughlin 1984). We therefore recommend that beginners devote considerable time and attention to learning correct technique and using good technique with each repetition performed.

Scientists have discussed the mechanisms behind the so-called "sticky point" (the heaviest point of the movement where the probability is greatest that the weight cannot be moved further up and the repetition must be aborted), but we recommend in this context not to speak of a point but of a "sticky region". This region is characterized by a phase of lower external force in relation to gravity, resulting in a reduction in the speed of the bar and a decrease in momentum.

A typical maximum bench press attempt lasts an average of around 1.8 seconds. The sticky region begins about 2 to 4 tenths of a second after the start of the concentric portion of the movement and ends after about 8 to 9 tenths of a second, which means that it accounts for about 25% of the duration of the concentric movement (Van den Tillaar & Ettema 2010; Elliot et al. 1989).

There are two dominant theories that attempt to explain the reason for this "sticky region". Elliot et al. (1989) found that muscle activity in the primary muscles remained unchanged and propose that this phenomenon is the result of the end of the phase of increased elastic strain energy from the reverse part of the movement.

In other words, the passive muscle force resulting from the active stretching of the muscle fibers of the primary muscles will help to move the bar up during the bench press movement (as an analogy, you can think of the stretched muscle fibers as rubber bands).

But this elastic support ends quite quickly, increasing the load on the active contractile components of the muscle fibers. This makes a lot of sense, but Van den Tillaar & Ettema (2010) found something else.

They showed that muscle activity was reduced in the primary muscles in the "sticky region" and suggested that a neural delay occurs between the point at which muscle leverage decreases and the point at which the brain ramps up muscle activation to complete the exercise. We recommend a number of different strategies to improve your ability to overcome the sticky point, which we will discuss later in the article.

A serious exerciser knows the importance of mental preparation prior to a difficult individual attempt. Tod et al (2005) conducted a very interesting study in which they found that a mental boost led to an 8% increase in force production.

They also looked at bench press force production during distractions and found that distracted exercisers were not able to achieve maximal force production. There was a 12% difference in force production between high-pulled and distracted exercisers. This could amount to a difference of 18 kilos for a trainee who can bench press a maximum weight in the 150 kilo range!

We recommend that you save pushing up for real max attempts and otherwise use this strategy sparingly. In addition, we recommend that you concentrate as much as possible during your exercise and separate yourself from any training partner who tells you jokes or wants to chat with you during your exercise.

It has been shown that power release increases from 10% to 50% of 1RM and decreases from 50% to 90% of 1RM (Stock et al. 2010). This is consistent with the findings of Siegal et al. (2002), who showed that 40 to 60% of the 1RM represents an optimal load. Jandacka & Uchytil (2011) concluded that an optimal load is 30 to 50% of the 1RM, while Pearson et al. (2009) concluded that a maximum average power release can be achieved at 53% of the 1RM and a maximum peak power at 50% of the 1RM.

In terms of tempo, Pryor et al. (2011) found that fast eccentric repetitions without pause at the lowest point of the movement resulted in the greatest gains in power release compared to slow eccentric repetitions. We recommend using weights in the 50% of 1RM range if you are trying to demonstrate maximal power (remember that power = force times acceleration). However, if you are trying to develop a maximal power release, then you should use different loads ranging from 30 to 100% of the 1RM. For maximal power production, we also recommend including bench press throws in your training, which have an optimal power load of 55% of 1RM in the bench press (Baker et al. 2001) and higher levels of maximal strength compared to band backs (Clark et al. 2008).

It has also been shown that multiple sets are superior to single sets when it comes to strength gains in the bench press. (Rhea et al. 2002).

In terms of exercise order, barbell bench presses are often performed before exercises such as flying movements and dumbbell presses due to the greater amount of total muscle used, even though all three exercises provide a similar degree of activation of the chest muscles (Welsh et al. 2005). Rocha et al. (2007) found similar levels of chest muscle activation in bench presses and butterflies, supporting the results of Welsh et al.

Placing bench presses at the beginning of the training session is a better strategy than performing this exercise at the end of the training session if the goal is to increase bench press strength (Simao et al. 2005; Spineti et al. 2010).

