Is the bench press functional? I’m sure most of you have pondered this question, and for good reason. On one side of the argument, we have the “You don’t ever lie down and push a barbell in (enter sport here)” camp, who tag-team with the group that believes your shoulders will explode upon becoming muscle-bound from the mere thought of bench pressing. They often validate their argument with prescriptions of yoga, BOSU ball drills, or anything resembling a postoperative exercise seen in rehabilitation clinics. Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard this misguided advice over the years in the swim and baseball worlds, where these old wives’ tales seem to have staying power.
On the other side, we have the “Ride or Die” powerlifting types who place the bench press on the “be-all and end-all” altar, appeasing the 1RM gods. As fervent as the arguments from both camps are, the value of the bench press (like many other exercises) lies somewhere in the middle, buttressed by context and application.
A Question of Transfer
For those who validate their exercise pool via transference (or the perception of), it is easy to conclude that the only sport where the skill of the bench press completely transfers is powerlifting. Does this mean a lesser (or different) degree of transfer diminishes the use of the exercise?
Of course not.
The bench press and versions of it have been a part of strength and power development for athletes for going on several decades. Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, for example, found a solid transfer with bench pressing up to 180 kilograms for discus throwers and shot putters. For them, the pattern of the bench press provided general strength improvement in the propulsive muscles of the triceps and shoulder girdle. The surplus from this level of strength led to bigger throws.1 While 396 pounds (180 kg) may seem an excessive—or downright impossible—level for most to attain, contextually, for discus and shot, the weight of the implement and momentum requirement for big throws would call for larger forces to be created via a maximal strength surplus.
Using this line of thought, we can apply the context to throwers of a different ilk. In a study on handball players,2 we can find that the bench press exercise provided an indicator of throwing velocities. Using a radar gun, ball-throwing velocity was evaluated with a standard three-step running throw. “Ball-throwing velocity was related to the absolute load lifted during the 1-RMBP (r = .637, P = .014), peak power using 36 kg (r = .586, P = .028) and 46 kg (r = .582, P = .029), and peak bar velocity using 26 kg (r = .563, P = .036) and 36 kg (r = .625, P = .017).”2
Essentially, the handball players who threw the fastest could not only produce higher forces but produce them in a shorter window of time. Given the lighter weight of the handball (15–16 ounces) versus the discus and shot (4.4 pounds and 16 pounds, respectively), the requirements to throw this lighter implement for higher speeds indicate less reliance on maximal strength but heighten the need to exhibit that strength in an accelerative and explosive manner. Similarly, the technique in the handball throw eerily resembles that of a quarterback, baseball pitcher, or water polo player, as well as the relative weight of those respective implements. In examining the study, we can draw inferences on how power and higher speed bench pressing techniques can develop throwing speed in the aforementioned team sport athletes.
On the intangible side, coaches who work with developmental athletes will struggle to prevent their trainees from bench pressing—especially pubescent males highly influenced by Instagrammers and TikTokers who celebrate international bench press day every Monday with entertaining (albeit performative) feats of stupidity. As coaches, if we take the bench press off the table, we risk our young ones pressing on their own, leaving them to their own devices and demises and losing any “buy-in” for our entire program.
Speaking from experience, I can say this argument is not worth the consequence.
Practically speaking, we can embrace this situation by implementing a proper progression to take advantage of their enthusiasm and adaptability. With developmental athletes, general strength is the low-hanging, fruit-bearing benefit of improved coordination, increased power, and psychological palatability. In the wise words of the legendary Joe Kenn, “Confidence transfers.”
