By Todd Bumgardner and Josh Bryant, T-Nation
“It is essential that explosive strength play a large role in training, as it is not only a means of developing absolute strength, but also a method of raising physical fitness that is directed towards solving a sport specific task.” – Louie Simmons
In other words, build more explosive power, bench bigger weights.
Lifting weights fast makes them feel lighter. Grab a 50-pound dumbbell off of the rack slowly. Now snatch that dumbbell off the rack quickly. It’ll feel lighter when the dumbbell is picked up faster.
You can’t lift a heavy weight with the intention of lifting it slowly. Even though a max weight may move slowly, the intention of your central nervous system needs to be recruiting a maximum number of motor units as fast as possible.
Here’s how to enhance rate of force development (RFD) that will transfer directly to your bench press.
Compensatory Acceleration Training
Dr. Fred Hatfield, aka Dr. Squat, cofounder of the International Sports Science Association (ISSA) and author of numerous books on training, invented the type of training known as compensatory acceleration training (CAT).
CAT is an excellent way to train explosively with virtually no learning curve. In lay terms, CAT is lifting with maximum force but with a sub-maximal load, usually 60–80 percent of a 1RM.
Examining the force-velocity curve shows the speed of muscle contraction is proportional to the intensity of the load. Large forces can’t be produced at extremely high speed. Conversely, maximum acceleration can’t be produced with an extremely heavy load. An effective way to build explosive power that directly transfers into the bench press is by lifting sub maximal weights with maximal force.
Louie Simmons has popularized this method having his lifters do 8-10 sets of three reps with 40-60% of their one repetition maximum. Three repetitions performed explosively takes approximately the same amount of time as one maximal effort single repetition; the reason why Simmons chose sets of three reps.
Percentages will be to the higher end if you lift raw, although the majority of folks using the Westside Methodology are lifting equipped.
Here is how Mike Ruggeria used this approach: (Pay close attention to Monday)
Monday – Dynamic Upper Body
Exercises/Movement Sets Reps Rest*
A Speed bench press 10 3 30-45 sec.
50% of 1-rep max. 3 different grips
B Lactic acid tolerance training** 3 Not specified
High reps for time or reps
C Triceps movement *** 10-12 1 min.
Reach 60 reps as fast as possible
D Rear delt movement 2 10-12 1 min.
E Shoulder movement 2 10-12 1 min.
Lateral or front raise
F High upper back movement 3 10-12 1 min.
Face pulls or reverse bench
G Abs 3 8 30-45 sec.
* rest interval between sets
** incline/decline/flat press, usually with dumbbells
*** as many as it takes
Here was his second bench press day:
Thursday – Max Effort Upper Body
Exercises/Movement Sets Reps Rest*
A Bench press variations** 3-5 1-3 N/A
Work to 1-3 rep max, perform exercise two
weeks in a row, can be enhanced with bands
B Press assistance work 3 5-7 N/A
Pin lockouts, low end partials, reverse grip
C Triceps movement 3 10-12 1 min.
Pick two exercises
D Shoulder movement 3 10-12 1 min.
Vertical press movement
E High upper back movement 3 10-12 1 min.
Face pulls or reverse bench
F Abs 3 8 30-45 sec.
* rest interval between sets
** boards, floor press, decline/incline, reverse band press, close grip
There are other approaches that can be used such as multiple sub maximal sets performed after the top sets. Regardless of how you implement CAT training, remember to lift the sub maximal weights explosively.
Drawbacks to CAT
It should be noted CAT training does have a big drawback – the negative acceleration phase. The negative acceleration phase is the deceleration of the bar over the final portion of the lift. Studies show that the bar can start to decelerate up to 50% of the range of motion during CAT training. If you bench press a weight as fast as possible, the final 50% may be decelerated because of the body’s built in safety mechanism.
The negative acceleration phase may be circumvented through what’s known as accommodated resistance. Accommodated resistance complements the strength curve of the lift, and in this context refers to the use of adding resistance bands and/or chains to the bar. Both will increase tension as the weight is lifted off your chest on the way to lockout, so the resistance is heaviest at the top where most people are the strongest.
Additionally, bands will allow the lifter to store additional elastic energy on the eccentric portion of the lift. This causes an “over speed” eccentric effect, which will contribute to a more explosive concentric. You lift in a meet and take your max without accommodated resistance, so it’s important to do your CAT training with accommodated resistance and with straight bar weight.
Bench Press Specific Plyometrics
The agonists (prime mover) in the bench press lockout are the triceps. The muscle that can either slow down or stop a movement is the antagonist muscle, in this case, the biceps. We know we can get around this somewhat with bands and chains but that’s just one trick. Let’s open up the bag a little more.
Straight speed bench pressing has limits in developing maximum force through the entire range of motion. Full range of motion is required in powerlifting competition or to maintain street cred with accomplished lifters. Here’s another effective way to fight the muscle antagonist-limiting factor: bench press specific plyometrics.
Depth Jump Pushup (Long Response): Start by lying in a push up position with your hands on top of a stable surface, like a six-inch box.& For the downward phase, move your hands from the top of the surface down to the floor, keeping your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Allow your chest to come about an inch off the box. For the upward phase, push up as fast and as high off the ground as possible, and land in the starting position. Repeat.
Depth Jump Pushup (Short Response): Same starting position and downward phase as the long-response depth jump push up. When the hands hit the ground, immediately come back to lockout on top of the box. For the upward phase, push up fast and high off the ground and land in the starting position. Repeat.
Explosive Pushups: Start by lying in a push up position with one hand on a 3-4 inch surface and the other hand on the floor. For hand spacing, try to replicate your competition bench press grip or the grip you’ll use for your max. Come down until your chest touches a ball placed beneath it. For the upward phase, explode in the air and on the box. Repeat.
These plyometric modalities are used to build explosive power for the bench press. They’re a great warm-up for your auxiliary bench press day and will help activate the CNS for the training day that lies ahead.
Through repeated trial and error, we’ve found that two to three sets of all four movements, using two to six repetitions, works the best.
Make sure you’re using sufficient rest periods, approximately one minute between sets will suffice for most, but longer can be taken if needed. Bench press plyometrics need to be worked only once a week. If you feel the need to try it twice a week, wait at least 72-96 hours between training sessions.
Build Starting Strength with Dead Benches
To develop starting strength in the bench press, it’s helpful to find methods that eliminate assistance from the stretch shortening cycle.
The concentric-only bench press is commonly referred to as the dead bench press. Lie down on a bench placed under the bar in a power rack. Place the bar on the pins, making sure the bar is in a position it would normally be at the bottom of your bench press. Start the weight approximately a half-inch off the chest and push the weight to lock out explosively.
This is huge for building starting strength and power off the chest and circumvents the aid of elastic energy. This is also a great movement for an athlete that wants to gain strength but not add muscle mass. This enhances the ability of the CNS to efficiently recruit the proper motor units, but is a poor choice for muscle hypertrophy.
The dead bench should be performed for singles. Even after the pause, almost half the elastic energy aids in the concentric portion of the lift. To achieve higher volume and lower intensity, use multiple singles followed by short rest intervals instead of pumping out rep after rep.
To increase intensity on the dead bench, try shortening rest intervals between singles, adding more singles to the same weight, and adding more weight. Lengthen rest periods and decrease the number of singles as the weight gets heavier.
Week one might be 8 singles with a one minute break, then week six might be 4 singles with a three-minute break. Obviously, the weight has increased and the perceived rate of exertion may be the same both weeks.
Dead benches aren’t to be done in place of regular bench presses as the bench press is a reversible muscle action. The dead bench press is a concentric-only muscle action. While it’s a helpful accessory in building starting strength to get better at the bench press, you must bench press.
Board Presses for Partial Range of Motion
Speed and power off of the chest can alleviate any notion of a sticking point, but that’s not to say that partial range of motion training for the bench isn’t advantageous. Benching with boards has multiple advantages. You can train the CNS without burning it out, build off-speed and power developed by using plyometrics and dead stop benches, train for lactic acid tolerance, and it allows guys with bad shoulders to keep pressing.
