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The year was 1990. I was a 16-year-old high school sophomore that had been weightlifting for about six months. Like most of the boys I hung out with in those days, I was attracted to the bench press. It was the ultimate test of strength—a benchmark of power and toughness.
I was an overweight, awkward kid in high school; not really fitting in with any particular group. There were jocks, nerds, stoners, skaters, rappers, and thugs. Oddly, I was drawn to the thugs—a group of really rough kids that were not particularly interested in me. This harsh reality caused me to form my own small group of outcasts.
My father was a former bodybuilding champion and professional powerlifter. I had already been dabbling with weightlifting since the 6th grade, but it never really took—until the bullying began. Being a six-foot, 215-pound clunky sophomore definitely had its drawbacks. I was getting bullied every day by other boys, so I turned to weightlifting. I saw what it did for my pops. Lifting weights had transformed the 180-pound, 5”6’ guy into a star. Maybe it could do the same for me?
The bench press was an escape for me. At that time, it was the only thing in my life I had control over—the one thing that seemed to bring results with effort.
Halfway through my junior year, I had reached 225 pounds on the bench press. We referred to it as “two plates” because of the two, 45-pound plates on each side of the bar. The bench press was an escape for me. At that time, it was the only thing in my life I had control over—the one thing that seemed to bring results with effort. I still remember the incredible feeling of being able to press my own bodyweight. It was without a doubt a milestone for me as a young man.
While I never became a “star” like pops, I have cultivated immense respect for the art of weightlifting, more specifically; the bench press. It was an invaluable confidence-building tool I used to get me through some really tough times in my life. It also happens to be one of THE BEST compound movements for overall upper body strength.
Let’s talk a little about the history of the bench press. It’s without a doubt a cornerstone of bodybuilding and deserves a deeper look into its extensive impact it’s had on young men, athletes, and middle-aged fitness nuts for decades.
The bench press may have found it’s roots as early as the ancient Greek period. The Greeks didn’t have access to machines or weights and likely practiced a lot of body weight exercises such as pushups, pull-ups, and body squats. Some historians say they even employed weight-resistance methods using animals, tree logs, and each other’s body weight.
The strength legend, George (The Russian Lion) Hackenschmidt is said to be the father of the bench press. He invented the “floor press,” which later evolved into the bench press. He played a big part in popularizing the bench press in the 1930s.
Veteran bench press specialists utilize the floor press to help strengthen the midpoint of their bench press. It’s also a press that defines a person’s true upper body power. It’s nearly impossible to use any lower body strength or momentum to press the weight up while implementing the floor press form.
Many of the powerlifters discovered ways to “manipulate” presses in their favor, so in 1939, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) put into play a new set of rules for official lifts. They banned many of the tactics that powerlifters were using as an advantage to press more weight, including lifting the butt, bending the legs, uncontrolled movements, and displacement of the heels and feet. These acts would be cause for disqualification.
Over the course of the next 50 years, the bench press would find itself at the center of not just the bodybuilding movement, but pretty much all power sports. Bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen, and athletes from all over the world made the bench press a staple of their training regimen. Legends such as Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl, Reg Park, and Larry Scott utilized the bench press throughout their professional bodybuilding careers.
Bench Press Legends
Jon Cole (Max bench: 580 pounds – raw)
Jon Cole is considered by many to be one of the greatest powerlifters of all time. He set world records in the squat (905 pounds), deadlift (885 pounds), and total (2,370 pounds) throughout his career. He was also an Olympic competitor—setting records in both the discus throw and shot-put.
Jon was often referred to as “the strongest man in the world,” because he was the first man to have a total (squat/deadlift/bench) of 2,200 pounds. He was also the first man to squat over 900 pounds (raw).
In 1972, Jon Cole bench-pressed 580 pounds at a body weight of 283 pounds (raw, meaning no bench press shirt).
Jon died on January 10, 2013. He left a memorable mark on the powerlifting world and was loved by many.
Don Reinhoudt (Max bench: 607.4 pounds – raw)
As the only man to ever win four IPF World Powerlifting Championships in a row, Don Reinhoudt is definitely a worthy mention. He was also the first one to officially break Jon Cole’s total record with a 2391.5-pound total in 1975. To give Jon Cole some credit, he was a much lighter man than Reinhoudt—weighing 100 pounds less.
To give an example of Don’s tremendous strength, he once squatted 950 pounds (with only knee wraps and a thin belt), but was disqualified because of being 1-inch too high. Personally, I’d count that as a win.
