For decades, the flat bench press has been considered the cornerstone of a strength training program. Most people know of and celebrate “International Chest Day” at every gym around the world EVERY Monday. And you can bet that our chest workouts WILL start with the flat bench press, and for good reason.
The flat bench press is arguably the best exercise for building absolute pressing strength due to the use of large muscle groups from a stabilized position. With a steady, disciplined approach the flat bench press can be an excellent tool in your upper body training arsenal. There are plenty of reasons to use this powerful exercise, but here are 3 reasons why you may want to stop.
You’ve stopped making progress
“Hitting the wall” can be a confidence killer when attempt after attempt to move the metal becomes as productive as watching a season of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”. How often do we keep banging our heads on the bench, begging the Iron Gods to bless us with just one more rep? Pretty soon, we’re dreading the session and find perfectly logical reasons to skip the workout altogether. Or we do the opposite and push harder, increasing risk of pattern injury. Usually in regards to overusing an exercise, it’s not a matter of if, but WHEN an injury occurs.
When I’m on a heavy pressing cycle, I like to substitute the exercise about every 6 weeks. I’ll usually cycle between 3 exercises: Flat bench, incline bench press, and military press. Step back from the flat bench press for a few weeks, introduce a similar compound barbell exercise and you’ll likely come back to the flat bench press ready to make strides again. Remember the movement is most important, not the exercise itself. Making progress in the push pattern doesn’t hinge on the success of your flat bench press.
Your Anatomy Isn’t Right
Flat bench pressing ain’t for everyone. Most of the strongest guys I know with big bench press numbers are built similarly: Shorter arms, barrel chests and almost no neck. Your basic anatomy affects your potential on every major lift and the flat bench press is no exception. The more space you have between the bar and your chest, the harder it is to move the metal. Now there are ways to adjust your hand position to shorten that distance, but at the end of the day, you’re made how you’re made. Your “big bench” potential will be limited.
Another, more fixable problem is if you have strength imbalances on the other side of the joint. At the bottom of the flat bench press movement you should be squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly and keeping the elbows close to your body to keep the shoulders in proper alignment during the lift. If you can’t do this, you’re probably A – Not doing enough upper body pulling work (I like at least a 2-1 rep ratio of pull to push), or B – Not stretching your chest and shoulders enough. If you are struggling with the flat bench press due to unfixable structural issues, don’t force the issue.
You don’t NEED to do the exercise to get stronger. If you are struggling due to strength/mobility imbalances, back off the pressing for a few weeks and work on strengthening your upper back and loosening up those shoulders. You’ll get way stronger AND prevent avoidable injuries.
You’re actually trying to build your chest
The flat bench press is a tremendous exercise for building tons of pressing strength, but it isn’t the best chest builder.
The primary function of the pectorals is to move your arms across your chest. When do your arms cross your chest during a set of flat bench presses? Smell what I’m cooking? Exercises like dumbbell chest presses, suspension push-ups, or even machine based chest presses hit the chest so much better than the bench press. If you are using bench press as your primary chest builder, you’ll end up disappointed… big time.
With the bar in a fixed position coming off of your chest, the triceps and anterior deltoids get a tremendous amount of work during the exercise. The problem is that your arms work along the same fixed plane and the pecs never really get a complete contraction. That’s why when you hit your hardest set and nearly fatigue your arms and shoulders you can still do a few strong sets on the pec fly machine or cable crossover. I usually skip the bench press altogether and stick to more chest friendly exercises like named above when I’m in a growth cycle in my training. I don’t maintain high levels of pressing strength, but my chest growth explodes.
Let’s put it to bed…
So you don’t ever HAVE to stop using the bench press in your training, but there are situations where a break or reprioritization may be in order. With the wide range of exercises that support increasing strength in the push movement, the bench press isn’t as important as some of the magazines would have you believe. Get after the MOVEMENT and don’t get married to any one exercise and you’ll progress more often and longer.
By Chad Smith, Fitness Coach