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It seems my functional approach has raised the shackles of some weightlifting traditionalists.

While I appreciate the value of this exercise for aesthetics, I disagree that it has any purpose other than to keep shoulder and elbow rehab specialists in business.

Agree?  Disagree?  See how the inspiration for this post began:

The latest comment on a bench press article “The Bench Press is a Useless Measure of your Strength pt1″ made some really good points.  It also got me thinking about the things I didn’t say in my last article about the bench press.

See!  Even big guys do these exercises!  Now if I could just get him to start wearing a shirt to the gym...

See! Even fitness models do these exercises! Now if I could just get him to start wearing a shirt to the gym...

So when I received the comment from ‘Dokola’ taking contention with my approach, I I was encouraged since he/she also asked some really good questions and made some common statements I hear a lot with my work teaching personal trainers.

So good were these questions, that they (and my responses to them) ended up as enough information to warrant another post with a deeper explanation of a modern functional vs a traditional approach.

Dokola’s comments in italics with my comments in blue below are as follows:

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.

1.  “Can be used to increase strength in the muscles involved.”
No argument from me on that point.  My key beef is whether that strength has any crossover to the actual sports activities.  If that strength comes with coordination, then you have an athlete.  This activity doesn’t really teach that.

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).

2.  “The shoulders are most stable in a back and down position.”
Again, no question.  But when ever again do you use them in a back and down position?  If they naturally move in all positions when being used, shouldnt the exercise allow the shoulders to move somewhat freely?  (kind of like when on a fitball where you are supported through the middle of the back but have at least some space to move on either side).  Pretty sure your joke is right on the money, there are no fitball dumbbell pressing comps.. but how cool would that be to see?

Here is correct technique for bench press to avoid shoulder issues.

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

3.You could balance pressing exercises with pulling exercises – I totally agree.  It might take more than just barbell rows to balance out the muscle and functional symmetry though.  I might also argue that barbell rows might not solve the internal rotation issues that come with heavy bench pressing.  Simply reversing the exercise can work in some cases, but not necessarily in this one.  The exercise you are suggesting (I love barbell rows, especially when done from an unsupported position) is an excellent one, but does not necessarily address the massive flexibility issues through the chest, shoulderblades and thoracic spine.

So not quite ‘problem solved’ – but if more bench press lovers did more back work, it would certainly help, no denying that!  If only they could see their backs in the mirror they might be more motivated to work them 😉

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

4.  Not being able to proprioceptively control the weight you are handling = risk of injury.  I agree, for heavier weights on a dumbbell press on fitball get a spotter or training partner – just as any heavy lift, thats what friends are for. I dont think it matters if you are on a bench or a ball for that issue.  Of course, it seems to be that everytime I lose balance and need help that my spotter seems to be distracted with a new range of skimpy underwear that passes for ‘workout gear’ in gyms nowadays.

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.

I wouldn’t look on youtube either for a 600 lb press on fitball. The kind of stuff we are talking about here is based on new science, which usually takes a good 5-8 years to sift down to the basement gyms that would likely post such a video.

If you are pushing 600 lbs then you are certainly stronger than most at the bench press, no denying that.  I do wonder how much less you would lift when you had a ball underneath you and your core had to control and stabilize the weight.  If you are benching 600lb, I would be suprised if you could push out more than 150 lbs in each hand.  You certainly would want to work up to that as well, because muscles other than your chest would be worked to the max as part of that movement.

There are fitballs out there built to take the job on as well:  click here to see one

The above fitball is good for up to 1200 lbs.  Should be enough for even the biggest muscly fellas, right?

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).

I appreciate your perspective, and I often find the proof is in the practical.  I would request you to try doing (with a decent weight) a one arm dumbbell press on a fitball and you tell me if it is an isolation exercise or not.  I will be impressed if you dont feel a whole world of extra muscles (all the way down to the opposite foot of the hand that is pressing) working to stabilize you.

