Readers of this site already know that I dislike the bench press. After benching for 16 years, I gave it up for machines done either very slow or with static holds. I outlined my case against the bench press in the post My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care. Although I felt I made a strong case, in this post I want to cover two important topics: skill and risk.
The Bench Press is a Skill Movement
In the Fat Burning Man podcast episode with James Clear, host Abel James dissed machine based weight training. His explanation was that when he returned to the bench press he found he couldn’t lift as much weight. He came to the false conclusion that Nautilus was therefore ineffective for building strength. No. Nautilus is perfectly fine for developing strength. What it is not good for is developing the skill of bench pressing.
The bench press is a highly skilled movement. Yes, there is a strength component, but doing a perfect bench press repetition takes practice. When you stop bench pressing, you stop training that skill. When you return to the bench press, your numbers will be lower. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost strength. It just means the skill portion of that lift is rusty. Usually your numbers return quickly if you continue to practice. His guest James Clear used a single exercise protocol to do just that.
To demonstrate just how much skill is a factor, I’ll provide an example of the opposite. After a decade of bench pressing, I was able to increase my bench by 30 pounds in a single week. Did I gain 30 pounds of strength? No. I read a really well written article about elbow position for tall lifters. After reading the article, I went to the gym and tested it out. My SKILL in the bench press went up by 30 pounds. My strength was the same.
The beauty of Nautilus or other machine based equipment is they remove the need to learn a skill to perform a safe repetition. The user can focus 100% on building strength. Machines get a bad repetition for two reasons. First, people move the weight too fast. This is what Arthur Jones called “throwing weights”. Second, lifters equate the machine movement with the free weight exercise and because the machine is easier at the same weight, it is perceived as being less effective. The reality is they are different exercises and should be treated as such.
Since giving up the bench press over two years ago, my chest strength is greater, but if I tried to perform a bench press today that number would likely be lower. Two separate things. I no longer need to hold onto a number to quantify my strength. It is quite liberating.
Photo by Abbey Hambright
Greater Risk for Greater Reward? I Don’t Think So.
I just received this comment on my Bench post from Mike.
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.
Life is adventure live it up… or stay safe.
This is the kind of bravado nonsense that causes so many injuries in the gym. Mike isn’t alone. There are a lot of successful lifters that feel exactly the same way he does. Let me dissect this pro-bench argument point by point.
- The fact that one needs to increase risk in order to see greater rewards in the gym is nonsense. It is sad that so many people believe that gaining chest strength requires benching and therefore risk.
- Yes, I will never see my true potential. Not in chest strength, but in the bench press. Two separate things. The bench press is a skill movement (see above). I don’t need to push a certain number to feel manly or impress my bros. And what if I only get to 80% of my potential, but I’m able to maintain potential well into old age without injury? Did I lose?
- You’ve benched for 30 years and had many injuries and shoulder surgeries. You’re making my case.
- Live it up or stay safe? Why must it be a choice? That sounds like something a young person with no life experience would say. Another variation of YOLO.
- Read Responding to a CrossFit Enthusiast. Just replace the word “CrossFit” with “bench press”. Same principles apply.
I’d like to end this post with two of my favorite quotes.
I’ve learned more by not following bad examples than by following good examples. – Paulo Coelho
You study other men and you find out what makes them weak and then you don’t do that. – Jay Leno
The way to win in the gym is to not lose. Don’t confuse skill with strength and respect risk. By the way, this article was about the bench press but it applies to the squat and dead lift as well.
Mar 16, 2013 — 2:29 pm
I still bench but only with light weights and very slowly, at the age of 50 I’ve been doing this for a long time and one day I had an epiphany and realized that for most of my life my workout had been the strength training version of masturbation, why put so much emphasis on the chest? These days I do 3 sets of shoulders for every 1 set of chest and I’m getting a lot more out of it.
If someone asks you “How much can you lift?” the only really honest answer is “It depends on how I lift it.”
