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Do you bench a lot?

Here are four reasons you need to alter your workout to do all you can to avoid the bench:

Reason #1: The Bench is an excellent test of your ability to push a bar off your chest while resting on a bench. Thats about it.

It is NOT a good indicator of your ability to perform in an athletic event (other than bench press contests, I guess). It is NOT a good indicator of how many push-ups you can do. Many athletes have been amazing without good bench press strength (see this article on Kevin Durant – he is one of the next NBA draft picks.)

It is NOT real world in any way shape or form (unless you happen to wake up with a bar wrapped across your chest every morning.)

(1) The person being tackled is not shaped like a bar. (2) The person tackling is standing up. (3) The person being tackled is trying to move to one side (unlike a bench press which is straight up and down)

Reason #2: The bench in bench press immobilizes your shoulder blades and can make you more susceptible to shoulder issues as a result.

Think about where your shoulderblades go when you lie down on a bench. Think about how freely they move in any other standing exercise. The difference between you standing vs you lying down with the blades pinned is staggering and is one of the main reasons people experience such shoulder issues as a result of this primitive exercise.

If you want a workable solution try dumbbell presses on a fitball. That works great for keeping the shoulderblades fluidly moving. It also requires other muscles to play in with the exercise.

Reason #3: You already have an overdeveloped chest.

Think about every time you get up off the ground. Every time you try to move furniture. Gravity is such that we use our chest much more than we use our backs. It is also the easiest thing to see in the mirror, so we naturally work it to make it more prominent.

Our poor back and rhomboids on the other hand get left behind more often than not. If our shoulders are pushed forward that can irritate the capsule which can lead to reduced force production.

Reason #4: Death

Every year a few people die doing this non-functional exercise, when they would receive so many more benefits from doing a dumbbell press or 1-arm flyes instead. If just one person dies because of this exercise, that means there are many more out there that have been injured through improper (or absent) spotting.

More often than not this exercise is safe.  However, every now and then, this happens:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSJCDcAKShA]

Although I cannot deny that if you want to work a muscle group the chest press is an excellent exercise, the potential for injury (usually coming in the form of a more sneaky rotator cuff or elbow issue that starts as a twinge and grows into a bona fide problem) far exceeds the potential gains when we examine the close relatives of this exercise:

Alternatives to the bench press that significantly reduce the risk of shoulder injury and simultaneously activate the core:

Barbell/Dumbbell Press on Fitball

Dumbbell press on fitball

Chest fly on fitball

Chest fly on fitball

Push-ups with different hand positions

Push-up on Bosu Ball (those things are awesome!)

Standing one arm cable press (a personal favorite)

Of course, if you tell your friends about this they will likely want to keep doing bench press.

It’s human nature to keep doing what is easy rather than what gets us where we want to be.

Know that this article is not about to convince your friends to do the more functional and practical alternatives listed above. Just don’t let them come crying to you when they start to experience back/shoulder/neck/elbow/wrist pain or postural imbalances from doing such a non-functional exercise.

In short, the bench press is an easy exercise to teach and do. That doesn’t make it the best, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t a dozen other exercises out there that will provide better gains for the energy and effort expended.

Jamie Atlas

http://jamieatlas.com

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  • Jalden Aug 7, 2008 Reply

    I was just debating the value of having bench press in my training regimen. This article convinced me that it’s not and provided some exciting alternatives. Thanks!

  • DR Aug 7, 2008 Reply

    Great post Jamie!

    I would add some Jump Stretch band Chest Presses to your list.

    Here is a video combining push-ups and band chest presses – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59clnPYGTeY

  • I think I will substitute dumbbell bench presses on the swiss ball for the traditional bench press.

  • Midol Girl Aug 8, 2008 Reply

    So the bench press doesn’t really help how your muscles perform in athletics etc. and when done improperly it can cause serious injuries… fair enough, but is “easy” necessarily a bad thing if your bench-pressing goals didn’t involve a need to perform better in any sport? Say your goals in the first place were to:

    a) Use safe, smaller amounts of weight with more reps and solid form.
    b) Include an additional chest muscle targeting exercise to your workout that was maybe purposefully a little less challenging than the above examples

  • jamieatlas Aug 8, 2008 Reply

    Hey MidolGirl. You make two excellent points.

