Dr. Ken Leistner
The lift that I've written the least about is the bench press, and for good reason. Man, how that ever became one of the powerlifts is beyond me; you talk about useless.
The bench has always been a very popular lift, probably since its inception in the '40s, but in comparison with the overhead press, there is a lot less production, and the press relates better to most athletic events.
Football coaches as a group, never seen as any threat to split the atom, have always been fond of telling all who would listen that their charges would bounce the opposition around like so many fairies if they could bench 300 or 400 pounds. Of course, that's not always the case, and unless a complete picture is taken, it can create a dangerous situation.
Let's take it from the top.
If the overhead press is done properly, without tons of backbend and kicking, it is a great exercise, providing quite a bit of direct work for the delts, triceps, upper back, even the traps. It's a bitch if you push it because you have to balance the bar and your body, and maintain control of the dynamic relation between form. Your low back tends to get a fair load of indirect work, as do the obliques, a very neglected set of muscles, and quite a strong one potentially.
Bill Starr's The Strongest Shall Survive makes a good case for the use of free weights, relative to machine training, based primarily on this point and it's a valid one and very important for the powerlifter to grasp. The distance that the bar travels is considerably greater in the press, relative to the bench press, in almost every individual, especially the big benchers who have specialized on building the proverbial gladiator pecs on top of the mammoth ribcage. Short arms are advantageous for leverage, but not real great for building lots of muscle in the benching structures.
The bench press is done lying supine (why were they ever called prones? I'd love to see someone approach 400 prone), thus there is little support work to be done by the body. Except for the anterior delts, and to a lesser extent the triceps, there is no direct work to any other structures. The pecs (both heads, and the pec minor) get indirect work only.
As mentioned previously, the bar doesn't move very far, which is not real good for power production. And its relation to other sports?
Well, the venerable John Grimek once sat with me in York, and gave me some of his hard won wisdom: "The fastest way to get a beginner hooked on lifting weights is to give him lots of flyes and some benches. Because these muscles (the pecs) get very little direct of heavy stimulation doing normal activities, they'll grow real quick, and the guy will notice that they're growing and then you'll have him on the hook."
Think about that one. Man, the pecs blow up pretty easily on any type of chest work, because they don't get stimulated heavily during the course of normal daily activities, nor during most athletic pursuits. Give them a little bit of a push, and they'll jump out at you.
And that brings us to another bench-related problem . . .
Hey, you really think those big pecs look good? The Reevesian ideal of high square-shaped pecs might dance in your vision, but for 99% of us the semi-breast look would be a more accurate appraisal of the end product of concentrated pec work.
Yeah, yeah, I know, it's muscle, all muscle, but having those things hanging off the sternum and ribcage adds little to anyone's appearance. Don't believe that one either? Well, if you'll recall a study I mentioned in a PLUSA article a few years back, you'll remember the statistic that a survey on male self image noted that a very high percentage of males interviewed sought a "larger chest" and "larger arms" in order to achieve their concept of an ideal body. Terrific, but I think that most of them also equated the above with "being in shape" and being big and strong enough to kick someone's ass if they got hassled on the street. And the "bitch tits" that often come with drug use just compound an already unsightly situation. Hey, what the hell you gonna do with them pecs besides bench and strut?
Sad to relate, we're stuck with it, so bench we must. And the myths!
How many times has it been said that "the bench press is the best test of overall body power." Try the squat or deadlift any day' that's a test. Okay, it's "the best test of overall upper body power." Go back to the overhead press comments for that one. Uh, well, "the bench is a real good exercise." For some inexplicable reason most trainees seem to feel that doing squats is enough for their competitive squat, and doing deadlifts, often in limited amounts, is fine for deadlifting. Why then, does the bench press require a myriad of assistance work? I've heard many rationalizations, but it usually comes down to the desire to, again, "be big and strong" and manifest this state with the big pec look. Ah, but if I only had a dollar for every closet bodybuilder masquerading as a powerlifter.
One good explanation goes something like "the bench involves more muscles than the other lifts, so it's got to be worked at different angles" or some such thing. Check your squat some time: erectors and spinal intrinsics to maintain an erect posture under a bone crushing weight, hip flexors, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius to control the descent, tensor fascia lata and all the hip extensors puls the quad group to get you back up. The deadlift is a more obvious example of misinterpretation, so obvious that we'll pass without a description or explanation.
The bench and its assistance work are fun to do in comparison to the other two big lifts, and if your bench is moving nicely forget the assistance work and just bench. If you're lagging, look for the reason, analyze your technique, and if you're not overtraining the bench (probably responsible for 90% of bench press blues), then add a pertinent move or two. Keep the bodybuilder within at bay and look to move more weight period. Everyone can not look like Steve Knight.
We'll go on with this in the future, and get down to specifics on bench training.