Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A History of the Bench Press - David Gentle (1995)


The bench press is far and away the most popular powerlifter's test of strength. The USA in particular holds many powerlifting meets where only the bench press is performed, e.g., The Kops and Kids Bench Press, The Beast from the East, the Best Bencher in the West, etc.

It's a fact that all the greatest bodybuilders and strength athletes have used the bench press as a staple exercise. If there is a local club competition, you can bet it will feature the bench press; and with every increasing record poundage being surpassed, it is an exercise for all seasons and all sorts, from strength fans to bodybuilders.

The bench press actually evolved from the more ancient press on back, or shoulder bridge, often including a "belly toss." One of the earliest records of this style was by the wrestler . . . 

George Lurich, who made it with 420 pounds. The famous Russian Lion wrestler . . . 

George Hackenschmidt, 1878-1968, experimented with lifting weights from a lying position; and back in 1898 on 2nd August, lying on the floor, he pulled a 333 pound barbell over his head and pressed it from dead start on his chest to arm's length. He then rolled over a barbell with 19-inch discs, so that all it required was for him to turn his head to one side, and then pressed aloft 361 pounds for a then world record. There was no arching or belly tossing of the bar. This feat was performed in Vienna and recorded in Hack's classic The Way to Live, and was to remain a record for 18 years. 

Next to feature is the famous one-legged lifter from Ohio . . .  

Joe Nordquest, who on November 8, 1916 in a similar lift to Hackenschmidt, using same diameter weights to facilitate rolling over the head, lifted 363.5 pounds. Within a few months with practice, Nordquest on February 17, 1917 improved his lift to 388 pounds, this in itself beating . . . 

Arthur Saxon, who had discovered that by arching into a shoulder bridge, he could handle more weight. Saxon did 386 pounds. Thus even at that early date, lifters discovered that raising the hips helps raise more weight. Without competition and mainly using staple weights/poundages, and with little incentive, these poundages remained much the same for some time, until in 1931 Bill Lilly, an American middleweight lifter, tossed up 484.75 pounds, without the type of specialized training practiced today.

Just when did the lift go from floor to bench? 

Who knows. 

Lone, isolated trainers may well have been practicing some form or another of pressing on a type of box or bench for years. In the early 1930's, Mark Berry's classic training manuals . . . 

Physical Training Simplified - 
Physical Improvement, in two volumes - 

. . . both published photos of pupils using a bench/box to press on. Racks to assist, however, were certainly not in general usage and the era of special lifting suits and chemical aids was still far off.

All human knowledge is simply a matter of acquired information. Credit for the widespread use of the bench press must, the author believes, go to the American magazines of the late 1940's, particularly to Joe Weider's Your Physique and Muscle Power magazines, which continually recommended the bench press as a fine exercise for bodybuilders and not just a test of power. 

Bodybuilders wanted more muscle in the shape of big pectorals, and the epitome of the massive chest was . . .  


. . . 1948 Mr. America George Eiferman. In 1949, Eiferman benched 250 pounds for 20 reps (not his best), for what may well have been the first bench press contest, taking a prize of 50 dollars. Bodybuilders discovered that the more weight lifted, the more muscle was developed, and by the early 1950's, article after article expounded the benefits of bench pressing. 

The June 1957 issue of Joe Weider's Muscle Power published a "book" length feature, "The Bench Press . . . Greatest Exercise of Them All" by "The Editor," who we suspect was the late Charles A. Smith, including assistance exercises to power up the lift. 

Here is a 1951 Smith article on the bench press that may have been used in '57 with some additions. I don't have the '57 "book" length article at hand here right now . . . but the way the Weider outfit reprinted articles by Smith in later issues, who knows, this might be it . . . 

Critics however, and there were many especially in the Hoffman camp and elsewhere, called it a "lazy" man's exercise, and suggested the lift "produced disproportionate development of the pecs and induced poor posture." The article argued against such thoughts and produced examples of the then top lifters who were using the bench press as an assistance exercise to improve their standing press. Named were Tommy Kono, Norbert Schemansky, Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn.

Historian Davie Willoughby wrote that the champion weightlifter John Davis, without warmup or previous practice on the lift, was handed 400 pounds flat on his chest and calmly pressed it to arms' length from this dead start position. No canvas bench shirts in those days. By now (the 50's), bodybuilders worldwide were incorporating the bench press into all their schedules. In Britain, Reg Park, Bill Stevens and Wag Bennett all broke first the 400 pound barrier and then the 500 pound mark, with Reg Park lifting 500 pounds on a rickety old wooden bench at a Health and Strength League display in Bristol, 23rd April 1954 (witnessed by George Greenwood and Oscar Heidenstam.    

