I’m going to share my dark embarrassing secret. My bench press sucks!
Since I started lifting weights in 1994, there have only been three periods where I could bench more than my weight. And then I could only muster up an extra 10 or so more pounds. Until recently this has always bothered me a little. How much a man can bench press has for longest time been one of the three metrics for success in the gym. The other two being the squat and deadlift.
In the article Are You Strong? author and fitness professional Tim Henriques makes the case that a decent bench press is 225 pounds or 1.25 times body weight. Achieving a good bench press requires 315 pounds or 1.5 times body weight. This means that for the vast majority of the time I’ve been lifting weights, I’ve been less than decent. This used to bother me. Not anymore.
Photo by W_Minshull
Why I No Longer Care About the Bench Press
#1 Accepting my Somatype
I am 6 foot and 2.5 inches tall (189 cm). My arms are long and my wrists are small. I am an ectomorph. Ectomorphs across the board suck at the bench press. We have greater weak points in the movement. Shorter guys excel at this movement, as do men with thick wrists.
Back when I was a member of a hardcore gym in South Tampa, the guys who could bench 400+ pounds were all under 5′ 10 and had stocky builds. Seeing a true ectomorph bench more than his weight after college is a rare sight.
#2 Understanding that the Bench Press is a Technical Move
The bench press isn’t just a way to develop strength. It is a technical movement. The goal is to lower and lift as much weight as possible without hurting yourself. Although the primary muscle being targeted is the pectoralis major, the bench press will also target the anterior deltoids, serratus anterior, coracobrachialis, scapulae fixers, trapezii, and triceps. Each muscle has a limiting factor. Getting them all to work together to share the load via form and timing isn’t just about having more strength. Like any sport, one needs to train the movement itself.
That may all seem like common sense, but the reason many men go to the gym in the first place is to build muscle, not have a better bench press. We later – falsely – draw the conclusion that in order to have more chest muscle we need to have a greater bench press. I care about muscle, not bragging rights to some number.
#3 Embracing The Negative
One of the aspects of High-Intensity Training that I’ve learned to love is the focus on the negatives. By slowing down the lowering of the weight, you will recruit more muscle and fatigue much faster. From Negative Training for Positive Results by Dave Durell:
During the negative, or lowering, phase of a repetition, the muscle fibers involved are lengthening under tension. Your muscles are much stronger during this phase than during the positive, or lifting phase. Even when you reach positive failure during an exercise, and can no longer lift a certain weight with good form, the truth is there is still a lot of strength left in that muscle. Negative training allows you to tap into that unused strength, overloading the muscle at a much deeper level, and stimulating it to respond by growing bigger and stronger.
This type of overload has tremendous strength and muscle building properties. It is possible to get VERY big and strong VERY quickly with negative only training.
In order to get a higher bench press number, you’ll want to avoid negative fatigue so you have enough strength to safely complete the positive portion. So if my choice is to slow the negative portion of the lift using a lower weight or having a higher bench press number with less muscle recruitment, I’ll take the lower number.
#4 Avoiding Injury
To get good at the bench press, you need to bench press a lot. This brings us back to our old friend survivorship bias. I see lots of guys in their 20s slamming serious weights. I see a few guys doing it in their 30s. Where are the 40-60-year-old guys? Occasionally I’ll see one, but it is a rare sight. Where did all those guys who had amazing bench press numbers 10-20 years ago go? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: People do not en masse voluntarily quit participating in something for which they are highly skilled at doing. What happened?
The fitness websites are filled with reports of injuries related to bench pressing. The body doesn’t have an unlimited capacity for recovery. And because the bench press is a technical move, being off a few inches or a second in timing can result in injury.
2016 Update: The video of the bench press accident by an elite lifter was taken down.
#5 The Modern Gym
Assume that I changed my opinion about the bench press and my goal was to get decent or even good at it. To be safe, I would need to have a spotter. Back in the pre-iPod days, guys in the free weight room acknowledged each other. Sometimes they even spoke to one another. Real conservation! We asked for spots and we offered them. Not anymore. I haven’t been asked for a spot in over 5 years now.
