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Why the Bench Press Isn't a Clear-Cut Strength Indicator


You've seen it before: power lifters pumping iron at max reps on a bench press while a spotter hollers encouragement loud enough for the entire gym to hear. That 400-pound lift you just witnessed was impressive, right? The bench press is a fundamental strength-training exercise that works the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. It also works the triceps. There's no doubt the bench press is a definitive exercise for testing maximum strength -- at least that's what most avid weightlifters seem to think.

Redefining "Strength"

Stanford's football training program is redefining "strength," particularly in regards to how it relates to applicable sports performance. Shannon Turley, the director of football sports performance at Stanford, told The New York Times in December 2013 that he emphasizes stability training that increases balance and flexibility over developing pure strength.

The word "strength" is defined in multiple capacities, although it's most often linked to the ability lift heavy things -- think World's Strongest Man Competition -- but Stanford's football program focuses on a different version of strength, one that's about mental power and vigor beyond muscular strength.

Conflicting Perception of the Bench Press

According to Jim Smith at, "No other exercise is more revered than the bench press." Smith isn't wrong, but you shouldn't emphasize the bench press simply for the sake of earning your man card, especially if you're an athlete.

Nick Tumminello of Performance University argues that the bench press isn't the quintessential strength-training exercise that most seem to think it is. He claims that the bench press is not "ideal" for sports performance. Stanford University is proving that on the football field. They're the only collegiate football program in America to win 11-plus games in four straight seasons, and Turley's unique training system deserves significant credit.

Understanding Chest Development

Tumminello claims power lifters use the bench press to express maximum strength in the shortest possible range of motion, as opposed to utilizing the exercise to target chest development. It's important to set goals specific to yourself, however, independent from what you might see on television or in the weight room.

The rate at which the average person is able to achieve greater strength in the chest is much different than that of power lifters. Certain uncontrollable physiological factors such as bone structure and body type also impact chest development. The first step toward developing greater chest strength is to set realistic goals.

Functional Movement

It's true the bench press expresses short-range strength, but it doesn't translate into functional power in athletics, especially on the football field. Stanford football players don't typically rank in the top-tier among bench press performers at the annual NFL scouting combine, but their functionality -- in terms of durability and flexibility -- is superior.

Richard Sherman, a former fifth-round draft pick and Super Bowl XLVIII Champion with the Seattle Seahawks, is one of the most dominant cornerbacks in the NFL. His success at football's highest level is proof that the bench press isn't a clear-cut "strength" indicator. For those who lift weights simply for the sake of exercise, functional movement might not be paramount, but it most definitely is for athletes. Stanford's nontraditional approach to strength training isn't rocket science, but it's certainly progressive.


Ranking of Common Strength Training Equipment

John Shea is a team sports fanatic and fitness aficionado. His work has been published across a wide platform of online audiences in the realm of health and fitness. His passion for fitness is exemplified in his writing, as he aims to help readers improve their overall well-being.

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