By Michael Krueger
If you have spent any amount of time in a gym, you have no doubt heard that question. In fact, as soon as anyone learns that you work out, that question eventually comes up. Does it really mean anything, and, if so, what?
Bench Press Records
The bench press has been the premier strength standard for about 100 years. Prior to that, the overhead press was the more popular test. In fact, back then, not all that many people even trained the bench press.
Currently there are two sets (three if you include certified “drug free”) of records in the power lifting world. If the record is said to be “raw,” it means it was achieved without the use of a “bench shirt.” Bench shirts are tight elastic upper body wraps that give a major assist to the lift. When a bench shirt is used, it is sometimes called “assisted,” and others call it “cheating.” A lot more weight can be moved when using a bench shirt than can be lifted raw.
The men’s assisted record is held by Ryan Kennelly at 1,075 pounds. The raw record is held by Scot Mendelson at 715 pounds. The current women’s assisted record is held by Shannon Pole-Summers at 531 pounds. The raw record is held by April Mathis at 415 pounds. Either way, for men or women, that is a lot of weight.
As you can imagine, these people are dedicated professional power lifters. This is their entire life. They eat, sleep, and live power lifting. Now, what do these bench press records have to do with us “normal” people?
To quickly answer the previous question, I would say, “Not much.” It is interesting to see what the maximum is the human body can do, but that is about it. The world record 100-meter dash or marathon doesn’t apply much to me personally either.
But for better or worse, the world runs on “norms” and averages. So no matter what you do, your performance may be compared to others in your age group, or weight class, or any number of arbitrary classifications.
The only real standard by which to judge your current performance is your previous performance. What someone else is capable of doing is immaterial. There will always be those who are better or worse, and if you constantly compare yourself with them, you will feel alternately superior or inferior.
Of course, that doesn’t stop my clients from wanting to know where they fall on the strength standards continuum. I have no problem with that; I will test them and show them where they place. I don’t make a big deal about it, explaining that this is just their baseline and we will see where they are in a few months. The next time we test, I am always happy to show them how much they have progressed and stress this is now their “Personal Record” or “PR.”
When pressed for my opinion on what a good amount of strength is, I sometimes fall back on the published charts. These are based on research by various groups. There are many different ways of determining these norms but, oddly enough, they are, for the most part, pretty close in their determinations.
Just for a quick answer, I would say that in the bench press you should be able to do ten reps with your body weight and one rep at your body weight plus 100 pounds. For most trainees, striving for those two numbers will keep them busy for quite a few years.
Finally, knowing what some people are capable of lifting should keep you humble. Knowing full well that someone can take you, your bench, and your personal best and press it off their chest should keep your ego in check.
Bench Press Execution
There are “rules” for how to perform a bench press in competition. When it comes to normal training, the number one rule is, “Don’t hurt yourself.”
I have watched many people bench press. Some have a complete range of motion from locked out elbows at the top to touching down lightly on their chest at the level of their sternum. I have also seen a range of motion from elbows bent to nearly 45 degrees on the top and stopping eight inches short of their chest. The question is, “Whose is right?”
The answer is, “Well, it depends.” If you want to compete or accurately compare, then you must adhere to the rules of the competition or chart. If you are simply working out to be fit and healthy, then it doesn’t really matter all that much. The important aspect of range of motion is consistency. If you short a lift to make a heavier weight, then it doesn’t count. If on the other hand, if you always stop three inches from your chest, then that is a perfectly valid range of motion for you.
I will say that in most cases the larger the range of motion the better it is, but there are exceptions. Arm segment length has a lot to do with how suited you are to excelling at bench pressing. If you have short arms like a T-Rex and a big barrel chest, then you have the perfect build for having a big bench. If you have a large wingspan, it means that the bar needs to travel a long way, complicated by a mechanical disadvantage as well. So in that case, don’t expect to be winning any competitions anytime soon. Also, when you have long arms, going all the way down to your chest can put a lot of stress on your shoulders, so be careful and find a range that works for you.
Hand spacing is another area that has as many opinions as there are trainees. Generally speaking, the correct grip width for you when executing a normal width bench press is where your hands land when you reach up and grab the bar. For most people, that will be about shoulder width. There are also wide and narrow grip bench presses. There are many more varied opinions on those two variations than on a standard bench press. I consider those to be more advanced moves and rarely teach them. There are also incline and decline bench presses. Once again, I rarely teach these to beginners and, in my opinion, their value is somewhat limited outside of the world of body building.
Another item that comes up frequently is elbow flair–how far away from your sides your elbows angle out. In a perfect world, it should probably be about 45 degrees. The key is that your forearms should remain perpendicular to the floor throughout the lift. This gives you the largest mechanical advantage and avoids sheer at the elbows, shoulders, and wrist.
If you want to improve the execution of your bench press, having someone shoot a video of you is a wonderful tool. It’s good for all lifts for that matter. If you do decide to change the way you do this or any exercise, make sure you reduce the weight you are using by at least 50 percent to begin. You may be able to bring it back up to your normal weights fairly quickly or it may take some weeks or months. Adding weight too quickly is a recipe for injury.
Lastly, remember to always use safety bars or catches when you bench press, particularly if you work out on your own. A good spotter is also an extremely valuable person to know. They can be the difference between making a lift and missing it as well as living or dying; but choose your spotter well, because a bad one is worse than none at all.
Balance and the Bench Press
Many male trainees really, really enjoy training the bench press. It is considered to be one of the “sexy” lifts. It can help build a big thick chest and huge arms, and when done correctly it is a decent core strengthener as well. The problem appears when the bench press becomes an obsession.
If you press a lot and don’t balance it out with at least as much pulling, you create an imbalance between the chest and the back. This causes a “rolled shoulder” posture that is not only unattractive, but it can cause back and shoulder girdle problems as well.
Since you can generally move more weight pushing up from flat on your back than you can pulling, it is a good idea to do two horizontal pulls for every horizontal push. So a one-arm row and a reverse or inverted push up would be good to do on either side of your bench press. Stretching the chest muscles is also recommended after benching. Lying back over a Swiss Ball or a foam roller and rolling and letting your arms rotate around not only feels good but will help to avoid the round shouldered look that comes with the front to back muscular imbalance.
If you have a “Big Bench,” all it means is that you have a big bench. It indicates that you are probably willing to spend a fair amount of time lifting and are consistent in doing so. Horizontal pushing strength is no more important than vertical pushing and pulling or horizontal pulling. To be really strong, you need a balance of all four plus a solid core (not to mention leg strength, but that is a discussion for another time).
No doubt you will find that you excel more so in one lift than in another, and that is to be expected. It is even fine to work to your strengths, but not to the exclusion of tending to your weaknesses. Just as an aerobically fit but muscularly weak person isn’t as fit as he could be, a muscularly imbalanced person is missing the mark on overall fitness as well.
It’s OK to work your favorite exercises a little bit more than those you care for less, but in the end your whole body needs equal attention to be balanced and to serve you well today and for the rest of your life.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected].