I Quit the Barbell Bench Press—and It Made Me Way Stronger

·9-min read
Photo credit: GETTY IMAGES; CHLOE KRAMMEL/MEN'S HEALTH ILLUSTRATION
Photo credit: GETTY IMAGES; CHLOE KRAMMEL/MEN'S HEALTH ILLUSTRATION

You've heard about the Great Resignation, but quitting your job is just one way that throwing in the towel can be a great way to get ahead. This story is part of a Men's Health series on how real-life quitters became winners—and how you can join them.

The barbell bench press is widely viewed as one of the gold-standard exercises of fitness. It’s the only strength exercise that football players test at the yearly NFL Scouting Combine. And it’s the first thing a gym-bro will ask about when he meets you: “What’s your max bench press?” is one of the most popular questions in the gym. It’s also an exercise that I’d taken years to master, beefing my bench press up to more than 250 pounds and eventually pumping out reps at 225 with ease.

So, no, I had no interest in quitting the exercise that I’d used at the start of every single week since high school. Yet there I was in 2012, being told to back off the barbell and focus on dumbbell presses. And there I was not intending to listen, even though I’d asked for this advice anyway. I was in a Bronx gym talking to a bodybuilder about the nagging shoulder pain that was hampering my beloved barbell bench press, and the bodybuilder instantly suggested I switch to dumbbell presses instead.

Getting away from the barbell press would be vastly easier on my shoulder, the guy said, and it might aid my chest development, too. This wasn’t new information; I’d actually heard this a year before from an NFL friend, then-Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck. But I hadn’t listened to the NFL player, so why would I listen to a bodybuilder?

Answer: Because two weeks later, the right shoulder pain would get worse. And that’s when I decided to ignore my better (OK, worse) bench press judgment and ditch barbell presses.

For the first time in my life, I decided to quit an exercise.

It’s a decision that could crush any gym-goer, because standard fitness rhetoric tells us we’re never supposed to quit. From the moment we do (OK, attempt) our first pushup, we’re taught to fight for every last rep and set. We’re taught to push through the pain, and never quit until a workout is done. And we’re taught to always always do the exercises we hate, because those are the exercises our body needs the most.

Except all those mantras are complete gym myth. Such ideas are meant to push you to be a bigger, stronger, fitter version of yourself by granting you the rigidity that comes with never quitting. By never quitting a workout, or pushing through on a set, you build a resilient mind, and that gradually helps you build a resilient body. But we tend to overextend that rigidity, and that was my struggle. I worried that by quitting barbell bench presses, I was setting a nightmare precedent. Soon enough, I’d quit deadlifts, just because, and then I’d quit the gym, and then I’d quit work . . . and then I’d move back into my parents’ basement, gain 200 pounds, and play video games 24/7.

But then I pondered all the older bodybuilder types I'd gotten to know at my gym, and how often they complained about pain in their shoulders, elbows, and just about every joint. And sure, they looked the part, and they'd hit their barbell bench presses, but if my training was breaking me down, was all that muscle any good? The more I pulled back to think about my own personal fitness goals (being strong and looking like a superhero), the less I was able to convince myself that I had to do the barbell press. Truth is, I did it because everybody else was doing it—and that's never a good reason for doing anything.

Don’t let yourself be paralyzed into sticking with movements that simply don’t work for you. Understanding how and when to ditch an exercise is key—and in the long run, it just might prepare your body to eventually return to the exercise you once quit. That’s what happened to me in the bench press, at least; for three years (yes, that long) I didn’t touch a barbell bench press. Then, last year, I was back to casually throwing up 275 on a whim.

To get there, I needed to learn three lessons that helped liberate me from general fitness dogma.

The body doesn't care about the gear.

We think we have to use certain tools in the gym, whether it’s the wide bar for lat pulldowns or the barbell for those deadlifts and bench presses. But the body doesn’t actually chart the equipment you use. All it feels is load—and how you’re moving that load.

