Throughout my gym-going life, I’ve been dogged by questions about how much I can bench. Even in high school and college, when athletics and functional strength were my highest priorities, I was notable to others primarily because of the weight I could move on the bench press. This meant a lot to everyone else, even if meant almost nothing to me, because in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the bench press was very much a Big Fucking Deal — the ne plus ultra of slow strength lifts.
“Whoa, dude,” someone would say after I’d completed a set of five reps. “That’s pretty good. What’s your max bench?”
I would give an honest answer, racking my brain for what I could push into a locked-out position after stopping for a powerlifting competition pause at the bottom of the movement. “I don’t know, maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of 345 pounds,” my 200-pound, 20-year-old self would say.
“Cool, I know someone who can bench 500,” would come the inevitable reply. “And he can rep 225 pounds more than 50 times, like he’s in the NFL Combine.”
Whenever I’d hear this, my powerlifting-sense would begin to tingle. Three hundred thirty or 340 pounds paused on the chest was an awful lot, as anyone who had ever completed a heavy press knew. My brother, as hulking a teenager as I’ve ever seen, could barely bench more than 365 pounds this way. So that many people benching 500 pounds simply wasn’t possible; it amounted to mere words, a lot of empty gym talk. And then there was that unavoidable reference to “benching 225 for reps,” an arbitrary feat hardened into a significant metric because of its persistent, if unhelpful, use as a sorting mechanism for NFL rookies.
It happened again recently, when I was traveling for work and training at an LA Fitness instead of in my dimly lit basement. I did a couple heavy touch-and-go reps with 315 pounds and was asked about my one-rep max. I guessed that it was perhaps 365 pounds these days, although who knew because I wasn’t competing? I was then told to watch videos of Larry Wheels, a popular YouTube powerlifter, who was capable of benching much more. “You ought to watch YouTube because there are so many guys benching 600 pounds on there,” my new gym friend explained.
“You’ll hear people talk like this, and it’s mostly due to ignorance,” says Jason Manenkoff, a member of the 2017 USA Powerlifting National Team and one of the best pound-for-pound bench pressers in the world. “Most people don’t have any idea what a competition bench consists of. They don’t understand the start command, the press command, the importance of keeping the butt on the bench.”
But why, I ask Manenkoff, does everyone keep bringing up the bench — even now, at a time when we have access to more exercise information than ever before? “The competitive standards of the bench press have developed over time, and it was originally an exercise that involved pressing with one’s back on the floor,” he answers. “Now, you can go to every gym and there’s a bench and you can lie down on it. Unlike a squat or a deadlift, it’s something everyone can at least appear to be doing, even if they’re bouncing the bar, throwing their rear end in the air or relying on a spotter to do a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Fitness journalist Anthony Roberts agrees. “Unlike the deadlift, where you have to start the movement by pulling it off the ground, the barbell can be yanked off the rack and immediately start descending, even if it’s a guided descent by the spotter,” he says. “The bench is something you can try as soon as you enter any gym. Everyone can recline on the bench and pretend to push weight.”
Not only can everyone recline on the bench, but most people who have visited local gyms for a few weeks will have seen at least one meathead load the barbell with weight and attempt to press it, either via an impressive chest bounce or with the aid of a team of spotters. While training at AC Fitness, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, gym that closed many years ago, I would be treated to a weekly spectacle in which a short, stocky man — usually shirtless except for the thick Inzer bench shirt that covered his chest but left his acne-scarred back exposed — would enter at the head of a cadre of hangers-on. The hangers-on would proceed to load the barbell with vast amounts of weight, often going up to five 45-pound plates on each side. The short man would proceed to miss nearly every lift he attempted, usually getting stuck at the bottom and having his three or four-man team pull the weight off of him. Although this seemed to have no possible physical benefit, it attracted a great deal of attention from other gym-goers and he was regarded, at least by the pre-YouTube and Instagram standards of 2001, as an extremely powerful individual. His workouts were largely useless, but his reputation as a strong man preceded him.
Such adherence to bad form comes as no surprise to veteran powerlifter Mitchell Sahlfeld. The idea of ‘bad form’ wouldn’t make sense to someone like the person you just described,” he says. “Without refinement of technique, they lift the way they feel strongest, and sometimes they’re stronger with that bad or inefficient movement, but only for that particular time. Many times an adjustment in technique can temporarily lower your numbers while you get used to the new movement, but the ceiling for performance is much higher down the road.”
For Sahlfeld, this is ultimately a matter of ego — misplaced self-esteem inextricably tied up with mechanically unsound performances on the bench press. “I saw this a lot while throwing in track, where newbies don’t want to give up their old ways because they will throw less distance for a year or so or stall, but if they took the time to make those improvements, in three years’ time, they’d improve drastically,” he says. “People want to boost their egos temporarily at the expense of future performance.”
But in some sense, this obsession with technique is a kind of nerdy inside baseball. Most people don’t care about earning powerlifting-meet green lights for their lifts, and their understanding of strength is primarily a matter of projecting power on social media rather than utilizing it in a functional capacity. I’ve been on the inside for so long, in the process becoming aware that loads of athletes are much stronger than I am and always admitting this fact, that I’ve forgotten why many people turn to the gym — and thus to the bench press — in the first place.
“There certainly is a faction of the lifting population that’s really into science and exercise physiology, and Joe Bennett, one of my sponsored athletes, has built his whole following on that small faction, but that’s very hard work and requires a lot of research,” says Redcon1 CEO Aaron Singerman. “In terms of what guys want to see on Instagram, it’s related to getting a bigger chest or arms. Influencers can focus on that low-hanging fruit.”
Singerman, a powerfully built man who has been part of the mainstream fitness community for a long time, is frequently asked how much he benches. “It’s the first question I get from people,” he says. “But they’re disappointed when I tell them I don’t flat bench with a barbell at all, but instead use dumbbells because they offer a much more natural movement. The flat bench is a bad exercise for most people, especially people like me, who have had a couple minor tears that don’t require surgery.”
Overall, the bench press is a very poor way of determining a lifter’s raw strength. The simplest exercise for this purpose, the one with the least possibility of error and that can be done even by relatively low-skill trainees, is the deadlift. “That’s because it recruits more muscle groups,” explains Singerman. “You have to be strong from your grip to your core to your legs.”
Be that as it may, the deadlift is a thoroughly unexciting, blue-collar exercise: You drive your feet into the floor and pull a heavy barbell off it. I have deadlifted for a long time, sometimes with good success, and the only thing people at the big chain gyms ever said to me about it came in the form of warnings not to drop the weight. But wherever I go, for as long as my big body still lets me lift, someone will ask me how much I bench.
When, just like in college, I give them an honest answer and they proceed to tell me they know someone who can bench twice as much, I stand there in silence, aware that the only people in the world who can bench twice as much as I can are Eric Spoto and Kirill Sarychev. Maybe this person knows them, but I wouldn’t bet on it. More than likely, in 2019’s messy fitness world, that person is lost in a confusing web of social media strength, a house of lies in which every exercise is as easy as it appears on the Jujimufu YouTube channel and Olympic lifting phenom Clarence Kennedy’s “vegan gains” are “100% natty.”
Because there, we can all share the dream of having big chests and big arms — a dream that’s always just a few sloppy bench press reps away from coming true.