I encourage everyone to grab some lighter fluid, douce your bench and light it a flame! Yes, its time to burn your benches! The bench press is a stalwart in the strength and conditioning, body building and fitness world. All things old are new again but this exercise can be left in the past. Burn your benches!
“Bro, How much do you bench?” Who cares if you need a bench to press it? Is there anytime in your life, outside of the gym, that you lie on your back and need to press 300lbs off your chest? Unless you compete in bench press competitions you need to reconsider the time and energy you are wasting lying on your back.
Horizontal cable presses will yield better strength gains than the bench press. Let me preface this bold statement with my perspective. I am a strength coach who coaches rotational athletes in sports such as football, baseball, golf and extreme sports. I train athletes! If you are an athlete or train athletes, the cable press will enhance your strength and power development faster and more effectively than the bench press. If you are not an athlete and your main objective is to develop hypertrophy for aesthetic purposes or you need to develop strength for specific pressing competitions then put on some Neil Young and keep on benching in the free world! Otherwise it is time for you to get off your back and develop strength with your feet on the ground using your entire body.
When I first shared this concept at the 2014 World Golf Fitness Summit, fitness coaches got their panties in a knot because they felt it was an attack on a key foundational element of their programming. It was like I told them Santa wasn’t real but instead he was really their slightly inebriated Dad with too many Scotches on his breathe filling those stockings. “Its Christmas!” Just like Santa and other childhood beliefs that we are afraid to let go of, the bench press is also becoming a fictional character of our training past. There is a inherent fear in allowing yourself to agree with this statement. If I agree to this then what would happen next? Would I start to question all the key lifts? What is next on the firing line? Squats? The next time I spoke on this topic was at the 2015 Perform Better Summit where I was approached by well read and educated coaches who argued you can’t cable press 300lbs but you can bench it. Therefor benching would yield better strength gains. Who cares how much you can bench if it isolated from the rest of your athletic body? If you can’t express your 300lb bench press strength in the real world what is it good for? WAR! Good God y’all, what is it good for! Absolutely nothing say it again! If we are going to war and argue the 2 sides of this equation we need to layout the field of battle:
Bench Press: Until you know better!
Let us first look at the bench press. Thomas Baechle in the strength coach’s bible, Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, states that the proper technique for bench pressing requires you to have 5 points of contact. 1 head, 2 shoulders, 1 pelvis on the bench and 2 feet on the floor. Hey wait, that’s 6 points! Okay maybe I added the pelvis as I hate the arching backs when young bucks go for their PB. A spotter is required for 1RM attempts for safety purposes. Varying grip width or adding incline or decline to the bench will work different muscle fibres in the chest. Lower the weight to your sternum with your elbows reaching at least 90 degrees of flexion. As you press on the bar there is an equal and opposite force applied into the bench. If the bench is on a stable surface the compression of the benches padding will then increase until the body and bench become one. Now the force applied by the primary movers, including but not exclusively, the pectoral muscles and triceps will move the bar. For more isolated contraction of the pectorals and to add variability the lift, use dumbbells! Dumbbells require each arm to work independently and puts more stability and control demands on the shoulder muscles and rotator cuff. During sub maximal lifts, the core muscles and lower body are used very minimally. I understand that core strength and control is not the goal fo the bench press but it should be if the athlete wants to utilize their new found pressing ability in the field of battle.
In the early 90s there was a shift in the gym culture with the introduction of unstable surface training. The personal training industry was booming and the dumbbell press on the swiss ball was on the rise. It was toted as being harder than the bench press because it forced the user to engage their core muscles more and engage the ground. True! The problem with this unstable surface training was that the athlete was not able to create as much force on this apparatus. Unlike the bench, the ball would continue to compress and move under the forces that were applied to it by the pressing athlete. Because of this; the strength, power and body building communities rolled the balls aside and strapped on their weight belts. “Back to the benches!” Core training became the thing and the swiss ball, Bosu and other balance gizmos were given their own section of the gym in the ‘functional training’ area.
