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How the Bench Press Became a Bad Word

Back in the early days of training Bench was the go to exercise for developing a large, muscular upper body, and intimidating physique.  Athletes used it to develop raw power, and physique athletes used it to develop the overall muscularity of the arms and upper body. The common question amongst meatheads was “How much ya bench?”, and prowess in the exercise was even an initiation for some prison gangs.  Now while that culture hasn’t been lost in the strength community, the bench has taken a beating elsewhere.  Bench has been labeled “Non functional” and “dangerous”, and even in the commercial gym world where bro’s used to faithfully bench every Monday, it has in many places fallen out of favor and replaced, as always, with the “safer” flat dumbbell press.  I even found this out personally, as in conversations with younger Marines towards the end of my career, many had no idea what they benched, but could immediately list their “PR’s” on dumbbell press.  So how has the bench fallen out of favor so much? The answer is actually quite simple…

Confirmation Bias: 

No where is the bench hated more than the physical therapy world, and most of the current dogma on bench emanates from the PT world.  PT’s love to decry the bench: it hurts the shoulder! It aggravates the shoulder! It “kind of crushes the humeral head!” (real quote). Now where are they formulating this opinion from? Very few of them actually bench or lift themselves whatsoever at all, so it’s not from their own personal experience.  The answer is this: Think about who goes to see a PT over shoulder pain. Who says, wow my shoulder hurts, I’m going to spend $60 a session for rehab to get this thing right? It’s not the bro at 24 hour fitness crashing 205 off his sternum.  And it’s not the Dboled Dad having his buddy finger tip up 315 at Gold’s. The person that will spend money to address a shoulder issue in order to continue to bench, is the high level strength athlete, the guy who has competed in either powerlifting or strongman for 10+ years.  He’s trained hard for 10+ years, often 15 or more, uses steroids, and benches in the 5’s or up. He desperately wants to hit yet another PR in his upcoming competition, and will spend the money and time to get his shoulder right. So he goes to see a PT.  The PT examines the shoulder, and surprise, after 10+ years of benching ridiculous weights that the human body could not achieve without drugs, his shoulder is jacked up. His knees and hips, lower back and spine are also jacked up from squatting and deadlifting 700lbs +, but this is about the shoulder, and the PT comes away with the conclusion that bench hurts the shoulder. Now there’s also many strength athletes in this category who’ve been wiser about how to manage the immense stress benching 5+ puts on their body, and have been healthy throughout their careers-world record holder Matt Wenning (trained 20+ years no issues) comes to mind.  But the conclusion is made: Bench hurts the shoulder. Of course we must remember any exercise done incorrectly damages the body: deadlift with a rounded lower back, it’ll hurt your back, squat with knees forward it’ll hurt your knees, bench with a bad descent and bad tuck and yes, it’ll hurt your shoulder. But obviously the stress on the body of a drug enhanced 500 lb bench is a lot different than 235lb, much the same as it’s a lot more challenging to manage arm health for a pitcher throwing 96, than one throwing a whopping 82. The higher level of output in a sport, the higher stress on the body.  This must be accounted for with any exercise in the gym, or any output on the field. High performance is about being able to raise those outputs, in order to be able to compete at the higher levels of sport, while managing the higher stress to stay durable. And the more weight you bench, the higher stress on the body.  But in our experience, the more weight you bench, the greater increase of exit velocity for hitters, large jumps in pitcher’s velocities, and improved sprint times (arm pump in the sprint is the neural signal to the brain to move the legs faster-weak arms = slow arm pump=reduced stride frequency). That higher stress, like improvements in any exercise, must be managed wisely. In this case, with plenty of strict horizontal rowing, and intelligent arm care. Then bench can be incorporated in any athletes program correctly, and the athlete can reap the benefits that come with being able to give a confident response to the age old question, “How much ya bench?” 

Semper Fi



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