Should Olympic Weightlifters Bench Press?

Bench pressing is often a touchy subject when we talk about accessory training for Olympic weightlifters. Many coaches and athletes feel that bench pressing can lead to tightness in the pecs and shoulders that can directly impact a lifter’s overhead performance in the snatch and jerk.

In some cases bench pressing, done in reasonable and well-balanced doses, could do wonders for your overall muscle and strength development that may directly impact long-term progress.

In this article, we will discuss the benefits of bench pressing specific to the specific needs and goals of Olympic weightlifters, and how, when, and why coaches and athletes should program these into their training routines.

Bench Press Disclaimer

Without adherence to a balanced training approach, sound technique, and regular stretching and recovery practices, bench presses; as well as snatches, jerks, squats, deadlifts, and dips can all result in tightness that will affect mobility during the Olympic lifts. Therefore, treat the bench press as any other assistance exercise (meant to supplement an already amazing program, not to replace or deter from primary goals), and attack your mobility for the pecs, shoulder, and triceps in similar fashion to dips and other pressing movements.

The Benefits of Bench Pressing

Below are four benefits that bench pressing (and all it’s variations) can offer Olympic weightlifters.

1. Increase Upper Body Hypertrophy

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For some lifters, increasing upper body mass and strength are primary goals for their non-competitive training phases. Hypertrophy cycles can include bench presses and other variations (dumbbell neutral presses, close grip press, etc) to stimulate muscle hypertrophy across the upper body in both lifters looking to gain muscle mass and even those who tend to have limitations with upper body strength. While one should include vertical pressing exercise due to their application to the snatch and jerk (such as strict overhead pressing and behind the neck variations), they should also look to diversify their strength and joint movements to minimize overuse issues by including horizontal pressing movements.

2. Diversify Your Pressing Strength

Weightlifting is dominated by overhead movements, each requiring strength, stability, and mobility of the shoulder, elbows, and wrists. Bench presses can be included in most training programs to diversity an athlete’s joint actions to fully develop the joints and tissues involved in pressing and locking out loads overhead. Non-vertical pressing variations, like bench presses, can be included to balance out all the overhead pressing movements that often occur, which may also be responsible for sluggish strength increases (rather, the lack of varying movements can create stagnation and blunt muscular adaptation). By diversifying one’s pressing, most athletes will strike greater muscular  balance and symmetry, which can help to correct asymmetries and overuse issues.

3. Maximal Triceps Development

In earlier pieces I have laid out my reasoning for arm-specific training for weightlifters, highlighting the benefits of maximal triceps development. In the event a lifter is looking to increase triceps strength and muscle development to specifically impact the overhead stabilization of their lifts, bench press variations (close grip, neutral grip, etc) could be a worthy alternative to dips. Some athletes may actually prefer bench pressing, as it offers variety to one’s usually mundane training cycles (snatch, clean, jerk, squat, pull, repeat) and/or can offer a less painful alternative to stronger and more advanced athletes who are sensitive to heavy loaded or high volume (sets and reps) dip training.

4. Aesthetics and Body Confidence

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This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but bench pressing can do wonders for your physique, even in small, well-programmed doses. For recreational weightlifters (basically everyone who doesn’t get paid or receive monetary benefits to place at weightlifting meets), aesthetics can play a large role in why we train hard day in and day out. While I am not saying to throw all performance goals out the window, many lifters may find enjoyment out of doing some vanity training (however I just have made the case why bench pressing is more than just for show) into their assistance programming. In the very least, when you are cruising the beaches at the American Open Series II national weightlifting meet in Miami, Florida, you may find yourself walking a little taller and a tad more confident, both potentially translating to greater successes on the platform and beyond.

Does Bench Press Make You Tight?

Like any stress, muscle soreness and acute limitations in range of motion are common following a tough training session. While bench pressing, which occurs in the horizontal plane, is not “movement-specific” to the snatch and jerk, it can offer athletes increased muscle mass, upgrade the amount of muscle fibers we have, and enhance one’s ability to produce force across a wide array of pressing angles.

What About Strict Overhead Pressing?

Strict overhead pressing is highly transferable to the push press and jerk variations, and can drastically impact overall muscular development. While I do agree that lifters should be performing strict overhead lifts regularly before they add bench press, I do feel that bench press can decrease overuse issues coming from training in the same vertical patterning day in and day out. Additionally, some lifters, especially during off-season and hypertrophy phases, could benefit from the inclusion of higher volume (sets and reps) of various types of pressing to induce muscle growth, increase lean body mass, and allow for greater strength development.

Double Up On Back Training!

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Rows, pull-ups, face pulls, farmers carries, and other back focused movements need to be emphasized in weightlifting training to support the stress of this overhead sport. During times of increased pressing (bench press, dips, push ups, overhead press variations, etc) coaches and athletes should additionally increase the amount of back training. I often find that lifters (myself included) do only enough back training to survive, and many need to increase back training to facilitate stronger, more balanced, and healthier lifts.

Final Words

To reiterate, bench pressing is not the root of all evil, rather, unbalanced training with minimal to no recovery practices to counter the high levels of joint, tissue, and muscular loading that occurs in weightlifting. There are a few situations in which I would advise not bench pressing, (1) in the event a lifter has a specific shoulder injury/impingement, however I would then question why they are doing explosive overhead movements (2) lifters who currently have limited shoulder range of motion in which mobility should be the primary concern prior to strengthening and stabilizing the shoulder, and (3) in elite weightlifters (as in the those compete on national stages with their finances and livelihood on the line) in which I would suggest taking a deeper looking to the true needs and goals of a lifter prior to jumping directly into bench press training.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image: @mikejdewar on Instagram

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