Mar 16, 2013 — 4:01 pm
M: nice post. It’s always so relaxing to read a reasoned approach to a problem. As a general proposition I would say that physical strength does not define a person. Determination and resolve tend to be higher qualities as far as I am concerned. Although I do think the Greek god look is way more fashionable.
Regarding your previous comments on CrossFit, I once had this idea: instead of taking the best scores of the best athletes as a metric, let’s select people randomly from each CrossFit box and see what the numbers look like. Because after all, wouldn’t that be the true measure of the sport of fitness?
Beyond that, I would suggest that CrossFit is meant to mimic a lifestyle that is decidedly not modern — the goal being total overall physical conditioning in preparation for unknown situations. I also think that CrossFit athletes are going to be more fit then those who don’t do CrossFit; I also think there is more risk in CrossFit. I leave it up to each individual to select their priorities.
Mar 16, 2013 — 4:27 pm
For us tall lifters that still bench, mind sharing the article on elbow position
Mar 16, 2013 — 7:57 pm
I enjoyed this as a fellow non-bencher. I have a question and a comment
Q: I’m curious – how do you measure progress when you say that your chest strength has improved? Measurements?
C: Have you read Dan John’s “Intervention” yet? I think you would really enjoy his classifications of the different types of athletes. The premise of that book is that essentially no one is in the NFL SEALS and thus we have no business training like them. The mission is to train the rest of us who just want to ‘walk to the mailbox on the day we die’. If you have read it, what did you think?
Mar 17, 2013 — 8:04 am
@Rob – I agree completely. Slow is better than heavy.
@ScottCharles – That problem isn’t just with CrossFit. Every fitness program suffers the same problem. We look at the successful and then extrapolate that what they did is the correct path, with examining the failure rate or entertaining the idea that the successful could have succeeded on numerous protocols.
The program with the highest success rate IMO is superior to the one that produces the greatest outliers.
@jtoPDX – It has been 10 years. I don’t know where I read that article or if it still exists. I’m certain there are better ones out there today. Probably videos as well.
@Eric – Great questions. The first one is almost worthy of a post, but here is the short answer. I don’t measure anything. Measuring has usually led to disappointment or pushing myself toward injury. I’m convinced the limiting factor for ectomorphs is recovery time. Anything I can do to reduce stress between workouts will be of benefit. As long as I am able to display a high level of intensity and not get injured then that is enough for me. My reps these days are too dynamic to be captured by numbers. Rep speed varies and I add static holds throughout the movement of varying lengths.
Here is a post sort of related that I did in December.
I have not read Dan John, however I do understand the principles of military and NFL training are not about optimal fitness. They are about finding the candidates that recover the fastest. Since they have an unlimited pool of recruits to work with, they can destroy as many bodies as they need to until they find the ones that work best for them.
This post touches on that topic.
Mar 17, 2013 — 11:26 am
Great post – thanks MAS.
I’ve been wondering for quite a while – for what sports and real life activities is the bench press actually a highly functional movement? In other words, when would you need a lot of strength while lying flat on your back?
The only sports I could come up with are Greco-Roman wrestling and judo-lke sports. It might also be useful a preparation for sex acts, when the bench presser is in the supine position… Any other suggestions?
Mar 17, 2013 — 11:51 am
I would think that the bench press, and pushup, would translate most usefully into pushing a stalled or stuck car. So perhaps we should be pushing cars around instead? Start with kids in shopping carts and work our way up?
Mar 17, 2013 — 11:58 am
@Glenn – I think developing bench press strength is good if you want to get good at bench pressing. Sounds simplistic, but like you I don’t see an every day sort of “functional” movement that requires both lowering and lifting weight up from a lying position.
@Anemone – I am a fan of the static hold push-up described in the Hillfit e-book.
Not much of a believer in a general functional exercise that applies to everyone. Functional or skill based exercises will vary from person to person.
