About a week ago, my uncle sent me a video about the untimely demise of a 25-year-old man named Zhang from Wuhan. Zhang lost his life while bench pressing, a barbell exercise where the lifter lies on a bench and presses the barbell over their chest. The harrowing video, lasting 2 minutes and 34 seconds, depicted Zhang’s failed attempt, which resulted in him becoming trapped under the bar, ultimately leading to his suffocation. My uncle then went on to tell me that bench pressing is dangerous, and that I should stop doing it.
Just a few months back, Balinese fitness influencer, Justyn Vicky, missed his squat attempt, which also led to his untimely demise. With this being the second reported such incident in just two months, a question looms large: “Is barbell training a safe pursuit?”
As someone whose livelihood hinges on persuading more individuals to recognize the benefits of barbell training and invest their time and resources in it, I hope to provide an objective evaluation.
In my view, asking whether barbell training is safe is akin to inquiring about the safety of driving a vehicle or riding a motorcycle. The analogy extends beyond just vehicular activities and is relevant to nearly any physical endeavour in life.
Engaging in any physical activity inherently carries some degree of risk. For instance, driving a car comes with the potential risk of accidents. We can minimize the risk of accidents through cautious driving habits, such as checking mirrors, signalling intentions, and conducting head checks before changing lanes. Moreover, various safety measures and regulations are in place to enhance road safety, including traffic rules, road signs, and lane markings. Despite these precautions, accidents on the road still occur. Should we cease driving altogether, knowing that road accidents can be fatal? Most will say no!
Certain activities are perceived as riskier than others, just as riding a motorcycle is often seen as riskier than driving a car. Consequently, riskier activities necessitate more stringent safety precautions. While all passengers in a car are advised to wear seatbelts, motorcyclists are encouraged to don protective gear like helmets, gloves, padded jackets, pants, and boots. Although dressing in such attire may be cumbersome and uncomfortable, it is done to minimize potential harm in the event of an accident.
Barbell training shares similarities with this perspective. Recognizing the health benefits of barbell training is not difficult. Programs like Starting Strength are highly effective for novices seeking strength gains. However, for those inexperienced in this form of training, it can appear intimidating and potentially hazardous. So, can we implement systems or rules to mitigate the risk of injury, accidents, or, worst of all, fatalities? Yes, indeed. Let’s draw lessons from Zhang’s video.
The Most Hazardous Lift: The Bench Press
If I were to recommend just one upper body exercise, it would be the overhead press rather than the bench press. The overhead press offers a more balanced lift around the shoulder joint, and engages a longer kinetic chain. Plus, it has the advantage of being more “functional” in daily life (and during travel). Just imagine effortlessly lifting your “unintentionally overweight” cabin bag into the overhead compartment on a plane.
However, the barbell bench press comes in as a close second due to its ability for heavier weights to be used as compared to the overhead press. In most cases, unless there are specific physical constraints, an individual’s bench press numbers tend to be much heavier than their overhead press. This makes it an excellent complement for overall upper body strength development.
For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the barbell bench press, it involves using a bench and uprights. Initially positioned in the uprights, the barbell is unracked and brought to its starting position, which is directly above your shoulder joints with fully extended elbows. The barbell is then lowered to gently touch the chest before being pressed back up to the starting position.
However, a potential concern arises when one encounters difficulty pressing the barbell back to the starting position. It may stay on the chest or roll upward, pressing your throat and obstructing your airway.
Despite the inherent risks, many individuals continue to include the bench press in their routines, not solely for its strength-building benefits. Lifters (especially male lifters) love the bench press because it effectively develops the most prominent and visually striking muscles—the pectoral muscles on the chest. After all, what is a well-rounded physique without a well-defined chest? Even the iconic bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger is celebrated for his impressive chest muscles. Hence, despite the potential hazards, many still embrace this exercise for its aesthetic rewards.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to highlight two critical aspects of bench press safety that should not be overlooked by individuals aiming to enhance their strength. Regrettably, Zhang failed to address both of the essential safety considerations.
Option 1: Avoid Locking/Collaring the Bar During Bench Press
We employ barbell collars as a safety measure to prevent plates from slipping off during lifts. These collars play a significant role in exercises like squats and presses, where lateral shifts in the center of mass become apparent when we take a few steps to unrack or rerack the bar. They are equally essential in exercises like deadlifts, where repetitive impacts with the ground can cause some plate shifting.
However, when it comes to the bench press, the exercise’s restricted range of motion and the controlled descent of the bar to the chest, rather than slamming it, result in minimal impact between the bar and the plates on any surface. Given these factors, it is entirely reasonable to consider omitting the use of collars on a full-size bar during bench press workouts.
Moreover, in the event of a failed bench attempt, escaping from the bar takes precedence over anything else. Without those collars, the weights can slide off the bar if you create enough imbalance. So, when you find yourself pinned beneath the bar, push hard on one side while pulling the other (e.g., push right, pull left). The bar will tilt to one side, causing the weights to fall off. Since one side becomes heavier than the other, it will counterbalance, and the remaining weight will slide down as well. You’ll be left with an empty bar in your hands and a few startled onlookers. It may be noisy and leave a mess of plates on the floor around you, but you’ll live to bench press another day.
This approach is particularly effective when using a bench rack with no safety pins. Refer to this video for a visual reference.
Option 2: Employ Properly Set Safety Pins
Similar to the safety precautions taken during squats, you can safely fail when you have appropriately set up safety pins. A correctly positioned safety pin ensures that your bar is above the level of your throat. In cases where the equipment’s pin spacing presents a choice between a position slightly too low and one slightly too high for your throat, always choose the safer option! As long as there is any possibility of the bar compressing your airway in the event of failure, you are not in a safe position!
Check out this video for a comprehensive guide.
What about having a spotter to assist you? Certainly, it’s a viable option! However, it’s worth remembering that a well-established safety system always trumps relying solely on a spotter (especially one that doesn’t know what they’re doing). Just recall the case of Justyn Vicky, who tragically lost his life despite having a spotter.
You can indeed train safely on your own; just don’t neglect to set your safeties. Continuing to wear a seatbelt in your car isn’t a decision based on whether you crashed yesterday; it’s about being prepared for the unforeseen.
That said, if you’re going for a max attempt or something whereby the possibility of failure is high, and you’re unable to set up the safeties properly, uncomfortable with safely dumping the weight, and have no one nearby to spot or assist in case of an emergency, take a moment to consider your decision carefully. Your well-being takes precedence over achieving a personal record on the bench press.
Now, please share this information with friends and family who may still engage in the “risky” pursuit of barbell training. Help protect their loved ones from the anguish of losing a family member. Let’s ensure that this year’s tally remains at two unfortunate incidents.