For some unknown reason the phrase “what do you bench?” has been cemented into the meathead vernacular. People ask this question because they think that the bench press is the best determinant of strength and in many people’s minds it is the only determinant of strength and overall fitness. This is an absurd and preposterous notion and I would like to dismantle this asinine misconception once and for all.
The bench press is a poor determinant of absolute strength for a couple of reasons. First of all, the movement covers an extremely small range of motion and engages a very limited amounted of muscles in the body. Check out this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlDWdfTAx8o) of the 2006 world record bench press. Sure the guy lifts over 1000 lbs, but watch the path of the bar. How far do you think this enormous dude pushed the bar in order to lock it out? At most I would guess that big Gene pushed the bar 12 inches in order to complete the lift. You move a dumbbell more when you do bicep curls. The only movement I can think of that covers a smaller range of motion is the calf raise. Don’t even get me started on the calf raise (it makes the bench press look like the pinnacle of fitness). Now check out this video of Pyrros Dimas (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7I0xjPNGtLM) setting the 85kg class world record in the clean+jerk in the 1996 Olympics. He transmits a jump to the bar, moves the weight from the ground to fully extended over his head, and completes a full front squat out of necessity in the process. Pyrros is 5’11 and his arms are pretty damn short, so let’s just say that with his arms fully extended over his head he is moving the bar 7 feet. This means that Pyrros is moving the bar through 7 times the range of motion that Gene moved the bar in his bench press. Pyrros weighs about 180 lbs and lifted 468 lbs over his head. Let’s be nice and say that Gene weighs 300 lbs (he is probably closer to 350, meaning that he is twice as heavy as Pyrros) and he moved 1000 lbs 12 inches. Which athlete would you rather be? Of course you would rather be Pyrros, so maybe your training regimen should look a little bit more like his does and a little bit less like big fat (I get winded walking down the street) Gene’s training regimen looks like.
The second reason why the bench press is a poor determinant of absolute strength is that it is performed while lying down, which consequently minimizes full body muscle recruitment. The fact that the bench press is performed lying down also lessens the neurological demands of the lift. Maybe this is a good thing, because the meatheads who live and die by the bench press need to save up all of the mental energy that they can so that they can properly blend dozens of protein shakes and remember how to turn the TV on and off.
In my mind, the universal admiration of the bench press in gyms throughout the country stands alone as the most glaring fitness-related paradox to date. If one were to stand at the doorway of a Gold’s Gym and randomly ask 10 guys what movements their workout would include, I can guarantee that more than 5 of those guys will be benching in their workout.
I have absolutely no idea why the bench press is such a revered movement and why almost every guy who works out at a normal gym bench presses at least once a week. More often then not these guys who plan on benching during their workout at Gold’s Gym are going to bench without anyone spotting. This is just insane to me. The bench press is far and away the most dangerous lift that anyone can perform. If one fails a bench press the weight is headed straight for the lifter’s sternum, clavicle, and possibly his neck. Check out this article (http://www.usnews.com/blogs/paper-trail/2009/09/29/scary-injury-for-usc-football-player.html) about Stephon Johnson a USC running back who “lost control of the bar” when benching. The bar crushed his throat and larynx. These types of injuries just do not happen in lifts that are done while standing because the athlete can simply drop the bar with no ill effects.
So if you want to move a bar 12 inches, perforate your larynx, and not improve as an athlete, then be my guest: bench up a storm. But if you want to improve as an athlete and move external weight a respectable distance, you should probably consider implementing the clean+jerk, snatch and back squat into your training regimen.