If you were to ask Arnold Schwarzenegger for his secret to building massive chest muscles, his answer would almost certainly be, “Bench press, bench press, bench press!”
And there’s no doubt about it: the bench press has certainly acquired the reputation as “the king of chest exercises”.
Yet every time I see anyone in the gym doing this highly popular, yet highly overrated exercise, I think, “What a waste of time, when there are much better ways to pack on the pecs!”
Now, I know there are a lot of “bench press lovers” out there. But the truth is that most people will obtain only modest gains in size in their pectoral muscles, by doing the bench press. And nobody will ever build maximum muscle in their pecs, just from doing the bench press. And after reading this article, you’ll know exactly why.
And although I’m writing this article as if I’m referring to the “flat, standard” bench press, all of the shortcomings that I explain here apply to the incline bench press, and the decline bench press as well.
Exercise Intensity: Where the Bench Press Falls Short
Simply stated, you can’t build maximum muscle in your pectoral muscles by doing the bench press, because you can’t achieve maximum intensity in your pectoral muscles when doing the bench press. It’s impossible to achieve maximum intensity when doing the bench press; regardless of how much weight you use.
And since intensity is the #1 key to muscle growth stimulation, if you can’t achieve maximum intensity in a muscle, then you can’t build maximum mass or size in that muscle. And you certainly can’t build “maximum muscle in minimum time”.
So why can’t you achieve “maximum intensity” in the pecs when doing the bench press? The reason is simply this: the bench press limits your “range of motion” so much, that you can’t generate maximum dynamic contraction in the pecs when doing it. In fact, you can’t even come close.
And since intensity is “the amount of contraction that you generate in the working muscle per unit of time“, dynamic contraction is one of the “two types of muscular contraction” that you need to maximize, in order to achieve maximum intensity, and thus maximum muscle growth.
And to understand how all of this applies to the bench press, read on, and you’ll view this exercise in a different light; probably like it’s never been seen before.
But if I’ve lost you already, with words and concepts like “intensity” and “dynamic contraction”, I suggest you read my series of articles on exercise intensity; starting with Exercise Intensity: the #1 Key to Building Muscle, Part I; Exercise Intensity Defined.
In that series of articles, I define and explain exercise intensity correctly and completely; probably for the first time in history.
The Bench Press is a Compound Exercise; and That’s Its Downfall, for Building Maximum Muscle
As you probably know, the bench press is a compound exercise. Compound exercises are often defined as “multi-joint exercises”, because they make use of more than one type of joint simultaneously.
And although that definition is correct, it’s incomplete. So it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what a compound exercise is, and how a compound exercise differs from an isolation exercise.
A better, more complete, and more useful definition for a compound exercise is this:
“A compound exercise is one that consists of two or more different types of motions, done simultaneously, using two or more different types of joints simultaneously; during which all of the muscles used for those motions are working against a net external force or resistance; such as that provided by a weight.”
By comparison, “an isolation exercise is one that consists of only one type of motion, using only one type of joint; executed so that all of the muscle groups that come into play for that ‘one type of motion’ are working against a net external force or resistance; such as that provided by a weight.”
So in effect, when you do a compound exercise, you’re actually doing isolation exercises; but you’re doing more than one at a time.
And therein lies the problem with most compound exercises, including the bench press:
Whenever you combine two or more different types of motions into one exercise (as is done with compound exercises), it often limits your range of motion, thereby preventing you from doing the motions effectively. And that usually prevents you from achieving maximum intensity (or even high intensity), and thus maximum growth, in the muscles used for those motions.
And the bench press is a perfect example of this dilemma, as I explain below:
Why You Can’t Achieve Maximum Intensity, or Maximum Muscle Growth From the Bench Press
It’s important to know that when performing the bench press, you’re actually doing two different types of motions,executed simultaneously:
1) You’re straightening your arms, thereby working the triceps.
2) You’re moving your arms across your chest to the opposite shoulders (or more accurately “trying” to do so), thereby working the pectoral muscles and the anterior (front) deltoids.
The latter of these two motions is the one we want to focus on for now, since that’s the one that works your chest muscles.
Notice that when you do this motion as part of the bench press, you can’t possibly get your arm all the way across your chest to your opposite shoulder. But that’s what a “full-range of motion” would consist of, for this type of motion.
For a full-range of motion, you would move your arms across your chest towards the opposite shoulder, as far as you can go. And as you do so, the amount of dynamic contraction in the pectoral muscles gradually increases. So that by the time you get your arms as far as they can go across your chest, you would then have maximum dynamic contraction in your pectoral muscles.
