The Art of Strength With Jesse Burdick

Question: Should CrossFitters bench-press? It rarely comes up in WODs, and when it does, the load is usually your own bodyweight (such as “Lynne”).


Photo Courtesy of Jesse Burdick

>> Question: Should CrossFitters bench-press? It rarely comes up in WODs, and when it does, the load is usually your own bodyweight (such as “Lynne”).

>> Answer:The bench press is one of the top-three upper-body strength moves. It has become a pariah because not many people know how to do it correctly. You always hear, “I used to bench but I hurt my shoulder.” Well, you can do anything wrong and hurt yourself. You can brush your teeth and kill yourself.

I have had athletes come to me, and I take away some of their overhead pressing and I have them bench, and their overhead stuff improves. It goes the other way, too. All powerlifters do is bench. I have them do more overhead stuff, and their bench gets better. After all, it’s the same movement, just in a different plane — vertical compared to horizontal. That is the conjugate-method magic at work: using the same musculature and the same motor pattern but not necessarily the same movement to accomplish the same thing. You don’t have to smash your head into the wall all the time. Take a step to the left and you will get past that wall.

A lot of boxes don’t have benches, but they all have floors, so do a floor press. It’s just like a bench press, but when your elbows reach the floor, you press back up. It will teach you how to be tight. It takes a lot of skill to do floor presses, to be tight and hold that position on the floor. It is much easier to do on a bench press because you can drive your feet into the floor, and that pins your shoulder blades down. Without your feet, it’s much harder to develop that. This is one of Kelly Starrett’s favorite upper-body moves for strength.

Here’s one more benefit: When you do something new, you will experience an immense amount of progression in the first three months. For most CrossFitters, benching is a brand-new movement, so they will get a whole hell of a lot out of it without too much work. There are plenty of WODs out there with benching in them. And after all, this is CrossFit: You have to be ready for anything.

Jesse Burdick is an elite-level powerlifter and the creator of He coaches out of the CrossFit Combat Sports Academy in Dublin, Calif. Several weekends a year, he travels the country administering the CrossFit Powerlifting seminar. 

Quick Tips for a Safe and Strong Bench Press

  • Your shoulder blades should be pulled together and pushed down, like you’re trying to put them in your back pocket.
  • Put your feet back and slightly underneath you so you can drive them into the ground to create an arc of power from your feet to your traps.
  • Your knees should be lower than your hips.
  • Externally rotate your shoulders by trying to break the bar in half.
  • Squeeze your glutes and create a small arch in your thoracic spine.
  • Maintain a straight line between your elbows and wrists.
  • Your upper arms should be at a 45-dregree angle from your torso, not 90 degrees.
  • Focus on your whole body being tight at the bottom of the press.