Boards: Not Just for Shirted Benching
Typically, boards are used to groove the bar path and to build strength and technique during a shirted press. If you’ve ever benched with a shirt you know that there’s a point when the spring of the shirt dies and your triceps are left to lock out the equivalent of a Honda.
Hopefully your triceps are up to snuff or you’ve got great spotters because the weight isn’t interested in staying in one spot. It’s either going up or it’s coming down.
How does that carry over to going raw? Raw benching still requires strong triceps, great technique, and a boat load of power through the entirety of the press.
Raw Board Press Versus Shirted Board Press
There are two big differences between shirted and raw benching: grip and point of contact.
For several reasons, it’s conducive to set your grip wide for shirted benching: stretching the shirt to get spring out of the bottom and limiting how far the bar must travel are two of the big reasons.
Benching raw is another animal altogether. Without a shirt to help with the down phase, the grip has to be moved in so that stress on the shoulders isn’t compounded. The triceps are also relied upon during a much larger portion of the lift, so setting the grip too wide limits how well they can be recruited early in the lift. Touching too low on a raw bench effort also puts the wrists and elbows in bad pressing alignment, requiring the point of contact to be much higher.
It’s About Hot, Nasty Speed, Again.
If pop off the chest is the bank robber, mid-range power is the getaway driver. Initial bar speed off of the chest steals those first four to six inches so that you can drive the bar through the midrange toward the lockout. Taking advantage of great “off the chest” bar speed by building great mid-range power with board pressing can take your bench number to the next level.
As an example, let’s compare the concentric phase of the bench press to a 100-meter sprint. Like the 100-meter dash, there’s the acceleration phase, the constant speed phase, and the deceleration phase.
The drive off of your chest is the analogous start from the sprinting blocks that marks the beginning of the acceleration phase. While our sprint acceleration counterpart can last anywhere from five to six seconds, our bench acceleration is contained to the initial “pop” off of the chest and those first few inches at the beginning of the range of motion. However, if this initial speed is lost, both the bencher and the sprinter are screwed.
That’s why maintaining constant speed is so important in both the bench press and the 100-meter dash. Benching the heaviest weight possible and smoking the competition on the track both require moving at top speed. In sprinting, maintaining constant speed is termed speed endurance, whereas on the bench this is what we call mid-range power. It’s during this portion of the concentric phase that can benefit dramatically from board presses.
Picking the Right Boards
Picking the right boards to work with depends greatly on your weak points and structural issues, such as arm length. Guys with alligator arms and strong triceps probably don’t need to work higher boards, whereas those over six feet that drag their knuckles on the concrete could probably use some work at the upper-end of the midrange.
There’s no complicated formula; if you suck at the bottom end of the mid-range that’s where work needs to be done, and if you struggle towards the top end that’s where you focus. Incorporate pressing off of different boards with CAT training and sticking points will be a non-issue.
Why Not the Rack?
Many guys go to the rack press for their partial range of motion bench work, and depending on how they’re used, rack presses can be productive for building a bench through the midrange and lockout. While rack presses are a viable option, board presses trump the rack press in many instances.
Good coaches know that the big difference between pressing in the rack and pressing off a board is the transfer of force. In the bottom position of a rack press, the energy of the weight is transferred into the rack and dissipates into the ground.
When using an exercise like the dead stop bench, that’s not such a big deal because the majority of the emphasis is on the concentric part of the lift and not on redirecting the force after descent. But if you’re using the partial range of motion to train with greater loads for submaximal sets or as a max effort movement, boards are the way to go because the body must handle the load throughout all points of the lift.
Because of this, you’ll get a much stronger response from the CNS, helping you to adapt faster to handling heavier loads.
Board presses also trump rack presses on building great bench form. While going into an interpretation of bench form is beyond the scope of this article, think about your own bench form regarding these points.
When pressing off boards, keeping “tight” is absolutely necessary. If tightness is lost in the upper-back, you’re going to have trouble pressing off the board. This goes back to the force of the weight being transferred through your body during the entirety of the board press and the rack taking the load during a rack press.
In contrast, during a rack press the bar will rest on the pins, allowing for even the slightest bit of relaxation. Because the rack is bearing the weight at the bottom, it’s a common mistake to relax to gain momentum coming off of the pins. Obviously, it takes effort to stay tight during the rack press, and there’s something to be said for that, but doesn’t it make much more sense to just use the method that’s going to reinforce good technique first?