As long as the volume is adjusted accordingly, it does not seem to make much difference in terms of bench press strength gains whether the pecs are trained two or three times per week, or whether full body training programs or split programs are used (Candow & Burke 2007;Arazi & Asadi 2011).

After a high-intensity training session, it only takes around 4 hours for women to regain their maximum bench press strength, whereas recovery for men takes around 48 hours (Judge & Burke 2010).

For maximum bench press strength, we recommend performing variations of the bench press twice a week, emphasizing lower repetition ranges and methods with maximal and dynamic effort. Women who want to increase their bench press strength can train this exercise more frequently, as bench presses do not cause the same degree of muscle fatigue in women as they do in men.

It is common knowledge among strength athletes that the upper muscle head of the pectoral muscles, which attaches to the collarbone, is activated more during incline bench presses, while the lower muscle head, which attaches to the sternocostal joint, is activated more during flat bench presses. Trebs et al. (2010) found that an incline of 44 degrees is optimal for maximum activation of the upper pectoral muscles.

Barnett et al (1995) found that flat bench press activates most of the fibers of the lower pectoral muscle head and triceps, incline bench press with close grip activates most of the muscle fibers of the upper pectoral muscle head, and standing shoulder press activates most of the fibers of the anterior shoulder muscle head.

Lehman (2005) showed that a reverse grip leads to greater activation of the upper pectoral muscle fibers compared to a regular grip and that a tighter grip leads to greater activation of the triceps but less activation of the pectorals than a regular grip.

Glass and Armstrong (1997) investigated the degree of chest muscle activation during bench presses on the reverse incline bench and incline bench press. They found that bench presses on the reverse incline bench activated more fibers of the lower pectoral muscles compared to incline bench presses, while the degree of activation of the upper pectoral muscles was similar for both exercises.

Clemens and Aaron (1997) found that bench presses with a wide grip activated more muscle fibers in all primary bench press muscles than bench presses with a narrow grip. For maximum hypertrophy, we recommend using a variety of grip widths and upper body angles to stimulate as many muscle fibers as possible.

After analyzing injuries that can occur during the bench press, Green and Comfort (2007) concluded that a shoulder abduction of 45 degrees in combination with a medium-width grip is the safest variation of the bench press for the shoulder joint. For maximum development of the chest muscles, we recommend using a selection of chest exercises with different repetition ranges.

Massey et al (2004) investigated training with partial repetitions, repetitions performed over the full range of motion and a combination of both. They concluded that none of the three variations resulted in superior strength gains in full range bench presses, but interestingly, the group using a combination of partial repetitions and full range repetitions showed the smallest strength gains.

As for the difference between machine vs. free bench press, Schick et al. (2010) showed that bench presses on the multi-press activated fewer shoulder stabilizers and fewer primary muscle fibers than free bench presses. Scientists also found that the maximum weight was significantly higher with free bench presses than with bench presses on the multi press (Cotterman et al. 2005).

Research conducted by Ignjatovic (2009) suggests that bench press static strength markers do not correlate well with bench press dynamic strength markers, so isometric strength values should not be used to estimate a 1RM.

Duffey and Challis (2011) found that considerable lateral forces are involved in the bench press. They used a special bar that allowed them to measure the vertical and lateral forces and found that the outward forces exerted on the bar were about 25% of the upward forces. It seems that the muscles involved in pushing the bar upwards also produce considerable lateral forces.

This helps to explain why you can't use as much weight in dumbbell bench presses as in barbell bench presses. Not only is more stabilization required, but no lateral forces can be used as these would move the dumbbells outwards, making the movement impossible to perform. The fact that the triceps EMG shows lower values during dumbbell bench presses compared to barbell bench presses seems to support this theory (Saeterbakken et al. 2011).

"Forced repetitions" are quite popular, especially in commercial gyms. Drinkwater et al (2007) found no significant differences in strength and speed gains between exercisers who used forced repetitions and those who did not. As for training to muscle failure, Drinkwater et al. (2005) showed that 4 sets of 6 repetitions were superior to 8 sets of 3 repetitions when it came to strength and speed gains.

As a set progresses from the first to the last repetition, the speed of the bar decreases and the path of the bar shifts from a press over the lower/middle chest more towards a press over the shoulder. (Duffey & Challis 2007).

The bench press has a descending force curve, meaning that it becomes easier the higher you are in the concentric range of motion. Elliot et al (1989) found that bench pressing with an 81% 1RM weight resulted in 48% of the movement being performed in an accelerating phase and 52% of the movement being performed in a decelerating phase. The deceleration phases are necessary to prevent the bar from being thrown upwards at the end of the movement. This is one of the reasons why variable resistance in the form of bands and chains is often used.

Bellar et al (2011) showed that distributing the load to 15% tension with bands and 85% free weights allowed superior strength gains compared to using only free weights. Burnham et al. (2010) showed equal increases in 1RM weight using 5% resistance in the form of chains and using free weights alone, which is similar to the results of McCurdy et al. (2009) who used a higher proportion of resistance using chains.

Using 15% load in the form of chains and 60% load in the form of free weights for a total load of 75% of the 1RM, Baker and Newton (2009) found that this method was superior in terms of increasing concentric movement velocity compared to using 75% of the 1RM weight in the form of free weights. Studies suggest that using 40 to 50% of the 1RM in the form of chains or bands has the greatest impact on speed-strength variables (Ghigiarelli 2009). We support the use of chains and bands as the evidence is clear. However, we also believe that a reasonable strength base should be established before embarking on this path.

Ojasto & Hakinen (2009) found that an accentuated eccentric load, as made possible by so-called weight releasers, is more productive for force production than the use of lighter weights. Specifically, they found that concentric strength decreased when supramaximal eccentric loads were used prior to a maximal concentric repetition, but they also found that when heavier eccentric loads were used prior to a maximal concentric repetition, concentric strength was maximized.

Doan et al (2002) showed that accentuated eccentric loads in the form of weight releasers at 105% of 1RM weight resulted in subsequent increases in concentric loads of 5 to 15 pounds. We recommend the use of weight releasers as strategies to increase upper body compressive strength, using approximately 70% of the 1RM weight for the concentric portion of the movement and 50% of the 1RM weight for the concentric portion of the movement.

Regarding stable vs. unstable surfaces, it has been shown that bench pressing from an unstable surface allows for an increase in activation of the total body stabilizer muscles during exercise performance and that the mode of instability has the greatest influence on which areas recruit more stabilizers (Norwood et al. 2007; Saeterbakken 2011).

In dumbbell bench presses, for example, the triceps are used less and the biceps are activated more in comparison to barbell bench presses (Saeterbakken 2011). The pectoralis major (chest) and shoulders, on the other hand, showed similar recruitment patterns in dumbbell vs. barbell bench presses (Saeterbakken 2011).

Koshida et al. (2008) showed that there was reduced maximal speed (10%), reduced speed (10%) and reduced maximal strength (6%) when bench pressing was performed on a Swiss ball. In contrast, Goodman et al (2008) found no difference between 1RM strength and muscle activation when they compared traditional flat bench presses with barbell bench presses on a Swiss ball. Further research is obviously needed in this area, but we doubt that elite bench pressers would be able to press the same amount of weight on a Swiss ball as on a flat bench.

Santana et al (2007) looked at the differences between standing single-arm cable presses and traditional bench presses with an underhand grip and found that barbell bench presses were better for the pecs, shoulders and erectors, while single-arm cable presses were better for the latissimus and internal obliques. They confirmed that body stability and coordination were greater and therefore a limiting factor in the standing version compared to the traditional reverse grip version.

All types of stretching protocols for chest, shoulders and triceps were shown to have no effect on maximal bench press strength (Molacek et al. 2010). Regarding stretching between sets in the bench press, Garcia Lopez et al. (2010) found that absolute velocity decreased when static stretching was performed between sets, while ballistic stretching had no effect in this direction.

Researchers compared heavy resistance training alone with a combination of heavy resistance training and ballistic training. The results showed significantly greater increases in 1RM with the combined protocol compared to heavy resistance training alone (Mangine et al. 2008). Wilcox et al. (2006) showed that using two plyometric push-ups or two light medicine ball passes from the chest, performed approximately 30 seconds before the bench press, could acutely increase maximal strength.

In the second part of this article, we will describe methods to increase bench press strength based on the studies just reviewed.


By Bret Contreras, Sam Leahey

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