Gym walls today have flat-screen TVs showing sports highlights and MSNBC. Back in the day, the walls displayed photos of Frank Zane and Arnold. The free weight rooms went from a group of fellow lifters helping each other out to a room full of iPod-wearing, TV-watching zombies. Even if asking for a spot wasn’t considered old-timey 20th-century behavior, I wouldn’t trust anyone in the modern gym for a safe spot and that includes the staff.
Life After The Bench Press
I’ve done thousands of bench press repetitions. Although it did help me gain some muscle, it also resulted in a rounded mid-back and contributed to my wrist surgery. Was there a better, safer way to develop chest muscles? I now think so.
In the past year, I have done High Intensity Training using Super Slow and static hold movements with machines. No more free weights. No more bench presses. For the first time in years, I actually gained new muscle. And I didn’t have to beat my body senseless to earn it.
How much can I bench press? I don’t know and I don’t care.
Skip to the 2:00 mark to see what a chest exercise looks like using the SuperSlow method and machines.
Nov 11, 2011 — 1:39 am
I have a feeling a lot of these people ignore their bodies one time to many.
Bench is by far the least safe the exercises since you are dependent a good spotter to try for high weights.
Those spotters should have been following the weight a lot closer. Also, one can train for these accidents. For example, I have Amanda jump up and down on me :-p
Nov 11, 2011 — 9:47 am
This all sounds exactly right. I too am an ectomorph, but in the extreme. I’m 6ft and I have the arms and wrists of a 10 year old. I have to buy a boy’s watch if it’s going to fit. It’s just the DNA I inherited and there’s not much you can do about that.
However, I did bench press with trainers for several years and I got close to my body weight on a single rep. At around 145 lbs. it was close, but I never quite made it. No question this exercise requires a spotter to be safe, and I don’t have the trainers anymore. I now stick with a simple chest press using two free weight dumb bells. I see a lot of guys just wildly slinging weights around in the gym in ways that appear totally counterproductive, and I wonder why they’re even there.
Nov 11, 2011 — 11:42 am
@Winston – One thing I encourage all ectomorphs to pursue is grip strength training. It really helped me.
Weight Lifting Wisdom For the Tall Lanky Guy
Nov 11, 2011 — 4:37 pm
My heart stopped when I saw this post. Although my deadlift and squat are not in the least bit impressive (Deadlift, 4 reps of 235 for 6 sets. Squat, 4 reps of 125 for 6 sets. I have to see what my max lift would be.), but my bench sucks! It’s a max of about 125. I also have been very embarrassed of my bench… but I still care.
A little background: I’m 5 ft, 8 inches, 140 lbs (an ectomorph, clearly).
I have two follow up questions:
1) What is grip strength training?
2) What do you think of Smith machines for Squats and Bench presses? I’ve heard its not the best way to do them (not sure why though), but it seems the only safe way to do heavy reps of benches and squats without a spotter. I really enjoyed this article, keep it up.
Nov 11, 2011 — 5:50 pm
#1 – I believe the limiting factor for many ectomorphs on the bench and dead lift is lack of grip strength. When I focused on my grip, my bench went up.
I cover the topic on this post:
#2 – I don’t have a lot of experience with Smith machines. If you can lift safer using a Smith machine then use them. Ego in the free weight room often leads to injury.
Nov 12, 2011 — 4:07 am
Have you considered dips? I plan on skipping the bench press and move on directly to dips once I have sufficient musculature to ensure I will be able to develop proper technique. I train now on a chest press machine. Free weights could be in my future, perhaps, but it is a fact that these require competent spotters.
Nov 12, 2011 — 7:53 am
@Txomin – I love doing weighted dips. I can go closer to failure with less risk of injury.
Nov 12, 2011 — 8:40 am
I haven’t checked my benching abilities in several decades. Every two or three months I bench about 75% of my guessed-at maximum just “for old time’s sake” but this is totally irrational and a waste of time and effort. You’re helping me to stop this madness.
Benching strength is only a functional strength if you are a boxer or wrestler. It actually is somewhat counter-indicated if you’re a swimmer or rower Check out Michael Phelps pecs – pretty ordinary. It’s even less useful for runners and cyclists of any distance. Lance Armstrong bulked up a couple years ago and proceeded to break his collarbone in one of the first races of the season – go figure!