Don Reinhoudt was 6’ 3” and weighed in at 380 pounds.
Paul Anderson (Max bench: 628 pounds – raw)
Paul Anderson was an absolute powerhouse! He was an American weightlifter, powerlifter, and Olympic gold medalist. He’s considered to be one of the strongest men in history. Paul’s 628-pound bench press was incredible, but his 1,200-pound raw squat was what earned him the most praise.
Paul Anderson was well-respected in the weightlifting community and admired by countless powerlifters and strongmen worldwide.
At 5’ 9.5” and 360 pounds, Paul was an extraordinarily large man.
He passed on August 15th, 1994.
“My love and respect for Paul runs deep. His ability to lift enormous weights in limited movements surpasses all.” – Jon Cole
Kevin Levrone (Max bench: 530 pounds – raw)
There are bodybuilders that have pressed some extremely impressive weight as well, and Kevin Levrone is one of them. At 5’ 11” and roughly 250 pounds, Levrone pressed 530 pounds.
Levrone has competed in more than 13 Mr. Olympian competitions and has been nicknamed “The Uncrowned King of Mr. Olympia” for always placing, but never leaving with a win.
At the age of 51, Kevin returned to the 2016 Mr. Olympia. It was the first time he hadn’t placed in the top ten, but it didn’t matter to his fans. The impressive feat earned him immense praise in the bodybuilding community.
You can watch Levrone (easily) bench-press 500 pounds at age 51 here.
Bill Kazmaier (Max bench: 661.4 pounds – raw)
When I was a kid, I remember seeing Bill Kazmaier on the cover of countless powerlifting magazines. Bill’s golden years were the 70s and 80s. He claimed to be the strongest man that ever lived, albeit Samson might disagree with Bill. :)
Kazmaier was an American athlete, powerlifter, strongman, and pro wrestler. At the peak of his athletic career, he was 6’ 2” and weighed in at 353 pounds. He even trained with the Green Bay Packers in 1981.
Bill’s powerlifting records include a 925.9-pound squat, 886.7-pound deadlift, and a 661.4-pound raw bench press—earning him a total of 2425.8 pounds.
Watch Bill press 633 pounds in this video.
Pat Neve (Max bench: 468.5 pounds – raw)
It would be an injustice to my father to not mention him in this lineup. At 5’ 6” and 181 pounds, Pat might have been one of the strongest men (pound for pound) in the history of bodybuilding.
Pat Neve is well-established as both a pro bodybuilder and powerlifter. He is a former A.A.U. Mr. America, Mr. World, and Mr. USA, 1st runner-up pro Mr. Universe, and a world-record setting bench-presser.
In 1972, Pat Neve officially bench-pressed 468.5 pounds—making him one of the first men in history to press 290 pounds above and beyond a bodyweight of 181.
Pat’s personal (unofficial) weightlifting records include a 500-pound bench press, 620-pound squat, 330-pound standing press, and a 600-pound deadlift.
“I just did everything heavy, because when you powerlift, you’ve got to do everything heavy. It keeps you used to the feel of heavy weights.” – Pat Neve
Franco Columbu (Max bench: 500+ pounds – raw)
Franco Columbu is another bodybuilder from the golden era that was not only a strongman competitor but a very strong bench-presser.
Columbu was an amateur boxer, actor, and powerlifter, but he was best known for his bodybuilding accomplishments, as well as his friendship with training partner; Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Franco is a 4-time former Mr. Olympia, including an overall win in 1976.
It was difficult to find accurate and consistent bench press stats on Columbu online. Claims range from 451 pounds to 525, but it’s safe to say that he likely hit 500 at some point.
His personal best (unofficial) lifts include a 500+ pound bench press, 655-pound squat, and 750-pound deadlift. He was so strong in the deadlift that it wasn’t uncommon to see Columbu lifting the back of cars now and again.
In his prime, Franco competed at 5’5” and 185 pounds.
There are so many more iconic bench press masters I could talk about, but it could go on forever.
Walk into any gym, and you’ll likely see all of the bench presses being occupied by teenage boys competing against one another, powerlifters preparing for a meet, or enthusiasts trying to hit their PR.
For some, the bench press is an invigorating sport, for others, it’s a rite of passage—a gateway to masculinity. Nevertheless, the bench press reigns supreme as the ultimate strength marker for a man.
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