Friday, May 4, 2012

The Most Dangerous Exercise: The Bench Press

A sure way to die is to put a few hundred pounds on the anterior portion of your neck while lying down. Really, the only way give this hypothetical situation a chance to occur is to bench press. The squat, deadlift, clean, and even the press have all been incorrectly labeled as dangerous to your back shoulders or knees for some silly reason by some stupid person or group. In reality these exercises are extremely safe when done correctly. In fact they are far more safe than the beloved bench press. Don't get me wrong the bench press is great and just because it is dangerous doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Riding a bike in traffic is pretty darn dangerous but people make a choice to do it everyday because the benefits (for them not me) outweigh the risk. The best way to build upper body strength is to bench press and in order to do that safely you have to be smart about it.

The man in the above photo is Doug Young. Doug was quite the bench presser as you may have guessed from his enormous chest (also notice no gut). Doug was able to bench what many people squat when they are in bragging mode. I bring up Doug because he obviously had great form (you don't get big lifts with crappy form). If you want to hear more about Doug click here for comments by Mark Rippetoe, or click here to watch a short video interview/biography. Sadly Doug died at the age of 61 due to a massive heart attack. Although he is not with us we can still learn a lot from the great old Texas sized bear of a man Doug Young.

The video below is a series of clips from an international powerlifting competition. Look at the two bench press attempts starting at the 40 second mark. Successful attempts are 507 lbs and 535 lbs respectively which are both freaking amazing.

He maintains absolute control of the bar. Controlled descent and explosive yet controlled ascent. Every muscle in his body is tight. There is no bouncing off the ribcage and there is no throwing the bar back into the rack as the lift is completed. This is how a bench press should be done. No slamming the bar into the rib cage to help get out of the bottom. No wiggling the bar around. No bridging bringing the butt off the bench, like this guy.

Most people have a pretty good idea of how to bench. For those who lay of the bench with loose shoulders and no arch in your back, Stop It! You need to retract the shoulder blades like you're trying to pinch a pencil between them, arch your back by shoving your chest out/up as far as you can, and push a bit against the floor with your legs on each rep to tighten everything up and shove your shoulders into the bench hard. Tightness is important in lifting as looseness gives lots of "energy leaks" and makes it harder to get the bar up. The main lifts are hard enough. You shouldn't make them harder by doing them with dumbbells, or on a stability ball, and worst of all poor form. Adding in weird versions (variations) of the lifts is counter productive to strength gains until you are an advanced lifter (likely competing in lifting in some form). This is turning into a rant so I will stop now.

The word dangerous was in the title of this post for a reason. Every other lift offers you an escape from the heavy bar when you can't get it up. You may make a lot of noise when you drop 300 pounds of iron on the floor during a squat and you might even break something but your body will most likely be fully functional. In the bench press you must be a real ninja to get out from a under a heavy bar before it gets to you. Note: ninjas are not seen lifting weights often because they are so sneaky. So if people see you in the gym do not consider yourself a ninja.

The bench press is a great exercise but it must be respected. You are not on your feet during the bench press so there really is no sneaking out from under the bar. It will crush you just like it has others who have failed a rep while attempting maximal efforts without a spotter. Failure on the bench without a spotter can mean injury and possibly death (yes people have died while benching). If a spotter is not available you must use some safety equipment (pins in a rack for instance) to protect yourself from inevitable (and unpredictable) failure. The last option to you if no spotter is available is to never collar the weights. That way if worst comes to worst you can dump the weights and come out unscathed. Yes you will make quite the racket, possibly break equipment, and likely be booted from the facility you train but you will also be alive. Alive and healthy are always better than dead.


  1. What are your thoughts on circuit weight training as opposed to free weights?

  2. circuit training is not as effective. The body is meant to work together, not one joint at a time. This is the main reason why compound barbell movements are superior to machines used in circuit training or isolation exercises like dumbbell curls or cable tricep press-downs. In addition to that the barbell movements require balance and coordination that simply cannot be trained while sitting on a padded seat pushing or pulling against a lever.