Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Well, you've finally made it. You're now old enough to bench. Whether it be in a high school weight room or a commercial gym, this is the moment you've been weight-ing for (yes, pun definitely intended). You slide a couple of plates onto the bar, wrap your fingers around the crisp cold steel instrument of manliness, unrack that bad boy and... you're stuck. Under the bar. That now rests on top of your chest. Commence operation rock-of-shame.
Master the Push-up First
Unfortunately, that story is all too common among young lifters. It doesn't make sense to me to have athletes attempt the bench press before they can execute at least twenty perfect push-ups. I didn't pull the number twenty out of my butt, I promise you. It comes one of the world's most prominent sport scientists, Dr. Yessis. In his book Build a Better Athlete, he says:
Doing [one set of twenty reps] develops base strength and muscular endurance, and as an extra bonus, you get stronger ligaments and tendons that create more durable joints.
Doing push-ups as a novice lifter isn't a suggestion. It's a prerequisite to the bench press. Too many kids cannot perform a single chest-to-ground push-up. Then they become teenagers. And still cannot perform a push-up. It's inexcusable since it can be done anytime, anywhere. Push-ups are the gold standard for upper body strength.
"But coach Nate, how can I do twenty push-ups if I can't do one push-up? "
Start with planks. A push-up is a plank, except you're moving up and down the whole time. You should be able to hold plank comfortably for a minute before progressing to the actual pushing movement. From there, do push-ups with your hands elevated on a bench, or any stable surface you can lean on. Gradually work your way down to the ground. Read my quick tip about this technique called the greasing the groove.
"greasing the what?"
Groove. Read it. Do it. It works like Russian magic.
Do the Math
Don't freak because I'm about to nerd out on you. But I promise to keep it simple. By using the power of math, it is possible to predict how much someone can bench using their push-up repetition max. A push-up is about 65% of your body weight. If you're 155 lbs., that means you're pushing about 100 lbs. Not bad.
Psst. That wasn't the math part.
Here it comes. The Epley formula. The most common one-repetition max formula of all the one-repetition max formulas floating out there.
1 repetition max = weight (1 + repetitions / 30)
You got that? So, let's say we have a 155 lb. boy and he can do 10 push-ups. We plug in the numbers (remember to use 65% of 155) and bada bing bada boom we get 134 lbs. Who says nobody uses algebra after college? So in theory, you should be able to come close to hitting a 135 lb. max bench press, which is an ideal starting point for a male high school freshman. For female athletes, a 95 lb. max is a good starting point.
Wow coach Nate, that seems kind of high.
It's not high. Our standards have been way too low. Let's get our athletes doing push-ups and watch in awe once they hit the weights for the first time. It's not rocket science. It's sport science.
Become Obsessed with Push-ups
Look, I'm not saying that you can't bench press the bar and work your way up to a respectable weight over time. I've seen it done and in some cases with heavier individuals, it may be necessary. But for everyone else, push-ups are a more efficient means to an end. While you're cranking out your push-ups, you're getting stronger muscles, ligaments and tendons, developing endurance, and training your core (I really hate how the mainstream fitness industry has bastardized the core, but that's a blog for another time).
Master the push-up. Then do them. Lots of them. Everyday. For a long time. Become obsessed with push-ups. When you get out of bed. At lunch. Between classes. After dinner. During commercials. People will think you're crazy. And they're probably right. But, it doesn't matter. Because you'll be stronger than them. Just do it. And Git Gud.
Message From the Blogger
I hope that this blog is read by some of our young athletes out there looking to get stronger. And to the parents who read this blog, please read this to your kids. Perhaps as a bedtime story. It'll educate them, or worst case, put them to sleep.