Bench Press is a Gateway Drug

Susan just asked me if me I thought bench press would help with someone strength training to address osteopenia or osteoporosis. First of all, let’s see what the National Strength and Conditioning Association says about what stimulates new bone formation:

  • Specificity of loading: This means if you are most concerned with adding bone mass to the hip area, to decrease the risk of a life threatening hip fracture, don’t do bench press.
  • Exercise selection: Better to use full body exercises, like back squat, deadlift, etc. rather than isolating exercises, like leg curl or biceps curl, especially those that load though the spine and hips. Hmmm, not looking good for our friend the bench press…
  • Progressive overload: Ability to increase load (or leverage) over time.
  • Training Variation: There are many variations of the bench press, but many more for the squat, press and deadlift… It’s always good to vary the stimulus.

While it may not look good for the bench press, here’s what happens in real life: People who have osteopenia or osteoporosis probably haven’t done much strength training. One of the hardest things to teach people when they are learning to strength train is how to be tight. In addition, it is also hard to get people to understand and feel how they can use their whole body to lift rather than just their arms and legs.

We think the progression to powerful movement (and bone health) is position, movement, strength, power. A huge part of part of powerful movement is the skill of being able to hold your lower body stable when your upper body does work and, conversely, holding your upper body stable when your lower body does work. Given that information, we think of the bench press as a great way to introduce athletes, a gateway drug if you will, to learn how to be tight. For instance, if you were to superset, i.e. perform them back to back with a rest after both are done, the bench press and the deadlift, you would have a great lesson to an aspiring lifter how one part of the body has to be stable so the other part of the body can do the work. By flipping between those two exercises, it would be easy to teach that athlete both proper positioning and safe movement.

Not every exercise has to be a functional movement (although, if you are strength training a senior, pushing your body off the floor, or off the toilet, is a highly functional exercise if you ask me). Strength training often requires assistance exercises to get “balanced” so that you can safely perform the lift that will actually get the results you need. Make a plan first, like my beautiful and talented wife does for her personal training clients, then choose the exercises.