The cable press is the truest expression of push strength. Put your feet on the ground, get in an athletic posture, adjust the cable height to desired angle of attack and push! When you push on the cable you are pushing against the ground. Any force that is applied to the handle of the cable is applied to the ground through the feet. What about all the parts of the body in-between? That is the beauty of the cable press.The weight pressed is limited by the bodies weakest link. If there is any part of the body that is not as strong as the strongest link in the chain the weight will not move. With the cable press we get all the shoulder stability muscle recruitment we would get from the dumbbell press but we add in scapular stability. Picture your scapula lying against the bench. When your arm presses into the bar your arm is pressed into he shoulder girdle which is pressed into the bench. Take away the bench and now the muscles that stabilize the scapula now have to act as duct tape and hold the arm and shoulder girdle to the torso. This style of pressing strengthens these stabilizers and allows us to apply more force trough them. The scapular stabilizers have to brace themselves or transfer force to the next section of the chain which is the core. The core musculature has to work on postural support, resisting flexion, extension, side bend and rotation while creating a stable foundation for the shoulders and arms to apply force from. When performing a single arm cable press you also have to control rotation and torque on the spine. The diaphragm helps regulate the intra-abdominal pressure to aid in spinal stabilization and allow force to transfer through the torso. Down the chain the core controls the pelvis along with the muscles that connect the legs to the pelvis. The glutes control and resist hip flexion while aiding in controlling pelvic tilt by teaming up with the abdominals. The legs need to act as pillars that can apply the ideal amount of force into the ground to drive the weight forward without losing its connection to the ground or produce forces that the rest of the chain cannot handle.
We could go into an anatomy and physiology lesson here but I think you get the point. There is a whole lot more happening throughout the entire body during the cable press than the bench press. So why can’t you press as much standing using the entire body compared to pressing using only a few isolated muscle groups like in the bench press? There must be a weak link in the chain that is being addressed by the bench and not being addressed by the full chain. Why is it that the athlete with the biggest bench press doesn’t always have the greatest horizontal press strength? Again you need to look at the other elements that make up the entire chain used in the horizontal cable press. Isn’t our main objective when testing our athlete’s bench press to see how much force they would be able to apply to another body or object during their sport?
Take the offensive lineman position in football for instance. Let’s say we have 2 athletes with identical size and skill. Athlete A can bench press 300lbs and horizontal press 175lbs horizontally using a cable press. Athlete B can only bench 250lbs but can horizontally press 200lbs. Which one do you pick? Some coaches will claim that your ability to apply horizontal force is the sum of its parts. Increasing an athlete’s ability to press is best trained by breaking the movement into its individual elements and isolating them then adding them together to create an full chain movement. Plantar flexion, knee extension, hip extension, core stability, scapular/shoulder girdle stability, arm adduction and elbow extension. These are the same coaches that believe that an asymmetry should be trained by adding more reps to the weak side till it catches up! I disagree. I feel the weak link will catch up to the rest of the chain. Now I will say that if we were certain that hip extension was the weak link I would work directly on improving the deadlift and squat lifts because they stay true to our multi jointed, full chain exercise model. Especially the deadlift which will require the grip, rotator cuff stability, scapular stability, spinal stability, core stability, pelvic control, hip extension and leg force production. Don’t get me wrong; only participating in the horizontal cable press on its own with the exclusion of all other exercises is not the best recipe for generating horizontal force but it should certainly make up the bulk of your programming. What I love about the cable press is the variability of this type of exercise. You can change the angle of the resistance, the amount of resistance, the stance, posture and easily progress or regress exercises and customize the resistance to match your needs.
Your foot position on this exercise can greatly affect the amount of force you are producing. The split stance is the greatest t force producing stance. It offers sagittal stability with added frontal plane stability when a shoulder width or greater stance is applied. The back foot should be plantar flexed to engage the entire posterior chain. Pretending to squeeze a beach ball between the lead and trail leg will provide you with a pelvic lock and enhance core activation. The split stance also allows us to identify any asymmetries between the left leg or right leg forward split stance position. When you move to a square stance we lose the sagittal plane stability but gain more frontal plane control. Problem is that the resistance is being applied in the sagittal plane so we lose force generation in the stance. We do however increase the reliance on the core and foot proprioception for balance. If you really want to test your symmetry and ability to dynamically apply force in a more sport specific manner try the single leg stance cable press. With a single leg stance, strength is not the focus but instead the focus is on controlling shearing and rotational forces on the lower body.
