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The History of Bench Press

Nowadays the bench press is a staple exercise popular across all levels of athletes. First thing many people think of when going to the gym is to challenge themselves against the barbell on a bench. However the bench press wasn’t always popular and known. At the beginning of last century strong men practiced a floor press lifting the barbell laying on the ground, rolling it on them over the head.

The history of bench press started in the 1930s, when athletes started practicing barbell lift laying on the wooden benches or boxes. The new version of the press let them keep their legs lower and feet in contact with the floor. In 1950s the bench press became the most popular among different kinds of presses. Before that the bench press was a specialized and little known exercise. The most important reason for popularity of bench press was its power to build chest muscles.

During 1920s and 1930s the popular technique to perform the press was belly toss. First part of the press was executed by giving the barbell momentum upwards with a back and leg arching move. This move was criticized by a well known weightlifter and York Barbell Company owner Bob Hoffman who said that some athletes do all the lifting with the abdomen.

In 1939 American Athletic Union (AAU) banned the bridging technique and introduced new standard called “pullover and press”. AAU also allowed to use the help of a spotter to hand the barbell to start position, so that the move would start with the barbell over the chest.

history of bench press

In 1950s bench press stanchions were introduced. Those are the uprights that hold the barbell over the bench, so that the lifter can do the lift without spotter’s help. In the same years Bob Hoffman began marketing a 5-in-1 bench which would allow users to press at incline, flat and decline degrees. Before that the athletes tried to press the barbell in incline position by leaning empty apple crates against the wall which resembled an incline bench.

1950s was the era when powerlifting originated, the bench press being one of its disciplines.It began with declining of Olympic weightlifting both in the USA and in the UK. People didn’t like Olympic lifts as they required a lot of coordination and technique. At the same time strength lifts increased in popularity. Following this trend AAU recognized “odd lifts” for records and competition. The first USA national powerlifting “meet” was held in September 1964 under the auspices of the York Barbell Company.

The best athlete by the most weight lifted in bench press was Douglas Ivan Hepburn from Vancouver. By the late 1940s he had officially lifted 360 lbs and was approaching the 400 lbs mark. During the 1950s Hepburn would become the first man to officially set several landmark records in both the squat and bench press movements.

Bench Press

Did you like this dive into strength training history? Let’s check your knowledge with a short quiz!

1 / 5

Why Olympic weight lifting decreased in popularity in 1950s?

2 / 5

What materials were used as support in the first attempts to perform an incline bench press?

3 / 5

What was the popular technique to perform the bench press in 1920s and 1930s?

4 / 5

The owner of what company had a big influence on development of bench press?

5 / 5

Where was Douglas Ivan Hepburn, the early bench press record setter, from?

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