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 increases the intensity of the lift and can induce remarkable gains in muscular growth, strength and power.
Rapid Gains in Strength
Faster lifting speeds can produce greater intensity and support 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. 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-type 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, where they 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 one-repetition max 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 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, they showed that nine male subjects performing high-velocity push-ups, before attempting their one-repetition bench press max, increased their one-repetition max 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 the 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 they 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.
For most of Michael Rudolph’s career he has been engrossed in the exercise world as either an athlete (he played college football at Hofstra University), personal trainer or as a Research Scientist (he earned a B.Sc. in Exercise Science at Hofstra University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Stony Brook University). After earning his Ph.D., Michael investigated the molecular biology of exercise as a fellow at Harvard Medical School and Columbia University for over eight years. That research contributed seminally to understanding the function of the incredibly important cellular energy sensor AMPK— leading to numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals including the journal Nature. Michael is currently a scientist working at the New York Structural Biology Center doing contract work for the Department of Defense on a project involving national security.
- Koshida, S., Urabe, Y., Miyashita, K., Iwai, K., and Kagimori, A. (2008). Muscular outputs during dynamic bench press under stable versus unstable conditions. J Strength Cond Res 22, 1584-1588.
- Lyons, T.S., McLester, J.R., Arnett, S.W., and Thoma, M.J. (2010). Specificity of training modalities on upper-body one repetition maximum performance: free weights vs. hammer strength equipment. J Strength Cond Res 24, 2984-2988.
- Schmidtbleicher, D., and Haralambie, G. (1981). Changes in contractile properties of muscle after strength training in man. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 46, 221-228.
- Padulo, J., Mignogna, P., Mignardi, S., Tonni, F., and D’Ottavio, S. (2012). Effect of different pushing speeds on bench press. Int J Sports Med 33, 376-380.
- Malisoux, L., Francaux, M., Nielens, H., and Theisen, D. (2006). Stretch-shortening cycle exercises: an effective training paradigm to enhance power output of human single muscle fibers. J Appl Physiol 100, 771-779.
- Liu, Y., Schlumberger, A., Wirth, K., Schmidtbleicher, D., and Steinacker, J.M. (2003). Different effects on human skeletal myosin heavy chain isoform expression: strength vs. combination training. J Appl Physiol 94, 2282-2288.
- Rassier, D.E., and Herzog, W. (2002). Force enhancement following an active stretch in skeletal muscle. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 12, 471-477.
- Wilcox, J., Larson, R., Brochu, K.M., and Faigenbaum, A.D. (2006). Acute explosive-force movements enhance bench-press performance in athletic men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 1, 261-269.
- Madsen, N., and McLaughlin, T. (1984). Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 16, 376-381.
- Lander, J.E., Bates, B.T., Sawhill, J.A., and Hamill, J. (1985). A comparison between free-weight and isokinetic bench pressing. Med Sci Sports Exerc 17, 344-353.
- Sakamoto, A., and Sinclair, P.J. (2012). Muscle activations under varying lifting speeds and intensities during bench press. Eur J Appl Physiol 112, 1015-1025.