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Why Everything You Think About the Bench Press Is Wrong

The bench press is one of the first pushing exercises that many people think of, especially men. Although traditionally considered one of the big lifts, the reality is that it's unnecessarily risky to overemphasize maximal bench-press efforts for general athletic purposes. Renowned “trainer of trainers” Nick Tumminello, author of Building Muscle and Performance: A Program for Size, Strength & Speed, says the reason is that it's mathematically and physically impossible for anyone to match, or even come close to, his or her bench-press capacity in a push from a standing position.


“Many guys enjoy benching because it's a great way to get their ‘man card' from their gym buddies or enjoy a much-needed ego boost every now and then,” Tumminello acknowledges. “And if you're training for the American football combine, you'd better be benching to prepare for the much-ballyhooed 225-pound rep test.”


But what about field, court, and combat athletes—and other athletic-minded individuals—who want to improve their overall performance in a way that transfers outside of the gym? “In sport, and in many daily life tasks, we rarely lie back to push on something; instead, when we need to push—or pull—we usually stand,” says Tumminello, owner of Performance University International. In addition, when you press while standing, your movement is limited by the coordination and co-contraction of the shoulders, torso, and hips.


In contrast, when you push while lying down you mainly activate the chest, shoulders, and triceps. “Sure, powerlifters use the hips and lower back to aid their bench-press performance. But they're also lying down with the shoulders anchored on the bench, so it's still comparing apples to oranges,” comments Tumminello, who also wrote the acclaimed Strength Training for Fat Loss (Human Kinetics, 2013). In short, the standing push action is more of a whole-body exercise, whereas the bench press is more of an upper-body exercise. Therefore, the bench press is not nearly as beneficial for general athletic purposes.


Tumminello stresses that the bench press still does have its place in a comprehensive strength and conditioning program—but only if it is approached as a general strengthening and size-building exercise, not as some mythic activity. “That's why the functional-spectrum training system includes the bench press as a general, compound pressing option,” he says, “that is, as one option among several compound pushing exercises.” And, he points out, since a good strength training program uses both general and specific strength exercises, the general exercises are complemented in that program by a variety of specific pushing exercises.


In Building Muscle & Performance: The Program for Size, Strength & Speed, Tumminello combines his 15-plus years of experience with proven scientific principles into a unique training approach to increase strength, power, speed, athleticism, and endurance.