Training Aids to Boost Your Bench
Great bench pressers have developed some amazing techniques and training aids to boost their bench presses into the stratosphere, including bench shirts, power rack training, band and chain training, and board training.
Bench Shirt: The program described in this article will improve your bench press by at least 100 pounds without a bench shirt. However, a support shirt can increase your bench press by 50 pounds or more with little training— after you get used to it. A bench shirt is a tight, sturdy shirt made from denim or polyester that increases maximum bench press performance by increasing muscle support and providing an elastic assist during the lift. If you choose to wear one, use the shirt once a week during the peak cycle (high weight, low volume).
Using a bench shirt is an artificial way of boosting your bench press. However, it is not prohibited in most powerlifting competitions, so you should not feel guilty when you bench press 300, 350, 400 pounds or more using one. Companies such as Inzer, Phenom, and Rage & Rage make good bench shirts. Purchase them on the Internet from powerlifting supply companies such as www.inzernet.com and www.crainsmuscleworld.com.
Power Rack Training: The power rack is a box-like metal frame found in most well-equipped gyms. The power rack consists of a base and four columns (the columns are supported on top with cross braces). Each column has a series of holes drilled through it so that long steel pins can be placed through them at different levels. Put a bench inside the rack and set the pins so that you work different parts of the range of motion of the lift: bar at chest level; bar 2 inches from the chest; bar 4 inches from the chest; and lockouts. For variety, you can use elastic bands attached to the power rack and bar to help you handle even heavier weights.
A typical power rack bench press routine would be as follows:
Begin with the bar placed at chest level. Warm up with a light weight (1-2 sets of 10 at 30 percent of max). Start the workout with a weight equivalent to 75 percent of your 1-rep maximum. Do one rep using good form, then increase the weight and repeat. Continue increasing the weight until you can’t lift anymore.
After you’ve maxed out with the weight at your chest, raise the pins 1-2 holes so that the bar is now placed in the middle of your bench press groove. Start with the weight you completed when the bar was directly off your chest. Do one rep, add weight, and repeat. Continue adding weight until you can no longer continue.
Finally, raise the pins so that the bar is placed near the end of the range of motion for the bench press (lockouts). Now you’re only pushing the weight a few inches. You will be able to handle much more weight than you can do during the normal exercise. Load up the bar and do one rep, using as much weight as you can. Continue doing progressively heavier max singles until you can no longer continue.
Use the power rack once every two weeks during the peak cycle. This technique is most effective for boosting your 1-rep max in the bench but can lead to overtraining injuries if used excessively. The rack will help prepare you for lifting heavy weights and is a great way to increase your bench press.
Board training is similar to using the power rack to build your bench. It involves placing boards of various heights on your chest to alter the range of motion during the lift. I think the power rack is better and safer than using boards.
Chains and Bands: On training days involving maximum effort, it’s critical that you push the bar with maximal force on each rep. Chains and bands increase the resistance at the end of the range of motion of the lift. They are particularly useful during load cycles. Bands also increase the intensity of the eccentric part of the lift (lowering the weight to the chest) and will help increase your capacity to accelerate the bar from your chest. Buy chains at any hardware store and bands at powerlifting supply Internet sites (see bench shirts above).
Training on Unstable Surfaces: Many health clubs encourage members to train on unstable surfaces such as Swiss or bosu balls. This is a mistake because it decreases your capacity to exert maximum force and will interfere with your progress.
Supplements: Take a protein-carbohydrate supplement containing at least 30 grams of protein after each workout— particularly during the load cycle. Also, taking 5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day may also boost your bench. Creatine supplements boost creatine phosphate (CP) levels in the muscles. CP is a high-energy compound important for maximum muscle strength. Several studies found that taking caffeine supplements before a workout will boost your bench press training load.
Bench Press Training
Bench press training involves overloading the muscles to increase muscle size, density, and contractile capacity and conditioning the nervous system to maximize and coordinate motor unit recruitment so that the muscles react quickly and explosively during the lift. The training process involves a preliminary conditioning cycle to prepare the muscles for intense training, a load cycle to build base strength, and a peak cycle to help you increase your bench press (single-rep maximum).
The conditioning cycle is a basic weight training program involving 3 sets of 10 reps of standard exercises. The load cycle involves doing 4 to 6 sets of 4 to 6 reps of the primary exercises (barbell bench, dumbbell bench). This cycle pushes the muscles to the max and results in rep failure (you need assistance to finish the sets). The peak cycle uses high-intensity, low-volume workouts designed to overload the neuromuscular system. You will do 3 to 8 sets of 1 to 3 reps in the major lifts using maximum weights.
Muscles work together during the bench press— they don’t work in isolation. While some muscles shorten to cause movement, others contract statically to provide stability, lengthen to brake movement, or act as motion sensors (proprioceptors). The ideal bench press training program helps the leg, back, abdomen, chest, shoulder, and arm muscles work in harmony to provide powerful, pain-free movement. The pecs, triceps, and deltoids are the major muscles used during the bench press, but the muscles of the back (e.g., lats and rhomboids), legs (quads, hamstrings, and gluts), and abs (rectus abdominis, transverses abdominis) stabilize and control the motion.
Muscles develop best when you subject them to many types of stress. For example, barbell bench presses will increase the weight you can bench, but strengthening the triceps, deltoids, and pecs with other exercises (auxiliary exercises) will also help. Also, using overload techniques, bands and chains, board training, negatives, and power rack training will allow you to use more resistance than you can doing regular bench presses.
Don’t overtrain! Bench no more than twice a week and only use maximum weights once a week. As discussed, train in cycles: begin with general conditioning to get used to weight training; progress to base training involving intense moderate-rep exercises (for example, 6 sets of 6 reps); do peak training involving heavy singles, doubles.
Remember lesson number one: bench pressing is a skill. Your training program should be directed toward lifting a lot of weight for 1 rep. For making truly stellar progress in the bench press, don’t mix base and peak cycles. For example, during the peak cycle your bench strength will increase at an amazing pace. You will feel so strong that you will want to grind out 10 to 20 reps with 225 pounds just to impress people in the gym. Avoid the temptation! Give your body a chance to adjust to pushing heavy weights. You will be amazed at the results.