Pumping Iron: The History of the Bench Press

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The Bench Press, one of the most primitive and effective exercises in the weight room. Despite it’s much revered status, few of us know about the fascinating history of the bench press, a lift that evolved to suit the needs of a growing professionalism in competitive weightlifting.

Having previously examined the history of the squat, it only seems fair to look at the history of the gym rats favourite exercise.

Early Beginnings…

While we could arguably trace the history of the bench press back to Greco-Roman times when soldiers would perform push ups and weighted exercises, the ‘true’ history of the bench press began around 1899 when ‘Russian Lion’, George Hackenshmidt  performed the first recorded floor press.

Lying on his back, the inventor of the hack squat rolled a barbell weighing over 350 pounds over his face and pressed it. Unbeknownst to Hackenshmidt, his feat of strength would kickstart the popularity of the bench press.

A modern day floor press

The first thing to note about the floor press is that it’s hard…really hard. Allowing little room for cheating, the press requires incredible upper body strength and was unsurprisingly unpopular amongst the early 20th century strongmen and women whose careers relied upon the ability to lift heavy numbers.

Less than three years after Hackenshmidt’s life, heavyweight strongman Georg Lurich managed an incredible 443 pounds. Unlike Hackenshmidt, Lurich had used a ‘belly toss’ technique rather than a strict press yet it was the belly toss that soon proved more popular amongst lifters. The reason being that it allowed them to press heavier and heavier weights.

A modern example of what a ‘Belly Toss’ Bench Press looks like. 

By positioning the bar over their abdominal muscles, lifters could explode upwards in a glute bridge like movement thereby ‘tossing’ the bar overhead. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. Remarkably even strongmen like Arthur Saxon preferred the belly toss method for lifting heavier poundages.

Despite complaints from weightlifting purists about the belly toss, this technique would remain in vogue for much of the 1920s and 30s as weightlifters put up heavier and heavier numbers.

The death of the Belly Toss Press..

As the 1920s rolled into 1930s, criticism of the belly toss method began to grow louder and louder. This was especially true in the case of Bob Hoffman, the US iron guru who left readers under no illusions about his low opinion of the lift

““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.”

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Bob Hoffman was one weightlifter who despised the belly toss

Historian John Sanchez has suggested that Hoffman’s writing was in response to Bill Lilly’s lifting displays in the late 1920s

“After the rules governing shoulder bridge/belly toss technique were relaxed somewhat during the late 1920s, 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 nonetheless. Apparently, Bill Lilly was so gifted with this new version of the shoulder-bridge movement that challenges to his 484 lb. record were nonexistent during the ‘30s.”

Remarkably Lilly was able to belly toss three times his own bodyweight…not that it impressed Hoffman!

Hoffman wasn’t alone in his criticism however and by the mid-1930s, lifters had begun lying on wooden boxes or benches and pressing barbells from their chests in a bid to formalise this lift. Unlike the belly toss, this form of lifting isolated the chest and deltoids to a much greater degree and helped to minimise the use of momentum to move the weight. In 1939, the Amateur Athletic Union (the AAU) made a move to standardise the press.

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It was the AAU that formally ended the Belly Toss

From then on, bending your legs, lifting your glutes or back from the bench or even separating your heels meant disqualification from competition. The belly toss was dead.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s the proper technique in England was to belly toss the barbell skyward. In 1939 the AAU made a move to standardize what it called the “pullover and press,” pointedly banning the bridging technique. Bending your legs, raising your butt or shoulders off the ground, or separating your heels was cause for disqualification. The AAU also approved the use of spotters for handing the barbell to the lifter so athletes could begin the lift with the weight over their chest, rather than on it.

The AAU decision to approve lifters no doubt sparked the two man bench press so often found in today’s gyms

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The Decision to Formalise Spotters met with mixed results

Enter bodybuilding…

Up to now we have only really looked at the powerlifting side of the bench press and for a very good reason. Bodybuilders in the early years of the 20th century weren’t all that interested in developing the pectoral muscles. Indeed, while Eugen Sandow’s physique was undoubtedly impressive, he placed relatively little emphasis on developing his chest, a trend picked up by others.

It wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that bodybuilders began to take up the bench press with gusto. Men like Marvin Eder and George Eiferman were particularly vocal in waxing lyrical about the press. Bodybuilders interest in the lift would change the way the lift was performed.

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Photograph of then 19 year old Marvin Eder bench pressing

Again returning to Sanchez we learn that

“Bench-pressing during the 1950s 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.”

Effectively the lift’s popularity amongst bodybuilders helped develop the modern day bench press whereby spotters were no longer necessary, making way for the solitary trainee to harness the bench. An innovation that opened up the bench press for the solitary weight trainer.

The Numbers Race…

Whilst the influence of bodybuilding cannot be discounted in this history, it most certainly takes a secondary role to the rise of powerlifting and the growth of larger and larger numbers in the bench press.

In November, 1950, Canadian weightlifter Doug Hepburn officially became the first man to pause 400 pounds on his chest before pressing. He followed up their feat with a 456 paused lift later that year and a 500 pound lift in 1953. Lifters began to take notice.

Doug Hepburn

Doug Hepburn at the prime of his career

In 1958, Peary Rader, the man responsible for Ironman magazine made the first move to have powerlifting sanctioned in the US. At the behest of Rader, the National Weightlifting Committee in the US agreed to keep records in the lift. Off the back of Rader’s relative success, Bob Hoffman would schedule the first national powerlifitng competition in the early 1960s with the bench press holding pride of place.

Just in time for Pat Casey to take the bench press world by storm. By 1962 Casey had posted his own 500 pound bench press and by the end of the decade had lifted over 615 pounds. Remembering Casey’s extraordinary strength, bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl wrote

“I was afraid the benches would not hold the weight. He would do chest exercises with a pair of 220-pound dumbells. There was a corner of the gym where Pat stored his weights for special lifts. Nobody touched Pat’s weights. Nobody other than Pat wanted to touch his weights.”

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Bill Pearl: “Nobody touched Pat’s weights. Nobody other than Pat wanted to touch his weights.”

The Bench Press becomes official

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But such lifts were still considered unofficial by the powers that be. It wasn’t until 1973, with the foundation of the International Powerlifting Federation (the IPF) that official records began to be taken.

In the very same year Don Reinhoudt pressed over 580 pounds at the first inaugural IPF meet. As more and more people began to take interest in powerlifting, the bench press numbers began to rise over the 650 pound mark.

When John Inzer introduced the lifting world to the Bench Shirt in 1983, the world’s first 1,000 pound bench press became a possibility.

But that’s a story for another day.

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