When you are working with athletes you need to increase strength and power outputs but more importantly you need to improve these outputs in a variety of planes and from a variety of postures or positions. Picture an offensive lineman straight arming a linebacker who is attacking his frontal plane while driving his legs in the sagittal plane. A millisecond later he is shuffling in the frontal plane while delivering a forearm shiver in the sagittal plane. This athlete needs to apply force in a variety of body positions in multiple planes without compensation. We need to then train this athlete in multiple positions and applying force in multiple planes. This is where the cable press trumps the bench press which has one body position with one plane of motion. You can change the plane by using an incline or decline bench but the bench press lacks variability from rep to rep like we can in the cable press.
Start with the horizontal press. The line of force is perpendicular to the torso. If you are a bench press guy your body will say “Ahhh this is nice. This feels familiar!” If you have mastery of this position without any compensation you can now challenge the body and put the athlete into athletic posture. Place the cable system the the top of the pulley system with the line of force again applied perpendicular to the spine angle. The opposite of that is taking the pulley to the bottom in the same posture and pressing on the incline. This will obviously brings in more of the delt and upper pectoral muscles similar to the incline press.
One commonality between the bench and cable press is the options available to us when it comes to handling the resistance. We can use bars, dumbbells, kettle bells, or bands. How we hold on to the source of resistance will place a variety of demands on the body. Here are some of our options and considerations for these options: 1 Bar 2 Hands: Classic bench press uses 1 bar with 2 hands placed on the bar applying force in the line of gravity. Cable press can also be performed with 2 cables attached to each end of the bar. Here the line of force can be varied by adjusting the height or position of the pulley. The athlete has the option to follow this line of force or alter it throughout the lift. 2 Handles 2 Hands: This option brings in independent movement of each arm. Holding onto 2 dumbbells or 2 independent cables will quickly reveal any asymmetries or strength deficits. The shoulder girdle stability requirements increases exponentially. The amount of force produced decreases when we add independent handles but he overall performance outcome is often higher. 1 Handle 1 Hand: As soon as we add one handle with one source of resistance we put torque, potential shearing forces, and increase the bodies demands to control or resist rotation. Here is where your foot position or stance will play a huge role in how the force is managed. Split stance with your front leg placed contralaterally to the hand holding the resistance is the best position for applying force with one handle and one source of resistance. Single leg stance adds an entirely different demand on this type of cable press. Ipsilateral single leg stance (same side foot and hand) puts the forces applied from the press through a similar line in the body. Contralateral single leg stance (opposite arm to foot position) puts torque and anti-rotational demands on the body. Single arm, single leg exercises are designed to enhance the athletes proprioception and athleticism.
When performing a single arm press, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of controlling rotation before creating rotation. A big contributor to single arm pressing strength and power outputs are the rotational muscles. Pressing while rotating makes the press easier or allows us to produce more force. Great! But before we jump the gun, I always have my athletes “Earn the right to rotate!” This means they need to be able to press while resisting rotation before they start to perform rotational presses. If you neglect to focus on this tenant you may miss a weak link which is being masked by the dynamic rotational movement.
You finally gave up your baseball cards, Barbies and Playboy collection when you got married. Now its time to get rid of another ancient relic you are carrying with you from your past. Throw out the Bosu Ball, Ab Roller, Thigh Master and place your bench on the summit of your old antiquated fitness equipment. All it takes is a safe and well ventilated area, some lighter fluid and a spark and you are ready to “Burn Your Benches!” Or keep the bench in your facility for step ups, incline push ups, bench burpies, a coat rack, use it as a location for client consultations or eating your lunch. You will free up valuable floor space in your gym and your athletes will be better for it!