A Question of Safety: The Hardware
For the general public and those with a physical therapy bias, the bench press is an easy culprit to demonize. If you were to survey any gym bro, veteran powerlifter, or ex-athlete who pressed heavy at some point in time, I’m sure you’d find complaints of pain, injury, and dysfunction later in life. In this instance, the author certainly is not exempt; but again, context is king. For those who push the envelope in any discipline, there are no free lunches. For the developmental athlete or strength enthusiast, we can put bench pressing in its place as a general or general-specific exercise that is used to drive athletic qualities.For the general public and those with a physical therapy bias, the bench press is an easy culprit to demonize. Click To Tweet
In 1987, Jobe and colleagues3 identified two groups of muscles involved in pitching, labeled Group I muscle:
- Teres minor
- Biceps brachii
These were found to have greater activity during the early and late stages of the throw, with less activity during propulsion. The muscles served primarily to position the shoulder and elbow for the delivery of the pitch—what we now define as stability to load and decelerate the throw. The Group II muscles (pectoralis major, serratus anterior, subscapularis, and latissimus dorsi) had stronger activity during the propulsive phase of the pitch, accelerating the arm and baseball forward in space.3
From basic anatomy and kinesiology, we can conclude that the Group II muscles determined in the study are also trained as prime movers in the bench press exercise. This gives us a bit of validation on the transfer argument, and I would contend on the safety argument as well. Going back to the necessities of subsets of strength—would it not be prudent to expose the muscles used in throwing to varying levels of force in a controlled manner in the weight room? The obvious answer would be yes, as these exposures give us a general foundation of strength and coordination. As more advanced training is called for throughout an athlete’s time, more specific subsets of forces—namely through power—can also be trained with the bench press.
In a real-world example, the crew at Driveline Baseball uses the bench press as a diagnostic tool and regularly includes a variation in the development of their pitchers, stating:
“The prime movers in a bench press are the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and anterior deltoid, whereas the triceps and serratus anterior work to stabilize the movement. The antagonist muscles are the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoids, and biceps. The rhomboids help keep the scapula retracted during the movement. From an injury-prevention standpoint, because the muscles used in the bench press help accelerate the shoulder, stabilize the scapula, and aid in upward rotation, it’s important to see if those muscles can apply force quickly since the throwing delivery is a very fast movement.”4
You may ask why not look at a push-up, and I would agree, especially from a general perspective, but the open chain environment of the bench press may allow you to see some coordinative leaks from head to toe, as in a throw. Despite what most people may think, the lower body is involved in a stable bench press. Contrary to what you hear in some weight rooms, the dancing feet won’t help you cheat—this can give some weight to the coordination enhancement argument.Despite what most people may think, the lower body is involved in a stable bench press. This can give some weight to the coordination enhancement argument. Click To Tweet
Brain Games: The Software
On the topic of software, there is also the other side of the coin in terms of “safety.” Readers of this forum may be familiar with the concepts of Dan Fichter in how training affects the brain (reflexively) and vice versa. In the weight room, Fichter seeks to train “involuntary” (reflexive) movement, which the PMRF governs.
A quick word on the PMRF.
“The ponto medullary reticular formation (PMRF) is the powerhouse of your posture, the center for postural control. The PMRF inhibits flexion of the Posture System to efficiently resist gravity. Patients who present with dysfunctional output of their PMRF have flexor dominant posture, a common postural presentation of forward head posture, anterior rolling of the shoulders, chest flexion, and hyperkyphosis.
The PMRF is in the brainstem among the pons and medulla. It is the home of 8 cranial nerves that perform vital functions and contribute to proper posture. The reticulospinal tract descends from the PMRF to the spine to inhibit flexor tone.”5
In Fichter’s view, manipulating how the sensory input enters via the PMRF is critical in affecting range of motion, stabilization, and pain control. He feels classic programs only train 10% of what actually occurs in the body, whereas 90% of movement is governed by these brain-deep reflexes, going on to explain a cost to classic bilateral movements as they “temporarily paralyze the brain” and dampen reflexive outputs.6 As far as inputs impacting reflexes are concerned, he certainly has a point in regard to training chaotic team sports such as the one he also coaches (football): In this case, the general qualities developed will influence the software of the system (reflexes, brain) along with the hardware (muscle mass, tissue strength, etc.).
Being a practical coach, Fichter also doesn’t fight the “don’t let them bench press” debate. Instead, he manipulates the input to the PMRF by using asymmetrical postures while performing the exercise. For him, simply manipulating the grip with one hand in supination and the other in pronation will stimulate the paraspinal. Of note, Fichter also trains opposite movements together in a push versus pull fashion—think a triceps extension on one side with elbow flexion on the other or a row with a press. This may prove to be a bit impractical with bench pressing directly but is worth sparking thought with other exercises.
7 Ways We Spice Up Our Bench
Here are methods we use at P.I.T., which I’ll categorize here as either “hardware” or “software” driven.
1. Manual Eccentric Overload: This is simple and a great way to incorporate teamwork into a group session. Have the spotter push down hard as the athlete lowers the bar to the chest, obviously resisting. The spotter will immediately release the pressure about 2 inches from the chest, unleashing a neurological PAP effect that will send light bars through the roof. The premise here is a manual weight releaser that is more stable and doesn’t cost a dime.
Video 1. Coaches can use this to train eccentric overload and explosive concentrics in the same set.
2. Manual Oscillatory Isometrics: The same setup as above, except the lifter holds a position off the chest ranging from 2–4 inches. The spotter will apply “pulses” of force over a specified period (5–30 seconds, depending on what you want to train) before releasing.
Video 2. The lifter can explode up with a rep, or it can be racked if a longer duration is applied.
3. Timed Max Effort: The timed max effort is more of a training modality than a tactic and can be used as a quantifiable way to develop power endurance. I know I read about this in an article, and I cannot seem to find it online, but I must give credit where it’s due to Elitefts and Louie Simmons.
The application is quite simple: Pick a weight and move it as fast as you can for a specific rep range while a coach or a more experienced training partner times the set with a stopwatch. A good rule of thumb is one rep per second or under for the initial set; if this is accomplished, add 5 pounds to the next set but give an extra second to complete it. Do not add weight if the athlete cannot complete the set within the specified time.
I usually have them perform three sets per session, but you can go up to five if you like. I’ve applied this quite successfully with male swimmers timing 10-rep sets and beginning the cycle with about 40% of their body weight. Many progressed to near body weight for 10 reps in 10 seconds. For swimmers, output over time was something they could understand and therefore compete on without trashing them.
4a. Offset Load: This is simple—overload one side of the bar by 10–20 pounds.
Video 3. Bench press with offset loading.
Start with symmetrical hand spacing. For a challenge later, you can use one of the following grip configurations.
4b. Mixed Grip: Again, simple. One hand is pronated, the other supinated, symmetrically spaced.
Video 4. Start by symmetrically loading the bar but feel free to offset the load or hand spacing for a deeper challenge.
4c. Offset Grip: Put one hand closer to the middle of the bar and one hand wider.
Video 5. Begin with a pronated grip, but you can use the two configurations above in conjunction with it.
If this is your first exposure to these concepts, and you are as much of a purist as I am, then you are probably asking yourself the same thing I did: “How the hell do I program this?” My solution is to do them in warm-up sets. Practically speaking, if the brain stimulation capabilities of these simple tweaks are true, then why not use them when we are trying to prime the body for performance? If you have three warm-up sets, you have three places to start with the above methods.Practically speaking, if the brain stimulation capabilities of these simple bench press tweaks are true, then why not use them in warm-ups when we are trying to prime the body for performance? Click To Tweet
5. Chaotic Loading: If you don’t have the tools (earthquake bar) mentioned in the references above, you can use a stronger PVC pipe cut to a 7-foot length to match barbell dimensions with the suspended load of kettlebells or plates. Bungee cords may also work if you don’t have bands. Use this for lighter sets for athletes with a decent grasp of technique and a decent strength level (BW for 10 reps) before employing.
6. Isometric+: A play on the badger protocol here.7 Hold the bottom of the bench press position about 2 inches off the chest for a specified time, touch, and then perform reps. As alluded to above, I have found the combination of extended holds followed by reps to be a superior method for learning technique.
