For many lifters, the bench press is the “gold standard” for developing upper body strength, but its reputation invites a lot of ego-driven cluelessness around how to do it with good and safe technique. Its deceptive simplicity is where many new (and even veteran) lifters run into trouble, so let’s talk about how you can bench better and more safely.
For clarity’s sake, we’re talking about the barbell bench press (sans the balloons from the GIF above). When you watch someone bench, it looks like the exercise is all arms, chest, and the occasional loud, obnoxious grunts, but it’s actually a compound movement that also includes shoulders, traps, triceps, upper back, core, hips, and even legs to a certain degree.
Sadly, pulling a bench up to the power rack at a gym is a fantastic way to find out who the regular a-holes are at that gym. I’ve experienced more than one occasion where someone had a problem with me using a rack to bench, despite the fact the rack was clearly not in use. I don’t understand that mentality, some people just need to own the world.
So you’ve been hitting the gym, taking classes, or doing bodyweight workouts for a while now, and suddenly you’re not seeing any more changes in your body. Your muscles aren’t growing, and a lot of the moves you’ve been doing seem easy now.
The likely culprit: You’ve hit a plateau because you’re not lifting enough weight. Maybe you grab the three-pound weights you use in barre class to do curls while weight training, when you could easily lift 10-pounders. Or maybe you’ve been going to strength training classes for six weeks, but you’re still picking up the same dumbbells.
Best to first limit the weight by form (inability to maintain good form means you need to decrease weight/reps and fix the form). Then, given you have a spotter for more dangerous movements – every set is completed for failure (such that your last rep is the last possible with good form – this takes time and training to assess). The target number of reps in each set is dependent on training goals (strength, power, hypertrophy, endurance), and when the completed reps exceed the target reps, it’s an indication to increase load (ergo the weight).
The one time my mom watched a video of me deadlifting, she cringed with fear that I was going to hurt myself. In reality, though, you’re just as likely (if not more so) to get injured doing other physical activities. That doesn’t mean you should throw weights around willy-nilly. You still need to prioritize safety to avoid getting seriously hurt. Here’s how.
…The problem is, if you make a task look hard, if you have to exert a lot of physical and emotional effort to accomplish it, you end up teaching your body that that task is hard. I see it all the time in the context of lifting weights: women and men just barely grinding out reps, grimacing in pain the whole time. Not to mention, consistent all-out effort often leads to all-out injury.
I really don’t think this is a major problem for 90% of the population. Most people are far from overdoing it, and get sore going gardening. The problem is doing nothing at all, or acting like walking your dog around the block is a worthwhile fitness program. Sure, “something is better than nothing”, but if “better than absolutely nothing” is your fitness plan, you might try amping it up slowly until leisure activities don’t count as a workout for you.
In a 2012 interview for “Faces of MN,” I discussed my answer to the not-infrequent question about what I do for exercise. When I answer that I lift weights and leave it at that, I’m often met with a hesitant follow-up question: “So…what do you do for cardio?”
Interesting read. I was told by a swim coach that when runners were injured, they were told to increase swimming to maintain cardio. It makes sense that, given the right exercise you can get cardio benefits.