The benches were not quite like today's . . . 

Over in North America, it was the massive 20 inch armed 

John M.C. Williams (above), Don Arnold, a pro wrestler, and 

Doug Hepburn who reached that historical poundage. 

Hepburn, on May 28, 1953, lifted 500 pounds in the bench, using a very wide grip in Vancouver. His official lift was performed in December 1953, lifting 502 pounds with a 2-second pause, and amongst other awards, received from  Vince Gironda a special trophy for his feat. By 1956 Doug was able to punch out seven reps with 500 pounds, and later he got very close to lifting 600 pounds, attempting such a poundage in 1957 at the North West Championships in March, just failing after lifting 550 pounds. 

The ideal bench presser would have a barrel chest and short arms -- thus the bar would not need to travel for. By the same premise, wide grip benches were favored, cutting down on distance. Certainly this style was popular with bodybuilder 

Marvin Eder, a great star circa the 1950's. Eder, but for becoming the victim of the Weider and Hoffman muscle wars of the early '50s, may well have become an Olympic lifting champion. 

During that era Marvin was probably the lightest man to bench press 500 pounds at under 200 pounds bodyweight. He had benched 400 in 1949; did 480 September 6, 1953 at a York picnic; and just failed with 500 with a bodyweight of 195 pounds. He later quoted 515 as his best. Eder used a collar to collar grip, benching 510 at 197, again without the aid of wrist wraps or superwraps/double canvas/denim/blast suits or chemical aids, no steroids or even much in the way of "normal" supplements. It's interesting to note that current (1995) ADFPA national champ Joe McAufliffe benched 507 pounds at 198. Demonstrating further triceps power and a good assistance exercise for bench press, Eder performed parallel bar dips with 435 pounds plus his own bodyweight, a record to this day.

With the bench press continually gaining popularity and practice and with better incentives, poundages rocketed. Benches were tougher, spotters better trained, and targets higher. 

Chuck Ahrens, a regular of Muscle Beach, did 28 reps with 400 pounds. David Willoughby's logic estimated this effort equivalent to completing one rep with 734 pounds. Conversely, Willoughby also deduced that the limit for a superheavyweight powerlifter in the bench press would be 628 pounds. 

Ken Lain, Ted Arcidi, Jamie Harris, Craig Tokarski, Chris Confessore and Anthony Clark, just for starters, would no longer believe that particular statistic or prediction from the near past. 

Another Chuck

Chuck Sipes, Mr. World, Mr. Universe, and one of the world's greatest strong men, with a fine physique, benched 570 pounds. 

Paul Anderson is credited with a whole set of high figures in the bench, a lift he did not practice too often. He is usually judged to have been well able to bench 600 pounds, and certainly has been pictured lifting 700 from racks, pressing this weight while lying on his back (not on a bench). 

Bored with the limitations of Olympic lifting, British bodybuilders at first practiced the STRENGTH SET, this being squat, bench press and curl. Later the curl was dropped for the deadlift and powerlifting had begun. Similar events took place in the USA. 

With the passing of the years, records zoomed. Pat Casey, who was first to bench press under AAU rules the magic 500,ata bodyweight of 259 when just 21 years old, went on to become the first man to bench press 600 pounds, way before the era of bench shirts. 

In 1972 

Jim Williams benched 675 pounds for an American record as recognized by the USPF prior to sanctioned international competitions. Williams is also said to have lifted an amazing 705 pounds in practice in the York gym in 1970. Witnesses included John Kuc and Bob Bednarski, who say it was a good lift devoid of bounce etc., but unfortunately it was made without the official recognition of judges.

The next big bench press on the scene was 

Bill Kazmaier, with an official world record of 661 pounds on 31st January 1981, with Bill being a muscular 330 bodyweight. Kaz, multi-winner of World's Strongest Man contests and other meets open to all, sustained chest, shoulder and triceps injuries, ruling out further record breaking poundages in the bench press. But poundages in this test of manpower continued to zoom. 


Ted Arcidi, a former pro wrestler, took part in the superheavyweight class at the 1985 Hawaiian International Powerlifting Championships, heaving aloft 705 pounds, and to prove his staying power was able to bench 505 for 21 reps. 

To give us all some encouragement, Ted's first attempt at bench pressing was just four reps with 170 pounds, so there is hope yet. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive