Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.
The bench press is the most popular exercise that people ask others how much they can do. But it’s not the be-all, end-all indicator of body strength.
There are several ways to look at this. What may immediately come to the skeptic’s mind is that this common exercise is done while lying down.
Can a true test of strength be determined by lifting something while comfortably lying down? Or maybe that’s why the bench press is often considered the hallmark of strength – because it’s done while lying. The argument swings both ways.
Why a Man Can Bench Press So Much
One reason the bench press is NOT the best indicator of strength is because of two particular reasons why a man or woman might be able to push enormous amounts of weight.
These two reasons are not related to strength at all. They are related to range of motion. Would you not agree that you could push more weight through the air for a distance of 14 inches vs. a distance of 21 inches?
A person whose arms are short – relative to their height (regardless of height) has less distance to lower and push back up the barbell than a person whose arms are long – relative to their height.
A 5’8 man whose arm span is 5’4 has a biomechanical advantage in the bench press when compared to a same-weight 5’8” man whose arm span measures six feet.
The longer arms mean a higher starting point with the lift, meaning a longer distance to lower it to the chest, and then a longer distance to push it all the way back up – when compared to the shorter-armed man.
Now, if the first man is 70 pounds overweight, and the second man is lean, the overweight gives the first man an added advantage: even LESS distance to move the weight, because his belly fat causes his chest to be higher up. Thus, there’s even less distance for the bar to move down before it touches his chest, and hence, less distance for it to be pushed back up.
If the second man is skinny, the bar will have to travel even more to reach his chest, making the lift that much harder.
With these factors that reduce range of motion, is it really fair to say that the first man is “stronger” than the second?
What a Lift Involves
Some will argue that the deadlift is the best show of strength, because #1, much more weight can be moved with this exercise; #2, unlike the bench press, a heavy deadlift requires a very strong grip; #3, the deadlift involves the small low back muscles, which are often the weakest link in a person’s body, and #4, this exercise engages many more muscles than does the bench press.
It’s fair to point out that relatively long arms provide a mechanical advantage in the deadlift, because the person with T-rex arms will have to bend over more to reach the bar!
Another argument in favor of the deadlift, as the best indicator of strength, is that this movement mimics the heavy lifts you do in real life, such as picking up loaded boxes, furniture, file cabinets, large potted plants, etc.
The bench press doesn’t mimic normal tasks of living. When’s the last time you had to push something heavy off your body while you were lying down?
Nevertheless, a heavy bench press means you CAN forcefully push things away from your chest while standing.
Another hit for the deadlift is that, unlike the bench press, a deadlift of elite-level weight will very noticeably bend the bar!
The Most Common Question
The most common exercise in reference to “How much…” is the bench press. This commonality creates the illusion that it’s the best measure of strength.
People unfamiliar with weight training have no idea what a deadlift or back squat is, but nearly everyone knows what a bench press is.
Usually, people who can bench a lot of weight also deadlift heavy, and those who can deadlift impressive loads usually can bench press good numbers.
Ironically, many who can deadlift and bench outrageous numbers can’t do a single pull-up.
In fact, a thin adult who does not work out at all will not be able to do a single pull-up.
Pull-ups As an Indicator of Strength
In school gym classes, the kids who can’t do a pull-up are branded as weaklings. If a woman is seen at a typical health club knocking off pull-ups for many reps, people stare in awe. But she needs to be bench pressing at least 135 pounds before it gets much attention.
But nobody asks anyone, “How many pull-ups can you do?”
A guy who’s doing pull-ups for reps – with a 45-pound plate attached to his waist – is one strong dude. But the ability to do this isn’t indicative of how much he can bench press. He may have a chronic shoulder issue that prevents heavy benching but doesn’t interfere with pull-ups.
Another feat of strength is the ability to flip tires – very heavy tractor tires weighing over 300 pounds. If a woman is flipping a 350 pound tire, this is plain insane. Don’t mess with her! Chances are, she can bench press quite a bit of weight, but this isn’t necessary in order to excel at tire flipping.
The bench press is not the best indicator of strength, and in fact, there probably isn’t any exercise that is, for that matter.
You can take numerous compound (multi-joint) movements such as the back squat, overhead barbell press or farmer’s walk and pick apart why it qualifies as the greatest measure of strength, and why it doesn’t.
The No. 1 indicator of physical strength is being very strong with many different movements besides the bench press, deadlift, pull-up and squat such as the parallel bar dip (weights attached to waist), bench dip (weights piled on lap), dumbbell presses, weighted sled push and pull, and rowing motions.