    I see your point for the first point about smaller weights but cannot agree with you because of the nature of the exercise.

    I do agree with you for the second point – the first point has you getting better at doing an exercise for the sake of being better at that exercise. It doesnt make it any less functional or relevant to real world strength if it is done right. Your second point though is an excellent one.
    If someone who was a beginner wanted some additional chest muscle targeting exercise then the bench might be a great place to go.

    I would recommend/beg you to also do some other functional exercises for the chest as well but with lighter weight so that you can get the hang of the others.

    Which would make it easier for you to transition away from the bench as soon as it is possible/comfortable for you to do one of the more functional options.

    Does that help or confuse you?

    Jamie

  • Midol Girl Aug 8, 2008 Reply

    Hahaha, no it totally helps! :) I’m excited that I have a couple fitball suggestion from you as well. I bought a fitball and use it for my abs and rolling on it up and down the wall to support my back during squats, but haven’t figured out yet how to incorporate it into my free weight routine for my arm muscles. I’m really trying to target my triceps (typical problem area for us women! grrr) do you have a suggestion that I would help with those muscles to mix-up with the chest fly’s and push-ups?

  • Strong One Aug 9, 2008 Reply

    OOH.. how I remember as a kid. You’d see other athletes in highschool, or even college. And they see you are ‘muscular’. The first words out of their mouth,”How much you bench?”.
    I always answered, ” Uhm, I don’t know?”
    They gave that bewildered look. What do you mean you don’t know? Everybody bench’s?!
    Apparently not everybody.
    I have always loathed the benchpress, but do it out of necessity.
    Great article.

  • Micheal Aug 13, 2008 Reply

    Oh that video post made me laugh…

  • jamieatlas Aug 13, 2008 Reply

    Thanks for the post, strongone. If someone asks me ‘how much do you bench’ I always reply ‘why? When am I going to find myself stuck underneath an iron bar’?

    Thanks also for your post Michael – It took me a while to find a video that had someone just getting a little bit crushed :)

  • Dokola Sep 25, 2008 Reply

    IMO a power lifting total would be a better measure of strength, bench press is but one of the lifts that make up that total.

    1. It is a compound exercise that can be used to increase strength in the muscles involved. It is up to the athletes sport specific training to transfer that strength in to athletic performance.

    2. The shoulders are most stable in the shoulders back and down position it is best to press from a stable position unless you are in a fitball dumbbell pressing competition (joke).

    Here is correct technique for bench press to avoid shoulder issues. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUcjOIZc80c

    3. Balance pressing exercises such as bench press with pulling exercises such as barbell rows, problem solved.

    4. Get a spotter, you can use a squat rack or a training partner.

    Barbell/Dumbbell Press on Fitball = Unsafe with heavy weights, progressively increasing the weight is essential for building strength.

    Forgive me if I don’t look on youtube to see if there is a 600lb fitball barbell press.

    Chest fly on fitball/Standing one arm cable press = Isolation exercises are hardly an alternative for a compound exercise (don’t care if you do them on a fitball its still an isolation exercise).

    Push-ups with different hand positions = Quickly grow out of these, adding weight is difficult.

    I would suggest dips and overhead press as reasonable alternatives although doing bench press along with overhead press and dips would be ideal IMO.

  • Ben Jan 4, 2009 Reply

    Hmm.

  • C J Feb 8, 2009 Reply

    what is this? the exercises you suggest to replace the bench press seem ridiculous. for any of its falts the bench press allows you to use heavy weights to work your chest, these other exercises do not. the workouts posted as alternatives may be good for someone who just wants to get in shape but for strength you need the bench press. as for the banch press not being functional its the only way i can think of to build horizontal pushing strength without finding a boulder to push across a field or somthing to that effect. don’t take any of this the wrong way this is just my opinion.

