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Weight training is the great leveler. It strips away all the unnecessary things and simply pits you against the bar. In doing so, it allows an answer to the question...
How strong am I?
The bench press is easily the most popular weight training exercise. It’s also the one that we often use to gauge our strength level.
Most of us at some time wonder, “How much should I be bench pressing?”
In this article, you’re about to find out.
The Folly of Comparison
It is part of human nature to compare ourselves with others. This tendency is especially strong in the gym. We can’t help but look around at the weight that others are using and make a judgment in relation to what we are lifting.
Comparing ourselves with others in the gym, however, is a fast track to frustration. How much you should be lifting is not a one size fits all statistic. It needs to be individualized to your situation.
When it comes to the bench press, there are three key variables that need to be accounted for in determining how much you should be lifting. These are:
How To Assess Bench Press Strength
In asking “How much should I be bench pressing?”, most people are thinking in terms of their one rep maximum. In other words, how much weight they can lift with proper form one time.
While one rep maximum testing is an important strength indicator, it is not the only one. There is also a test of strength endurance. The YMCA metronome test is a good example of this.
The YMCA metronome test requires the subject to perform the bench press while keeping pace with a metronome. The metronome is beeping every second and the subject should take 2 beeps to perform a rep. That means that the lifter should get 30 repetitions per minute.
The weight on the bar is set at 80 pounds for men and 35 pounds for women. Your score is the number of repetitions you can perform while keeping pace with the metronome. The repetition standards that the YMCA has set for the metronome test are as follows:
The One Rep Max Test
The one rep max test involves some trial and error. You should begin with a light warm-up weight and perform 5 reps. As an example, if you think that your one rep max will be somewhere around 300 pounds, you should warm up with 135 pounds.
You should then do a second set with about 75% of your projected max. So, our 300-pound max lifter would put 225 pounds on the bar. Do two reps at this weight.
From here you should add 5-10 pounds on each succeeding set until you cannot go any further.
It is important to give yourself sufficient recovery time between each bench press attempt. You should rest for between 3-5 minutes to allow for this.
The ACSM Bench Press Standards
The American College of Sports Medicine has established bench press guidelines based on the three criteria of age, weight, and gender to help people work out how much they should be pressing.
The ACSM guidelines are based on a percentage of bodyweight that you should be able to bench press.
According to these guidelines, an adult male in his 20’s should be able to do a one rep max with 106% of his bodyweight. For an adult female in her 20’s, the figure is 65%.
A man in his 30’s should be able to lift 93% of his bodyweight as a one rep max on the bench press. For women, the one rep goal is 57% of their bodyweight.
In the 40’s, the percentage drops to 88%, with 52% for women. Men in their 50’s should be able to perform a single rep on the bench press at a weight of 75% of their bodyweight. Women in their 50’s should be able to press 46% of their body weight one time.
The percentages given above are to establish a strength level that is considered to be average. As an example of an above-average strength level, a 35 year-old man would be lifting 104% of his bodyweight.
Let’s take an example to see how these percentages translate to pounds on the bar:
Working Through an Example
Joe is 28 years old and weighs 183 pounds.
According to ACSM standards, he should be able to lift 106% of his bodyweight a single rep. To work out what weight to put on the bar we multiply his weight by 1.06:
183 x 1.06 = 193.98
We can round this up to 194 pounds.
So, if Joe can get one rep with 194 pounds, he will be bench pressing at the expected strength level for his age.
While knowing how much you should be bench pressing is a handy bit of knowledge, it is not the be all and end all of your training experience. Most people are bench pressing to build their chest, not to compete as a powerlifter.
In order to work the chest effectively on the bench press, proper technique is essential. However, too many guys sacrifice form in order to lift a heavier weight. They lift their hips, use their legs, and push through their shoulder and triceps. This may allow them to get the weight up, but it is doing nothing for the chest and is potentially causing injury.
Remember, the working muscle doesn’t know how much weight is on the bar. All it knows is how much it is being worked. Maintaining strict form, with slow reps and constant tension is the best way to achieve this.
Use the AMSM standards to assess your bench press level in relation to what the average person your age should be lifting. The YMCA metronome test will allow you to judge your bench press endurance strength level. Then put those figures aside and concentrate on performing strict, controlled reps in order to maximally work your body.
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