The Truth about the Bench Press for Sports Performance
Date Released : 20 Nov 2012
- Discover why the bench press may not contribute significantly to improved athletic performance.
- Learn why the force generation and muscle activation patterns are different when performing the bench press vs. performing the common upright pressing actions of sport.
- Understand the difference between “Specific” (Functional) exercises vs. “General” exercises, and how both types of exercises can have positive functional performance benefits.
- Learn 3 functional alternatives to the bench press to improve upright (standing) pushing strength.
The bench press is widely considered one of the “BIG” lifts. It has reached a credibility status that provokes many lifters to include it in their exercise program as a staple exercise.
The bench press is a lift many enjoy and it is also a must-do for power lifters since it is 1/3 of their entire sport. Additionally, while competing in a combine – an event where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of coaches, managers, and scouts – the bench press is a required test, which calls on the athlete to train with the bench press in order to prepare.
This article will explain why the bench press is one of the most over-emphasized and misunderstood exercises in the world of sports performance training because the benefits are very limited when it comes to improving the standing pushing actions needed for optimal sports performance. This article will also detail 3 bench press alternative exercises, which can be applied in training routines to improve performance.
Let’s be clear…
This article is not recommending any exerciser to stop using the bench press, especially if you enjoy using it!
This article is simply sharing a particular training approach, which utilizes exercises other than the bench press to prepare for the standing pushing forces needed in sport. It is also about providing some new insights on the bench press so one can better understand how it could best fit into an individualized sports strength program.
How Can You Challenge the Bench Press?
How can you challenge the bench press when it has helped so many high school, college, and pro athletes? The bench press is an exercise that has not been challenged or analyzed below the surface by most. Perhaps this is because it has a great history in weight lifting, or because the bench press has been widely accepted for a significant amount of time, dating back to the 1930’s.
That being said, the bench press is an exercise that has aided in athletic performance from high school to pro sports. However, there are numerous other contributing factors that have a much larger impact on athletic success. Listed below are a couple of the contributing factors to athletic success:
The high school athlete on nature’s steroids
High school males, ages 12-17, will likely get bigger and stronger no matter what they do (or don’t do) in their strength training routine because they have the anabolic advantage. When teenaged boys go through puberty (especially the later stages), they experience what is called the “strength spurt” in which their body drastically increases testosterone production, bone thickness, muscle mass and motor unit recruitment while decreasing body fat. Within a few years, this happens rapidly.
A good strength program can certainly teach teenagers good lifting habits and help them to build a solid work ethic. A resistance-training program can in fact accelerate their strength gains. However, it’s likely that any good strength-training stimulus will have the similar effects for the teenager experiencing this “strength spurt” filled with nature’s steroids.
Best at the sport, not best in the gym
Field, court and combat athletes (from high school to pro) excel at their sport because they are the best at playing their sport, not because they are the best in the gym.
The NFL combine results are proof of this. Out of the “Top 5 bench press records in NFL Combine history,” which actually consist of 8 players, only 1 athlete, Brodrick Bunkley (Florida State, 2006), experienced success in his sport. The other players either went undrafted, remain bench players, or displayed a poorer performance compared to their teammates.
The 2008 article titled, “Few recent combine stars have become productive NFL players” stated that:
“Seventeen of the 128 very best combine performers since 2000 went undrafted. Twelve of them never played in an NFL game. Forty-three weren’t in the NFL last season. Ninety-five have started fewer than half of their potential regular-season games since they shined at the combine.”
In addition, out of the “10 Greatest Scouting Combine Performances in NFL History,” only half of the names on the list excelled in the NFL.
All of these athletes had some “raw” physical ability. The thing that separated the NFL heros from the other players was their ability to use their physical talent as a platform to express their skill to perform during the game.
In other words, physical ability, for example the amount that one can bench press, is irrelevant if you are not skilled at your sport.
What Strength & Conditioning Can and Can’t Do for an Athlete
It’s for the above undeniable realities that make it completely unrealistic to credit any particular workout program, much less a specific exercise like the bench press, for the success any athletes achieves.
Put simply, strength and conditioning helps to give you the physical platform (i.e. fitness) to do what you already know how to do (i.e. perform your sport). Even teams that do not excel are including strength and conditioning in their workout routines. However, a player who can run fast is not beneficial if they are running to the wrong spot on the field, and a player’s strength does not help if they are pushing the opponent in the wrong direction.
If there is any credit to be given to a strength and conditioning program, it is for aiding in injury prevention and simply helping an athlete to get more gas in the tank (the conditioning) to express their skill throughout the entire competition.
Does the Bench Press Improve Standing Pushing Strength?
In 2007, Coach Juan Carlos Santana and Dr. Stuart McGill conducted a study titled, “A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press.“
“This study compared the single arm standing cable press (SASCP) and the traditional bench press (BP) to better understand the biomechanical limitations of pushing from a standing position together with the activation amplitudes of trunk and shoulder muscles.”
Here are 2 findings from the study that are relevant to this article:
- “Pushing forces from a standing position under ideal mechanical conditions are limited to 40.8% of the subject’s body weight.”