Video 6. In this case, we hold for 10 seconds and follow with a minimum of eight reps and as high as 20. Just keep in mind that the higher the reps, the fewer sets they will need.
7. Two-Minute Drill: Hold the bottom and top for 10 seconds and do it for two minutes straight. This is an advanced method, but I like to use it for:
- A challenge.
- Intermediate trainees who need to learn to kick their technique up a notch.
I prefer using a chaotic setup via the earthquake bar and suspended plates here.
Video 7. The task is simple: hold the bottom for 10 seconds, then quickly press to the top and hold for another 10 seconds. Alternate this sequence for six total reps. At 20 seconds per rep, that equals two minutes.
Training Both the Hardware and Software
Work capacity, tissue strength (tolerance), skill, and resilience are the orders of the day, to some degree. If coaches can train many of these qualities at once, we will certainly try. This chaotic loading style can offer coaches a unique tool to replicate the demands of most team sports and allow for heightened stress on the stabilizers and proprioceptors for a pre/re-habilitative context.8 Studies cited and examined by Dr. Mann revealed several aspects of stable versus (various conditions of) unstable loading.
Although EMG measurements of the prime movers were not significantly different between both regimens, the EMG activity for the stabilizer muscles was far greater in the unstable condition (Lawrence, 2018, p. 1351). In another study (Ostrowski, 2017, p. 1349) that used untrained or recreationally trained individuals, there was no difference between the prime movers for the conditions. Mann explained, “this indicates that you can get the same prime mover activity with much lower loads in the unstable regime, indicating the same muscular stimulus without as much joint strain. This is crucial for the older or restricted lifter whose previous injuries and restrictions preclude them from training heavy any longer. For the younger lifter, this may allow them a prophylaxis to injurious situations from long term heavy lifting.”8
Although these muscles can be trained with other regimes, most notably high-impact plyometrics, trainees can enjoy a decrease in overall training stress by incorporating the unstable regimen that spares the CNS fatigue and joint damage from higher stress means. This would inherently save the heightened arousal for when it’s needed—the contest!
It is hard to argue with Mann’s contention that the stabilizer muscles are important in decelerating, stopping, and reaccelerating the body, external load, or limb in the arena of competition for athletes. Witness any contact sport, and you see this in live action.
These EMG revelations should also appease the “injury prevention” crowd, as these typically neglected stabilizers can now be trained during a lift typically scoffed at by this same camp. Most notably, the middle trapezius and bicep brachii activity was significantly different in unstable conditions. The increase in EMG activity of these muscles shows how they are important stabilizers for the shoulder, specifically in regard to protecting against SLAP tears.
Anatomically speaking, the long head of the biceps crosses the shoulder and the scapulothoracic joints, inserting where the slap tear occurs (the supraglenoid tubercle). Given that the stable bench press typically “pins down” the mid traps and dampens the biceps activity, the use of unstable loads can “wake up” these dormant muscles and improve the resiliency of our hardware.Given that the stable bench press typically ‘pins down’ the mid traps and dampens the biceps activity, the use of unstable loads can ‘wake up’ these dormant muscles and improve their resiliency. Click To Tweet
Couple this with a decreased demand in necessary load, “…the condition with the highest bar path variability required 67% of the bench press 1RM to maintain the same EMG prime mover and stabilizer activity” creates a resiliency stew so the body can more completely heal and recover between training bouts.8
I contend that the unstable loads develop a larger bandwidth of motor learning. We have all read or heard about variation improving learning, and in the Lawrence study, the barbell path was tracked under four different conditions. “…in the stable load, there was very little variation in the bar path (starting, touching, or ending position for the bench press). In the earthquake bar and thick bands, there was a significant alteration in the bar path between repetitions in terms of touch point, yet the pressing was fairly straight on each repetition. In the earthquake bar with plates with thinner bands, the bar path starts off smooth and starts to have some greater displacement from the path with each subsequent repetition. In the earthquake bar plus thin bands and kettlebells… no two repetitions went in the same path; the path chart resembles chicken scratch. There was a marked instability in this condition. In the study the numerical expression for the congruence of the repetitions shows not just the anterior posterior and superior inferior (bar movement toward the face and hips as well as vertical difference), but a medial lateral movement as well (from side to side). The fourth conditioning showed more than five times the variability in the repetitions as the stable load.”8
Given the above regarding the medial and lateral movement of the bench press during unstable loading conditions, I would contend heightened brain activity, a la the reflexive actions of the paraspinals as suggested by Fichter, exists as well. The “chaos” created by the unstable loading creates a repeated instantaneous panic response that forces the postural reflexive muscles to fire. Combine this with offset grip, mixed grip, or “quick style” reps (as seen in Fichter’s programs), and you have even more variations that are joint-friendly, brain-friendly, and highly challenging.
