Bench Press Backtalk!
Three years ago our family moved from a gang-influenced blue collar neighborhood to a safe, quiet, blue collar neighborhood. In both instances, our neighbors, for the most part, were and are hard-working individuals that included tradesmen, firefighters, police officers, manual laborers, and landscapers of mixed ethnicity. In our current area, there are a large number of bay men and dock workers as our 1.1 square mile village sits on the water. In both locales there are expressions heard on the street, offered by every racial and ethnic group, somewhat unique to the area, but phrases that immediately sum up what might take five sentences to express elsewhere. Any backlash, backtalk, or general hassle that has come from my “challenging” the concept, exercise, and “cottage industry” of the bench press, as they say here, goes into the category of “I brought this ‘stuff’ on my ownself!”
I can condense the primary points I have thus far made about the bench press in the TITAN columns, PLUSA, MILO, Iron Man, Muscular Development, and a number of other publishing outlets as follows:
It is an exercise, not a special exercise.
It was used as a component of the programs of participants of athletics, powerlifting, bodybuilding, and Olympic weightlifting for decades.
It became an overemphasized, overused, and over-hyped movement in the early-1970’s.
As a result of its overuse and overemphasis, there are an inordinate number of injuries, many of them of the “wear-and-tear” or degenerative variety, associated with the bench press.
The frequently encountered rotator cuff injuries were almost non-existent prior to the over emphasis of the bench press.
None of this is ground-breaking news and I am certainly not a lone voice among strength training professionals. I wanted to relate the general and some specific responses I received when I was in fact, the lone voice in my opinion and I was immediately reminded that to many, any perceived attack on the bench press is similar to attacking a religion. Though not written in response to my series of TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEM columns, an article in the current edition of a powerlifting oriented magazine reflects what I believe is the expected commentary from bench press supporters. I want to clearly state that everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding strength training and that would include anything related to powerlifting. I have always attempted to demonstrate respect to those who train, anyone who competes, and anyone who is working with others for the benefit or improvement of those they are charged to assist. I have, through my own fifty-three years of consistent training (please read that number again, its 53 which takes up most of my mid-sixties age) learned that everything works. No matter how goofy a training program or philosophy may seem, there will always be an individual or number of individuals who have benefited from its utilization. Thus, I don’t discount anyone’s opinion, I just have my own, developed over the five decades of personal involvement in training, a lot of research, professional education, and hands-on coaching, handling, and training with numerous athletes that have ranged from world championship caliber to awful. Referring only to the first half page of the powerlifting magazine article, allow me to make some points using quotes from this article to reinforce what I have often voiced: As the article stated;
“Recently I read a blog online explaining why the bench press was not important. I would have simply ignored this as the ravings of an idiot, except I heard the same sentiments espoused by several other athletes and strength coaches.”
My obvious comment is a repeat; everyone is entitled to their opinion and the bench press or the use of any other exercise should not elicit a response strong enough to insult strength training professionals or those who train. The coaches in the NFL and major colleges responsible for maintaining the strength, conditioning, and health of million dollar athletes take their jobs seriously and I will add, take the privilege of earning a significant pay check seriously. If many think that the bench press “is not important,” though I have neither read nor heard it stated in that specific manner, or otherwise believe it should not be the primary emphasis of their programs, perhaps there is a legitimate reason for that perspective. I will repeat the point I have hammered home in this series of articles and in the past; the bench press is an exercise, one that trains specific muscles and the overemphasis on its importance has led to numerous injuries. For the sport of football, as a specific statement, there are other exercises that train the same muscles with less risk of injury and these should be viewed as “more important” relative to the bench press. A powerlifter has to bench press as it constitutes a specific aspect of his or her competitive sport but even for the powerlifter, the work on the bench press and related assistance exercises has to be closely monitored to prevent overuse of the involved soft tissue and connective tissue structures.
“People injure themselves because they do not take the time to learn and respect the lift. Yes, you can tweak shoulders and elbows on the bench, but to use that as a reason to dismiss the lift is silly.”
