Getting Strong with the Bench Press

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by LARRY PASTOR & KRISTY PARRISH

According to strength coach Mark Rippetoe, “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” 
When CrossFitters think of a strong athlete, they probably imagine someone like Neal Maddox cleaning 365 lbs or Dave Lipson deadlifting over 600 lbs. When it comes to the bench press, however, most CrossFitters don’t necessarily think of it as a test of functional strength, so they don’t use it often in their training program. The truth is that if your goal is to become a stronger athlete, there is no denying the value of the bench press. Learn more about this important lift and how to do it better.

Bench Press = Good for Beginners

According to Mark Rippetoe, the bench press may be the best lift for introducing pressing strength to a novice athlete. In his CrossFit Journal article, he explains:

Benching provides hard active work for the chest, shoulders, and arms and isometric work for the forearms. It trains novice lifters the fundamental skill of pushing on a very heavy load, perhaps its most useful function. When people first start training, they have no experience with maximal effort. The bench press is a very good place to learn how to bear down and push hard, and this invaluable lesson translates to all the other slow lifts quite well.

CrossFit West Sacramento also endorses the bench press as “a suitable exercise for any beginning strength trainee who is deficient in upper extremity strength….The low skill nature of this exercise lends itself very nicely to the novice lifter.” Steve Mologousis of functionalathlete.com adds: “There are not very many exercises that will allow you to load up the kind of weight the bench press allows you to do.”

For many athletes, the shoulder press “is quick to stall, but pushing the bench press up is a good way to gauge whether your overall pressing strength is increasing or staying stagnant.”
Women in particular often struggle with lacking the gymnastic strength required for movements like pull-ups and full push-ups. The bench press is a movement that can aid in developing both upper body strength and tricep strength at a much lower percentage of one’s bodyweight. The bench press is a foundational lift that can build much-needed absolute upper body strength.

Better Bench Press = Better Shoulder Press

CrossFitDoneRight advocates for the value of the bench press as an assistance exercise for the shoulder press. For many athletes, the shoulder press “is quick to stall, but pushing the bench press up is a good way to gauge whether your overall pressing strength is increasing or staying stagnant.” Both of these lifts demand that athletes improve their upper back (lats) strength in order to provide a base for the pressing action.

One of the keys to a solid bench press is maintaining full body tension, from your feet pushing off the floor all the way to your tight grip on the bar.
Furthermore, CrossFit Asheville describes the use of the close grip bench press as an indicator of upper body strength. According to them, the ideal ratio of one’s 1RM close-grip bench press to one’s 1RM back squat shouldn’t be any lower or any higher than 66%. That is, if “legs too strong (Close Grip Bench Press < 66%)…you’ll have trouble catching the bar correctly and are likely to create injury to the neck and shoulders long term. Arms too strong (Close Grip Bench Press > 66%) and you’ll likely pull early with your arms and damage your elbows and wrists.”

Proper Bench Technique

Shane and Laura-Phelps Sweatt from Westside Barbell present a good video on proper bench technique. They emphasize several key points:

  • Shoulders back on the setup/rear delts are sitting on the bench
  • Bring the weight over the chest (not above the eyes)
  • Shoulders tight on the setup leading to a tight arch in the back
  • Break the bar on the way down: puts elbows in the right position
  • Spread the bar with the hands on the way up: activates the triceps
  • Wide feet/pushing feet into the ground/ spreading the floor with the feet
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