The bench press is one of the most popular exercises for developing upper body strength and power. Improving upper body strength and power can drastically elevate athletic performance while also generating tremendous muscle growth. Over the years, the research on bench press strength training has steadily developed1-2 to the point where specific protocols for optimal strength and size have been elucidated. Typically these methods incorporate the use of heavy weights to boost intensity and induce greater muscle cell activity, ultimately supporting greater size and strength.3
On the other hand, some training parameters that also boost intensity have been less rigorously investigated, with one in particular being the velocity or speed at which the bench press is performed. One potential reason for a lack of research into this area comes from the concern that performing the bench press movement too rapidly might increase the likelihood for severe injury. Yet recent studies have shown that increasing the velocity of the bench pressing movement in a controlled way, by slowly lowering the bar to the chest then rapidly pushing the bar upward as fast as possible, potently increases the intensity of the lift, inducing remarkable gains in muscular growth, strength and power, without causing injury.
Rapid Gains in Strength
As previously mentioned, intensity can be affected by lifting speed, where faster speeds produce greater intensity, supporting considerable strength gains. One study by Padulo et al.4 clearly showed the positive influence that explosive bench pressing has on strength gains when compared to normal-speed bench pressing. In this study, all 20 subjects trained twice a week for three weeks. One group performed the lift at near-maximal speed at 85 percent of their one-repetition maximum (1RM). The second group performed the bench press at a standard speed. At the end of the study, the explosive bench press group added 10 percent to their maximum bench press while also increasing the speed with which they could perform the lift. The second group that performed the bench press at normal lifting speed did not gain any strength or power.
Increase Fast-Twitch Fiber Levels
There are essentially two major types of muscle fibers, known as slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers. The fibers are called “slow” and “fast” due to the relative rate at which they contract, with fast-twitch fibers contracting roughly four times faster than slow-twitch fibers.5 This gives the fast-twitch fiber a greater force-producing capacity, making it the preferred muscle fiber type for superior strength gains. In addition, fast-twitch fibers also have superior growth potential compared to slow-twitch fibers, making them the preferred fiber type for enhanced muscle growth as well.
Many studies have collectively opposed the idea that resistance exercise can induce fiber type shifting from slow- to fast-twitch fibers. However, several more recent investigations have shown that certain training tactics can stimulate the conversion of slow- to fast-twitch fibers, including one study by Liu et al.6, which confirmed that high-velocity bench pressing induces such a shift. In this study, 24 male subjects were split into two groups. One group performed standard-velocity bench presses and the second group performed both normal-velocity bench presses on day one of the protocol, then high-speed bench presses with 30 percent of their 1RM during the next scheduled workout. The results showed that the group performing both regular and high-velocity bench presses increased the fast-twitch fiber type by 15 percent while decreasing the slow-twitch fiber by a similar amount, indicating that high-velocity movements stimulate the conversion of slow- to fast-twitch fiber.
Explosive Chest Training Promotes Greater Muscle Activity
While explosive movements increase strength over the long term by boosting exercise intensity, explosive movements also have the remarkable ability to instantly improve muscle strength by inducing a process known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). PAP is the instantaneous increase in muscle force production generated from the activation of the muscle from a previous lift that was done at high intensity. This high-intensity lift stimulates specific biochemical cascades that promote the interaction between the two muscle-contractile proteins, actin and myosin.7 As a consequence, the greater interaction between actin and myosin directly enhances muscular contractile force.
Recently, in a study by Wilcox et al.8, it was shown that explosive chest press movements caused an immediate improvement in bench press strength, presumably by stimulating PAP. In this study, the researchers showed that nine male subjects performing high-velocity push-ups, before attempting their 1RM bench press, increased their 1RM by approximately eight pounds— compared to the control group that did not perform high-velocity push-ups, and showed no increase in bench press strength. These results highlight the potential use of explosive movements for both short-term and long-term strength gains.
Blast Your Bench Press Past the Sticking Point
The bench press movement requires the sequential activation of several different muscle groups primarily consisting of the pectoralis, deltoid and triceps muscles. The transitional activation of these different muscle groups throughout the bench press movement tends to decrease force production at specific points of the upward phase of the bench press. When this drop in force production combines with a poor biomechanical position of the involved muscle groups during the concentric part of the bench press movement, there is a considerable drop in the speed of the barbell, which is often referred to as the sticking point.9 The sticking point significantly contributes to the inability to complete the bench press movement, thus hindering the training effect.10
Because the sticking point negatively influences bench press performance, many training programs have tried to minimize its influence on muscle force production. One training technique that has shown promise in overcoming the sticking point is high-velocity bench pressing. In one study by Sakamoto et al.,11 the researchers showed that subjects who performed rapid bench press movements, consisting of a two-second repetition, showed greater muscle activity in the initial stages of concentric contraction, resulting in a higher number of repetitions for this group when compared to other groups performing slower bench press movements. The authors suggest that the greater muscular activity generated greater momentum through the sticking point, mitigating the negative influence of the sticking point, which ultimately increased bench press performance.
1. Koshida S, Urabe Y, et al. (2008). Muscular outputs during dynamic bench press under stable versus unstable conditions. J Strength Cond Res 22, 1584-1588.
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6. Liu Y, Schlumberger A, et al. (2003). Different effects on human skeletal myosin heavy chain isoform expression: strength vs. combination training. J Appl Physiol 94, 2282-2288.
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11. Sakamoto A and Sinclair PJ. (2012). Muscle activations under varying lifting speeds and intensities during bench press. Eur J Appl Physiol 112, 1015-1025.