Most of us suck at bench. If you were to ask around the gym, at least two-thirds of everyone there would confess to be stuck or plateauing- it’s the nature of the beast. Yet, despite the huge brick wall many of us run into trying to improve our bench, we’re still doing that damn lift at least once a week. Determination, stubbornness, and not a little bit of vanity fuel us.
So how does one go about finally making progress with this fickle lift when all rep and set schemes have failed? With banded and/or chained bench press.
Forget everything you’ve ever Googled about how to improve your bench press. Some of that wacky stuff on random bodybuilding sites does work for some people (low-to-medium weight at high-to-super-high reps comes to mind) but for others there is a deeper issue at work that no amount of set/rep tinkering will solve: Your ability to get out of the “hole”. The hole is that area at and right above your chest, the spot where pretty much everyone gets stuck. When the bar reaches your chest you are at the end of the eccentric movement, meaning your muscles are as lengthened as possible, which also happens to be when they are least powerful. Getting out of the hole is therefore the hardest part of the bench press (and squat). That’s why people who quarter squat or do half-reps on bench can do so much- you’re much more powerful at the top.
So if getting out of the hole is your problem, getting out of the hole is what you need to train. Work on explosiveness. Switching out or supplementing your bench press with a banded or chained variation will give you quicker gains than any rep/tempo/set scheme you’ve ever tried.
I’d imagine the common gym-goer sees someone doing these and wonders why those bros can’t be normal like him and just add more weight. It’s a little more complex than that, Bob. When you use chains and bands you’re changing how the resistance is applied throughout the lift. Let’s say your max is 220 and you always get stuck in the hole with 225 lbs. Throughout the entire regular bench press movement, you are trying to press 225, regardless of where the bar is at. Your top half can handle a lot more weight, but your bottom half can only get 220 up, so you’re screwed.
Now, if you put bands or chains on, say 210, things change. When the bar is fully extended using these hypothetical bands/chains, you’re actually getting 255 lbs of resistance, and when the bar is on your chest you’re getting 215 lbs of resistance. With a banded/chained movement, the increasing resistance from the hole upwards trains each angle of the movement more thoroughly according to the weight it can actually handle. “Accommodating Resistance” is the whole concept behind that. Furthermore, and here is where the extra pull from band/chains really make a difference, you must tap into more explosiveness to get the bar off of your chest than with normal bench pressing; it’s amazing how hard bands can turn an easy weight into a hard one with this dynamic at work.
My experiment with banded presses (I don’t have good chains at my gym) has been short, but the results came so fast I had to spread the word. In the spring, I was mired at a 285 max that was ten less than what I could get before the winter bulk up. After four months of benching twice a week trying to get it up with high rep days and low rep days and pause reps, I tried a max and still could not get any higher. My form was good and my supporting muscles were plenty fine, so I was baffled. I can’t remember where I finally read about banded bench, but it looked promising considering getting out of the hole was my biggest issue by far and away.
For three weeks I did banded bench once a week. I decided on a flat top “pyramid” style routine that I’ve developed on my own for other lifts that I respond to well. It probably has a real name but whatever. I have no idea the resistance of the bands, I just grabbed the two thickest ones. The first week looked like this-
- Warm up, no bands. 135×8, 155×6, 175×4
- Banded. 185×5, 225×4 245×3 (doing sets of 245×3 until I couldn’t finish a full set), 225xburnout, 185xburnout
By the second week I had added a new “top” to the pyramid with a lone set of 255×2 before going back down to sets of 245×3. By the third week I did two sets of 255×2 before going back to sets of 245×3. The burnout sets increased in reps each week as well.
On the other bench day, I was doing multiple triples of 265-275, doing as many sets of 3 as I could.
When the fourth week came around I was feeling really good with progress and decided to give a one-rep max a shot. I thought I was really reaching when I loaded up 300, but holy shit I popped that sucker right off my chest. Got cocky and barely missed 315, which I plan on hitting very soon.
If a 15 lb 1RM gain in three weeks isn’t enough to get you going on chained/banded bench presses, I don’t know what is.