Why you don’t need to bench press
There are actually three certainties in life:
3. You’ll always be waiting to use the bench press on Mondays
Monday is IBD- International Bench press Day. If you look like you go to the gym, or it comes up in conversation even with people who don’t lift, the first question is always “how much do you bench?”
To many, the bench press is the reason they go to the gym, and it’s why you’ll rarely have it to yourself or find it free the minute you walk in, unlike the squat rack collecting dust in the corner.
As per usual, I used to be this guy, making a weekly sacrifice at the feet of this god of all exercises. There were periods where I almost unwittingly slipped into a cycle of pretty much going to the gym just to bench.
Ask my gym partners at the time. Bench press on Mondays was the only religion I ever believed in.
These days however, I’m practically an atheist: I don’t really do it anymore, and if I do, I don’t really go hard at it.
It’s not because I think it’s a useless exercise, far from it.
It is one of the ‘big three’ powerlifting lifts along with the squat and the deadlift, and rightly so- it is a multi-muscle, compound raw power lift that is going to help you develop all round upper body power.
If you’re a powerlifter looking to compete then obviously you need to do it.
But I’ve kind of ‘evolved’ from it for a variety of reasons and there are definitely other exercises you can do that will give you similar or better results. Unlike the way that I believe everyone can and should benefit from squatting and deadlifting, bench pressing is not essential, regardless of people’s reverence for it.
Here are some reasons why I think it is not necessarily ideal as an exercise.
1. It’s dangerous
I’m always a bit nonplussed when people tell me they’re afraid to squat but will happily lie with their head and neck under a thin metal bar loaded with their bodyweight.
The bench press is probably the only exercise that could actually kill you- if the bar slipped and you dropped it on your neck you would be in serious trouble.
Granted, that’s what spotters are there for but that’s another reason why I don’t max out on it anymore: a reliable spotter who knows what they’re doing is hard to find, and if you train mostly on your own choosing a random to help you out can be risky if you’re going for a PR.
2. It can be tough on your shoulders
This is dependent on your particular build and how well someone taught you to press.
The truth is that while there is a rough ‘zone’ within which the bar should be travelling and optimum arm angle as per usual the way you press should be dictated somewhat by your build and arm length.
So if you have long arms and a narrow chest it is going to be tough on your shoulders to make the bar touch your chest. Unfortunately the ‘form police’ are usually out in force for the bench press- it ‘doesn’t count’ if you don’t touch your chest.
While this may be true if you’re competing as a powerlifter if you’re just training for your own reasons there’s no need to screw up your shoulders just to impress some form nazi’s.
Form is adaptable to your body shape. Don’t take this as an excuse not to use full range of motion but as a rule of thumb you should experiment with grip widths that allow you to comfortably lower the bar until your upper arms are parallel with the floor. If that means the bar is an inch off your chest, so be it.
Your shoulders will be better protected, because the force of the weight will be going for the most part through the large pectoral muscle, not the small shoulder joints.
Like anything though benching with good form takes instruction and practice. The reality is also that some people aren’t cut out to be good at the bench press.
If you have long arms and a thin chest you might be better off doing other exercises. There’s no NEED to threaten your long term shoulder health.
3. It’s not a natural or directly useful movement
As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, the bench press is actually a pretty weird movement to practice.
In fact until relatively recently it wasn’t even considered a legitimate exercise. The thought was that unlike all the other main staples of lifting like the clean and jerk, the squat and the snatch you bench pressed lying down- that wasn’t exercise, that’s relaxing!
The overhead press (standing holding the bar at your shoulders and strictly pressing without use of your legs) was actually the respected pressing lift.
The reason was that it was considered a practical and natural movement- lifting stuff over your head is something you actually do from time to time in daily life, whereas you’re pretty much never going to be lying on your back pressing something in the air unless it was in the gym.
To this day the overhead press is much more valued by sports coaches because of its athletic qualities- it is much more transferable to the playing field than the bench press.
Related article: Do this and be better at sports
4. You don’t have to be in shape to be good at it
While bench pressing a lot of weight is obviously impressive, it is one of the few exercises where being bigger, and this can be fatter, will make you better at it.
It’s because if you have more mass you have a more stable base from which to push. If you lose weight, either in fat or muscle, or both, you’ll lose strength in the bench press.
This is why quite often you’ll see a big guy with a belly able to handle a good amount of weight on the bench press.
Can he do a pull-up? It’s likely he doesn’t care, but for me it is important to be strong and healthy. I don’t mean you have to have a six-pack and be ripped, but your body fat levels do a pretty good job of indicating how fit you are.
This is another reason why the bench press is not necessarily good and not required to build a good physique.
The bench press gets an inordinate amount of reverence from gym goers and those looking to build muscle. While it is an extremely effective exercise I just wanted to point out that it is by no means essential, and also not necessarily the right choice for everyone.
There are equal, and better ways in which to train your chest. Not only that, if you discover the other ways you’ll end up saving a lot of time that would be spent waiting for the bench press to clear.
In a follow-up post I’ll give you some ideas on what you can do to replace it, including my current regime.
For those of you who like and want to keep doing it, there’s obviously nothing wrong with that: just maybe think about doing chest on a day other than Monday?