The Inescapable Challenge of the Bench Press

After you’ve worked out long enough and gotten strong enough, expect to encounter a variation on one of gym culture’s unavoidable questions: “How much ya bench?” 

Throughout my own gym-going life, I’ve been dogged by that question. Even in high school and college, when athletics and functional strength constituted my highest priorities, I stood out to others because of the weight I could move on the bench press. This meant a lot to these folks, even if I kept reminding myself it didn’t mean much to me, because in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the bench press was very much a Big Freaking Deal—the ne plus ultra of slow strength lifts.

“Whoa, dude,” someone would say after I’d completed a set of five reps. “That’s pretty good. What’s your max bench?”

Oliver Bateman bench presses 380 pounds.

I would give an honest answer, racking my brain for what I could push into a locked-out position after stopping for a powerlifting competition pause at the bottom of the movement. “I don’t know, maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of 345 pounds,” my earnest, all-too-earnest 200-pound, 20-year-old self would say.

“Cool, I know someone who can bench 500,” would come the inevitable reply. “And he can rep 225 pounds more than 50 times, like he’s in the NFL Combine.”

Whenever I’d hear a question like this, my powerlifting sense would begin to tingle. Paused on the chest, 330 or 340 pounds is an awful lot, as understood by anyone who has ever completed a heavy press to powerlifting standards. My brother, as hulking a teenager as I’ve seen this side of Andy Katzenmoyer or Gable Steveson, could barely bench more than 365 pounds this way during his athletic prime. The idea of that many people benching 500 pounds simply wasn’t possible; it amounted to mere words, a lot of empty gym talk.

And then there was that unavoidable reference to “benching 225 for reps,” an arbitrary feat hardened into a significant metric because of its persistent, if unhelpful, use as a sorting mechanism for NFL rookies.

The “Greek Grizzly” demonstrates the terrible bench press form for which he has become internet famous.

Nowadays, with greater awareness of strength training spread across the population, the bench press has lost some of its luster. More people now know—the way competitive powerlifters always have known—that the highly technical back squat and the incredibly taxing deadlift are where one can most quickly and efficiently make strength gains.

But that realization doesn’t mean the bench press lacks utility. In fact, both bench pressing and strict shoulder pressing—the latter requiring that the core stabilize the entire body while the dumbbells or barbell are pressed overhead—may never come easily to many people, even to people with the strictest form or using performance-enhancing drugs. For example, in his book Starting Strength, strength coach Mark Rippetoe admits to a max bench done to powerlifting standards in the mid-300 pound range, noting by way of explanation that he wasn’t a bench specialist by any means. Pressing ain’t easy and failing to complete even a single rep truly stinks.

Oliver Bateman shoulder presses a pair of 100-pound dumbbells.

When pressing, you either recruit the raw strength to drive the weight upwards or that weight goes nowhere. Not everyone can recruit the muscles needed to accomplish this, and, to make matters worse, shoulder injuries can derail your pressing performance in a heartbeat. Pectoral tears can, too, but they’re less common among folks who haven’t pushed themselves far past their natural limits with the aid of steroids.

Overhead pressing carries its own risks, including extreme light-headedness. My paternal uncle suffered a fatal heart attack in 2015 at the well-outfitted gym inside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, just a few minutes after completing some heavy shoulder presses with dumbbells—an uncommon cause of death, certainly, but as his older brother often said, if you can die, you can die today.

Questions of rigor and risk aside, the bench press remains a poor way of determining a lifter’s raw strength. The simplest exercise for this purpose, the one with the least possibility of error and that can be done safely even by low-skill trainees, is the deadlift. Even for folks with longer arms, the bench press tracks a limited range of motion, and, despite the engagement of the lats and legs, doesn’t exercise the whole body the same way the deadlift does. 

The deadlift is irredeemably humdrum, however—a mundane, blue-collar exercise. You drive your feet into the floor and pull a heavy barbell off of it. It’s real work, plain and simple. I have deadlifted for a long time, often with good success, and the only thing people at the big chain gyms ever said to me about my deadlifting came in the form of warnings about hurting my back (I don’t round it if I can help it) and not dropping the weight (I did the best I could). But wherever I happen to go, for as long as my big body still lets me lift, someone will almost certainly ask me how much I bench—that’s a number that meant something, even if its meaning was more symbolic than actual.