Art de Vany emphasizes the lat-delt muscles and I agree. In evolutionary fitness terms, these are the muscles you need to throw spears and – even more importantly – climb trees to escape attack…
Nov 12, 2011 — 5:07 pm
@GWhitney – De Vany also talks about having the “X” look. So us taller folk should still work on increasing our upper body mass – even if it doesn’t serve a hunter type role. We look better in shirts and that pleases the ladies. 🙂
Nov 13, 2011 — 7:48 am
On second thought – hunter-gatherers would need to quickly get off the ground from a supine position to flee danger. So that’s where plyometric pushups come into it – sorry MAS.
Nov 13, 2011 — 8:24 am
@GWhitney – If that skill were still required for survival in the modern world, I’d train it. But I don’t see a need, as there are safer and more effective ways to train the targeted muscles. Plus I have yet to be convinced in the merit of of explosive training.
The CrossCult crowd does explosive training and all I hear about is the injuries. Training for a skill requires lots of repetition and focus on form. This necessitates a reduction in intensity.
Full recovery from an intense workout takes time. This presents a conflict. Do you sacrifice full recovery to become proficient in a skill based movement (demonstration of strength) or do you allow the body time to rest? I’ll choose high intensity and longer recovery.
Dec 1, 2011 — 3:23 am
Try asking men over 50 if they can sleep on their side. A lot of them can’t because of shoulder pain.
Four years ago, right after I turned 50, I woke up one morning to find that I couldn’t raise my left hand past my shoulder. I saw a sports orthopedist who cave me a cortisone shot to treat the problem. I then saw a very good physical therapist who taught me how to fix the problem.
Years and years of bench presses and little shoulder work slowly made my shoulders roll forward resulting in a pinched nerve in my shoulder. The physical therapist suggested exercises and stretches to strengthen my rotator cuff and back muscles in order to relieve the pressure.
I’m at the age where ego-lifting is too expensive. I lighten the weight and slow down the motion and utilize maximum range of motion in all my moves. I now lift for longevity. I wanted to continue lifting for the rest of my life. At my age, I also heal a lot slower than I used to.
Dec 1, 2011 — 7:20 am
@Ed – Thanks for sharing. Hope some of my younger readers listen to your lesson.
Apr 4, 2012 — 4:21 am
Each to their own in terms of what exercises you perform or what training model you practice. But demonizing the bench press because you are not good at it is just as short sighted as saying it is the best upper body exercise in existence.
@Matthew; You are not dependent on spotters to try for maximal weights on the bench press. You can bench on a flat bench inside of a squat rack and set the spotter pins to a height which, if you fail in your attempt, you can rest the bar and slide out from underneath it. You can also rig up some straps or slings over your bench if you have an unfinished ceiling – again, setting the height so that if you flatten out your body, you can let the slings take the weights and get out from under it.
It’s also not the dangerous exercise you make it out to be. I encourage you to google “So you think you can Bench” and watch all 7 parts. In this video, the bench is taught by Dave Tate of Elite FTS and he explains why the bench is unsafe when performed incorrectly, but how that changes when you do it right.
Of course, there are overuse injuries that can occur with ANY exercise. But my opinion of what is happening here is there are a lot of you who suck at bench pressing, and are using this article to justify not performing the lift.
I hate pull-ups too. Hate them with all my heart – mainly because I suck at them. But I make myself do them because they are a stellar upper body exercise for strength and for balancing out the body.
As Ed said, you can’t perform one lift at the exclusion of all else. Of course you can’t bench and neglect your shoulders and back muscles… but you can’t blame that on benching.
If you learn to bench right, and don’t neglect the rest of your body, you’ll be fine.
Apr 4, 2012 — 7:52 am
@Mitch – For me it is all about risk vs reward. The reward of doing perfect bench press reps for higher and higher weight no longer appeals to me. Since I wrote this post, I have come up with a 6th reason and my solution. Once I gather more data, I will be posting what I discovered.
