Functional Strength

“I Want to Bench My Weight”

I was recently speaking with a friend of at a holiday party.  He described having shoulder pain and even an occasional click as he proceeded to show me several movements that bring on these symptoms.  This brief description suggested that he was experiencing either shoulder impingement, mild rotator cuff strain, or both.  As we spoke further, he shared that he had been working out on the bench press and it was his goal to be able to bench his weight.  Based on my friend’s current weight, his goal was to bench press 160#.  Bench press strength may be a useful measurement and good exercise, but is this the best choice to use as an indicator of your overall functional strength?  Unless you are a professional athlete, we would like to suggest using the deadlift, squat, or rowing activity as a benchmark of your current functional strength.

Benchmarks for Functional Strength

If you were only going to use one benchmark to measure your overall strength, we would suggest that you choose a whole-body exercise to measure functional strength.  Rowing, squatting, and deadlifts incorporate upper and lower extremity musculature in addition to muscles of your trunk or core.  Bench press is not a whole-body exercise as it typically uses chest, arms, rib, and abdominal muscles.

Let’s look at a variety of activities you are likely to perform in your typical day.

  • Bend over to pick something up – dead lift, row, squat
  • Carry a child or pet – dead lift
  • Go on an extended walk – squat (leg strength)
  • Chase after someone or something – squat (leg strength)
  • Load things into your car, washing machine, or dryer – dead lift, squat, row
  • Stand in your kitchen to wash dishes, prepare a meal, or enjoy a cup of coffee – squat (leg strength)
  • Climb stairs – squat
  • Get in and out of your car – squat, dead lift
  • Golf and tennis – squat, dead lift, row

Notice anything?  None of them involve pushing.  Bench press does not translate to most of the activities we perform regularly on a daily basis.  These activities typically require leg strength, carrying strength, or pulling strength or combinations of all three.

How Should I Get Started?

Performing squats, dead lifts, or rowing with dumbbells or barbells is acceptable.  There are a variety of medical conditions that may restrict your ability to perform these movements.  Please be sure that your physician or physical therapist gives you the ok to perform these activities.  If you need guidance in a home program or establishing strength goals for the year, our Doctors of Physical Therapy are here to provide you with that guidance.  We also have a program called the Synergy Power Hour that is designed to help you increase your functional strength and balance.

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