Problem—Raw Bench Press; Solution—Plyometrics

TAGS: raw, plyometrics, WSBB, powerlifting, strength training, bench press, training

The bench press is classified as a low speed, muscular strength test.  Low speed muscular lifts generally require three seconds or less for a one repetition max (5, p. 288).  In spite of this, speed training in the bench press has become increasingly popular. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell Club popularized this concept by advocating a speed day in the bench press. Some call it a “dynamic” day, and some call it a “light” day. Fred Hatfield is a proponent of Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT), which is defined as the lifting of submaximal weights with maximum force. These developments in dynamic training have changed powerlifting, and they play a major role in the success of powerlifters in the bench press.

The concentric portion of the bench press has three phases. First is the initial acceleration phase, where the weight is brought from a resting position on the chest to maximum speed. The constant speed phase maintains maximal speed.  In the deceleration phase, the weight slows toward lockout to avoid hyperextension of the joint (4).

To lift maximum weights, it’s necessary to maintain this constant speed over as long a distance as possible. This is very similar to a 100 meter dash. After the initial 45-55 meters, or five to six seconds, maximum velocity is reached (5, p. 475). It then becomes a matter of how long maximum speed can be sustained, which is usually about three seconds. This is referred to as speed endurance (1, p. 32).  Therefore, the principles that apply to the 100 meter dash are similar to those of the bench press. In sprinting, the deceleration phase sets in because of a lack of speed endurance and a transfer in the energy systems being utilized. In the bench press, speed endurance is not the issue. The issue is the antagonist muscle!

The agonist (prime mover) in the bench press lockout is the tricep. The muscle that can either slow down or stop a movement is the antagonist muscle (5, p. 28).  The bicep, in the bench press lockout, is the antagonist muscle that prevents hyperextension. Speed bench pressing has limits in developing maximum force through the entire range of motion. Full range of motion is required in powerlifting competition. Bands and chains have been a helpful adjunct to overcome this limiting factor, because they allow the lifter to push with more force through the entire range of motion. When a lifter approaches lockout, tension increases. I have incorporated bands and chains, but I have also found another effective way to fight this muscle antagonist-limiting factor: bench press specific plyometrics.

My raw bench press was stuck in the 545 pound range.  I decided I needed to add some kind of speed work.  I had read a lot of Don Chu’s work on plyometrics and decided to integrate some upper body plyometrics that would specifically apply to the bench press. The exercises I incorporated are as follows:

  • Depth Jump Pushup (Long Response): Start by lying in a push up position with your hands on top of a medicine ball.  For the downward phase, move your hands from the top of the medicine ball to the floor, keeping your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Allow your chest to come about an inch off the ball. For the upward phase, push up as fast and as high off the ground as possible, and land in the starting position, then repeat (2, p. 467).
  • Depth Jump Pushup (Short Response): Start by lying in a pushup position with your hands on top of a medicine ball. For the downward phase, move your hands from the top of the medicine ball to the floor, keeping your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Immediately, when the hands hit the ground, be ready to come back to lockout on top of the ball. For the upward phase, push up as fast and high off the ground as high as possible and land in the starting position, then repeat.
  • Medicine Ball Pushups: Start by lying in a push up position with one hand on the medicine ball and the other hand on the floor. I try and replicate my competition bench press grip. Come down until your chest touches the ball. For the upward phase, explode in the air as high as possible. Land on the ball.  Repeat.

I was now able to develop force maximally by leaving the ground and fighting the antagonist inhibition. Next, I needed to figure out sets and repetitions. An inadequate amount of research has been done on upper body plyometrics compared to lower body plyometrics (2, p. 433).  The volume of plyometrics for the lower body recommended by Dr. Chu for beginners is 80 to 100 foot contacts. Intermediate is 100 to 120 foot contacts, and advanced is 120 to 140 foot contacts (2, p. 435).  However, I was a 300 pound person, and the smaller muscle groups of the upper body fatigue faster than lower body muscles. Through repeated trial and error, I found what worked best was two to three sets of all four movements, using 5-10 repetitions. Since the energy system being used is the phosphagen system, an appropriate work to rest ratio of 1:12 to 1:20 should be incorporated. This will allow maximum power to be achieved because of the long recovery period.  I do this workout once a week. If you want to try it twice a week, however, I recommend 72-96 hours between training sessions.

“The specificity principle asserts that the best way to develop physical fitness for your sport is to train the energy systems and muscles as closely as possible to the way they are used in your sport.” (6) Medicine ball walkovers are very popular with fighters and other athletes. While these do have their place for these athletes, we must look at the specificity. In my opinion, the walkover is not specific enough for the bench press to include it in the bench press training arsenal.

Dr. Chu says, “A practical definition of plyometric exercise is a quick, powerful movement using a pre-stretch or counter movement, that involves the stretch-shortening cycle, SSC.” (2, p. 428). Because the bench press involves an eccentric and concentric phase, it should be obvious how these plyometrics can benefit a powerlifter. I am not arguing against speed bench presses here. They obviously fall within the principle of specificity and the S.A.I.D principle. Speed bench presses, however, have limiting factors that upper body plyometrics do not!  For anyone who is an advanced raw bench presser stuck in a plateau, I suggest giving upper body plyometrics a try!

Sources

1. Burleson Larry, et al. ISSA Strength Quickness Speed.

2. Chu Don, Harris Janet C. Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning.

3. Fahey, Thomas D. ISSA Specialist in Sports Conditioning.

4. Goldstein, Yuval. Accessed at:

5. Harris Janet C, et al. Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning.

 

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