In fact, I think you will find a standing cable 1 arm press can work so many other muscles you might wonder if it is a chest exercise at all!

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

say hello to my heavy friend...

say hello to my heavy friend...

Pushups in different positions?  True, they are easy to grow out of for the tough guys – tried one arm pushups with different hand positions?  with a hand on a small medicine ball?  with feet on a raised platform?  while wearing a 60 lb weighted vest? That oughta keep you busy at least for a few workouts 🙂

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

Please remember  readers (and Dokola) that I am coming from a functional standpoint and the points raised are extremely valid if aesthetics and improving my bench press for bench presses sake were the sole focus.

If that is your goal then you are right on the money to bench press your world away and all of the above is irrelevant.  If you are talking function/ability on the sporting field/healthy interactive joints that stay that way for a long time… well then hopefully you will try some of the above ideas and let me know if you feel anything different working.

Thanks sincerely for your comment Dokola!  Love your input and thank you for asking such great questions.  I talk about things that are off the beaten track and sometimes these perspectives are not always explained as well as they could be.

By Dokola asking me the above questions I had an opportunity to further explain where I was coming from in regards to the excessive value given to the bench press exercise.  Which is just part of the reason it is great to get a variety of perspectives on this since it opens up the discussion to answer different people based on perspectives they are interested in.

While I am at it, thanks to all for your comments on this forum of my thoughts and findings..  I welcome any and all perspectives on my work as long as we can promise to be friends and have a whey-free protein shake together afterwards 🙂

Jamie Atlas

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  • Dokola Dec 28, 2008 Reply

    1) Agreed.

    2) Agreed, I have since discovered the use of Stability balls by such trainers as Joe Defranco and Louie Simmons.

    3) Agreed, here is an interesting video on the subject. – Shoulder Rehab Protocol

    4) Agreed.

    I thank you for your response Jamie, you have sparked my interest and while I’ll be training to bench press I can see that your suggestions will assist in this pursuit.

  • Chris Peacock Apr 2, 2009 Reply

    Hi there, Thoroughly enjoyed this item – may I pass the url onto my members? I think they’d enjoy it too.

    • jamieatlas Apr 5, 2009 Reply

      Hey Chris – for sure pass it on – and thanks for asking! (someone with manners on the internet – how nice!)

  • Samual Oct 17, 2010 Reply

    As a competitive wrestler, I can say that the bench press is a useful exercise in our arsenal. It helps develop raw pushing power and I disagree its useless. Not a single champion wrestler I know completely ignores the bench press. If you think wrestlers are not “functional” athletes, come to the mat sometime, we’d be happy to help you change your mind.

    • jamieatlas Oct 18, 2010 Reply

      Hey Samual. Thanks for your post. I don’t mean to make it sound completely 100% useless… just that the exercise has little application to anything other than ‘how hard can I push a metal rod off my chest’.

      While I am sure you would have me wrapped up like a fancy pretzel in no time, simply because ‘everyone who is good does it’ is not really the best argument to do it, wouldn’t you agree?

      Do you know any wrestlers that have awesome benching power but are poor performers on the mat?

      However, if we were to try putting you in a more ‘wrestling-like’ kneeling position and trying to do some 1 arm cable presses or some 1 arm dumbbell press while in different positions on your back on a wrestling mat… now that would be interesting to see how those more sports specific movements potentially changed your game…

  • Samual Oct 22, 2010 Reply

    The whole idea of strength/power training is to put the muscles under maximum stress without having to worry about balancing yourself.One just needs the initial workouts to learn to balance a bar.
    Its impractical to train specifically with weights in what you call wrestling like positions because the point while wrestling is to maximise skill and speed, and weights in these positions would interfere with that objective.
    Weights/hypotrophy training has its place in a wrestlers routine, but NOT on the mat, just in the weights room.And the old core movements still produce the best results.

