The bench press is widely considered to be the ultimate upper body measure of strength, reaching almost mythical status amongst gym members. While it’s certainly one of the three big lifts required in the sport of powerlifting, is it really that useful for field, court and combat sports, or for general functional fitness and conditioning?
Let’s start with the truth: the bench press isn’t ideally suited to do the standing pushing movements seen in everyday life and sport. How many daily tasks and movements require pushing a heavy load away from the body? And how many of these activities involve heavy loads? Very few, most likely. The same goes for sport, where the push pattern manifests in throwing or striking – here, the focus is more on speed and precision, and less on absolute or maximal strength.
That is not to say that strength development is irrelevant. The question is whether we need maximal pushing strength for everyday function and sport, and whether we need it in a supine position. Strength in a standing position is more contextual and transferable to activities of daily living.
Still on the subject of sport, some may argue that those involved in heavy contact sports, e.g. Judo, BJJ, rugby etc. require high levels of pushing strength. This is certainly true, but pushing another person (as opposed to a static weight) requires balance, timing, precision, stability and control, as well as strength.
Finally, let’s take a look at natural joint motion during pushing. In standing, the shoulder blades will naturally glide across the rib cage as you push forwards. This not only serves to enhance shoulder mobility, but is also protective for the front of the shoulder joint. When lying on a bench (or floor) and performing a bench press, the shoulder blades are ‘glued’ to the bench/floor, and their movement becomes restricted. This will begin to place unnecessary stress on the front of the shoulder joint, and if left unchecked, can lead to anterior shoulder joint pain, and impingement.
So, unless you are a power lifter, or just really enjoy bench pressing, there really is no reason to over-emphasise the bench press. Master pressing in a standing position (using cables for example), or switch to push up variations, that will still develop functional strength, and will also spare your shoulders.
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