The bench press exercise is one of the most popular and well-known forms of upper body training used in the fitness industry. There are many different bench press forms that have been implemented throughout history that were tailored to help train the different fibers of the pectoral muscles, including, but not limited to, the incline bench press, decline bench press, or close grip bench press. The bench press muscles worked seem to primarily be focused on the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps to move the bar up and down in a vertical motion.
Bench press alternatives can include using a barbell or dumbbells while bench pressing as well as variations that use an arched back in order to reduce the distance the bar must travel during competition in powerlifting. This arching of the back when bench pressing may allow someone to lift even more weight due to this reduced travel distance.
However, not many professional sports use the bench press as a metric of performance in athletics when scouting for new players or to improve the performance of their athletes. The NFL seems to be the only professional sports league in which their scouting combine uses the bench press as one metric for evaluation, and those who perform well in the bench press event don’t necessarily perform well in their sport. Even these high level athletes do not worry much about their bench press form when they are meeting the standards of the combine and can put up an amazing amount of repetitions.
If the bench press is touted as a staple in the fitness industry, why do the majority of professional athletic organizations not use it when evaluating the performance of potential athletes? Were these NFL players only able to be such great football players because they focused on proper bench press form or was it their ability to run and throw well allow them to bench press at an above average level?
In this article, we will look at whether the bench press translates well to how humans evolved, why different forms of bench press may not help you lift heavy weights, and why the bench press may not build as much muscle as one might think.
Does The Bench Press Translate Well To FP First Four?
Image by fabrikasimf
What makes the bench press so popular? According to traditional strength trainers and powerlifters, the bench press is a popular exercise for the upper body to utilize when one wants to enhance maximal strength, and is known as the “king of exercises”. Unfortunately, we at Functional Patterns disagree with this statement because we start with a first principles approach to find out whether an exercise is promoting regeneration or causing degeneration of the body. What we mean by this is: does the exercise make us stand, walk, run, and throw (FP First Four) more efficiently, or does it cause more dysfunction in the movements that we evolved to do over hundreds of thousands of years in order to survive in nature.
Let’s break down the line of questioning that we must ask ourselves in order to determine whether the bench press is an exercise we should prioritize in our training as human beings.
First, what function does the bench press serve? If it’s to improve upper limb strength, what is the primary function of our upper limbs as human beings where this strength would serve us? According to anthropological data, it seems that our upper limbs were designed to throw objects with accuracy and speed (Roach, 2013). So, if throwing was one of our main functions to improve our chance of survival in nature, we must ask ourselves if the strength associated with the bench press fulfills the biomechanical demands of throwing.
The bench press and its many forms seem to target only a few muscle groups during their execution, mainly the triceps and pectoral muscles.
These exercises seem to negate the importance of the biceps, the wrist flexors and extensors, the shoulders, the serratus anterior and posterior, the obliques, the abdominals, the trapezius, and the lats, just to name a few. The entire lower limbs don’t get much activation at all other than to keep your hips on the bench.
(Notice the shoulders are stuck back causing the serratus muscles, lats, and trapezius to be stuck in an isometric (non-moving) contraction, the wrists are in a neutral position through the entire lift, and the obliques and abdominals provide very little support due to no rotation between pelvis and ribcage.)
When throwing an object, the legs and arms have to reciprocate (one limb going in the opposite direction of the other) with each other, while the hips and ribcage rotate to one direction. This reciprocation is absent in the bench press, which limits the amount of muscle activation throughout the rest of the body.
(Notice in this upright RG Bar exercise, the limbs are connected throughout all of the trunk musculature, not just the pectorals and triceps.)
This seems to contradict the “king of exercises” claim, when so many muscles are not being utilized in the way they were developed to be.
This is not to say that the bench press doesn’t contribute at all; we need to realize that there is a hierarchy of movements which makes us uniquely human, and understand that the bench press does not account for enough variables to translate, in a more optimal and specific manner, to throwing or any other of our FP First Four movements.
Why Can Some People Bench Press Heavy While Some Struggle?
Does it really matter how much weight one is able to move in a bench press, or whether you arch your back when bench pressing if it doesn’t translate well to how you stand, walk, run, or throw?
Some people would argue that the bench press lets them feel good when they get to press a heavy weight, which is valid to some degree, but choosing the right type of exercise is particularly important when our bodies develop specific adaptations to the imposed demands (SAID Principle).