That’s the problem with the barbell bench press: Truth is, most people move the barbell ineffectively. The barbell is a rigid tool that assumes that your body is perfectly symmetrical. But very often, one of your shoulders will have different mobility and strength than the other. Forced into the barbell, that can lead to injury—my rotator cuffs were screaming with every press.

Once I moved away from the barbell, I began doing bench press reps with only dumbbells and kettlebells. Both of these tools are ideal for a lot of exercises, not just bench presses. It’s more natural to do overhead presses with dumbbells, too, and it’s much easier to squat with a dumbbell, held in the goblet position at your chest, instead of doing squats with a barbell plastered to your back. Even when you’re squatting with a barbell, this can nag your shoulders; they need to stay tighter than you think during barbell squats to protect your midback.

By switching to dumbbells and no longer battling shoulder pain, I was able to focus on squeezing my chest instead of simply pushing the weight. This contraction eventually helped me gain even more strength and size in my pecs. So don’t be afraid to change tools, no matter how many people stare at the gym. Years later, I’d take a course called the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification. This certification points out that the barbell deadlift and barbell squat, two more exercises most guys think they need to do, are actually the most complex forms of hinging and squatting, respectively.

When in doubt and battling pain, there’s a good chance getting away from the barbell will help you.

Photo credit: Vithun Khamsong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Vithun Khamsong - Getty Images

Your gym bros don't define your workout.

I was working out with a training partner as I was embarking on this non-barbell journey, and the last thing I wanted to do was choose different exercises than him—especially since my exercise seemed “weaker.”

By switching to dumbbells, I needed to go a bit lighter with my presses, because my shoulders faced new stability demands. At first, this didn’t sit right, because my partner, was definitely far more of a classic gym-bro wannabe. So more than a few times, he needled me just a bit, pointing out that I wasn’t lifting as heavy, or telling me I was ruining the workout. And it wasn't completely unfair either, since I was legitimately complicating things: we suddenly needed two benches to get our workouts done.

Thing is, I started coming to the gym alone, and I had training goals long before I had a training partner. Our bodies were different; he was older and stockier with shorter arms, more able to deal with inconsistencies in his bench press form. I needed to realize that and tune out any smirks. Funnily enough, weeks later, he switched to dumbbells, too. I’d led him to a better, more joint-safe press.

Don’t be afraid to be the leader in your own workouts, either. Whether you’re training with a partner or training with a group, even if they’re all doing pull-ups, you can still do chin-ups if that’s easier on your elbows. You can still curl dumbbells even when they grab barbells. Lead your workouts in a new direction, and watch your friends follow your example.

Photo credit: Corey Jenkins - Getty Images
Photo credit: Corey Jenkins - Getty Images

Quitting now may make you stronger later.

At the time I ditched the bench press, I harboured a faint hope I’d one day give the exercise a try again. But shifting to dumbbells did something else for me, too: It helped me build greater shoulder stability, and understand how to properly position my forearms to get the most out of my chest. My mechanics on the bench press improved, and I quickly started moving larger weights.

Then, about three years ago, on a whim, after a full chest workout, I decided to experiment on the barbell bench press again. So with great care (since my shoulders hated the move years before), I did reps first with 135 pounds, then with 185 pounds. In both situations, I felt no pain. Then I returned to my one-time holy grail, the 225-pound bench press and, just to be safe, I asked somebody nearby for a spot, knowing full well I might blow out my shoulder in this one moment.

Except I didn’t. I’d spent so long honing my technique that the weigh flew up eight times. And over the last three years, I’ve reintroduced barbell bench presses here and there, and I can comfortably lift serious weight with the exercise, too.

It’s no longer a gym requirement for me, and realising that there are no gym requirements has helped me in other ways, too. Much like barbell presses, for a time, I ditched conventional deadlifts. I recently returned to those, after years focusing on the trap bar, and, similar to the barbell bench press, I’ve found these deadlifts easier because I’m more mechanically sound.

Quitting an exercise isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of a freer version of fitness—and that version of fitness can push you to the gains you actually want.

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