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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Merit of Bench Press Numbers

Ahhh, the bench press. A favorite among casual gym-goers. As a dedicated lifter, the most repetitive question I get is how much I bench. People could care less about more relevant lifts like deadlifting or squatting. I'm not a big guy or much of an athlete, but I can throw up that 185lb bar for more reps than anyone at the combine. It just stems from a lot of work and repetition. I was never a strong guy, but I put in the work. I wish it meant something for my basketball talents. I haven't played much since I started lifting, but I doubt I am any better of a player due to a stronger chest. But maybe...maybe I should start my basketball career up again!

Lets be realistic, though. Bench pressing is a movement that works mainly your chest and triceps. They are pushing muscles. Rarely in basketball does a player need to use all his upper body strength to shove a player. Thats normally a foul. John Chaney may find you useful as a goon on the end up the bench, but your minutes on the court will be short lived.

In the post, holding your position involved your upper body, but the base of your strength comes from your legs. Squatting would be a better indicator for the strength of big men, but I can't imagine agents letting players take part in that act. Too many injury factors are involved for guys who don't squat regularly and too many questions about what makes a proper squat. Do you go down parallel or touch your ass to the ground? Or simply load the bar with way more weight than you can handle and go down a quarter of the way, grunting each time to let everyone know you are the big man on campus.

If JaJuan Johnson or Justin Harper were forced to squat, there would be less people singing praising about their apparent strength right now. Harper and Johnson both put up good numbers on the bench - a combine leading 19 for Harper and 15 for JaJuan. These are two power forwards who have had their strength questioned to a point where they have considered working on their small forward skills. Surely these guys didn't all the sudden become Dwight Howard clones.

No, not at all. I wouldn't count on it. These guys are just two upper classmen who obviously have experience in a strength program. They are used to the motion of benching. Benching isn't exactly a natural measurement of strength. I can count the number of  times a NBA player was laying on his back during a game and had to lift a heavy object off of him on my dog's amputated foot. It s something you can easily improve with a little bit of practice, especially with world class trainers. Its not a end all be all to measuring strength. Olympic lifters don't even incorporate the lift into their routine most of the time. If the NBA wanted to truly test a players strength, we would see players deadlifting and squatting. Of course, that will never happen because of injuries. I'm sure the bench will start to fade out soon as well.

Since the bench numbers are at our disposal, what can we use them for? We can see the guys who stand out as regular weight lifters. Besides Harper and Johnson, it appears Norris Cole, Shelvin Mack, Derrick Williams, Kenneth Faried, Charles Jenkins, Jimmy Butler, Brandon Knight, and Jimmer Fredette all spend significant time in the gym. All hard workers and mostly older guys. It is a good sign that these guys have done everything in their control to help their stock, but it really doesn't mean much. I threw Knight on this list because it is apparent he has started the gym at an early age with 10 reps while being only 176 pounds.

Freshman most of the time struggle at this exercise, proving it is more practice than a natural strength measurement. Kevin Durant famously couldn't bench 185. This year Jereme Richmond followed in his path. Cory Joseph, Josh Selby, and Tristan Thompson all posted single digit numbers (apparently Texas isn't the best place to go if you want to work on your bench).

You also have the natural athletes who don't take weight training seriously. In an interview at the combine, Travis Leslie through me for a loop by saying he doesn't work out his legs. What an incredible statement. This guy is a top-notch athlete and he doesn't even work out his legs? It pains me to think about how much more he could improve athletically if he started a real workout routine. Leslie, even though he is more naturally gifted then all of these guys, only put up 10 reps on the bar. The same as the 30 pound lighter Brandon Knight who has only been in college one year. It doesn't say much for who is stronger - that is still Leslie, but it does show you who is working. While it is intriguing to think about what Leslie can be if he hits the gym, his seemingly content attitude to rely on his natural gifts is concerning.

Kawhi Leonard was another great athlete who only managed a few reps. Leonard churned out 3 measly repetitions at 185. The difference between Leonard and Leslie, though, is Leonard is believed to have a good work ethic. He just hasn't focused on the gym apparently. Once Leonard gets in the NBA and hits the weights, his body projects into something Ron Artest would be proud of. 

In short, benching doesn't translate at all into the NBA. You can see a correlation between hard workers and high bench numbers. You might be intrigued by some of the supposed hard workers with low numbers - might mean they have limited experience in a gym. You can be disappointed in natural athletes with low numbers, but it doesn't mean they are weaker than others with higher numbers. They just aren't used to applying their strength in a controlled environment. All in all, these combine numbers are just a bunch of fodder that can hurt you more than aide you if you actually take much stock into them. Basketball is basketball and there is plenty of tape out there if you want to see if they can play the sport (besides Enes Kanter that is). If you want to try to be some kind of expert, go ahead and break down these numbers and give them some significant meaning. I'll be impressed if it is more than a huge pile of mess....just save your time and pay attention to more meaningful things for prospects' futures.

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