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Should you avoid the bench press

It is said that in all gyms across the world, “Monday is the universal bench press day”! After all most men seem to look forward to begin their week’s training with 20 sets of bench presses. And if you have ever worked out in a gym, then you will know why it is such a popular exercise, because you must have been asked a million times, “how much do ya bench”. After all it is the exercise in which most can carry the maximum weight for an upper body exercise.

Having said that, nowadays there are some trainers, and some very well known trainers that I myself respect too, who have been saying that unless someone must bench press for an event or is to be tested on it, they should avoid benching altogether. Yes, the world’s favourite bench press too has its own haters! And I must admit that these coaches do make some very strong points to argue their case.  In most cases here are 2 primary arguments why not to bench:

1) It causes more shoulder and pec injuries than probably any other exercise
2) It is not a functional exercise, and in most sports you do not press up something while lying on the floor

Now while there is some truth to these statements, here is what I think about them:

1) Causes injury- if it causes an injury, then it is because of poor form in 99% of the cases. And poor form in ANY exercise can cause an injury, and in the case of bench press when you are hoisting that much weight, injury risk certainly goes up without proper form. For eg, most people press of their shoulders versus trying to press off their lats when they bench press, thus leading to shoulder injuries. Make sure that your shoulders are away from your ears and pulled back as much as possible, and engage your lats when you bench to keep your shoulders healthy.

2) Not functional- well for this I can only say that NO sport (except Olympic lifting and powerlifting) is played in the gym! The gym is not a place where you practice your skills, but rather a place to help build strength that you can transfer in your sport when you play. And since the bench press is an exercise in which you can lift the most for upper body exercises, I can safely say that it can also boost your confidence like no other upper body weighted exercise. I mean when you (or your athletes) can bench 300 or 400 pounds, believe me, the self confidence will go up many notches, and this confidence in your sport will cause great improvements. Now think of it the other way round, if you or your athlete are benching 150 and are up against someone who is benching 350!

As I said that the arguments against bench press do have some validity, as in they point out how people abuse the exercise and rely too much on it while ignoring other exercises and body parts. I will have to agree that many trainees in gyms have unfortunately become the only “arms and chest” crowd when they should have been squatting, rowing, deadlifting, etc too.  So my suggestion is that DO NOT stop benching because some expert coach thinks that it is dangerous and should not be done, but rather do it with some caution to stay healthy and make the best of this great exercise.

Here are some reasons how you can hurt and injure yourself while benching, and how to overcome them:

1) Poor form- as I said before that any exercise can be dangerous when done incorrectly. In the case of bench press, keep your shoulders rolled back and away from your ears to engage your lats more and keep from pressing purely off your shoulders. Avoid letting the shoulders come ahead of your chest when you press up, this is a bad position for your shoulders, and why most people get injured.

2) Too much weight- if we made sure that we allow only those with correct form to bench press, then many in the “300 bench press club” will lose their memberships! People just love to load up the bar as much as possible when they bench press, and in some cases with a weight that is much more than what they can handle.  And this means that they either end up doing partial reps or using a spotter to help lift the weight. If you want to be able to bench press for a very long time, then use a weight that you can handle on your own, and do full reps safely.

Now I am not trying to suggest that you should not use a spotter. On the other hand I will say that a good spotter can help you gain more strength when compared to training alone, but be careful and do not fall into the trap of trying to lift so much that the spotter has to lift the weight for you. Be patient and consistent, and you will certainly hit big numbers on the bench in the future.

3) Doing too many sets- do not be surprised if you have to wait a long time to be able to access the bench press rack on Mondays in a public gym. After all for some a bench press workout is not complete unless they have 20 sets of it. While I do appreciate the mental toughness to push through too many sets, I will have to say that it is indeed a very stupid thing to do. If you do it right, then 2-5 sets of bench presses should be enough for a workout session. Once you are done with the bench, move on to some dips, push ups or another chest exercise and you will spare your joints from doing too many sets.

4) Doing it too often- some people reason that if benching 1-2 times a week is good, then benching 4-5 times a week must be great. And thus they do 4-5 sessions of bench presses a week, and as you may have guessed it that the net result is lack of progress and aching joints. Yes, you can get away with many sessions a week as a beginner, because you will be using lighter weights, but as you progress and lift more serious weights, be cautious. In my opinion doing the bench press 1-2 times a week is enough and any more than that is not necessary.

5) Not doing enough rowing variations- an equal amount of rowing is necessary to keep your shoulders healthy. Too much benching, without sufficient horizontal pulling can cause your shoulders to get more rounded. Ideally make sure that you can row close to 80-90% of what you can bench.

6) Not working on shoulder mobility- well this actually applies even if you do not bench press, as the shoulder joints are often a cause of concern for many. Spend time on most days of the week, and preferably everyday to do some shoulder mobility exercises. This will ensure that your shoulders feel much better and your bench press will certainly benefit from it.

As some great coaches would say, there are no bad exercises, only bad executions, this surely applies to the bench press. If you have heard horror stories about it, then chances are that the lifter was committing one or many of the sins that I have listed above. However if you look around in sports like bodybuilding, powerlifting, and most sportsmen who train in the gym, you will find that in most cases, the bench press is part of their training routine, and they benefit from doing it. After all, can you imagine Arnold with those big pecs without ever bench pressing?

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