Mel Siff, the co-author of Supertraining, coined a term for this style of chaotic loading—“imperfection training”—as a counter to most common approaches to “injury prevention.” To paraphrase Siff9: The current emphasis on preventing injury is the avoidance of the demonized exercise as well as seemingly excessive amounts of volume and intensity. This approach is limited because it neglects to develop the ability to cope with suboptimal training and competitive situations. (P.S. This is why I think most scientific studies on training are flawed—the environments are too sterile.)Sports that include many open skills and multiple qualities (that of a chaotic nature) must have a training component where athletes learn to cope with the unexpected. Click To Tweet
Sports that include many open skills and multiple qualities (that of a chaotic nature) must have a training component where athletes learn to cope with the unexpected. In combat sports, motor racing, or any sport with an extreme risk to bodily health, athletes must develop the ability to deal with these potentially dire consequences. The ability to anticipate the threatening situation, rapidly react to the unexpected, and know what action to take to avoid injury should be adopted as a standard extensively in the repertoire of all athletic development. The idea or occurrence of truly perfect movement or “balanced” training loads is rare. Having the ability to manage and utilize “agile” training modes may be a subconscious but logical approach in this endeavor.9
As any coach in the weight room knows, our dual aim is to prepare our athletes for the demands of practice and play while Doing No Harm. We achieve this by coaching technique, managing volume, and developing a wide bandwidth of movement capabilities. Some coaches may write these off as the snake oil of the functional trainer types, but I’ll later explain and demonstrate how to implement these concepts without sacrificing the meat and potatoes of strength and power that you are trying to build.
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1. Miller D., “Benchmark Lifts to Throw 50 Feet (High School Shot Put),” Throws University, 12/14/20.
2. Marques MC, van den Tillaar R, Vescovi J, and Gonzalez-Badillo J.J. “Relationship Between Throwing Velocity, Muscle Power, and Bar Velocity During Bench Press in Elite Handball Players.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2008;2(4):414–422.
3. Gowan ID, Jobe FW, Tibone JE, Perry J, and Moynes DR. “A comparative electromyographic analysis of the shoulder during pitching. Professional versus amateur pitchers.” American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1987;15(6):586–590.
4. Rogers K., “Bench Press: A Deep Dive with Programming Considerations,” drivelinebaseball.com, 11/15/18. https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2018/11/bench-press-deep-dive-programming-considerations/
5.Burns K. “Neurology of the Posture System.” American Posture Institute. 1/21/17. https://freetraining.americanpostureinstitute.com/neurology-of-the-posture-system-2/
6. Brain Games: Fichter Webinar. Upper Body Training for Athlete Development
7. Jovanovic M., “The Badger Protocol: Grease the Groove with IsoSandwich,” Complementarytraining.net, 7/13/21. https://complementarytraining.net/the-badger-protocol-grease-the-groove-with-isosandwich/
8. Mann B., “Unstable Load Training for the Bench Press,” Elite FTS, 3/7/20. https://www.elitefts.com/education/unstable-load-training-for-the-bench-press/
9. Verkoshansky YV and Siff MC. Supertraining. 5th edition, 2000.