The instant I hit high school, the bench press became the only measure of strength that anyone in my athletic peer group seemed to care about. Just the previous year, we had all been far more concerned with pumping out as many push-ups and pull-ups as our 13-year-old arms could muster, but overnight the bench press became the sole selector of weight room sovereigns.
Aside from the fact that the bench press is one of the three key core lifts included in traditional powerlifting competitions — and the only lift of the three that focuses on the work of the chest and arms (i.e., the typical beach muscles) — many people also consider it the centerpiece of the annual NFL Scouting Combine, which is where draft prospects gather to display their raw physical skills for the sake of impressing league scouts.
At the same time, there hasn’t been a demonstrable link between success on the bench and success on the football field. Only two of the NFL players behind the 10 highest bench-press performances in NFL combine history have had professional careers that most would rank as having been objectively good, and only one — Dontari Poe — would ever have been considered “great” at any time in his pro career.
All of which is to say that raw strength on the bench may contribute something of value to a performance on the football field, but it takes more advantageous traits than that to produce a competent NFL player — or even a great athlete.
But if we’re being honest, none of that is all that important. What matters is that most men wouldn’t mind possessing strong, broad chests, and hoisting heavy weight on the bench has been deemed to be the fastest route to such a chest, and also the perfect method for testing the power of that very same chest.
I want a reliable way of comparing myself to other guys when it comes to the bench press. How much can the average man bench?
Asking this question assumes that we can latch onto something that constitutes an average, but averages tend to vary from country to country, state to state and region to region. However, the method for mathematically arriving at the average bench press performance of the average man of a given distribution is a system that doesn’t change. With that in mind, let’s evaluate the bench-pressing standards of ExRx.net, which is probably the most trusted online resource for strength-and-conditioning professionals, against the average American male’s expected performance on a body-weight basis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American male over the age of 20 weighs an average of 197.9 pounds. Therefore, if we apply the closest applicable set of standards from ExRx.net to this weight average, and then we include survey data indicating that four out of five American men engage in no daily physical exercise, we have to presume that the average American man would fall somewhere between the “untrained” and “novice” categories of the ExRx.net chart, and would therefore bench press between 135 pounds and 175 pounds. This is for a single-rep, maximum-weight bench in which the participant gives it their all.
When you calculate this, it means the average American man can bench press somewhere between 68 percent and 88 percent of his body weight.
Wow. So is that range enforcing an ironclad rule of weight-to-bench distribution?
Not on your life.
If you’re an untrained lifter and you weigh closer to the average weight of an NFL offensive lineman, which is now approaching 320 pounds, you would be expected to lift somewhere between 50 percent and 64 percent of your body weight. To put that into perspective, any super heavyweight who works out somewhere between seldom to never would be expected to lift a smaller percentage of his body weight than any average-sized person who is completely untrained.
If I’m not happy with where my performance lands on this chart, how do I get stronger?
Without teaching your how to cheat by contorting your body so that you bench with the technique of a powerlifter (the lower portion of your chest is stronger than the upper portion), since that method defeats some of the developmental purpose of benching for muscle gains, I’d advise you to train your chest in a variety of ways, and also to train and strengthen the muscles of your chest, triceps and shoulders individually, and in a variety of ways. As 21-time natural bodybuilding world champion and Natural Bodybuilder of the Decade award winner Ron Williams explains, the barbell bench press isn’t necessarily the best exercise for training the chest along its natural path of development.
Per Williams, the bench press is more of a test of upper-body strength, since the involvement of the chest during the movement is incomplete for developmental purposes, and is aided greatly by the triceps and anterior deltoids. Therefore, the flat barbell bench press exercise could never be a true test of chest strength in isolation, nor could it develop the chest fully and completely along its natural range of motion. In keeping with this logic, you should train all of the muscles involved in the bench press thoroughly, taking them through each of their respective natural ranges of motion to ensure that they’re fully strengthened to the peak of their natural abilities, and then unite their efforts to perform the barbell bench press to test their combined strength in unison.
Training to bench press increases your strength in benching-specific ways, and tinkering with your technique may help you to hoist higher numbers, but making sure each muscle is trained maximally and safely is going to give you an overall powerful and healthy physique that includes a well-developed chest.
Unless you need to wow an NFL scout, that should really be your target — overall strength and size, and not an out-of-context number that confers some presumption of ability to its owner.
So when should I test out my one rep max?
How about “never”?
The heaviest weight I ever benched safely was 315 pounds, and I had my 65-year-old father hovering around to spot me just in case there was an accident. I could have potentially gone for a slightly higher weight, but I decided to think with the smarter section of my brain. I realized that if I wound up with north of 330 pounds on my chest, my father would be of no practical use in helping me re-rack it.
There are some questions that can be very costly to explore the answer to, and you have to decide if it’s worth death and disfigurement to learn those answers. I chose life — and I also chose a one-rep max formula. There are several calculators available, but you use the maximum number of reps you can lift of a much lighter weight to calculate your one-rep max. It’s not a perfect system, but it beats dropping a 400-pound barbell across your chest.
Just remember this: There’s no surer way to render yourself permanently below average than to go to extreme lengths to prove precisely how far above average you are. This is especially true on the bench press. Don’t be the guy with the divot in his chest who’s forced to brag about how strong he used to be, because unless you have video evidence, no one will believe you anyway. And even if you had the video footage, I’ll bet you’d gladly exchange a sliver of the elite strength from your past prime just to be able to submit an average lift in the present.