In Defense of the Bench

by Tom Swift

My theory: a bunch of bros with big pecs and skinny legs ruined it for the rest of us.

In certain circles, including CrossFit, the fitness philosophy I dedicated myself to for the last four-plus years, the bench press has a sullied name. It is something sneered at. It is a “bro rep” — i.e., something for meathead men. At best, it’s a low-priority lift coaches throw in at the end of the week to keep tired troops coming in the door.

Why? My belief is that it’s because a lot of dudes in the early decades of mainstream weightlifting wanted to look good while smashing empties on their foreheads at the beach. In the last fifteen years recent movements like CrossFit — created in 2000 but mainstream here just in the last eight or ten years — looked at these guys and realized that (a) not everyone can look like them and (b) a whole lotta people want to be fit not freakish. So many people, people like me, people who take their fitness seriously, discounted and diminished an important lift from their physical routines. In finding poster boys of what not to do in the gym, the bench press became a superfluous exercise.

In my experience, if you walk into a CrossFit gym you are at least four times more likely to find snatches in the Workout of the Day than you are a bench press or even a push-up. The CrossFit Total? Why that is precisely the more-longstanding powerlifting total, except with the overhead press in place of the snubbed bench. When it comes to instruction at a CrossFit gym you are likely to drill, drill, drill on the snatch and other lifts. When it is time for the bench … and, ah, you know what to do. Bench press technique is an afterthought. An oxymoron. I’m trying to think of specific instruction I have gotten in the bench over the last four years (I’ve been to CrossFit gyms in eight states and two countries, going five-plus times a week over those four years) and, well, pass that protein shake — this is going to take a while.

The thing is, the diagnosis wasn’t off. But the cure … not so much.

I must add a disclosure: I am not a good bencher. My PR is downright pedestrian. I can rep out light weight pretty well (in the rare occasions it is done — usually after class hours) and I can do me some push-ups. But increase the weight and I hit a wall. Fast. Personally, if you tell me I can choose one lift to work on for the day I am going pick the back-squat. I am going to select the deadlift. I am not the bench press’s greatest fan. And, certainly if you look at my pectorals, I’m not it’s best spokesperson.

I am, however, here to say that the lift is not as cracked up as it’s said to be.

While certainly not as hard for the beginner to perform safely as, say, the Olympic lifts, such as the snatch or the clean-and-jerk, doing the bench well — and injury-free — involves, among other things, grip considerations (yes, there is more than one way to hold the bar; I am finding this out now, more than 25 years after my first rep), foot placement, elbow positioning, bar path, and even leg drive. I don’t know about you, but for me, keeping all that in my head while also holding more than my body weight in my hands takes some practice, some skill.

CrossFit bills itself as, among other things, “functional.” You see this word on many of the T-shirts that are sold at gym events, special workouts, or just because (few things inspire more T-shirts, it seems, than burpees.) You certainly come across the term if you read the CrossFit Journal, listen to founder Greg Glassman speak (as he compellingly does; I much enjoy his interviews), or ask any CrossFit coach why you should consider joining his or her gym.

Yet if function were paramount, you most certainly would not downgrade the bench press. In fact, you would be forced to consider it one of your foundational lifts.

The bench works the …

… triceps

… traps

… delts

… back and, yes …

the chest.

If upper-body strength means anything to you at all, what other exercise can you do that addresses that many significant muscles?

Take a moment wherever you may be while reading this and mimic the snatch. That’s right. Pick up a ghost barbell and snatch that sucker like a champ. Now ask yourself: when else in life will I make use of this motion?

“Honey, can you come in here and pick baby Skylar out of her bassinet? She’s fussing and I have my hands full.”

“Sure, Dear.”

“Don’t forget — elbows in. And lock. Her. Out!”

Let me be clear about something: the snatch is a perfectly fine lift. If you are good at the snatch now or ever get good at the snatch in the future, you can know that you have impressed at least one person — me. The snatch is a highly technical maneuver. It is one, if not the, most challenging lifts to execute. To see a man or woman grab a bar with that wide grip and whip big weight over his or her head, well, it’s something to behold.

But functional? To say the snatch is functional is to say that no lift isn’t.

Conversely, if function were crucial, the bench would be a staple — the upper body answer to the squat. After all, one’s gains from the bench have many practical applications. Let’s say you have a bear in your face …

Seriously, if you have ever pushed a buddy’s ride out of the snow in the middle of a Minnesota winter, you know the value of moving weight away from your body.

Me, I like symbolism. Sometimes in life the unwanted hangs too close or stays too long. Whether physically or metaphorically, sometimes you need to push something or someone away — a job, a person, the past, stale energy, negative vibes, the cookie jar. I don’t want any of these things hanging over my head, as if with the Olympic lifts. I want him, her, this, that, it, them — away. (I’m not a woman, but I think if I were, the bench would be more important to me, not less, for this very reason.)

I also believe intangibles are under-rated. I think there is something to be said for strength for its own sake. Not strength to impress people. Not strength to intimidate. Strength for you. To be your best self in the world. When I feel strong, stress bothers me less. When I feel strong, I set better boundaries with people. I do better at my work. You can be a well-rounded athlete and be a good bench-presser. I don’t think the converse is true. How can you be strong if you’re not working each of those muscles? And if you are working each of those muscles why would you not want to do so in the same repetition?

Certainly, if you go to the gym every day for years, try hard, pay significant amounts for coaching, have no physical disabilities or significant injuries, and you can’t do 10-plus strict — no-knees — push-ups (essentially bench reps at your body weight), then I think it’s not out of line to wonder if you’re due a refund.

You don’t have to be a beach muscle bobo to make the bench press a priority. To all but exclude the bench is as misguided as to bench at the exclusion of everything else.  There is such a thing as a heavy-lifting happy medium.

Let’s not throw — or snatch — the baby out with the bathwater.