Mark Kelly by Mark Kelly

barbell bench pressThe American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently commissioned a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Department of Exercise and Sport Science, to measure the electromyography (EMG) response of the pectoralis major to nine popular chest exercises. Led by Whitnee Schanke, B.S., and John Porcari, Ph.D, the researchers examined the muscle activity of 14 healthy 19- to 30-year-old male volunteers as they performed these exercises. Of the nine exercises tested, the pectoralis major was activated the most during the barbell bench press; therefore, all of the other exercises were statistically compared to that exercise, and reported as a percentage of that value (with the barbell bench press assigned a value of 100%). The pec deck exercise (98%) and the bent-forward cable crossovers (93%) elicited roughly the same amount of muscle activity.

Ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) was also recorded for each exercise. Not surprisingly, the barbell bench press (the highest EMG activity) had the highest RPE at 6.5, while the standard push-up (the lowest EMG activity) had the lowest RPE of 1.5.

This was a well-controlled, uniformly applied scientific study that used valid methodology to draw informed conclusions that contributed to the current body of knowledge in exercise science. In the comments section of the article published in ACE Certified News, several readers expressed disappointment with ACE for including the barbell bench press in the study. They felt that this somehow represented a movement by ACE away from "functional exercises" and regression into "old school" exercises. There are several points that should be addressed with regard to ACE's reasons for making these exercise choices, as well as the inclination to try to put exercises into a given "box" or classification.

  1. The study did, in fact, include VERY functional exercises (according to the current definition of functional exercise) in the mix. And, while suspended push-ups, stability ball push-ups, and even dips are often classified as "functional," it's not surprising that they ranked lower on the scale. Functional exercise focuses on injury reduction and performance enhancement, rather than strength or size, and often utilizes destabilized environments using multi-joint, multi-planar movement to train agility, balance and coordination. When a body part is destabilized, it cannot exert as much force; as a result, it has a lower EMG activity in that muscle area. Push-ups, for example, are a classic test for muscular endurance, not muscle strength. They are meant to be submaximal and, therefore, will not elicit a high EMG reading. However, a destabilized push-up will develop many aspects and skills that can't be achieved with the barbell bench press. Clearly, both exercises have their own benefits.
  2. An exercise is an exercise—nothing more, nothing less. A muscle cell does not know or care what movement or resistance source is responsible for its stimulation. And while EMG machines measure either the peak muscle activation or the total (volume) of muscle activation with EMG placement, a range of factors, such as the condition of the subject, fatigue and even injury, have the potential to dramatically change the results. EMG does not measure functionality or coordination of multiple joint segments.
  3. The point of any exercise is to meet the needs and goals of the participant or client. As a trainer and exercise specialist, you should not label any exercise as "good" or "bad," "old school" or "new school," or even "more functional" or "less functional." While functional training is often referred to as new school, it has actually been used in sports-conditioning circles for more than a century (kettlebells and sand-bag training are actually really "old school" training). The barbell bench press is by far the most popular chest exercise performed in gyms, and it is no accident that those who perform this exercise on a consistent and progressive basis usually end up with big, strong chests.  And for good reason—it works! A majority of high school, college and professional football players use the bench press along with other more destabilized, unbalanced chest exercises to develop strength and functionality.

Any exercise can be dangerous if performed excessively or incorrectly, so it is important to appreciate and understand the pros and cons, risks and rewards of each exercise. At the American Council on Exercise, we will continue to advocate the use of movement-based training that is performed using safe, proper form and technique, while also encouraging fitness professionals to provide clients with exercises that are most effective and pursuant to their individual fitness needs and goals.

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