“How much do you bench?” This may to the most commonly asked question in many gyms across American among males. But does it really mean all that much? Pushing weight away from the body involves the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps; this is what the bench press does. However does this translate to improve physical performance?
Many sports require the total body movement of pushing while standing. Football linemen are excellent examples of this, wrestlers and mixed martial arts athletes also clearly demonstrate the need to exert pressing force while standing. This same pressing movement is also important in daily activities for the general population. Many functional activities are done while standing and pressing, like pushing heavy furniture, or helping a friend who ran out of gas. This ability to exert push force while standing is important for sports and daily life.
Traditionally, personal trainers, strength coaches and recreational weightlifters have gravitated to the bench press as the primary way to increase pressing power and build upper body musculature. This is great for muscle building and revving up your metabolism for increase fat burning. However because the bench press is done laying down the question arises: Does the strength developed in the bench press transfer over into daily activities that are done while standing?
A study by JC Santana and others, including one of the leading low back experts, Dr. Stuart McGill, compared the bench press and the standing cable press. Fourteen recreational weight lifters preformed a maximum bench press test and a standing cable press with the electrical activity produced by muscles being examined. The researchers thought that the standing cable press would be limited by the core musculature.
The subjects were able to push about 95 percent of their body weight during the bench press and while standing and preforming the cable press, they were only able to do an average of 40 percent of their body weight. Generally the best way to increase lean body mass and strength is through heavy loads. However, what they found was that core muscle activation was much higher during the cable press and was actually the limiting factor. The authors stated that, “data seem to indicate that chest strength may not be the most important factor when pressing from standing positions”. Despite having strong chest, shoulders and arms, if your core is weak, the strength won’t transfer over onto the field or help more heavy stuff. Basically power and strength is being lost in the core.
The bench press is a great exercise to increase lean muscle mass and for those with healthy shoulders a viable option. Although often neglected in weight training programs, for athletic performance and daily function, core strength and core endurance while standing may be more important. So while bench presses and crunches are good, challenging the upper body and core simultaneously in your weight training program may be a better option for athletic performance. A classic example would be the push up.
Although not done in a standing position, this movement works the chest while challenging the core as well, requiring the muscles to mimic the same standing pressing actions. The classic starts in an arms straight plank position, with your hands under but slightly outside of your shoulders. Lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause, and then push back to the starting position as quickly as possible. Keep your core braced the entire time. If this is too hard start the push up against a bench, table or any surface elevated off the ground.
Performing pushups incorrectly can make your lower back ache, hurt your shoulders, and keep you from getting the benefits out of the exercise. However if done the right way, the push up works the all-important core muscles, as well as the chest, shoulders, and even the legs and hips. The bench press is great for upper body strength and building muscle so don’t get rid of it, just add some classic, weighted or feet elevated push-ups to your routine if the goal is to look good and perform well.
Consult your doctor prior to starting any exercise program and if you are unsure how to properly perform any exercise, seek the advice of a trained fitness professional.
— Kyler Crouse, BS, CSCS, FMS is a personal trainer and strength coach that trains at Sierra Athletic Club and a training center instructor at Barton Memorial Hospital. Kyler specializes in performance enhancement and injury prevention. Visit www.KCstrength.com for more information.