    • jamieatlas Oct 26, 2010 Reply

      Right On Samual! Thanks for joining in the conversation. I almost fully agree with you but am unsure on a couple of your points that we are thinking the same thing. I would agree that the idea is to improve your skill/speed, but would also think that strength to hold certain positions would be important as well – which you would agree with, yes?

      I have three questions for you:

      If the whole idea of strength/power training is to be under maximal stress without balancing (your definition) then why do people do squats and not smith squats? Box jumps and not leg press? Both squats and box jumps require balance and are a foundation of traditional vertical power (not wrestling power, but vertical power – I perceive a difference between the two)

      What are the old core movements and why do they work as opposed to ‘weights’? We all have different definitions of what ‘old’ means.

      If I defined ‘weights’ as ‘force from a variety of directions and not just dumbbells and barbells’ wouldn’t I be able to approximate the movements a wrestler is required to improve at (I don’t just need a to use a dumbbell, I could use a horizontally loaded cable, could I not?) And why would I not be able to put the muscle under maximal stress while in a wrestling position?

      Thanks Samual. Looking forward to your thoughts.


  • Samual Oct 27, 2010 Reply

    People still do smith squats and leg presses as they have their place in a training routine. Balance and coordination for a specific sport comes by practising that sport WITHOUT resistance. Ballet dancers dont practise with weight belts on his/her arms and legs as it wont improve his performance but most likely worsen it. Than why shouldn’t that logic be applied to other sports as well?
    Certain positions need to be held in wrestling and that static strength is developed by a combination of various isometric exercises, not repetitive resistance training.
    Rep res training is used to develop the explosive strength, and thats when exercises like the bench press are useful as it develops pushing power while on the stomach, standing or even almost on the back.
    The bench press is not the be all and end all of upper body strenghth, I dont however think its useless in certain sports.

  • jamieatlas Oct 28, 2010 Reply

    Isn’t it impossible to train for ANY sport without resistance? I mean, even gravity provides resistance…

    ballet dancers only have to master their own weight, not the imposing of others trying to pin their head into the ground.

    I will 100% agree that from a laying down position the bench press could be very useful – however not as useful as some other exercises such as a dumbbell press – agree?

  • Samual Oct 29, 2010 Reply

    Ballet dancers is one example you seem to agree with,so the same logic can apply to baseball players, tennis players, track athletes, do you agree? A sprinter wont train with weight belts on his arms and legs, but will train with stationary movements like squats, and even the bench press to develop the upper body.
    Wrestlers do the same and others trying to pin them dont rely only on strength, but skill and technique. Skill and technique developed by practising wrestling, not resistance movements that mimic wrestling positions.
    While there is plenty of evidence in the sporting world that the benchpress translates into upper body power, there is no evidence yet that its useful from only a lying down position.
    The day you show world/national champions in martial arts/track/NFL/strongman competitor/baseball and other sports who publicly says that the bench press was useless,you have some evidence.

    • jamieatlas Oct 31, 2010 Reply

      Hey Samual! I am really enjoying our discussion here! thanks for writing back in again.

      Ballet dancers only have to master their own bodies – I think it would behoove them to use weights as well, however wrestling, tennis and baseball players certainly have other forces and loads they have to overcome. The sports are very different – I would say that technique and skill are important WHICH IS WHY the bench press doesn’t serve as a good measure of strength for wrestling. Perhaps I am also saying that that bench press will not improve upper body power and also that the way upper body power is tested is flawed.

      Remember that the article is titled ‘useless measure of strength’ – that is, if you want to see if you are strong, then dont use the bench press as a measure of it. here’s an example for you: Kevin Durant. When he entered the NBA he couldn’t bench the 225 off his chest even once. However the guy takes players apart on a nightly basis. Is that evidence enough?

      I don’t think I would trust that a world class athlete would know if bench press was useless or not. I know I don’t trust them when they tell me what beer/restaurant/fast food I should favor.

