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A Perspective On The Bench Press
How to perform this popular exercise for athletic fitness and physical superiority
1/13/2012 6:20:30 PM
Variety is one of the keys to developing overall pressing strength, and one way to incorporate this variety is with the use of thick bars and eccentric hooks.
With 1,000-pound bench presses becoming commonplace, the passing five years ago of a powerlifter who bench pressed 675 pounds may have gone unnoticed to many new to the iron game. But the fact is, the man who did this lift earned his place as the best bench presser of his era and one of the best of all time. His name is Jim Williams.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Williams was strong from the start. When he was 12 years old he weighed 200 pounds, and he excelled in football and track and field. He reached the state finals in the shot put four times, winning once – and when he weighed 340 pounds he could dunk a basketball.
Williams entered his first powerlifting competition in 1966, and his lifting career ended in 1973. His first major goal was to break the world record of 615 pounds of Pat Casey, the first man to bench press 600 pounds. Williams broke this record in 1971, hitting 635 pounds. At the 1972 World Championships, Williams made his best official result with 675 pounds and attempted 700 – a standard that held until 1994, when Anthony Clark did 683 pounds. Williams had reportedly done 700 pounds in training on numerous occasions, with a best of 720 pounds. The current “raw” bench press world record is 715 pounds, held by Scot Mendelson. Williams always lifted in a raw fashion – supportive equipment was not available in his day, and a two-second pause was required.
Although known for his bench pressing, Williams also broke the world record in the squat, with 865, and did 1,200 pounds in a half squat, which he said was about 3-4 inches above parallel. His best training lifts included a squat of 900 and a deadlift of 815, even though he did not have good leverages for the deadlift and did not focus on it in his training. On this matter Williams’ former training partner Bob Gaynor said, “In the years I trained with Jim, I maybe saw him deadlift twice.” At a bodyweight of 340 pounds and height of 6 feet 1 inch, Williams reportedly had a 60-inch chest and 22-inch arms – his upper body strength enabled him to compete in the Arm Wrestling World Championships. And the power in his thighs, which were reportedly 36 inches in girth, enabled him to dunk a basketball.
In an interview Gaynor did with iron game historian Dr. Terry Todd, Todd said Jim Williams (who died in 2007 from diabetes) was one of the strongest super heavyweight lifters he had ever seen. “I would definitely place Jim Williams’ benching in the top ten, along with such stalwarts such as Paul Anderson’s squat, Bill Kazmaier’s dumbbell pressing, Alexeyev’s cleaning, Savickas’ overall power, Koklyaev’s pull, Bolton’s deadlifting and Mark Henry’s grip strength.” Former world super heavyweight champion John Kuc added, “Jimmy had more potential than anyone other than Paul Anderson. I truly think with proper training he could have totaled over 2,500 pounds without equipment.”
Williams was always willing to share his training methods, and he was a frequent contributor to magazines such as Iron Man magazine, Muscular Development and Powerlifting News. He would train the lift up to five days a week, and one of his ideas, which later become popularized by Fred Hatfield, who called it “compensatory acceleration,” was to always move the bar as quickly as possible. For more details about his training visit the website, which offers two books about his training, one on bench pressing and one on the squat.
I bring up Williams’ story because it is about one of the last “honest” bench presses. With changes in rules since Williams’ time and with equipment now adding several hundred pounds to achievable loads, it’s difficult to determine how strong today’s powerlifters really are. PICP Level 4 Coach Derek Woodske said the last time he went to a major bench press championships, the level of the lifting was such that he didn’t start paying attention until the bar was loaded to 800 pounds!
I would like to add a few of my opinions about the good and bad of bench press supportive gear. Powerlifters who plan to use supportive gear in competition need to practice with this gear in training because the technique is significantly different from pressing raw. However, because these shirts and wraps create a false supportive structure, I would still recommend that at the beginning of a cycle these powerlifters lift without this gear to increase the strength of the connective tissues and work the muscles that help stabilize the joints. On a side note: supportive gear helps promote the sport by providing additional sponsorship opportunities for these athletes – many powerlifting competitions even offer prize money to athletes. Imagine how Jim Williams could have progressed if he’d had sponsorship opportunities.
Even as the sport of powerlifting continues to evolve, it’s important to recognize that the training methods of these athletes are not ideal ways to train for most athletes or for anyone who just wants to look good naked.
Bench Pressing Perspective
When you look at powerlifters, consider that their primary goal is not to press in a manner that would have the most carryover to sport performance. Nor is it to press in the manner that is least stressful on the joints. The goal of a powerlifter is to lift the heaviest weight possible, and that involves creating more favorable leverages to use a relatively wide grip.
As for the position of the hands for barbell bench pressing, I recommend placing the index fingers at biacromial width, which is the distance between the two bony prominences on the top of the shoulder. This is also the standard I use for the upper structural balance system that is taught in Level I of the Poliquin International Certification Program (PICP).
Although the bench press is one of the basic tests used in the NFL Combine, it is overrated as an upper body maximal strength test – in fact, one recent research paper looked at the results of 1,155 athletes who participated in the NFL Combine between 2005 and 2009. The researchers concluded that “regardless of position, the current battery of physical tests undertaken at the combine holds little value in terms of predicting draft order.” In fact, the best predictors were jumping ability and straight sprint times, but it’s obvious from looking at programs of top college football programs that flat bench pressing is still a priority in football. However, I don’t mean to imply that pressing is completely irrelevant.
In terms of athletic performance, the pressing angle of an incline bench press is more sport specific due to the shoulder joint angle in relation to the trunk. Whether the movement is a punch delivered in boxing, the release of a shot put, or the push-off position in the short-track speedskating relay, you will notice that the upper arm is at a 45-degree angle upward in relation to the trunk. There are also many sporting movements in which the athlete pushes with the upper arm directly at 90 degrees to the trunk. With that background, let’s look at program design for the bench press.
For athletes, or for that matter the general population, I do not recommend performing more than 20 percent of their training volume for presses during the year from a prone position – that is, 80 percent should be performed from other angles. Also, I recommend that 50 percent of pressing exercises be performed with dumbbells, preferably with thick-handled implements.
One popular piece of equipment that is especially popular among football coaches is the standing vertical press machine. One thing going for this type of machine is that it allows for smooth articulation of the shoulder (i.e., scapulohumeral movement) because the shoulder blades are not pinned against the bench. However, these machines force the upper body to be restricted into one movement pattern, which increases the risk of overuse injuries and makes the exercise less sport specific. For example, in football, after a lineman makes his initial hit, his shoulders will continue to move in various unstable patterns during contact with his opponent – a situation that further supports the use of dumbbell training. Also, with these standing press units (and likewise with vertical cable units) the intensity is compromised by the strength of the trunk and the high level of lower body stability required.
Despite the limitations of the bench press, it continues to have a place in the training programs of most athletes. However, unless you’re seeking to become an iron game legend such as Jim Williams, you’ll do well to follow the guidelines presented in this article to minimize the risk of injury and to keep the lift in perspective with your goals.
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