In this modern world void of pistol duels and swordplay, one of the few remaining feats that men use as physical competition is their bench press. Most male athletes, whether currently competing in sports or retired fathers, can probably quote their best lifetime bench press numbers. Perhaps no other sport culture worships these numbers more than football, gauging physicality off either a 1 repetition maximum or a test to exhaustion with 225 pounds. At Sparta, we train a variety of football players and only bench because we have to, not because we believe in this exercise.
While we are experts on bench technique with our high school and college football athletes because it can enhance their recruiting process to the next level, our NFL players don’t bench, due to the low carryover to their sport and high injury risk.
A study out of the University of Louisville examined players from three offensive positions (quarterback, running back, and wide receiver) selected in the NFL Draft during a six-year period (1999-2004). The researchers found no correlation between bench press results and actual game performance. Perhaps more alarming than this lack of evidence is the risk for injury when executing the movement. Only a couple of weeks ago, Bruce Gradkowski, the starting quarterback for the Raiders last season, tore his pectoral muscle while benching. Such injuries generally occur due to the position of the arms during the bottom position of the lift, where the shoulder and supporting muscles like the pectorals, are under considerable stretch while pushing heavier weight.
As mentioned above, we have no choice with high school and college football players, coaching bench to prepare them for their team training and scouting combines. So the best way to protect them from injury is to teach proper technique during the movement. When benching, it is important to keep 4 main pressure points; the feet, the hips, the shoulder blades and the back of the head. Using the feet allows the athlete to press into the ground and better engage the trunk muscles to move more weight, while also taking pressure off the shoulders. The athlete must also set up a large lower back arc to allow 2 discrete areas to push back into the bench; the hips and the shoulder blades. Emphasizing more pull-ups and rows to strengthen the back is equally, if not more important, than the bench itself, as these muscles allow the athlete to push down into the bench for a resulting heavier lift.
However, if you’re not a high school or college football player being gauged on your bench press, steer clear of this movement and choose overhead pressing instead to both increase flexibility and upper body strength (see Sparta Point 1/21/09) without a greater injury risk.
Otherwise, just keep benching often and heavy, because when your sport is conducted by running on your arms, you’ll be the most prepared athlete…I am sure Gradkowski would agree.