This is a question that I am asked quite frequently. My answer is always “It depends.” It really depends on a number of factors. I hope to explain my best.
The bench press has always been one of the most popular exercises in the weight room. I can remember back to when I first started lifting weights. I always wanted to bench 225lbs because that was 2- 45-lb plate on each side of the bar. All of the stronger guys could do it and I was stuck doing 185lbs. “How much do you bench”? It is still probably a frequent question amongst all teenagers today.
Although some feel the bench press is a key exercise in any strength and conditioning program, there are some who disagree. I can recall being at a meeting at the 2008 NHL scouting combine when one of my colleauges asked “Why do we test the bench press”? He then proceeded to tell us that his athletes don’t bench press and never will. You will also here the saying “If he can press a lot of weight off of his chest while laying down, then he probably isn’t a good hockey player (or football player or any other sport for that matter).”
The issues that I see with the bench press aren’t that it is an unsafe exercise or it isn’t good exercise for athletes. In my opinion, the problems are:
1- It is an easy exercise to perform. Lying on your back and pressing a barbell off your chest to a locked out position is not that difficult. In comparison to other compound exercises, the bench press doesn’t involve that many muscles.
2- It works muscle groups that you can see in the mirror every day. Some athletes are more interested in looking good at the beach then they are at increasing their performance in their sport.
3- It happens to probably be the most popular exercise in all weight rooms and gyms today. The next time that you are in a large commercial gym, count how many flat bench press and incline benches there are in comparison to squat racks. Or, on any given day, count how many people are bench pressing versus squatting.
As a result, young athletes aren’t doing the more difficult exercises in the weight room such as squats, dead lifts, pull ups, etc. They aren’t training the muscles that aren’t in the mirror such as the upper and lower back, the glutes, and hamstrings. Also, they don’t want to do what other people aren’t doing.
We will bench press once per week during the off-season. Why? Because I think it is a good exercises for developing upper body pushing strength. For a hockey player, is it as important as lower body strength? Probably not, but I am always looking for ways to improve my athletes total body strength and power. I prescribe the bench press as an exercise in conjunction with many other different exercises for the whole body.
While we are bench pressing once per week, we are also developing strength in the upper back muscles. Exercises such as pull ups, chin ups, inverted rows, and dumbbell rows are used to develop strength in the upper back. We are doing these to help the body stay in structural balance so that that we can stay healthy. We probably actually do more pulling than pressing exercises. I don’t think this is a problem as young hockey players probably have already done enough pressing exercises prior to incorporating pulling exercises.
So, my point is that, if you are not doing enough pulling exercises, and the bench press is the #1 exercise in your program, then you probably shouldn’t be bench pressing. To find out if you are doing enough pulling exercises, simply add up all of the sets and reps of pulling and compare to the total number of pressing sets and reps. If you are pressing more than pulling, then I would think you could be heading for some shoulder problems.