- “Our EMG findings show that SCP (standing cable press) performance is limited by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of torso muscles, not maximal muscle activation of the chest and shoulder muscles.”
Both of these results reveal what we may have discovered already
First, unless a field, court or combat athlete is training for a combine, or any competition that includes the bench press, it is unneccesary to focus on maximal bench press strength. The principles of mathematics and physics make it impossible for anyone to come close to matching the bench press type of pushing force from a standing position, regardless of the stance the exercise is performed in.
Secondly, the limiting factor when pushing from a standing position is the stiffness of the torso muscles to maintain body position and to coordinate the hips and shoulders, while stabilizing the forces that the extremities (arms and legs) create. In other words, the standing pushing action is more of a total body exercise, whereas the bench press is more of an upper-body exercise.
Note: Although powerlifters use their hips and lower back to aid in their bench press, they are lying down and have their shoulders anchored on the bench.
Specific (Functional) vs. General Exercises
For the purposes of this article, the exercises can be classified as either “specific/functional” or “general”. These terms are not an official classification of the exercises, however it is important to focus on the concepts rather than the terms. A combination of both functional and general exercises can be utilized in a sports performance workout in order to ensure that the program is fully comprehensive. Both types of exercises can contribute to improved performance.
“General” exercises, such as the bench press, incline press, and dumbbell press can be performed to indirectly help performance by increasing muscle mass, motor unit recruitment, bone density and connective tissue health. Exercises in this classification tend to involve more use of machines, or fixed exercises, to perform the exercise and isolate muscle groups.
Specific (Functional) Exercises
“Specific” exercises, such as those shown in the pictures below, can enhance the specific force development patterns involved in standing pushing movements, and improve the neuromuscular coordination involved with performing those patterns. These exercises mimic the specific movement of the skill required in the sport and most often incorporate total body strength movement, rather than an isolated strength movement.
According to Dr. Everett Harman in the Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, the reference book for the NSCA,”The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity).”
“The simplest and most straight forward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercise similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occurs and the direction of the movements. In addition, joints ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”
3 Functional Pushing Exercises for Athletes
Below are 3 “functional” pushing exercises, which incorporate a total body training stimulus and can train an athlete more effectively for a standing pushing motion, as compared to the bench press.
One Arm Push-Up
The one arm push-up is often considered the king of upper-body pushing exercises for sport. Although it is not performed from a standing position, it has a heavy involvement of the core, hips and lower body.
The one armed push-up promotes unilateral strength, recruits left/right side muscle balance and significant core activation. Generally speaking, a larger athlete that completes 4-6+ full range one arm push-up reps is performing exceptionally well. For a smaller athlete, completing at least 7-10+ one arm push-ups is excellent.
Figure 1 – One arm push-up.
Once the client has become proficient at completing one arm push-ups from the floor, they can progress to using a weighted vest and/or the foot elevated version as demonstrated here:
Figure 2 – One Arm Push-up – Feet Elevated (progression).
Standing One Arm Cable Press
The standing one arm cable press is a training option for clients who are unable to perform a one arm push-up and is also a great complement to the one arm push-up.
If the client can perform the cable press exercise with correct form, it is beneficial to utilize a weight that provides enough of an overload to serve a strength routine.
Figure 3 – One Arm Cable Press
Angled Barbell Press
The Angled Barbell press (specifically the Landmine press in the photo below) is a complement to one arm push-ups or standing cable presses because the pushing angle can be performed in various angles.
Often times in sport, the athlete is required to push in various directions. Rather than pushing straight ahead, they may need to push slightly upward – for example, to control your opponent’s shoulders in MMA or to get underneath someone’s shoulder pads in Football. This is a great exercise to improve strength while performing those actions.
Figure 4 – Angled Barbell Press (Landmine Press)
The bench press can help athletes as a general strengthening exercise and when applied properly, has many benefits. However, it is not a significant contributing factor to improving sports performance and athletic success. The majority of athletes possessing the top NFL Combine bench press results have not demonstrated to perform as top athletes in their sport, therefore, one can assume there are other significant contributors to success. Studies conducted by JC Santana and Dr. Stuart McGill have highlighted the important role that the torso and other muscles have when performing standing pushing motions similar to the movements required in sport. This indicates that athletes may greatly benefit when including “specific/functional” exercises such as one arm push-ups, one arm cable presses and angled barbell press in their strength routine to complement the “general” exercises, such as the bench press.
Below is a sample of how one can incorporate both general and specific exercises into a fully comprehensive, upper-body pushing strength workout to improve an athlete’s performance:
2. Angled Barbell press 4 x 6-8 reps (per arm)
3. Bench Press 4 x 6-10 reps
4. Cable Flys 3 x 10-15 reps
Note: These exercises could (and should) be integrated with exercises that incorporate additional muscles and alternate movement patterns. To include all of these scenarios along with warm up and cool down protocols is far beyond the scope of this article.
1. A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. Santana JC, Vera-Garcia FJ, McGill SM. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1271-7.
2. Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, By NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association, Human Kinetics, 2008