Women and Bench Pressing

Everybody likes to bench press, especially in the commercial gyms. It’s the one lift that everybody knows and everyone will ask about if you mention you lift weights. “How much ya bench?” Guys seem to gravitate to the bench, and crappy form, like it’s some expected tradition.

What about the girls though? Besides pullups, I can’t think of a lift that women seem to have a harder time with. It can lead to some frustration and eventually just giving up.

It’s pretty well established that women are going to be weaker than men in the upper body, not just in absolute terms but in a relative sense. Where a female might have an equal strength:weight ratio for a squat or deadlift, this won’t necessarily hold up for a bench press or a pullup. That’s probably a big factor.

However it doesn’t take much imagination to think of some other potential issues:

1. Women don’t train the bench press with any real emphasis. This may be the core issue above all else. Lots of people come in and give lip service to big lifts while doing some other workout. If you’re coming in and doing 3 sets of 10 every week, well, it’s no wonder you’re not getting stronger. If you only train the lift once a week, it’s no wonder you’re not getting stronger.

For best results, you’d want to train the lift 2-3 times a week, and use a combination of heavy weights (1-5 reps) and if you’re smaller, it won’t hurt to add in some higher-volume work to train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Dumbbell presses, overhead presses, board presses, floor presses, close-grip bench, tricep pushdowns, and other similar exercises can be done either in a separate workout or after your bench work for 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps. Sometimes just training the neurological or skill part of the lift isn’t enough. You need to add in some work to actually train the upper body muscles.

The point, in other words, is that if you want to get good at it, you have to put the work in.

2. Bench press strength is strongly correlated with body mass. This is a truth that anyone who’s gotten fat can relate to. The bigger you get, the easier the bench seems to get stronger. There’s likely several reasons for this – improved levers, more muscle mass, maybe a few others, but whatever the cause, it’s a real effect.

Since women are generally at a disadvantage compared to men, when speaking of upper-body muscle mass, this likely plays a big part. This would also suggest that doing more “mass building” training would be beneficial – not just for women, but even smaller guys.

3. Nobody actually knows how to bench press. I’m not talking about all the tips and tricks of technique that the really strong guys and shirted benchers use, either. I’m talking about the basics: finding a good grip width, touching the bar to the right spot on your chest/upper abdomen, keeping the upper back tight and locked in place, keeping the butt on the bench and the legs on the floor, and generally staying tight all over.

Too often people have really sloppy form on the bench. With guys, it’s all about the “partner-assisted row”, where you have your buddy stand over you and deadlift up a weight that’s 40 lbs too heavy. Or bounce it off the chest. Or only come halfway down and claim you benched it.

Women seem to move towards the “bodybuilding style” which is feet up on the bench, wide grip, and bringing the bar down to the chest (or even neck). Nobody ever mentions keeping the upper back tight (and strong), keeping the body stable, finding your grip and where to touch the bar, and so on. It’s no wonder that most people, regardless of gender, have problems with benching – both in terms of getting stronger and in terms of not getting hurt.

4. Don’t forget the upper back. The muscles of your upper and middle back are very important to make sure your shoulder blades are positioned properly and to make sure that you don’t develop any strength imbalances in the muscles of the shoulder.

“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” is an old saying that’s applicable here. Having a strong and developed upper back will keep you grounded and stable during a bench press – and it will also help protect you from shoulder injury.

5. The work required to see gains is disproportionate to the effort put in. If women are already at a relative disadvantage in a neurological sense and in terms of total body mass, then it only stands to reason that gains are going to be much slower for any given amount of work.

A male might could do Program X and gain 20 lbs in eight weeks; a female could do the same program with the same effort and only see a 5-10 lb gain. Sadly I think that women are just at a disadvantage when it comes to this kind of thing. The only way around it is to put in the work if you want to see the results.

Even if you’re doing a solid program, you may have to accept that gains will be slower and require a lot more time and effort if you want real results.

In summary, if you’re a girl and wondering why you can’t get your bench stronger, you’ve got some things to work on: technique/form, your program, and your expectations for strength gains.

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