Jun 7, 2012 — 4:03 pm
Hi, I’m sort of in agreement about the benchpress, I find it fairly pointless, as it’s not much of a real world kind of exercise, I can’t think of many circumstances where I’m lying on a bench having to push something. Maybe the floor press is better, at least that’s applicable to working on cars. I myself adore the oldschool standing overhead press, it’s a much more natural feeling exercise, but also, it doesn’t lead to muscle imbalances like the bench does. The bench’s problem is it only works the front heads of the shoulders, and you get a muscle imbalance, but the bench allows you to lift more weight, and have bigger pecs, which people like for some odd reason I can’t understand.
Anyway, I’m in the same boat sort of, 355 deadlift (probably more, I felt I had more in the tank) squat like 280 powerlifting style (225 Olympic) but I can only do about 130 on an incline bench (haven’t tried flat lately like at all, should try.) I can only OHP like 105 but I find it an infinitely more fun exercise.
My training ideals are way different from your’s, though, I only work out for strength, not for muscular look, and most is done in the context of improving sport performance (ice skating) so for me, it doesn’t matter what I bench, as it doesn’t really help me skate better.
But yeah, I don’t see the huge deal about benching either. It just feels weird exercising sitting/laying down.
Jun 7, 2012 — 8:16 pm
@Joe – When I train for strength vs muscle, the outcome seems to come out the same. I did Pavel style “for strength” and now I’m doing HIT “for muscle”. I suspect genetics have made the decision for me on how my body is going to look regardless of how I push the weight around.
Jul 15, 2012 — 9:00 pm
Honestly I dont think being an ecto had much to do with it, I think you just never learned to bench properly. I at my thinnest was 155 at 6’2 with wrists like a 8 year old kid, IE ecto to the max, and still managed to max 215 at the time and never had any wrist issues because I learned how to not bend them or have them support too much of the weight. I know other really thin guys that can hold their own on bench, so it;s not just me. Granted tall lanky guys will never bench as much as short stocky ones who have all of a 3 inch range of motion. However, If you learn how to bench correctly I dont think any other lift or machine lift can really match what bench does for your chest, but each to their own I suppose. I do think bench is overrated in the fact that some people act like their bench max is some sort of man card, but that is a whole other issue.
Jul 15, 2012 — 9:06 pm
@Nick – I get far more muscle fiber recruitment doing static holds or SuperSlow with a pec deck or a hammer machine. And since Dec 2010, about the time I quit doing the barbell bench, I haven’t gotten even the slightest pain from doing chest exercises.
Nov 4, 2012 — 11:15 pm
I am 6’1″ about 195 I am also 64 years old now but still hit the Gym 3 on 1 off and I do want to increase my bench. I do dumbell flat and incline and usually do 4 sets 0f 8 reps. Flat bench 85 lbs to 90lbs incline 65 to 75. I do dips and flys and decline bench on a smith machine also cable cross then triceps. For that I do flat bench easy curl 75 lb bar then standing cable pulls then dumbell tris.
The next day it’s Back and Biceps. The next day its Legs and shoulders then a day off. At 64 I feel strong and Basically uninjured ( knock on wood ) sometime it takes 1 Advill but it always takes a cup of coffee .
I have alwaays been an ectomorph it was frustrating as far as bench goes but I learned a few things and it worked fo me when I was young and I was able to bench 295 without spots and I could get 3 sets of 6. I had a hard time getting past 225 but what did it for me was doing less warm up reps in other words just go light like 135 then go 225 about 3 reps of each then max out then work your way down. I don’t know if this will work for everyone but it sure worked me at the time and I was amazed at how fast this system increased my flat bench. Now I don’t care as much but it’s hard not want that Big weight ///////
Dec 1, 2012 — 9:08 am
@ MAS and Joe;
Listen, the intent of my first post was simply to point out that 9 out of 10 people don’t bench correctly in the first place, don’t take the time to learn, get frustrated, and then find an article like this one to justify quitting.
The bench press itself is no more pointless than the deadlift, putting a golf ball, or getting a car to do 0-60 in 3 seconds. You always have to ask yourself why you are doing something. I’m a competitive powerlifter, and the bench is one of three events I need to be good at to compete decently. That’s my hobby. My passion.