When, just like in college, I give them an honest answer and they proceed to tell me they know someone who can bench twice as much, I will stand there in silence, aware that the only people in the world who can bench twice as much as I can are Eric Spoto, Julius Maddox, and Kirill Sarychev. Maybe this person knows one of them, but I wouldn’t bet on it. More than likely, in 2021’s messy fitness world, that person is caught in a confusing world wide web of social media strength influencers, a house of lies in which every exercise is as easy as it appears on the Jujimufu YouTube channel and Olympic lifting phenom Clarence Kennedy’s alleged “vegan-protein gains” are “100 percent natty.”

And, as time has passed, I’ve realized what’s actually at stake in this silly-seeming discourse: hopes and dreams. Would-be lifters can all fantasize about having big chests and big arms—a fantasy that’s perhaps just a few sloppy bench press reps and a handful of worthless over-the-counter supplements away from coming true. The bench press serves as our ticket to glory at the NFL Combine, our chance to stop the bully from kicking sand in our faces, the one-size-fits-all “how much ya bench?” number reducing the measure of a person to a single exaggeration or lie. But it is a lie that tells the truth about a remarkable change happening with regard to our shared understanding of the self.

After all, most people—men in particular, especially those endangered hard-gaining remnants of homosocial “gym bro” culture—long for somatic recognition and fulfillment. At the very least, they still want to be perceived as having become strong, as part of a culture of strength, even if they are not actually strong. Talking about the bench press and one’s putative performance provides some amount of fulfillment in that regard, even if the perception they hope to convey is vestigial in nature, fading in the face of a world that cares not so much about strength, honor, and virtue as it does nonstop marketing and gross revenues. What does it matter, being perceived as a good bench presser much less actually being a good one, if you can simply buy the self a la carte and display those pieces on social media?

To do something for and by yourself, the bench press included, is to operate outside that all-encompassing marketplace—a guerilla action against the world of easy cash, of buying and selling. When you’re deep inside that world, why should you even care about seeming strong when you can buy any little or big thing you desire, from housekeeping to food delivery, and then angle your camera accordingly to capture your filtered, FaceApp-ed visage next to that thing? 

At a time when people increasingly pay to set the terms of how you must perceive and address them—as, for example, a trans-species reptilian who received $50,000 worth of plastic surgery—even listening to lies about potentially nonexistent friends who could “bench 500 pounds, easy, for reps” before their “career-ending knee surgery” constitutes a welcome throwback, the sort of innocent fabulism in which two wandering rogues passing between medieval towns might engage. 

In a world such as this, the action of the bench press has taken on a deeper meaning for me, too. Resisting the nearly 400-pound barbell coming down on my chest, to pause there before being driven back up, recalls nothing so much as the fate of Giles Corey in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Corey chose to be pressed under a stone, peine forte et dure, requesting “more weight” in lieu of confessing to false charges that would have cost his family their rightful patrimony. 

My own situation is less immediately dire but still heavy with foreboding: I must bear up under that unbearable weight, always increasing, of a future I did not choose yet am duty-bound to meet with Stoic indifference. For me, and surely for some others under the barbell both literally and figuratively, the term “resistance” denotes not some empty hashtag meant to encourage social media “organizing” indistinguishable from merely posting cliches for clout, but rather the labor of a body contesting impossible odds.

To modify a shopworn saying, the long-gone past serves as an unrecoverable mystery, the unwelcome future represents a time when I’ll be dead and therefore lost to history, and this tense present moment affords us the gift of struggle in the arena, the real work of standing athwart the looming doom that awaits us all. 

About Oliver Bateman

Oliver Bateman is a journalist and historian who lives in Pittsburgh. He is a contributing writer to the Ringer, MEL Magazine, and Splice Today. He also serves as co-host of the “What’s Left?” podcast. Visit his website: www.oliverbateman.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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