Mar 17, 2013 — 12:03 pm
Isn’t there a “skill” component to every exercise, then? I believe Dr. McGuff talks about the need to learn in-roading, and even machines have a learning curve of sorts. Also, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call the bench press a “highly skilled movement”. To me, a “highly skilled movement” is something like a snatch, a pole vault, or a good golf swing. Benching huge weights may require a high level of technical rigor (something my ectomorphic self is unlikely ever to learn), but the basic skill required to do it isn’t that great.
@Eric mentioned Dan John, and Dan John once wrote that the learning curve on the dead “is about 5 minutes.” That’s an overstatement, but Pavel handled it pretty well in “Power to the People” – a short book. Deadlifting is not a difficult skill to learn and, done properly, offers a lot of “bang for the buck,”so I wouldn’t lump it in with the squat and bench. In my opinion the deadlift is also the most “functional” of the big three power lifts.
Now I very much agree with your point: “Don’t confuse skill with strength and respect risk.” Machines probably offer a higher ROI than the deadlift (in terms of the return from the time required to learn the “skill”and relative degree of risk). But I can deadlift at home without spotters (something I’d never try with the bench or squat). So, for me, the deadlift is a reasonable trade off right now, but then again it’s not like I’m pulling 500 (yet!).
Mar 17, 2013 — 12:18 pm
@Geoff – A lot of the skill of the bench press is estimating how much strength you have during the set. Can you safely lower the weight one more rep and return it safely in proper form? As the weight increases, this skill becomes more important.
Doing a basic bench press with a light weight probably isn’t a highly skilled movement. But as the weight increases closer to your potential, the risks increase and skill portion becomes much more important.
That isn’t true for a machine chest press done at a slow tempo. You push the weight in a fixed bio-mechanical path until you can’t push it. As the weight increases, no additional risk is introduced into the movement, which is not the case with free weights.
Dead lifting is the best of the big 3, but it is still a skill movement. Not all muscles gain strength at the same rate. There will be sticking points. A good dead lift is about using just the right amount of momentum at the right time.
As one fatigues in skill based lifts, the risks for injury escalate. I got injured several times dead lifting. I had Pavel’s book. Read it probably 30 times. One time my grip was off. Another time my back was slightly rounded. The myth of the perfect rep is that if only every rep was perfect, we’d never get injured. But having perfect form for every rep as fatigue sets in is the myth. An elite 1% might be able to pull it off, but that doesn’t make it safe.
Mar 17, 2013 — 12:26 pm
The other disadvantage is the time it takes to put free weights on and off bars. With a machine it takes zero time. With something like a squatting, it can take 2-3 minutes or longer to load and another 2-3 minutes to unload.
Mar 17, 2013 — 3:18 pm
Another problem with the bench press is the mistaken belief that the bar must be lowered to the chest in order for the pectorals to be worked sufficiently. This is an issue that Bill DeSimone has alluded to in his works. The issue of relevant depth also applies to other exercises…eg parallel squatting, or pulling the bar from the floor in the deadlift are not safe for everyone.
Going back to the bench press, the bar to chest position is a competition requirement, which makes it easy to judge depth. this may be fine for your short armed, barrel chested natural bencher, but for someone with a smaller chest and longer arms, going to the chest makes the angle of the elbow joint smaller at the bottom which in turn vastly increases the stretch and strain around the shoulder joint. people then wonder why their shoulders bother them after a gym “career’ dominated by the bench press.
Mar 17, 2013 — 3:21 pm
I just got back from the gym, so a couple of more thoughts:
Push-ups – another exercise of minimal functionality, except for Greco Roman wrestling, judo and sex…
I did my new super slow routine with the chest press machine – 15 seconds each in four stages on the way up (a total of 1 minute) and 15 seconds each in four stages on the way down (a total of 1 minute; 2 minutes for up and down all told). I can only manage the number one (!) setting out of 18 settings. And I’m not exactly weak…
Mar 17, 2013 — 8:13 pm
@StuartG – When I bench frequently, I had a slight rounding. Not sure if it was connected, but I no longer have that issue since I stopped.
