Brains and Brawn… What Do You Bench?

Published 11:29 am Friday, April 2, 2021

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“What do you bench?” Everyone who puts in some time at the gym will eventually get this question from another lifter. When posed, it is often accompanied by a condescending smirk.

I have heard people exaggerating their lifts or even outright lying when responding to this. It can be a way for one lifter to “challenge” another, and I think that question captures a fundamental dynamic of competition in weight lifting.

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There are two ways to compete in the gym. One is a healthy competitiveness that helps both lifters and the other is an attempt at one-upmanship that only serves to inflate a lifter’s ego.

Too often, that question represents the latter.

There are many emotional motivations that contribute to a person wanting to lift weights consistently and intensely. Sometimes these emotions stem from negative experiences like being bullied or mistreated.

Admittedly, that very thing is what inspired me to get into weight lifting in the late ’80s.

I was the farthest thing from big and strong as a kid. At one point, I decided I didn’t want to be pushed around ever again. So, I began to lift weights.

A lot of new lifters have a similar background, and that question about benching can seem like just more bullying to them.

When lifters have those negative underlying emotions, they can walk around the gym with a “chip on their shoulder.” So, they might feel threatened by another lifter outperforming them.

“What do you bench?” Is a way for one lifter to feel like they have to “beat” the other lifter if that person’s number is less than theirs. In reality, the question isn’t even valid because if you want to compare whole-body strength, they should be asking “What do you squat?”

In any case, a better way to compete in the gym is when you find a person that is close to yourself in strength or fitness level and get to know them by being upbeat and encouraging.

Then when you train, you might look at their gains and progress as a benchmark for yourself. If you see them surging ahead of you, you might ask what type of training they are doing and find the differences that are giving them an advantage.

If you are outpacing that other lifter, you might offer some encouragement and training tips when asked.

The only real competition you have in the gym is with yourself. Can you make yourself train day after day, week after week, year after year? This is really what a lifter has to overcome.

This approach to competing is motivated by self-improvement and seeking personal growth for yourself and other lifters.

This is a far more sustainable and positive way to train than looking for a chance to boost your ego at someone else’s expense.

I have coached and trained with hundreds of people over the years and I have learned something from each of them. I like to think they have learned something from me too.

I find that people that stick with training for very long mostly develop that positive attitude towards competition. Lifting heavy weights is extremely cathartic, and it tends to just burn all that negative emotion away.

The folks with the chip on their shoulder tend to get over it or give up on training in the long run.

My advice is, instead of asking another lifter that question, just introduce yourself and get to know them.

You might be able to help each other get better.