The History Of The Bench Press

This article originally ran in the Feb. 2009 issue of Iron Man Magazine.

Benchpressing, as a crude form of what we know today, began in the 1930's when lifters literally laid on a wooden "bench" or box and pressed a barbell up off of their chest. Before that, men trained for decades in different versions of the floor press. Some lifted while laying flat on the ground and others would arch during the lift the way a wrestler bridges. The bridged version of the lift was often referred to as a "belly toss" because the pressing portion of the movement began with a back and leg arching maneuver to get the bar started upwards. People could obviously move more weight through belly tossing than through flat backed floor pressing but many recognized that this was not a true upper body anterior strength test. Belly tossing was a form of "cheating" the same way that barbell swing curling isn't an accurate test of a person's isolated biceps' strength. The flat backed floor press was and is an excellent strength building exercise, but a handoff person is needed to train that lift properly and we'll go over the techniques and methods of floor pressing in a future article in this series.

In the 1920s and 30s, the proper technique in England was to belly toss the barbell skywards. In 1939, the AAU made a move to standardize "the pull over and press" and they made a point to ban the bridging technique. Bending of the legs, raising the butt or shoulders off the ground or separating your heels was cause for disqualification according to the American sanctioning federation. To elaborate on this complaint, Bob Hoffman wrote in one of his weight lifting books "Some men are so flexible that they do all of the lifting with the abdomen, the arms catching and holding the weight only near the completion of the lift. Retaining the bar upon the abdomen, the body is lowered until the buttocks almost touch the floor, then, with a quick raise of the abdomen or toss the bar is thrown from its position across the body backwards over the face. There the lift is finished by a strong pressure from the arms."

John Sanchez , a noted powerlifting historian, explains why Hoffman felt the (justified) need to outlaw belly tossing as an official way to attempt a prone press. "After the rules governing shoulder bridge / belly toss technique were relaxed somewhat during the late 1920's, Bill Lilly was able to set many records due to his incredible flexibility. Lilly could slowly elevate the bar on his abdomen to complete arm lockout position. Some would take issue with this extreme maneuver, alleging it was more a contortionist's trick than a genuine display of strength, but his records stood nevertheless. Apparently, Bill Lilly was so gifted with this new version of the shoulder bridge movement that challenges to his 484 lb record were non-existent during the 1930's. While the shoulder bridge or belly toss exercise may seem rather arcane nowadays, during its heyday it was a respected lift. Impelling a barbell off of one's belly to the degree that such a maneuver required could not have been very easy or comfortable. Nevertheless, this was the only way lifters of that era were able to exceed double, or in the case of Lilly, nearly triple body weight while lying on their back."

What's ironic about the comparison and debate over belly tossing and flat backed prone pressing was that nowadays, there are both lifters who have increased their flexibility on the raised "bench" to the point that their range of motion is basically cut in half and there are also overweight lifters who use the combination of a tight fitting benchpress super shirt and a rotund power gut to hardly have to move the bar vertically at all but, instead, in more of a diagonal direction from a soft handoff to the top of their belly and back again. They sort of support the weight of the bar with the ultra tight fitting, reinforced bench shirt and then the let the bar drift horizontally down their torso until it reaches the peak of their gut, which is very close to the same height as where the bar was handed off to them and then they get the press command and they simply drive it back towards their chest line and a few inches upwards to lockout. The best way to keep these people from utilizing these methods is to ban benchpress super shirts all together and to insist that the lifter's entire buttocks and shoulder blades remain in contact with the bench at all times. It's OK to arch as arching is part of power benching (leverage and stability) but it's got to be kept to a reasonable level. When the super shirts are removed from competition, the arching becomes less severe and the heavier set lifters are forced to bring the bar up to their lower chest level as a person can't pull off the belly bench drift without the aide of the shirt's "support".

It was in the 1930's that trainers and trainees began employing the use of benches and boxes in the prone press. The use of a bench or box allowed a person to plant their feet on the floor while keeping their hips low and their butt and shoulder blades in contact with the bench/box. When the boxes and benches were introduced, the AAU also approved the use of a spotter or handoff man for the purpose of passing the barbell to the lifter so the presser could begin the lift with the weight in position over their chest. All three variations of the press on back (prone floor press, belly toss and bench press) would persist relatively unchanged through the 1940's but a hierarchy among them was quickly developing. For bodybuilders at least, the bench version was gaining dominance and by the 1950's it was the king of upper body movements with noted advocates like Marvin Eder and George Eifermann . A major reason for this was that these chest-conscious athletes favored its greater effect on the pectorals than the other two versions.

John Sanchez further explains "Interestingly, the bench press was to remain a somewhat controversial lift during the 1950's as lifters sought to maximize their advantage with outside help during its performance. What many would object to during these times would eventually become the status quo for the sport of powerlifting, however. Benchpressing during the 1950's was an exercise in the throes of evolutionary ferment. The popularity of the lift as an aid to bodybuilders was responsible for the innovative development of rack stanchions which some "traditionalists" considered "cheating". Moreover, hand-offs as a means to get the barbell in place were similarly disdained by those who thought the best way to bench was by oneself, or unassisted."