      I do trust that there are other athletes out there who don’t measure their strength by how well they bench press. Just because they aren’t publicly announcing their absence of bench press as a strength measurement tool doesn’t make me less right.

    • Levi Mar 28, 2012 Reply

      Baseball players attach weights to their bats and swing them for “home run training.” They also rely a lot on cable pulls to develop the stability necessary to accurately swing a bat at a 100mph ball. Competitive sprinters (every one that I have personally met) train with parachutes and/or sleds to provide resistance. Of those about half jog distances with weight vest to develop sustainable explosive power.

      And as a fighter (started boxing then went to MMA. Amateur I’ll admit), I have to interject my personal opinion (albeit months late, as I just stumbled on this today) about the bench press and its utility; It has value for slow strength and pushing power necessary for grappling against someone with superior skill and/or position. During the whole rest of the fight, bench press muscles offer nothing but weight to tire you and slow you down. I personally prefer to do massive repetitions of lower resistance exercises such as the trusty push-up, the amazing pull-up and, a core routine that would make many cry. Take someone who has a really good bench press and stick them in the ring with someone who does sets of pull-ups in 50’s push-ups in 100’s, sit-ups in sets of 200 whose back has never hit a bench. See who does better in that fight assuming relatively close reach/height/skill ect.

      In a car metaphor, bench press gives you torque. Which you need to tow. If your truck has a lot of horsepower but no torque, you aren’t going to be towing a whole lot of weight without burning out your clutch. The low end torque puts more stress on your engine in acceleration due to the load. As a body, your load is your opponent’s weight/mass. That torque is good for moving that load. Compare to a 4-cylinder rice burner. Has virtually no torque. What it has in contrast is high rpms. (just an fyi for those who don’t know, horsepower is torque times rpm divided by 5252. So they are like short and long muscles, fast twitch and slow twitch muscles.) In that rice burner, you can beat that truck to the finish line every time (assuming the stock or equal investment.) Its more quicker, more nimble and, faster. If you tied them together, the truck would drag the rice burner around backwards. In a fight, if you can beat your opponent to the punch by a fraction of a second, you never feel them hit you. You disrupt the flow of power and, disarm the action. If your back is on the mat, you’ve lost your speed and better have some torque to move that load. So, Useless? No, the bench press is far from useless. Practical? Unless your ass is on the mat, no.

  • Samual Oct 31, 2010 Reply

    My question is what evidence do you have that you are right about your beliefs about the benchpress?
    If you dont trust the word of a world class athlete who may refuse to call the bench useless, why would anyone trust your word that it is useless? Especially in the absence of any concrete evidence.Asking an athelete about foods is not the same thing as about exercises. Would you not even trust a world class Chinese chef about Chinese food? I think that the opinions of champions in their sports and their coaches holds a lot more credibility than you want to give them.
    In no sport do you sit or lie on a swiss ball and push weights either, so how do you suggest thats more effective than the benchpress? Just because the swiss ball moves a bit. So why not suggest shoulder presses while riding pillion on a motorcycle? Or dumbell laterals while talking on your toes? An exercise can be made as ridiculous as the imagination, that doesn’t make it more functional.
    Fine if Durant couldn’t bench 225, not many basketball players are a lot stronger than that anyway. Are you willing to bet your dollar that as he gets older and slower, he wont bulk up so he remains competitive? He’s not yet Magic Johnson or Shaq O’neill and any doubts they have healthy benchpresses? Any doubts the basketball greats have benchpresses almost double an average man?
    Mate, the onus to prove the benchpress is useless as a strength indicator is still on you. Mere words dont cut it.

    • jamieatlas Nov 2, 2010 Reply

      Hey Samual. Good points all of it. Lets see if I can give your points a fair answer.

      I would argue that the world class athlete often does what the coach or athletic trainer tells them to do in the gym. If you have been around professional teams then you will know that the training methods vary greatly in regards to form and quality of program given to the athletes. A world class chinese chef has to know food because he is creating the meal, the athlete just has to follow the instructions that the coach gives them – he doesnt write the program that he follows – so that example isn’t really applicable here (in my opinion).

