Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Incline Bench Press vs The Lat Machine

by Mark Rippetoe | March 28, 2023

wfac incline bench station and lat machine

In my gym in Wichita Falls I have several old pieces of equipment, among them a lat machine and an incline bench press. Both are quality pieces, the lat machine having been built by Mike Graham at the Texas Athletic Club in Austin in the 1970s, and the incline bench press by MAC Barbell, Doug Patterson's company in Grand Prairie in the 1980s. They are heavy, solid, expertly-welded, and built to last by people who were concerned about such things. When I look at the modern bolt-together light-gauge junk sold as “gym equipment” I see little resemblance between it and these fine old legacy pieces that still grace my floor. They will never be sold while I'm alive.

But there is an important difference in the two: one I never use, and the other I use all the time, because they serve completely different functions. The lat machine fits our definition of Training, and the incline bench does not.

Training is the process of adapting the physiology to increasing levels of stress for the purpose of higher levels of performance. The performance may be based on endurance, or force production, or a combination of the two. But in either case the physiology of the whole body must adapt, and the training must therefore involve the whole body. Our emphasis here is force production – strength – and strength is best trained by focusing on normal human movement patterns that operate over the longest efficient range of motion, with as much weight as can be correctly moved. This ensures the use of the most muscle mass, and when correctly programmed creates the most effective strength adaptation. When all the normal human movement patterns are stronger, the whole human is stronger for any physical task.

A general strength adaptation improves any performance, and practice – the repetitive execution of movements that depend on accuracy and precision under the same conditions in which they will be displayed during the performance – allows the strength-adapted physiology to apply increased force production to the specific performance. Training is general and practice is specific, and it is a grave error to try to make training specific or practice general. This is the primary problem with “Functional Training.”

The six primary human movement patterns that lend themselves to loading and incremental progression are:

1. Squatting down and standing back up

2. Picking something up from the floor

3. Pushing something up overhead

4. Pushing something away from you

5. Throwing something up and catching it

6. Pulling something toward you

These are trained by the squat, the deadlift, the press, the bench press, the power clean, and the chin-up, respectively.

One of my two lovely old pieces of equipment allows one of these movements to be trained. If you are an older person, detrained to the point where your strength is insufficient to permit a bodyweight chin-up, the lat machine allows you to train this movement pattern. It works better than resistance bands, since the whole range of motion is loaded uniformly – bands make the start of the chin-up way too easy and the top way too hard. And we can load the machine light enough that your grandmother can use the whole movement pattern effectively. Over time, the lat pull (together with the deadlift) can produce enough arm and lat strength to get you to a chin. Like a leg press – I have one of those too – a lat machine can get a detrained person well on the way to physical competence.

In contrast, the incline bench was designed to work the upper pecs as a separate bodypart, under the assumption that the bench press needs a back-up plan, and that we actually have separate body parts. Of all the six movements we train, the best argument for omission applies to the bench, since it is the only one of the six that relies on external support for the body's position during the movement. We still use it because it produces a better upper-body strength adaptation than the press, which is a much better total-body exercise.

But no real case can be made for the incline bench. The bench press and the press together work all the muscle mass that would be affected by the incline, and we're just not concerned with your “upper pecs” since we're not bodybuilders. They are not separately innervated anyway, and cannot be isolated any more than can the famous “VMO.”

If you have a gym that intends to train people of all demographics – young, old, fat, skinny, weak, sick, rank novice or older washed-up guys like me, the lat machine is very useful, if for no other reason than for warming up your shoulders before you chin. But you still can't have my incline bench.

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