When you’re performing this motion as part of the bench press, you can get through only a small fraction of your full range of motion. And that means you can’t achieve maximum dynamic contraction in the pectoral muscles (or the anterior deltoids) when doing the bench press. Which explains why you can’t achieve maximum intensity or muscle growth from doing the bench press.
Now what exactly is dynamic contraction? And why is it so important for achieving maximum intensity?
Dynamic contraction is probably a new concept for many of you reading this, as the term is hardly ever used in strength-training, bodybuilding or weight-training;even though it should be. Simply stated, dynamic contraction is “the type of contraction that causes motion”.
And since “exercise intensity is the amount of contraction that you generate in the working muscle per unit of time (i.e. per second)”, dynamic contraction is one of the two types of muscular contraction that you need to maximize, in order to generate “maximum intensity”, and thus maximum muscle growth stimulation.
For example, you need to generate dynamic contraction in the pectoral muscle (and in the anterior deltoid), in order to move your arm across your chest to the opposite shoulder. And the farther you go into the concentric phase of motion (the phase of motion that involves shortening and contraction of the muscle fibers), the more dynamic contraction you generate. And when you move any body part as far as you can into your concentric phase of motion, you have maximum dynamic contraction at that point.
And since intensity is the “amount of contraction you generate in a muscle per given unit of time”, maximum dynamic contraction is an absoulte requirement for achieving maximum intensity, and thus maximum muscle growth.
But the range of motion for this motion is so small when doing the bench press, that you can’t even achieve a high, or even a moderate level of dynamic contraction, let alone a maximum level of dynamic contraction. When doing the bench press, you’re basically limited to your “weak range” of motion, where the amount of dynamic contraction in the chest muscles is very low.
So doing this motion as part of the bench press would be like doing the biceps curl and lifting the weight up only about 3 inches, then lowering it back to down to the starting point. Would you ever build maximum muscle by doing the biceps curl that way? Of course not, no matter how much weight you use! And the same is true for the bench press.
So here we have one of the most highly-touted exercises in conventional weight-training plans, that breaks one of the most hallowed rules of conventional training; which is that you must always use a full range of motion, in order to build maximum muscle and strength. Bodybuilding gurus and fitness trainers have been telling us this for decades, based upon the belief that you need to hit every point in your range of motion, in order to build strength and size at every point in your range of motion. And even though there has never been any scientific evidence to prove that hypothesis, how can you build strength and size at all of those points that you can never even get to in your range of motion, when doing the bench press?
Yet those same “experts” have also been telling us that the bench press will build your chest muscles like no other exercise will; even though it’s impossible to use a full range of motion when doing the bench press! So what gives?
Well, when a workout plan has any contradictions or inconsistencies inherent within it (as almost all workout plans do), that means there’s probably something wrong with the plan. And in that case, you need to modify the plan, in order to eliminate those contradictions or inconsistencies.
So what do we do with the bench press? Do we modify it, or just eliminate it? I would just eliminate it; because there’s no way you can modify the bench press significantly, so as to achieve maximum intensity, and thus maximum muscle growth. And fortunately, there are much more effective exercises than the bench press, for building your chest muscles.
But wait! The bench press enables you to lift more weight than does any other chest exercise. So it must be the most effective exercise for building your pecs, right? Wrong!
Why the Bench Press Allows You to Lift So Much Weight: It’s All Just an Illusion
It’s true that the bench press allows you to lift more weight than does any other chest exercise. But there are reasons for that; and it has nothing to do with the strength of your pectoral muscles.
Think about it: you’ve got the same pectoral muscles, whether you do the bench press, the pec deck, the double-cable crossover, the dumbbell flye, or any other chest exercise. So your chest muscles don’t suddenly becomes stronger, as if by magic, just because you choose the bench press over those other exercises.
The primary reason why you can handle so much weight when doing the bench press has to do with the positioning of the weight relative to the shoulder. Notice that for this particular motion (that of moving the arm across the chest to the opposite shoulder), the farther the weight is positioned from the shoulder, the greater the resistance becomes, because it creates more leverage for the pectoral muscle to work against. And the closer the weight is positioned to the shoulder, the lower the resistance becomes, because it creates less leverage for the muscle to work against.
Resistance is the “net external force” that the muscle has to work against. And it comes not only from the amount of weight used, but also how the weight is used; more specifically, the amount of leverage that the muscle has to work against. So the greater the leverage is for any amount of weight used, the greater the resistance that the muscle has to work against.