'How much do you bench bro?' It's a sports' cliché, but the bench press continues to occupy a uniquely macho seat in the pantheon of weight training disciplines, and professional rugby players are by no means immune.
Some variation of the bench press remains a staple in rugby clubs across the globe. Upper body strength remains a valuable asset in the game, once it doesn't come at the cost of compromising a player's speed or endurance.
One rep max bench presses are also a potentially dangerous exercise for contact sports athletes to attempt. Many avoid PBs on the bench as they pose a significant risk of pectoral tears or upper limber injury. For most rugby players, having a big number on the bench isn't worth the risk of a potentially season-ending injury.
It goes without saying that rugby players are neither powerlifters, professional strongmen nor bodybuilders. In a rugby context, an enormous bench press is not necessarily indicative of anything other than a strong upper body. It doesn't always translate into a good rugby player on the field of play. Rugby is not a weight-lifting competition; it's a contact sport that requires speed, endurance, and explosive strength of its athletes. Many of the world's best rugby players have modest PBs on the bench press.
The relative bodyweight of players and what they're throwing up on the bar must be taken into account. The Springboks, for example, expect Test players to bench press between 1.3 to 1.5 times their bodyweight, position-dependent. A 120kg prop, therefore, would be expected to bench 180kg as a "minimum" requirement, while a 100kg centre would be expected to bench 130kg.
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Generally speaking, S&C coaches have moved the sport towards core and explosive strength training in the last decade – away from a "bulk at all costs" mindset. One PRO14 head coach RugbyPass spoke to said that he was interested in creating powerful, fast athletes, regardless of their size. He likened it the Irish MMA fight Conor McGregor: an example of explosive athlete generating KO forces on a lithe 70kg frame.
Nevertheless, be it a spotty teenager aiming to make the school's first XV or a veteran tighthead who wants the club bragging rights, the bench press remains an entrenched part of rugby's cultural psyche.
The following list comes with a health warning. While most of the numbers represent personal bests for many of these players, inevitably some will have either bested these records or, inversely, are no longer capable of lifting that amount. For example, Wallaby backrow David Pocock benched 185kg at his peak, but admitted in a 2019 post on Instagram that "I'd be pushing it doing 155/160kg at the moment".
The vast majority of figures come from comments made by teammates, coaches or the player themselves in the media. Despite that, inevitably, some question marks remain over one or two of below numbers, especially in a discipline so given to hyperbole.
The list is also not an exhaustive list of the top bench press records in the sport; rather it's the bench press PBs of some notable professional rugby players.
An honorable mention must also go to former Wallaby wing Murdoch Alistair, who benched 227.5kg (raw) at the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (WDFPF) in 2014 in the under 110kg bodyweight category. He did, however, manage this feat long after his retirement from rugby, and at the age of 46.
Bench press records:
Gheorghe Gajion (Ospreys) 230kg
Aled de Malmanche (Stade Francis, retired) 220kg
Andrew Sheridan (Sale Shark, retired) 215kg
Alfie To'oala Vaeluaga (Samoa) 210kg
WillGriff John (Sale Sharks) 210kg
Max Lahiff (Bristol Bears) 210kg
Nicky Smith (Ospreys) 200kg
Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh) 200kg
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons) 200kg
Tom Court (Ulster, retired) 200kg
Jack Whetton (Highlanders) 200kg
Ben Tameifuna (Racing 92) 190kg
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers) 190kg
Siate Tokolahi (Highlanders) 190kg
Cian Healy (Leinster) 190kg
David Kilcoyne (Munster) 187.5kg
Jackson Wray (Saracens) 187.5kg
Maro Itoje (Saracens) 187.5kg
David Pocock (Panasonic Wildknights) 185kg
Ugo Monye (Harlequins, retired) 185kg
Joe Moody (Crusaders) 180kg
Pouri Rakete-Stones (Hawk's Bay) 180kg
Will Genia (Rebels) 180kg
Digby Ioane (Glendale Raptors) 180kg
Mike McCarthy (Leinster, retired) 180kg
Tendai Mtawarira (Old Glory) 180kg
Gareth Denman (Coventry) 180kg
Tom James (Scarlets) 180kg
Paul O'Connell (Munster, retired) 179kg
Nemani Nadolo (Montpellier) 175kg
Eben Etzebeth (Toulon) 175kg
Jaycob Matiu (Northland) 170kg
Ben Funnell (Crusaders) 165kg
Pierre Spies (Montpellier, retired) 165kg
Matt Vaai (Counties Manukau) 162.5kg
Pete Samu (Brumbies) 160kg
Sam Whitelock (Panasonic Wildknights) 160kg
Matt Todd (Crusaders) 150kg
Caleb Timu (Montpellier) 150kg
Andy Goode (Newcastle Falcons) 150kg
Dan Carter (free agent) 145kg
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) 140kg
Jim Hamilton (Saracens, retired) 140kg
Sonny Bill Williams (ex-Blues) 140kg
Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders) 137kg