@Glenn – I think a big reason muscle heads loathe SuperSlow HIT is that the lower numbers make them question how much of what they thought was strength was really momentum.
Mar 24, 2013 — 1:08 am
This strangely reminds me of talking to someone who mentioned to me an injury he incurred playing recreational sports. It was a chronic injury in his leg. He gave me the “too tough” speech. But I was very curious about what he gained as a result of his bravado.
Nothing tangible. LOL at guys talkin’ bout sports injuries when they aren’t a professional athlete. At least NFLers and MLBers get paid really well but for an guy who works in an office to have a chronic lifetime injury related to overexertion in sports makes NO sense.
I think when people talk about sports-related injuries it makes them feel like they are part of “the team” however without any of the payoff or spoils that the actual team enjoys. Just like the fattest, crying, loser TV show people are encouraged to “PUSH IT!!!” without any regard to their long term health.
It is laughable when viewed logically but be careful who you mention it to as it may offend their sensibilities.
Mar 24, 2013 — 7:14 am
@thomas – Well said. I hadn’t thought of injury as a “rite of passage” for bonding. As long as the meatheads believe that risky compound movements are necessary for muscle growth then your thesis makes sense that any injuries that result from that quest are something to be proud of.
Mar 24, 2013 — 3:30 pm
Yes, it’s as if the only way to prove that you’ve been training hard enough is to go too far and get yourself injured…
Mar 28, 2013 — 12:07 am
I use a Smith machine with a barbell on rails to do a bench press, so I assume I am doing a “machine” press. No danger because the stoppers are set to just below the point where the upper arms are parallel to the ground — the max moment arm I think it’s called. The bar never gets near my chest.
I do a Max Pyramid + static contraction type exercise. Max Pyramid calls for a static hold for 20 seconds at the max moment arm. But as the exercise progresses, I can’t hold the weight up for 20 seconds — so if I can only keep the weight elevated for say, 11 seconds, the last 9 seconds are a Static Contraction against the weight as the barbell rests on the stoppers.
I judge progress at a certain weight by the increasing ratio of static hold versus static contraction times. When I can hold the weight up throughout the 7 holds of the pyramid with only about 10 seconds of total static contraction (ratio 130/10), it’s time to add more weight.
Mar 28, 2013 — 8:49 am
@garymar – Sounds like a safer way to bench. It has been years since I’ve played with the Smith machine and even when I did use it, I used it rarely. I think I’ll try your lift the next time I go to the gym. Thanks.
Mar 31, 2013 — 12:04 am
@garymar – That is a great idea. Wondering if you could share more of your training with me.
Best regards, Bill
Mar 31, 2013 — 12:07 am
@ Glenn Whitney – Would be curious to hear more about your super slow training….Thanks !
Mar 31, 2013 — 12:21 pm
It looks like they took down John Little’s Max Pyramid essay on the Body by Science website. But the videos are still there — go to the Videos section and scroll down to the very end to see videos of the protocol.
The problem with the Max Pyramid protocol is that you need someone with you to change the weights, since the weights change after every 20 second hold. My wife helps me, it’s only 5 minutes for each exercise (usually do 2). I can do it without her, but it’s a pain and slows things down.
Mar 31, 2013 — 12:44 pm
Bill, just to clarify —
when I say at a certain weight, I mean at a certain STARTING weight. So the Max Pyramid on an overhead press may start at 60 pounds and go like this:
Attempting to hold the weight up for 20 seconds each, contracting statically after I can’t. Then I continue to remove weights to increase the ‘inroad’ on my muscles: 55#, 50#, 45#, 40# for 4 more sets of 20 seconds each.
Apr 1, 2013 — 5:56 am
@ garymar – Appreciate the additional information on Max Pyramid and the link. How you explain it really helped as well.
Wondering if you recommend doing a basic routine of three exercises or from your experience thus far what has worked best.
Apr 1, 2013 — 7:55 am
Wondering if you would share more of your thoughts on training, also curious your ideas on nutrition. Thanks again.