The inability to learn or perform the bench press properly certainly can be a contributing factor to bench press related injury but I would cite many expert bench pressers, “expert” being defined as those with excellent and technically proficient form/technique, many of them record setters, who have been injured. The injuries I usually refer to do not result from incorrect form while performing an out-of-position bench press nor placing unbalanced stress upon one area of a joint. Bench press related injuries usually result from over use of the lift itself and its many assistance movements. Most are long term wear-and-tear injuries that at times are expressed through a singular trauma. I would also agree that injuries can and do occur, as the author points out, because many do not bench press properly, but the primary cause remains “too much bench press.”
“In my gym we have a saying, safety third. Not that safety is not important, it just falls just behind results and performance. When people fixate on safety, they fail both to push themselves and to actually be safe. Injury prevention in the weight room is all about technique, and focusing on results first necessitates cultivation of good technique. With proper technique, we can give maximum performance and reap the best results. Results, performance, safety!”
As one who has had the privilege of training Olympic gold medal winners and many professional football players, the above statement, with no disrespect intended towards the author, is why competitive powerlifters are not NFL, NBA, or NHL strength and conditioning coaches. It is a fact that safety does come first and safety comes not only from utilizing proper technique, but from choosing a selection and volume of exercise that does not cause inordinate stress or micro-damage to an area that can then expose the athlete to greater potential for on the field injury. Strength coaches will often talk about injuries that occurred on the field but were precipitated by the work done in the weight room. There is no performance without strength training safety coming first and there is not a strength coach in any of the major sports working for a professional or major college team that would argue with that. “Safety” as it relates to the bench press, includes its utilization as part and parcel of a complete program, complete in that the program prepares one for their sport, including powerlifting, without also exposing them unnecessarily to potential injury. There is an inherent danger in lifting heavy weights but our sport is a sport of lifting heavy weights. Thus, it’s a built in danger. Football, as the most obvious example, involves hitting other players and there is an inherent danger in doing that. One wants to reduce any potential injury related to other parts of the program, such as the strength training preparation, so that the risk of injury during sports performance, is controlled as much as it can be. For a powerlifter, this means training without overtraining, controlling volume and frequency of exposure to excessive weights, and insuring that one can compete at their best, not at their banged up best. My comments should not be interpreted as a negative response to this specific author’s comments. As noted, everyone is entitled to any opinion, mine just doesn’t align with some of the points made in the magazine’s article.
In a few photos from our own “historical file,” I wish to illustrate that our philosophy of training, while keeping with Kathy’s perspective as an exercise physiologist and former powerlifting competitor whose total was second in her class at one of the first Women’s World Powerlifting Championships, and mine, does include variations of the bench press. Immediately below is Stephen Boyd, First Team Consensus All American at Boston College and three time All Pro linebacker with the Detroit Lions. We use the close grip bench press, admittedly in limited volume and frequency, as an excellent triceps directed exercise.
I have often stated that there is nothing “wrong” with the bench press as an exercise that gives its primary work to the anterior deltoids and triceps, we just prefer the overhead press as a typically more difficult movement. It is understood that powerlifters, utilizing the bench press as their actual sport, will have to spend more time and effort on the lift than a football player, but even within that context, the movement must not be over utilized in order to protect against rotator cuff injuries.
The use of a properly designed machine has been pooh-poohed by some competitive lifters and coaches as being “useless” but for any sport, the appropriate procedure is to enhance the strength of the muscular structures involved in the sport in question, and then learn the skills of the sport so that the enhanced level of strength can then be efficiently utilized. In the case of Boyd and former five year NFL pro of the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers defensive end Frank Ferrara, the various Hammer Iso Lateral Pressing units have allowed for increases in strength and size.
Especially in-season when both defensive players would have severe shoulder pain from the constant contact involved in their sport, machine alternatives became invaluable as they were unable to use a barbell or dumbbells effectively. As an adjunct to the barbell bench press, there are many other bench press related movements that can be used that will not place over use levels of stress upon the shoulder area. [All photos courtesy of Kathy Leistner]
My opinion regarding “the best bench presser” in 1984 and 1985 also did not align with that of some others. Oh, the letters and conversations that my Powerlifting USA Magazine comments elicited, and those will be the subject of next month’s article.