WTF?! The bench press is the greatest lift ever? This is coming from the guy who has put the bench press up against other exercises like the dumbbell fly, or dips, or even close grip bench vs dips and skullcrushers, only to have it at best tie or more often than not, lose. Is this some sort of cleverly disguised bench bashing article (again)? No, I’m serious. Well, sort of. I wouldn’t necessarily call the bench press the best exercise ever, but I do want to give it the respect it deserves. It is after all the first exercise that most bodybuilders perform every Monday, it translates well to many sports that include horizontal pushing such as football, hockey and rugby to name a few and it does activate the muscles of the lats, delts, pecs, tri’s and requires a good amount of leg drive and abdominal stability in order to provide power. So, what’s not to like?
Let’s take a look at some of the history of the bench press to get this article and most likely series, rolling. When it was first introduced the lying on your back bench press was looked down upon by the weight lifting community. Why would anyone want to lie on their back and try to expand their chest muscles? Real men did overhead presses from the standing position. A funny thing happened though and that was women apparently liked this new broad chest look and for some reason those ‘real men’ decided that they too should give this bench press thing a try.
The bench press has undergone many changes over the years since its ‘invention’. The first method was the floor press. Way back in 1899 the man who invented the hack squat named George Hackenshmidt rolled a 361 pound bar onto himself while lying on the floor and pressed it. Doesn’t sound that impressive? It stood as the record for 18 years.
When that record was finally broken there were new methods taking shape. It was discovered that one could use powerful glutes as a way to hoist the weight overhead when lying on the floor by placing the bar over ones abdomen and performing a form of an explosive bridge to power the bar upward. This form of benching was known as the belly toss, and the heaviest weight lifted was by a strongman/wrestler by the name of George Lurich who belly tossed 443 pounds. Although not exactly a bench press, as it was really more of a hip thrust/bridge that just happened to have the bar end up over the chest when it was caught.
There were more bridging variations to follow but the pullover and press were standardized in 1939 and the technique involved keeping the legs straight, the feet together and the buttocks on the ground.
Floor pressing soon evolved into pressing from small boxes. The reason for this was that the range of motion could be increased and by doing so the pectoralis activity as well. This ushered in the production of equipment that were specifically built to perform the horizontal press. Even with these new pieces of equipment, there were many techniques used throughout the 1940’s including the belly toss, the press from back (a form of a controlled bridge the included the tri’s and pecs as the movement was not as violent as the belly toss), the bridge press and finally the bench press.
It took until 1950, but bodybuilding was slowly becoming mainstream. Not to the degree that it is today but it wasn’t just strongmen anymore. It was regular people who wanted to fill out their t-shirts and attract women. You know, just like now. It was at this time in history that the bench press was the king of upper body lifts. The benches produced became better, and spotting while benching became the norm, and as a result the weights pressed began to climb.
In the 1950’s a man named Doug Hepburn became the first person to bench 400 and 500 pounds with a pause at the bottom. A man named Pat Casey lifted 600 pounds in the 1960’s and Ted Arcidi benched 700 pounds in the 1980’s. The first to bench 800 pounds was Gene Rychlak in the 1990’s and in the early 2000’s the 900 and 1000 pound marks were broken. The current record of 1075 lbs belongs to Ryan Kennelly, who used a bench shirt that are en vogue in today’s competition while Scot Mendelson continues to hold the record for a 715 pound lift without the benefit of the modern supportive equipment.
Just as it still does today the bench press has always been questioned by many as to its safety and validity. It has been said to cause unequal chest to back development, poor posture, cause shoulder injury and many question its transfer to sports or functional movements.
The current arched back technique and bench shirts that are used by powerlifters are considered by many to be a form of cheating. Just like steroids in competitive bodybuilding continue to grow larger athletes, the big three lifts in powerlifting must use whatever is at their disposal to continue to have new records set. When we next get together I will continue to look at The Bench Press – The Greatest Lift Ever. Until then,
This article was written and researched by Matt Taylor