  • jamieatlas Feb 8, 2009 Reply

    Hey C J – thanks for your post – I don’t take any of it the wrong way and thanks for your thoughts! I never presume that I know it all and am always keen to have someone prove me wrong because that helps me get better at understanding the human body and how it works. In reference to other exercises, simply because you have may have not not seen or heard of them before does not make them ridiculous – think about the gyms round the world filled with people lying on their back trying repeatedly to alllllmost get up then lie back down again in the name of working their abs. Have you tried any of the above exercises?

    If you would, give them a shot for a few workouts and tell me how you feel about them. Remember that the above workouts are for strong smart muscles, not just strong muscles. A muscle that knows how to push a bar works differently than a muscle that has been trained to react and respond to whatever comes its way while performing a horizontal pushing type activity. If you are out in the open you could try doing some standing rows with heavy resistance bands wrapped around a tree/pole. I think you will be pleasantly surprised if you give these a shot (or at least integrate them in), and if anyone asks you why you are doing those ridiculous exercises just tell them you are ‘doing research’. Have a crack at it mate and let me know the results.

  • Jeff Jul 8, 2009 Reply
  • bob johnson Oct 24, 2009 Reply

    If you suggest bench press on a fitball as an alternative for safety I strongly disagree. These balls pop and break all the time. If you have any significant weight in your hands when that ball pops, you will free fall and be injured quite severely. This also ignores the fact of losing balance and rolling off the fitball. I’ve known many wrestlers and professional athletes to be injured on workout balls and other such alternate methods.

    • jamieatlas Oct 24, 2009 Reply

      Hey bob. Am not suggesting bench press under a bar, would prefer it with dumbbells – you can get balls that are approved for over 500lbs of pressure as well – a ball popping while doing any exercise would be a horrible experience, that’s for sure.

      I do think that people go straight to the highly co-ordinated exercises without considering a progressive method of training (like any workout macrocycle). The idea is that you build up core stability and coordination when working on the ball. if these wrestlers and professional athletes are falling off of balls then I would suggest they have not been working out in a gym with a functional/core-challenging style for way too long.

  • jamieatlas Nov 24, 2009 Reply

    Just in case anyone reading this is wondering why there is not a response to DOKOLA’s comment, I actually liked it so much I made it into a blog post of it’s own – Bench Press article pt2:

    http://wp.me/pgzD0-8z

    Cheers DOKOLA – really appreciate your thoughtful input.

  • tom Aug 5, 2010 Reply

    I agree that bench pressing is overrated. It’s fine if you have strong and healthy joints, but benching heavy is unfortunately a good way to end up with joints that are anything but strong and healthy. It’s especially hard on the joints when you use dumbbells because of the increased range of motion.

    I much prefer (weighted) dips.

    In regards to your comments about bench pressing and death, I’d like to direct anyone who is interested to an article I wrote that explains why all the tricks used to bench press alone without a spotter won’t really prevent death (breathing during weight lifting). I hope it’s of some interest to someone!

  • dan howard Mar 14, 2011 Reply

    have you ever squatted below parallel? or deadlifted? or done a snatch?

    the bench press is only dangerous if it is not kept in the proper context of the strength training program, along with squats, pulls from the floor, and an overhead press.

    There are no bosu balls in a serious athletes strength training program.

    • jamieatlas Mar 14, 2011 Reply

      Hey Dan. Yeah mate, I was training at the Australian Institute of Sport with all the olympic athletes, so yes, I’ve been there, done that. I’ve done all the traditional and power movements and understand their benefits but also have come to see the downside of some of them. I don’t want to say that a strength training program shouldn’t include any of those things – I mean, squats and cleans are alright in my book. I have variations on them, sure – but I believe squats and cleans to integrate a large number of muscles to perform together from a standing position. Does it make sense that I’m not ripping on strength training programs, but the bench press as a measure of strength itself?

      Read part 2 of this article, I get more detailed into what I believe with this controversial exercise.

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