I know that this wasn’t my first attempt at the bench press, but it was early in my career and I remember it vividly. It was an August evening during the summer preparing for my Freshman year of High School, and the second football practice of the day had ended. Walking off the practice field there it was: a narrow, steel bench with a pad attached to it and two arms that held the iron bar loaded with weight. I watched as the upper classmen removed their shoulder pads and started repetitiously lifting the heavily weighted bar off of their chest, and as each lower grade entered into this sacred area adorned with iron and steel … a little more weight was removed to accomodate the weaker class.
Finally, after witnessing this liturgical movement of grunts, shouts, and high fives – musically accompanied by AC/DC and the sound of plates clanging at the top of each rep – it was the Freshmans’ turn. I watched as the weight was yet again lowered, but there didn’t seem to be any shame about it – this was expected. I watched as my classmates took the newly lowered weight and banged out many repititions; even before me was a Freshman who was the same height and weight and even shared my first name … and he got under the bar and lifted the weight for the desired amount of times. The set-up was perfect for me, so I laid under that bar and gripped it tight, ready to participate in this communion. Like everyone else, I received the “lift-off” where someone helps you remove the bar from the racked position and let’s go of it at the top, so now it’s just me and the weight. I slowly lowered the bar to gently, lightly touch my chest and then … I … could … not lift the bar off of my chest! I squirmed, I wriggled, I arched, I huffed, and I puffed but that bar was going nowhere!
Of all my insecurities at this age and how I was constantly being fed so much humble pie in and out of the weightroom, it’s amazing that I kept chugging away at this impossible journey of “getting strong.” However, here I am presently enjoying this as not only a lifestyle, but a career. I am at least 65lbs heavier than I was in the wonderful black and white you see before you (I want to say all muscle, but you know …) and now I bench – well, come to think of it, I really don’t bench anymore. Hmmm … why don’t I bench much anymore?
Well, let’s start this off on the right foot, “What does Gray Cook and company, with the FMS, tell us?” Once you have established your functional movement score and if the results point to a dysfuntion in shoulder mobility (this being a score of one, or a right and left asymmetry), you should refrain from loading any pulling and/or pushing exercise; including your loved pectoralis major builder – the bench press. As you remember in my blog, ‘What’s in a Name, Anyway?‘ I had mentioned my own shoulder mobility assymetry. This required me to step away from this and other loaded, pressing exercises if I wanted to right my assymetrical wrong.
I have a feeling that males, more than females, suffer from shoulder mobility dysfunctions – and most of these are men that I may find frequenting the various forms of bench pressing at my local gym. What is it about the bench press that attracts so many guys? I believe that the bench press has been dramatically over-marketed and over-hyped. It is apparently the lift. This magnificent exercise that requires you to lay on a bench and press weight up will rank you based on how strong you are on the evolutionary ladder, and if you fail to do so many pounds times your body weight – well, you are no good and will never find a life-long mate! Is it possibly because I am on the lower end of this ladder that I am sour about the bench press? Perhaps. However, listen carefully to my argument and you may find yourself jumping off of the bench and on to the ground!
First and foremost, I want to give big props to the powerlifters. You know, those men and women that excel at three lifts: squat, deadlift, and, of course, bench press. These people lift a tremendous amount of weight and it is impressive! However, this is their sport and they have to be great at these three exercises, or they don’t move on. The people that I am pointing my finger at today are not these athletes (they know their sport and how to properly train for it … but they could still use a little FMS in their life), I am looking at those of us that lift as a form of recreation and really have no method to our madness, except to climb our way up the ladder and lift more today than what we did yesterday.
Besides our powerlifting friends (pictured you will find my friend, college roomate, and old lifting partner, Eric from Crossfit 920 lifting some seriously heavy weight) … I am convinced that the bench press has little carry-over in our daily activities. There, I said it, as blasphemous as it was, I said it! However, without contradicting myself, do I believe that the bench press will make you stronger? Absolutely, but stronger for what – the bench press? Do you see where I am going with this? Lying on a bench and pressing up is not very functional in my everyday life. It doesn’t help me get off of the ground when I am playing with my children, it does not help me when I am climbing up the stairs (because I refuse to take the elevator whenever I can), and it most certainly does not help me move better overall. BUT, what we could do is some bench pressing and take that new found strength and apply it to a more funtional movement … you can decide what that exercise is. There is no denying the strength effect that the bench press can have, but let’s not get so wrapped up in this exercise that we dedicate more than 30 reps per week to it, or any of its family members. Let’s look at how this exercise can be applicable and contribute to our fitness lying down!
Now my last tirade (I told myself that this week I was going to limit the amount of words I would type, oops); bench pressing in middle and high school: this exercise should be outlawed! And then to build stupid upon dumb we take these young individuals and assume that they can move well and throw them under a barbell and tell them to repetitiously press. I can tell you that this is just as ignorant as taking someone that is unable to maintain the integrity of their core and telling them to do push-ups, believing that our mere words can make a change in their movement patterns! These young people deserve more – they deserve to be given the truth about their movement patterns and a program that is current with the time and will give them the greatest carry-over in their activities outside of the classroom. These are their most formable years and what we teach them about exercise will carry with them for the next 20 – 30 years; so let’s give them more than a shady program that we got from our gym teacher back in the 70s, 80s, & 90s!
In closing, I hope that you understand I am not against the bench press, or any of its relatives, but what I am against is the lay person making this exercise the source and summit of everything that they do with iron and steel. There are better and more natural ways to build our pressing movements and muscles than lying on a bench. Just keep rolling!