Sometimes, I like to take a step back and understand the history behind some popular exercises. A lot of powerlifters, like me and you, should take a moment and step back in time to talk about the evolution of the bench press.
George Hackenschmidt and Joe Nordquest
It all started around 1899. George Hackenschmidt, a name synonymous with strength and innovation, rolled a barbell over his face and executed what we now recognize as a floor press. Hackenschmidt managed an impressive 362 lbs, a record that stood in place until about 1916.
Along comes Joe Nordquest, who snapped Hackenschmidt’s record by just 2.2 lbs. But pressing movements weren’t popular back then. It would take several decades for the fitness world to take the bench press seriously.
The Book That Changed Everything
The 1930s marked a pivotal moment in the bench press saga with the publication of Mark Berry’s book, “Physical Improvement and Physical Training Simplified.” It featured photographs of lifters performing presses on benches, a modest beginning that laid the foundation for the bench press we know today.
Let’s fast forward to the era of the first recognized bench presser – George Eiferman. His incredible upper chest development and strength astounded the fitness community, earning him 50 dollars for bench pressing 250 lbs. for 20 repetitions. Bodybuilders began to take note, and pressing quickly became a mainstream lift embraced by gym enthusiasts around the world.
400-lb. and 500-lb. Records
The first person to bench over 400 lbs was John McWilliams, at least according to most historians. Don Arnold and Doug Hepburn were also in the running. However, the absence of sanctioned contests muddied the waters.
Two men, Doug Hepburn and Reg Park, emerged as the first claimants of a 500-lb. bench press, with a lot of information coming from both magazines and word of mouth.
The 1960s and 1970s
By the 60s, bench pressing had not only gained popularity but also garnered official recognition with the AAU-sanctioned meets. The competition between Doug Hepburn and Pat Casey pushed the limits, culminating in Pat Casey’s groundbreaking 600l-b bench press, which is of course an amazing feat.
The early 1970s ushered in the modern era of the monster bench press, coinciding with the time the powerlifting community started to organize. The formation of the IPF in 1972 provided local lifters with a platform for national and international competitions, but powerlifting remained an underground sport.
1982: A Defining Year in the Bench Press
Fast-forward to 1982, a year that marked the genesis of the NFL combine as a formal event. (Prior to that time, individual teams had private workouts with these athletes to measure what they felt were acceptable assessments.)
This is a year that also saw the introduction of the 225-rep test. The assessment, rooted in uncertainty regarding its origin, became a standard measure. It’s interesting to note that what was once considered impressive – a 300-lb bench press – now appears commonplace, thanks to the widespread adoption of strength programs since the 1990s.
Learn More About the Bench Press
Looking back, it’s important to recognize how the simplicity of the bench press, along with the allure of upper body strength, has cemented its place in fitness regimens across the whole world.
This history is included in my Bench Press Manual, which is a guide to a massive pressing power at any level. As a three-time world champion powerlifter who holds a Master’s Degree in Biomechanics and a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science, you can take my knowledge to heart.
If you have questions about the bench press, or any other fitness-related topics, be sure to come find me on Patreon. And, as always, we have more content coming at you all the time, including but not limited to blog posts and YouTube videos.
I’ll talk to you guys soon.