Why is the bench press so popular?
This is a personal overview of why I think the bench press is so popular. You might find other reasons to be more valid and I am very interested in reading them in the comments to make this post even better. This is an article to entertain and educate. If you want deep dive information with more references and substance please refer to one of my program reviews for Stronglifts 5x5, Smolov Jr, Smolov and Jim Wendler 531.
When you walk into an average commercial gym you will find at least one or two people bench pressing. Some even call Mondays jokingly international chest day, as everybody seems to be pounding away on the bench press. I personally get a wake-up call every time I go on business travel and go to other gyms, especially the fancy ones with spas and all kinds of digital gadgets attached to their machines. On more than 500 - 1000 square meters of space I usually find a ratio of bench press setups to power racks of three to one, because usually there only seems to be one power rack/squat stance around. This is also quite surprising as it is a bad investment on the gym's behalf. A power rack is way more versatile in its use if people know how to use it, than a simple one purpose bench. So why is it that people do not behave rationally and bench press like lemmings all over the word.
This obsession with the bench press becomes even more strange when I look at the goal sets most young men seem to have and when I compare it with my own results. I have been bench pressing consistently for the last three years with the aim of strength gains (At 31 years of age I am an old fart). In this time I managed to bring my one repetition maximum up to 150kg, but my chest did not increase that much in size. So, based on my own results, the bench press also does not seem to be the best option to provide muscle growth. In fact, there is quite a bit of material out there that states that the dumbbell bench press is superior to the barbell bench press for developing a bigger chest. Again based on my own experiments I would agree with that observation as I get more "pump" out of a set of 10 with dumbbells than out of a set of ten with the barbell. In addition, there are also reports of bad injuries due to bench pressing reaching from deaths to serious face injuries. Some sources are even going that far to label the bench press "the most dangerous lift you can do". So if you can kill yourself doing the bench press and it is not even the best option to achieve your goals, why the hell are so many people doing it?
Monkey see, Monkey do
It is quite likely to always have a person in sight in a gym who is bench pressing. That is not the case for lifts like the deadlift, free weight squats (even though squats seem to have gotten a revival due to CrossFit), cleans, heavy dumbbell flat bench presses and cable exercises of many sorts. You will find that the gym you are in either does not provide the relevant equipment or the coaches do not know how to teach these movements properly. This effect gets even more pronounced as it seems that in Hollywood movies you often find the bench press as a proof of strength in any montage where the hero gears up for the final battle. The only movie I have seen recently that had a heavy squat in it was Batman vs Superman.
The bench press is in almost any movie montage when the hero prepares for battle, the squat only makes occasional appearances like in this powerlifting dungeon inspired scene from Batman vs Superman
All of this leads to a positive bias for the flat barbell bench press amongst coaches, programs, and gym goers and therefore you see more of it than it actually contributes to your goals. Do not get me wrong, I love the bench press and I think if you want to build raw upper body strength it is one of the best exercises around. I do it two times a week myself. I do believe though that the general public is more interested in looks than in strength and if that is the case you should be seeing way more dumbbell bench presses and cable pulls around.
It is easy to learn
When you are a young gym rat you are usually not supposed to be in the gym anyway because you do not meet the minimum age criteria. This leads to young men avoiding the staff members at any cost to ask for advice. If the gym staff then also turns a blind eye to not be rude in the sense of "let the fella have his training, as long as he does not directly approach me I pretend he slipped through the cracks" we have a situation on our hands in which young, easily influenced beginners will opt for the easy option. This is what happened with me. The bench press is fairly easy to comprehend and to imitate. Get your ass on a bench, get a barbell and start pumping, done. By the way, same also goes for the biceps curl. Furthermore the squat and the deadlift are not performed that often and the people who perform them are definitely not the ones a teenage boy approaches just like that. Usually, it is a middle-aged man who wants to get his shit done as quick as possible and moves a terrifying amount of weight in the eyes of a newbie. You are not going to ask that guy for advice. You might try the squat or deadlift once or twice and then realize that you actually need coaching to do it without killing yourself and leave it to the wayside.
It is the most likely lift to move your own bodyweight first
Effect one and two lead to quickest progress on the bench press. Even though technically the squat or deadlift would be a lot more likely to move big weights fast due to the nature of the lift it becomes way more likely that you will move your own body weight first on the bench press because you are simply just doing more bench pressing. Now we are in a cycle that reinforces itself and leads to chicken leg syndrome. To satisfy your ego you want to get stronger and move more weight on a given lift. As you have neglected other movements apart from the bench press your numbers are poor on those. As a result, your ego gets scratched every time you perform these movements. To make you feel good you rather do not do the things you are crap at, even though you should, but instead bench press more because you are already awesome at it. Then the next newbie steps into the gym and sees you bench pressing and the whole thing comes full circle.
I think the bench press is so popular because it is very easy to move impressive weights fast whilst learning the movement quickly. Based on this you have a lot of people all over the world doing the bench press and it found its way into many programs as a program without a bench press is deemed to be a piece of crap. This created a positive bias towards the flat barbell bench press that leads evermore people asking "How much do you lift?" meaning "What is your bench?", therefore increasing its popularity way beyond its actual usefulness.
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