I would never barge in here and tell everyone that they have to bench, and if they don’t, then they suck – because that isn’t the case. Of course if you have a health issue, or your sport/hobby doesn’t require it, or you just don’t want to… then don’t bench. We can still be friends.
What I am saying though is that you shouldn’t quit just for the sake of quitting without having first learned how to bench the right way, and then putting more than 2 months into it. I’ve been at the powerlifting game for 3 years now and I have pulled muscles in my back twice deadlifting because I screwed up my technique and let the bar get too far out in front of me. This is MY FAULT. It doesn’t mean the deadlift is a bad exercise, and even though it is fairly useless above the 400 lb range (most real world problems do not involve that much of a strength deficit to warrant a 400+ lb deadlift), it IS my hobby and my sport and therefore I continue to use it and to constantly be aware of proper technique, and to lift heavier loads.
The bench hating that is going on here however, seems to be a bunch of excuses fostered by jumping on the bandwagon of the article. The bench is useless??? Yet NFL players bench press, many MMA fighters bench press, powerlifters of course, Olympic weightlifters use it to some extent also, strongman competitors, etc… because when you bench right, it is a primary power move, developing strength in not only the upper body, but the whole body. And if you doubt that, then you’re not benching correctly. It is a whole body power lift.
I would encourage you to watch the 7 part video – for free on youtube – called “So you think you can bench” by Dave Tate of Elite FTS.
Bottom line; If you don’t want to bench, don’t bench. But then don’t make all kinds of claims as to it’s uselessness or inapplicability when athletes far better than you are using it correctly, successfully, and without injury. That’s all I’m saying, and I’m saying it in a spirit of cordiality and truth seeking – not one of condescending and argument starting.
Dec 1, 2012 — 9:44 am
@Mitch – I think you made my point. You state that 90% of people bench press incorrectly. I believe that to be true. And of the remaining 10%, what percent of them bench press with perfect form 100% of the time?
I know for myself that I’m not a 22 years old and invincible. Not every rep will be perfect every time. I’ve watched many videos and read many articles on benching. Mistakes happen. My bias is towards safety. Because my bias is towards safety, I’m always lifting less weight or doing fewer reps than my muscles can support. If I push it, I may get a better workout or I might be sidelined.
I’ll take the machines done in a slow controlled safe manner any day. They have near zero risk of injury.
Even if the bench press done perfectly is superior to a machine, which I doubt, to what degree? 5%, 20%? Now add back in the risks present in a bench that don’t exist with the machine. Not just for one workout, but for 20-40 years of workouts. I think the math is clear, unless benching is your sport (like yourself), it is unnecessary risk.
As for NFL players and MMA guys, they are all young (most under 40) and have superior recovery abilities. Also, the fact they benched to get strong doesn’t negate that the bench press has risks. It also doesn’t say that they couldn’t have developed the same level of strength in a safer manner. And when you look at this group, you aren’t seeing all the elite level athletes that did the same thing and failed. Survivorship bias.
Feb 15, 2013 — 11:20 am
I’m an ectomorph. So I can appreciate some of your struggles. Lift, eat, and sleep properly and you’ll get stronger.
I went to college at 6-1/155, and left at 6-1/215. Same skinny-assed wrists and ankles. But loaded w/ muscle mass everywhere else. Bench went from 135 to 315.
Don’t cry. Fight genetics.
Mar 15, 2013 — 3:07 pm
No risk… no big reward. Use the machine or don’t do bench… then you’ll never see your true potential.
The bench has risks yes. Don’t do it if it scares you. I’ve benched for 30 years and I love it. I’ve also had many injuries and even shoulder surgeries. I’ll never stop until I can’t do it. It the same with squats and other exercises.
I accept the risks. Of course I’ve taken many risks in my life… military, two businesses. Even on my second marriage (2 kids) and I’m a cancer survivor. I also have an MBA so I haven’t been slacking 🙂
Life is adventure live it up… or stay safe.
