For too long, the bench press has been considered the most meaningful measurement of mortal might — to the detriment of push-ups, pull-ups and the kind of overall conditioning that’s gonna make that bench press strength actually count for something other than…
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Let me stop you right there: Are you trying to say that the bench press is overrated?
That’s precisely what I’m saying. Achieving high bench press numbers is a bit of a parlor trick, and whatever those numbers, the bench press doesn’t quite do what many people credit it with.
Essentially, you can find better exercises for strengthening absolutely every muscle that the barbell bench press is credited with boosting. The barbell bench press is an excellent exercise for testing the cooperative work of different muscle groups (namely, the chest, shoulders and triceps), as well as for training those muscles to work together. But the chest is more thoroughly trained in a range of motion that allows it to fully open and then fully contract at the peak of the movement, the anterior deltoids in the shoulders are better trained in a wide array of movements and there are also several ways to train the triceps so that they’re more efficiently strengthened.
As far as the parlor trick goes, powerlifters learn to lift with a back bridge, thereby placing the onus on the lower portion of their chests — easily the most powerful section of the pectorals — to manage the preponderance of the pushing. So if you want to gimmick your bench pressing for the sake of boosting your one-rep max or your overall rep count, you can employ this form at any time. However, if you were to train with this form exclusively, you’d lessen the overall balance of your chest muscles from top to bottom.
All of this sounds fair enough, but I still want to know what a good bench-press weight is.
Fine… but do me a favor first: Unless you have a very strong friend around, don’t overload the bar at your home gym with a huge weight that you’re not absolutely certain you’re capable of handling. If you send hundreds of pounds plummeting down upon your neck, it might as well be a thick, dull guillotine. In fact, I’d advise you to use a calculator and extrapolate a maximum bench weight based on the maximum number of reps you can crank out with a much smaller weight. It may not look as impressive, but you’re likely to be more relaxed during the execution of the lifts, and you’re also less likely to find yourself in a predicament you can’t escape from. Besides, that’s how the NFL calculates things at their Draft Combine, so it can’t be the worst idea in the world.
Okay, so with that out of the way, we can cut to the chase: Whether or not you’ve produced a “good” bench-press weight is dependent upon a few factors, one of which is easily accounted for, and one that’s more difficult to measure.
First of all, your overall body weight plays a role in how the weight you press should be interpreted. If you theorize that the target bench-pressing total of an intermediate weightlifter is an indicator of a “good” bench-press weight, then 215 pounds is an ideal bench-pressing target for a 200-pound person, or 7 percent above that individual’s body weight. Until a person reaches 200 pounds, the bulk of target bench-pressing weights would be in the vicinity of 10 percent more than their body weight.
For the record, these scales tend to make two presumptions: 1) Additional body weight above 200 pounds won’t necessarily be beneficial muscle until the person doing the lifting has been training diligently for some time; and 2) a 300-pound bench-press total is an elusive figure unless you’re at least an advanced lifter of some significant size. Even then, a 200-pound person must be able to lift nearly double their body weight in order to be considered an elite lifter, while a 300-pound man is regarded as elite for pressing 1.3 times his body weight.
The other issue is that your arm length greatly influences the amount of weight you can bench press, because the longer a muscle gets, the weaker it gets, and the distance the weight is required to travel also increases as the arm lengthens. For this reason, naturally barrel-chested dudes with T-rex arms tend to thrive at bench-pressing movements, but end up paying for it on movements like the deadlift, which require them to move even closer to the ground to catch the weight properly. This is just one of the reasons why the bench-pressing totals at the NFL and NBA draft combines are vastly different.
This is starting to sound very complicated.
It really isn’t. Regardless of all of the nuances imposed by individual body frames, if you can bench press your own body weight or more, you needn’t be ashamed to discuss your bench-pressing numbers in polite company — no matter how irrelevant that number might be to your overall fitness level.