      I would certainly give more credibility to an athletic trainer than an athlete as to what they did in the gym to help improve their strength.

      I like that you are asking me for research, that is a fair question. Let me throw that back to you and ask what research you have that shows strength being measured in a way other than explosive pushups or more bench press or crossover to other traditional bodybuilding movements?

      heres a few stats I pulled off the net after a quick search (I can’t speculate to the validity of the claims but I can certainly assure you that I am not making it up):

      According to Golf Pro Magazine 2001, CA Tiger Woods was reported to bench press 190lbs
      Michael Jordan, Yao Ying with his ridiculously long arms and Tom Brady can’t bench 300lbs according to magazine articles nor can many baseball players
      Paul Hamm from USA Gymnastics was reported by the Olympic Committee to bench 165lbs.

      Now, these guys were all world class athletes, so I am going to pre-empt your response and say that none of them were ‘strength athletes’, which would make me think that I need to revise my statement. Hows this for you:

      As a measure of strength, bench press is a useless measure when used across the board. However, for certain sports that require intense one-time spurts of maximal energy, the bench press may have some value as a measure of strength.

      Now, I didn’t come all the way across to your side because I’m still not convinced that training for strong bench = strong. It could be that training for strong = strong bench and other benefits.

      Ok, back to you 🙂

      PS I am not going over the top with functional exercise, please don’t try to make it seem that I am. I agree that functional exercise can be taken to a ridiculous level, we aren’t arguing about that in my mind. I selected that swiss ball exercise because while it does not have you standing, it does provide less base of support and require proprioceptive reaction which better integrates other muscles into the action, also it does not detract from the bodies ability to exert maximal force NOR does it put the athlete at risk (a la riding a motorbike). I want this to be a useful conversation that others can read and enjoy – I promise not to blow your ideas out of proportion and you do the same for me, ok?

  • Samual Nov 2, 2010 Reply

    An athletic trainer is not necessarily more qualified to give an educated opinion than an athlete, if the trainer hasn’t walked the walked himself..meaning competed himself in the chosen sport. Merely going to school/college and getting a fitness certificate/degree without going through the rigours of training is incomplete knowledge in my opinion.Atheletes come up through the ranks and gather immense knowledge from their competitors along the way. That knowledge is not found in text books. I respect academia, but know its limitations.
    I did not ask for research from you, just evidence. All research is not conclusive. The evidence I use is the longstanding respect sportspeople and trainers have for the bench press and that they swear by it. No university research, no thesis to back it up, dont need it.
    The poundages you’ve given for these sportsmen are quite healthy for the sports they play. I read on the net that woods had a 300 lbs bench and I’ve seen a video of him benching what seemed like atleast 250lbs.
    Anyway the point is that the “functional” approach is not novel, coaches prior to the 1930’s dissuaded their wards from lifting weights as they believed they would become musclebound. They insisted on bodyweight resistance movements and training with light weights. Light/lighter weights is a disadvantage of “functional” training.
    However as some athletes started using weights, bulked up and outperformed the non lifters, lifting weights caught on and is today considered very imp in sports training. So basically you’re wanting to bring back the old outdated training methods.
    There is no one way to measure strength across the board are you said. Someone with a big squat may not do many chin ups, but it doesn’t make the squat useless. Nor does it make chin ups a non measure of strength.
    While the swiss ball isn’t ridiculous and I occassionally use it, some exercises do seem a bit strange and they are thrown about as “functional” training. My point is that most of those trainers themselves have minimal accomplishments in sports and for their personal benefit try to undermine the collective knowledge and accomplishments of about 80 years of modern sports training.
    I say personal benefit because of the current fitness boom due to poor lifestyles, even 98 pound weaklings go and get a certificate and become accreditated trainers. Now these guys need to differentiate themselves from the trainers who have put in the hard yards in the gym and built quailty and completely “functional” physiques. Hence they bag these methods because no client wants a weakling as their personal trainer. Its just business. I speak from personal exp since family have owned fitness centres before mum popped me out and we see fitness fads come and go.
    But mate, the bench is still here and going strong.

    • jamieatlas Nov 18, 2010 Reply

      Hey Samual. I agree with a lot of what you said but I think you are making some assumptions on what I am trying to say – I don’t want to eliminate the bench press. I just want it to stop being used as a measure of strength for sports like basketball, football and other sports which are highly reactive. There were many instances where athletes bulked up and became slower, not more powerful.

      I appreciate that the industry as a whole uses the term ‘functional’ training far too much and that it covers too wide a spectrum to most people. I hope you understand that where I am coming from is that an exercise should match the function. I don’t see how the function matches what is required for respective events in which it is a part of their perceived athleticism. Truth is, I believe it gets added in simply because it’s easy to test and there is a lot of data on it. But if I build a large pile of data on top of faulty assumptions that doesnt make it true.

      And you wouldn’t stop a 98lb weakling from getting a cert if he used that knowledge to help people in ways other than improving their bench, would you? While I agree that learning in the gym gives you an experience that can’t be taught, it can sometimes convince us that certain things are true simply because thats what we have always done – without it being truly valid.

      • jamieatlas Nov 18, 2010 Reply

        PS While I agree the bench press is here and truly going strong, I don’t think conventional testing methods need to include it in their battery of strength tests. I’m not saying nobody should do it, I’m saying that it shouldn’t be counted as part of the test for anticipated athletic performance.

  • Samual Feb 11, 2011 Reply

    You have still not presented any evidence or even strong examples of the benchpress hindering athletes in their sports or not being a good measure of strength.
    Coming back to our 98 pound weakling example….would you like a Doctor who has completed an internship of 3+ years at a hospital to treat you or just someone who read heaps of medical books but never actually worked in a hospital environment? Without an internship, he wouldn’t even get a medical degree.
    Someone with little exp. in a gym will never make a decent personal trainer and will not know much about strength no matter how many certificates they collect.
    At the end of the day, the benchpress has been around before we came and will be around a long time after us.

    • jamieatlas Mar 14, 2011 Reply

      Hey Samual.

      I didn’t make the point that a personal with little experience will make a decent personal trainer – however, I would agree that a person who is insistent upon putting people through strength workouts without an adequate base of function and stability might be just as potentially dangerous as a new trainer – it all depends on your definition of ‘decent’. At the end of the day, the benchpress is still a useless measure of strength just as kim kardashian is a star because she has a good publicist and a sex tape. it doesn’t make sense to me, but everyone knows who she is just as everyone thinks you gotta do the bench. It’s clear that we have different viewpoints and I’m just not seeing the evidence that makes me believe that the bench is a good way to measure real world strength.

  • Samual Jul 29, 2011 Reply

    I haven’t seen you present any evidence of “real world” strength being developed by swiss ball or bosu movements.
    My viewpoint of the benchpress having a valid place in strength training is backed by the experience of numerous successful athletes over a few decades, its a pretty solid viewpoint, thank you.
    Simple question, in a strongman contest would you put your money on the guy who benches 500 lbs in a gym or 150 lbs? Unless, in your opinion even the strongman contests dont show “real world” strength.

  • Gary Aug 28, 2011 Reply

    Upper body strenghth doesn’t mean that much in football if the legs aren’t developed. Without much to push off on the player would have to hold his opponent and that would be a penalty.Also,since legs propel the body(and are usually much stronger) ,they would be more than capable of offsetting upper strenghth with momentum.

    • jamieatlas Oct 15, 2011 Reply

      hell yeah, 100% agree gary. That’s why I offer some alternatives.. what other alternatives than bench press would you suggest?

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