Mar 5th, 2011
Lydia bench pressing at the recent CrossFit Pleasanton Power Lifting Meet
The mainstay of weight rooms throughout the country is the venerable bench press. During my trip to Bakersfield, from which I came back a little more than two hours ago to write this little post, I managed to go to a 24 Hour Fitness to work out. While I saw no one there performing anything that could be confused with a squat or a deadlift, I did see lots of bench pressing, some of it done very strongly.
Let’s review a few main points of the lift, the first being that you lie down on a bench while you do it. For this reason, bench pressing gets criticized as not being the most functional exercise and, let’s be honest, there’s some truth to that claim. Let’s also be honest, if you could easily bench press 350 pounds for multiple repetitions, you probably wouldn’t be too upset about it, "functionality" be damned. A strong bench press is just that – a display of strength – and being strong is fun.
Of primary importance in the bench press is muscular tension. The more muscles in the body undergoing isometric contraction (where the muscles contract, but do not change in length), the better. This helps to provide a stable platform from which to raise and lower the weight. The breath should be held using the Valsalva Maneuver during the lift, with breathing happening only at the top when the arms are fully extended. This further helps to stabilize the lift. Exhaling or inhaling while the bar is in motion will ensure that you do not move as much weight as you can.
The bar should be lowered under control to the chest before being pressed back up to a fully extended position. To borrow Mark Rippetoe’s analogy, you should lower the bar as if there were a plate of glass on your chest that you need to touch without breaking. The popular sport of violently bouncing the bar off the sternum and relying on the elastic rebound of the ribcage to propel the weight upward should be relegated to the same scrap heap as bouncing deadlifts off the ground. Both are to be avoided.
Rear ends need to stay on the bench during the lift, both for the sake of stability and to keep the bench press from becoming a decline bench press. By raising the butt off of the bench, a lifter obtains a slight mechanical advantage and makes use of some extra musculature. While this is not necessarily dangerous, it helps to have some sort of standard by which the movement is judged and the butt leaving the bench will earn a "no lift" from every powerlifting federation in existence – all 7,000 of them.
Before we go, it is important to note that not everyone needs to bench press. Those with shoulder injuries should probably look elsewhere to avoid further problems. The bench can be hard on the shoulder, especially if trained to excess, or if trained without the balance provided by the shoulder press. That being said, for those with healthy shoulders, the bench press is wonderful exercise for building upper body strength and might be indicative of your long term survival chances.