Prior to 1964, the sport didn't have a national or world championship. Lifting competitions were held by independent groups of athletes and promoters and aficionados of the sport were brought in to witness and credit the "record breaking" feats of strength One of the first acknowledged record holders in the press on back w/o bridge was the famous Russian wrestler/strongman George Hackenschmidt . In 1898 he pressed 361 lbs in this manner (with 19" diameter plates) and it stayed in the record books for 18 more years. He was eventually exceeded by Joe Nordquest , a heavyweight who pressed 363 lbs in 1916 (while using 18" diameter plates.) A year later Nordquest would also set a record of 388 lbs in the belly toss, breaking the previous 386 lb record of German strength phenom Arthur Saxon . Among the heavyweights, an early record holder in the belly toss was George Lurich , a Russian wrestler who did 443 lbs in 1902.

In the 1950s Bench press stanchions (the uprights now seen on every make of benchpress today) would finally show up during this decade as did the first official 400, 450, and 500 lb lifts. Canadian phenom Doug Hepburn was the first to officially pause 400 lbs in November of 1950, 450+ (456 paused) exactly a year later, the first official 500 lb lift (502 paused) in December of 1953 and four years later barely missed the first 600 lb attempt! Doug Hepburn also won a gold medal at the 1953 Olympic lifting world games in Stockholm, Sweden. Hepburn's one of the icons of the sport of powerlifting and I encourage all interested readers to purchase the book Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Story (published by Ronsdale Press.)

Though the Olympic lifting powers attempted to stop the rising popularity of the odd lifts being performed in competition, they were unable to do so. This, in my opinion, was for a few reasons. The first was that the odd lifts were some of the best lifts for building muscle size and brute strength. The second was that many of the odd lifts (notably, the squat, benchpress and deadlift) didn't require the flexibility and coordination that the modern day Olympic lifts demanded. And finally, the three lifts now known as the powerlifts were the most accurate way to determine who was the physically strongest person. Olympic lifts decide who the strongest/most flexible/most coordinated lifter is. Many of the strongman lifts are multi-rep events that require conditioning and a different combination of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers. The strongman events are usually designed to favor an athlete who's taller than average and who has a bigger bone structure in their hands. Powerlifting, without the super suits and benchpress shirts, is still the most accurate way to determine who's truly the best at limit strength lifting. There are skeletal factors that influence the leverages of the lifts, but the biggest squatter of all time ( Marc Henry ), the biggest bencher of all time ( Scot Mendelson ) and the biggest deadlifter of all time ( Andy Bolton ) are all right around 6' in height and they all have a relatively "normal" limbs-to-height ratio.

It was IRONMAN Magazine's Peary Radar who made the first powerful move to legitimize powerlifting in America. In 1958, at a National Weightlifting Committee meeting, Radar petitioned that a list of records be kept. Prior to this motion, all records set in the power movements were considered unofficial, at least in the eyes of the Amateur Athletic Union.

"Nevertheless" John Sanchez explains "Peary Radar sought to provide a national meet venue for which AAU records could be officially set in the new AAU "power" lift category. Had things gone according to plan, this would have been the first "national power lift championships" ever organized and was tentatively scheduled for the fall of 1959. Unfortunately, Radar's national meet never came to pass. Ironically, the first national powerlifting competition would not occur for yet another five years, only this time under the auspices of Strength and Health's Bob Hoffman."

When the 1960s rolled around, Pat Casey began to take the benchpress scene by storm and he posted his own 500 pound press. He would go on to become the first person to ever officially break the 600 pound barrier and his career high was a 615 pound push on March 25th, 1967. Pat Casey was also a highly accomplished powerlifter (all three lifts) and he was the first man to ever total 2,000 pounds in a meet (squat + bench + deadlift = total.) Up through 1962, despite Peary Radar's attempts, benchpress records were still not being kept and it was up to muscle magazine reporters to keep tabs on who had lifted what. The press/no press portion of the lift started getting a lot of attention because, as most of you know, a bencher can dangerously add a lot of weight to their bench by trampolining the bar off their gut or ribcage. Bill Pearl wrote about Pat Casey "I was afraid the benches would not hold the weight. He would do chest exercises with 220lb dumbbells in each hand. There was a corner of the gym where Pat stored his weights for special lifts. Nobody touched Pat's weights and nobody other than Pat wanted to touch his weights." Pat Casey became the first 600 pound bencher in history just over 40 years ago. To this day, the 600 pound classic benchpress is one of the greatest strength feats an athlete can perform. When I say "classic" I mean a traditional benchpress where a lifter gets the weight handed off to them on a bench and where they're allowed to use wrist wraps, a lifting belt and where they can chalk their hands. The lifter cannot use elbow wraps or a benchpress shirt, they can't raise their butt or shoulders off of the bench and they have to complete the lift using a full range of motion (arms fully locked out at the end of the press.)