By practicing certain movements, the stressors that are associated with those specific movements pressure our bodies to adapt to them over time (Gamble, 2006). In fact, if we train with exercises that mimic the biomechanical leverages found in gait dynamics, our bodies will begin to adapt to those specific dynamics and become more efficient at moving our bodies through walking and running.
However, if we decide to practice exercises that have little to no common foundations to the gait cycle, like the bench press, our bodies will begin to maladapt and condition out the contralateral movements that we have developed through evolution, making us less efficient as humans.
At Functional Patterns, we respect the SAID principle and acknowledge the fact that even if the movement feels good momentarily, it may cause more problems down the road in such small increments that by the time we realize something is wrong, we’ve created a significant amount of dysfunction and patterning in our bodies that could manifest as injury or pain, and be unable to find the correlation as to what may have caused it.
Does the Bench Press Actually Build A Lot Of Muscle?
When we look at the setup and movement pattern of the bench press, the vertical motion being executed on the barbell or dumbbells and the bilateral stance of the entire body reduces the range of motion of the shoulder, rib cage, pelvis, and lower limbs, severely limiting the muscle length potential of the anterior and posterior oblique sling. This can cause some muscles to be overdeveloped, like the pectorals and triceps, while others waste away due to limited integration in the movement. This may cause significant load on the ligaments and joints that are not being supported by the rest of the myofascial chain, leading to overuse and pain.
Adding to this, if your structure is asymmetrical where your body is stuck twisted in one direction, building more muscle on top of that twisted structure will only exacerbate the asymmetries which may lead to more dysfunction and pain.
The bench press could potentially build muscles like the pectorals or triceps in a limited context, but you are neglecting the development of the rest of the body. You are also missing their integration in contexts outside of the bench press such as throwing, where the body must rotate with the limbs reciprocating (one limb moving in opposite direction of the other) in order to produce the elastic potential in the tissues to allow the propulsion of the object you are throwing.
Image by master1305
So What Exercise Should One Prioritize Instead of The Bench Press?
The step press is a great exercise to work on as it involves not only the muscles of the upper limb and lower limb, but the muscles of the core that allow the integration between the upper and lower halves. This will translate to both your gait and throwing dynamics and when done with optimal execution, will start to create a structure that isn’t constantly in a state of anxiety due to being stuck in an asymmetrical twist, and will allow better tissue regeneration and muscle hypertrophy.
(Step press variations found in 10 Week Online Course and Functional Training System)
This step press will connect the pectorals to your biceps, abdominals, obliques, adductors, and quadriceps on the front side of the body, and the triceps, lats, glutes, and hamstrings on the back side of the body.
(RG Bar press variation found in the RG Bar Workout Program)
This will teach your body how to contralaterally reciprocate in a manner that respects the way you stand, walk, run, and throw.
The bench press is considered an upper limb “king of exercises” due to the simplicity of pressing a weight from your chest in a supine position. Some bench press advocates would also make the argument that bench press variations such as incline bench press, decline bench press, or close-grip bench press can work many muscles of the upper body; however, despite those variations and accounting for bench press alternatives using dumbbells to create instability between the upper limbs, or arching the back when bench pressing, these exercises will only work a small number of muscles in a very limited context that do not optimally respect how we evolved in nature as human beings.
Standing, walking, running, and throwing are the movements that we partake in the most frequently day-to-day, and the transferability of the bench press does not sufficiently meet the demands of those movements. By improving our execution of exercises like the step press that respect the FP Big Four, we can develop muscles around our joints in an integrative fashion that not only supports our structure, but also creates more symmetry, while bench pressing can lead to a pattern overload of the structural distortions we carry in our posture. Continuing to stress our body while performing the bench press without addressing that distortion can lead to more pain and dysfunction in our joints while conditioning out the contralateral movement patterns we use when we stand, walk, run, and throw.
By making gait optimization the centerpiece of our training, we can build longevity and quality of health instead of injury and pain in our lives.
- Gamble, Paul. (2006). Implications and Applications of Training Specificity for Coaches and Athletes. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 28. 10.1519/1533-4295(2006)28[54:IAAOTS]2.0.CO;2.
- Roach, N. T., Venkadesan, M., Rainbow, M. J., & Lieberman, D. E. (2013). Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo. Nature, 498(7455), 483–486. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12267