Breaking it down, rack presses have two points of contact with the bar, both of which are outside the frame of the body at opposite ends of the bar. Board presses have one contact point that’s centrally located directly in the middle of the chest.
It’s much easier to track the path of the bar when there’s only one centrally located point of contact instead of two that are located peripherally. Having two points of contact greatly increases the likelihood of error, which is the last thing that anyone needs during a technical lift like the bench.
Let’s summarize. If you’re planning on training a partial range of the bench through both the eccentric and concentric phases, then board presses will always trump the rack. But if you’re looking to just hit some concentric pressing, the rack is your best bet.
Board Press Programming Considerations
Using boards to train your raw bench is only limited by your creativity and understanding of your needs. That said, there are some methods that are definite staples that are easily plugged in to a bench program.
Here are five of the most effective uses for board pressing to improve your raw bench.
Max Effort. They’ve been around forever and they are definitely not a secret, but that’s because max effort board presses work! The outcomes of max effort board pressing include training the central nervous system to be more efficient, learning to stay tight, keeping technique with heavy weight, and working through areas that would normally be troublesome from a mechanical advantage stand point.
Pressing for rep maxes of five and three are great starting points for max effort work on the boards, but the strength gains from singles are unmatched. So, if you’re new to max effort work, start with rep maxes of five and progress to maxes of three and eventually to singles.
It’s important to keep in mind that these aren’t full-range singles and can’t be treated as such. Because you’ll be using loads greater than you could for full-range max effort work, the stress on your body is amplified, so keep the volume a bit lower.
Cycle the heavier work (triples and singles) for no longer than eight weeks. Programming heavy max effort work for longer durations can lead to decreased performance and possibly an injury, so use it to peak before you test or hit a competition.
It’s important to keep in mind that the main advantage of max effort training is the ability to recruit the maximal amount of motor units possible. This method elicits the greatest strength gains because it engrains a high rate of firing throughout a given motor pattern, leading to a high degree of intramuscular coordination. In short, you become stronger because all the muscles involved have learned to fire together in concert.
Second Exercise (submaximal for reps). Being the understudy doesn’t always mean that you’re playing second fiddle. In other words, making sure that you have a great assistance movement is just as important as programming a great lead-off lift. That’s why when other guys are wasting their time doing bench dips and one-arm overhead extensions, you’ll be slapping more weight on the bar, pressing reps off the boards, getting stronger, and making some serious gains in hypertrophy.
Here’s an effective three-week wave of benching with board presses as the first assistance exercise:
Week 1: Bench 3 x 5 @ 80-85%, 2 board press 3 x 8 @ 80%
Week 2: Bench 4 x 3 @ 85-90%, 3 board press 3 x 5 @ 85%
Week 3: Bench 5 x 3 @ 85-90%, 3 board press 3 x 8 @ 85%
Triceps Hell. “Triceps Hell” is great for building serious upper-body mass, learning to stay tight, increasing upper-body work capacity, and muscular endurance. It’s a great option for the lactic acid tolerance portion of the template we provided earlier in the article.
The hell set works like this: start by picking a weight that falls somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of your one-rep max for a full range bench. Set your grip no wider than shoulder width, and then press on the boards in ascending order, descending order, or both. As always, it’s better to start too light than too heavy.
Here are four great ways to use Triceps Hell:
The Ascending Set: For this version, you’ll need three boards that increase successively in height. Depending on your arm length, you’ll grab either the two, three, and four boards or the three, four, and five boards. Start by having your training partner hold the shortest of the three boards on your chest and hit five to eight reps.
Without racking the bar and resting, move up to the next board and hit five to eight reps. Finish by moving up to the tallest board, again without racking the bar and continue to hit reps for as long as you can sustain good form. It could be eight reps or it could be eighteen, but if you start to fail or your form goes to **** the set is over.
Progress by either setting total rep PRs at a given weight and increase the load after attaining your rep goal, or by increasing the load progressively each week while hitting the same amount of reps. If you’ve declined in reps, back off for a week and then start over with the weight you started going backward with.