Apr 9, 2013 — 9:16 pm
I realised in the comments above you said ” I don’t have a lot of experience with Smith machines. If you can lift safer using a Smith machine then use them. Ego in the free weight room often leads to injury.” Don’t say you have little experience with them then try to suggest them to someone. Smith machines have a lot more potential for injury. They completely neglect the stabilizers that are required from free weight exercises, which will lead to imbalance and put you at a higher risk for injury. Also it promotes bad form , and it restricts the motion to simply being an up and down motion (a motion along one plane). NO motion is ever in one plane naturally. Bench is never perfectly straight up and down , Squats are never straight up in down. There’s always the slight motion along different planes involved.
Apr 12, 2013 — 5:08 am
I second the Dave Tate “So you think you can bench” series. I am also a 189cm ectomorph, and had sworn off barbell bench press due to shoulder pain it caused me in the past. However, after learning how to get tight with pinched shoulder blades, keeping elbows close to the body instead of flared, I’ve benched heavy weights (for me) without the least bit of shoulder pain. It makes all the difference in the world.
I now think BB bench is one of the safest exercises for me, personally, assuming proper spotting or squat rack of course. Far safer than deadlift or squant, and I would even choose it over chest press purely based on shoulder safety.
May 13, 2013 — 3:13 pm
“Benching strength is only a functional strength if you are a boxer or wrestler.”
“many MMA fighters bench press”
I’ve boxed and trained in martial arts in one form or another for over twenty years and ran my own mma/grappling gym for 10 years. Lifting heavy weights is probably one of the worst things to happen to boxing training over the last 35 years.
As far as mma is concerned, in my personal experience how much you can bench press is largely irrelevant. I had a 12-1 mma record and if fights were decided by how much you could bench or squat I would have lost more fights than I would have won.
In all of the many fights that I’ve been cage side for, cornered, been in the locker room after etc. I never once heard a losing fighter say “I would have won if I could have just benched/squatted ten more pounds. Next time I have to lift more weights.” The most common things that you’ll hear a losing fighter say are “I just got tired.”
Dec 28, 2013 — 1:49 pm
Please stop with this ‘ectomorph’ nonsense, it’s just a poor excuse made up by a bunch of lazy, uncommitted lifters,
Eat and lift heavy, then eat some more. Unless you’re banging back 5000-6000 calories a day and still weighting 140 calories then your not an ‘ectomorph’ just a pussy who’s looking for excuses.
Dec 28, 2013 — 1:50 pm
Edit 140 pounds not calories
Jan 11, 2014 — 2:09 pm
“Eat and lift heavy, then eat some more. Unless you’re banging back 5000-6000 calories a day and still weighting 140 pounds then your not an ‘ectomorph’ just a pussy who’s looking for excuses”
Sorry but that’s a load of crap. You have to be realistic in your expectations of how much weight that your frame can carry. Someone who’s 6′ tall and weighs 140lbs. with a small frame/bone structure is never going to weigh 200lbs. ripped even with the help of steroids.
If you lift heavy and pound down 5000-6000 calories a day sure you’ll gain weight but how much of it will be in the way of fat? I guess if you don’t really care what you look like and are only concerned with gaining and lifting more weight simply consuming excessive calories will work as long as you don’t mind losing any and all definition and looking like a big soft sloppy doughboy.
Jul 23, 2014 — 2:00 pm
Are you guys serious? Im an ectomorph and started off benching 95lbs for 3 reps as a freshman in High school. By mid sophomore year I was doing 180 lbs. I was like 140 lbs @ 5’9. I stopped lifting for a while. Now at 19, 5’11 170 lbs I’m benching 260. There is no excuse for you guys at all. I’m half black and my arms are extremely long. I’ve never had a problem. You’re just making excuses as to why your bench sucks instead of making it better. No matter the bone structure, you’re still a male and bone structure does not influence strength levels significantly. So don’t blame that on your poor training. As far as injuries go, bone degeneration happens regardless of what you do. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, you’ve been doing too many pressing movements and your back is probably weak. You probably also have inhibited glutes that is contributing to your poor posture
Jul 23, 2014 — 2:53 pm
There will always be those that excel at any exercise regardless of risk. That doesn’t prove the exercise is safe, efficient or can’t be replaced by something better. I’ve said all I have to say on this topic.
Bench if you want. I don’t care.