So, let’s say for the first two weeks you got 20 reps with 205 and on the third week you only got 15 reps with 215. On week four, back off and start over on week five with 215, hitting for at least 16 reps.
The Descending Set: There isn’t anything complicated about this variation; just take the ascending set and reverse it. A word of warning, though, don’t let ego get the best of you. Starting on a high board will make the weight seem much lighter, so you’ll be tempted to add 20 or so pounds. This is ill advised.
As you progress down the boards and the range of motion increases, the exercise will get increasingly difficult. This seems obvious, but many guys ignore this fact and get stapled before they get to the last board. Stick within the 65 to 75 percent range to start. If you hit more than 25 reps, you know it’s time to add weight.
The Elevator Set: Stick to three boards for this set, starting on either the highest or lowest board (pick your poison) and progressing down and back up again. Hit five reps on each board; once you’ve made one pass through the boards and returned to the board that you started on, continue to hit reps (if you can), again until your form starts to go to hell or you start to fail.
The Gauntlet Set. The gauntlet set is the elevator set pissed off. Rather than letting you use only three boards, you’ll use at least four (all five if you want to be a man about it) and you don’t get to stop on the board that you started on. That’s right, instead of getting to finish the set on one board, you continue to progress up and back down the boards until you can press no longer.
Start with three reps on each board and progress up to five reps. It’s been said that real men can hit five reps on each board while making two passes completely through with at least 65 percent of their one-rep max.
Board Drop Sets. Benching with solid form is the key to grooving a great raw bench bar path. Using board drop sets, however, is a great way to reinforce a solid bar path.
When it comes to board drop sets the emphasis is definitely on quality over quantity. Almost everyone knows the old adage practice makes perfect. That’s bull****. Perfect practice makes perfect; making every rep look identical to the last one is how progress is made. That’s our goal for the drop set.
Starting on the three board, hit two to three reps on each board and finish by hitting the last two to three reps on your chest. Placement is the key. Be sure to touch on the same spot on each board, which, of course, is directly above the spot you’ll be touching on your chest.
Another serious point of emphasis is that this is NOT to be an extremely challenging exercise. It’s about practice! With that said, keep in mind that you could be completing up to 12 reps. Pick a weight that will allow you to keep extremely solid technique, about 70 percent of your full-range one rep max is as much load as you’d want to use.
A great way to use the board drop set is as part of your warm-up. Before you get started on your work sets, hit a board drop set to reinforce good bar placement and pressing angles.
Dynamic Effort: Dynamic effort benching is about speed, but like the board drop set, it’s also about practice. The medium loads of the dynamic method are great for reinforcing technique while generating a boatload of force.
Typically, dynamic bench is programmed to incorporate loads anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent of a given one-rep max. If using accommodating resistance (bands or chains) the percentages might be a little lower. Most of the time dynamic benching is done through a full range of motion, but throwing a one or two board in the mix is a great alternative that allows for practice with slightly heavier loads while still generating speed.
Use of the boards, especially the two board, will also help to build coveted mid-range power. Dynamic effort benching off of lower boards is also a great option for guys with bad shoulders because the amount of shoulder extension required is reduced.
Most dynamic effort bench programming is set up in sets of three. Since the boards will allow for heavier loads, it’s cool to cut the volume and work with sets of two and even singles.
Below is a great three-week dynamic effort progression to be done using the two board. Percentages are based on the full range bench one rep max with no accommodating resistance.
Week 1: 5 x 2 @ 65%
Week 2: 3 x 2 @ 65%, 2 x 1 @ 70%
Week 3: 2 x 2 @ 65%, 2 x 2 @ 70%, 2 x 1 @ 75%
Building a better bench requires the implementation of the right training techniques at the right time. Compensatory acceleration training, upper-body plyometrics, dynamic effort benching, and board pressing variations are all proven techniques for taking a bench from average to great.
We’ve given you the tools. Now get to work!
Trzaskomna, L, Tihanyi, J, & Trzaskoma, Z. (2010). The effect of short-term combined conditioning training for the development of leg strength and power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(9), 2948-2505.
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