Overloading your bench press weight is an important step in building a bigger bench press. You are probably familiar with the two most common methods, Board Presses and Rack Presses (also called lockouts), but what are the differences between these two effective training approaches, and how do you program them into your training plan? Here are a few pointers to help you use them effectively.
Board presses are exactly as the name implies: lay a board or boards on your chest, lower the bar to the board(s) and press back up.
What are the advantages to board pressing?
- The Partial Range of Motion (ROM) allows you to overload the weight lifted. The more boards you use (typically between 1 and 3 boards), the more weight you can lift.
- Unlike Rack Presses, Board Presses mimic bench pressing lifting pattern. Board presses have an eccentric (descent) and concentric (ascent) component. This allows you to practice your proper bench press technique with board presses.
- Because board presses have an eccentric component, board presses take advantage of the body’s stretch reflex to give you more starting power at the beginning of the press.
- Regardless of the gym or bench you use, you will always have a specific starting point for board presses, based on how many boards you use.
How can you use board presses?
- Use as a primary exercise: Because board presses use basic bench pressing patterns, you can use board presses as a primary benching lift. You can use them to train the bench press at heavier weights than you use for full ROM bench presses.
- Train for heavier weight: Using more boards, train your bench press weights above your current one rep max (1RM). As your training progresses train that heavier weight with fewer boards until you can press it from your chest.
- Equipped/bench shirt training: If you’re an equipped bencher boards are a particularly useful tool. When using a new or very tight shirt, using boards helps you break the shirt in. As you are working up to a weight heavy enough to touch the chest, use a decreasing number of boards as the weight increases, bringing the bar closer to your chest.
Rack Presses (also called Bench Press Lockouts)
Rack Presses are performed in a power cage. Set a bench inside the cage and set the safety pins to the desired height and press the bar directly off the pins.
- Because you’re using a partial ROM, Rack Presses allow you to overload the weight pressed. Note that for low pin positions (at or below your natural sticking point) you may not be able to press as much weight as you could press in a full ROM bench press. This is because (at least on your first rep) you do not have the use of the stretch reflex to assist in starting the press. Second and subsequent reps are typically easier than the first because of assistance from the stretch reflex.
- Because you start Rack Presses from the safety pins there is no eccentric phase (of the first rep). You must start the first rep from a dead stop with no assistance from the body’s stretch reflex. This makes the first rep much more difficult than a board press, or full ROM bench press, and will build greater strength at that point.
- Because you’re training in the power cage, you need very little assistance to perform Rack Presses. You don’t need spotter assistance – if you fail you simply return the bar to the pins. You don’t need assistance to hold the boards in place as with board presses.
How can you use Rack Presses?
- Supplemental Lift: Because Rack Presses technique is not the same as bench press technique, they are used more effectively as a supplemental lift than in place of a full ROM bench press.
- Single rep sets/Dead Bench Presses: Performing all sets of Rack Presses with a single rep forces you to start each set and rep from a dead stop without the aid of a stretch reflex. This can help build starting strength at that point in your bench’s ROM.
- Train your sticking point: Setting the pins at the weak point in your bench press (typically the mid-point, where your pec strength declines and your triceps strength takes over) allows you to build strength at that point. Use them to overcome this weakness and lockout heavier weights.
- Overload the top-end lock out: Training the top two inches of your bench press with a weight far above your full ROM 1RM prepares your body and central nervous system to handle heavier weights. You will find that it gives you much greater control and strength when lifting your full ROM 1RM.
Other Partial ROM Presses
Properly programming these overloading techniques at the appropriate point in your program can help you bust through plateaus, and let’s be honest, piling on a whole bunch of plates for theses presses is just plain cool!
Part 1 of my overloading series discusses strategies for overloading volume in your training to increase the number of total reps lifted in your program. In this session, we’ll discuss overloading weight, and increase the amount of weight you move in a given lift. The goal is to train your musculature, supporting structure, and CNS to move weights above your current 1 rep max (1RM). This will prepare you to move heavier and heavier loads.
The first strategy, negatives, is the simplest. Load up the bar with more than you can lift and get to work. This approach focuses on the eccentric portion of the lift. With a spotter’s help if necessary, unrack the weight and bring it down slowly maintaining complete control of the weight throughout the range of motion (ROM). Once you’ve bottomed out the lift, your spotter helps you lift it back up. Tips on negatives:
- Keep the weight at a heavy, near-max to maximum effort. Try 80-105% as a starting point.
- Repetitions should be kept relatively low range – 3-5 reps.
- Your spotter should keep his hands on the bar throughout full ROM for each rep. During the eccentric, your spotter should stay with the weight and help guide the bar down if necessary. Once you complete the eccentric your spotter will help you bring the bar back up to the starting position. Your spotter should be lifting a significant amount of the bar weight so the bar comes up quickly.
Note: Your strength will be depleted after performing the negative eccentric and you shouldn’t expect to lift as much as you can fresh. Make sure your spotter is capable of handling the weight you’re lifting.
- The negative eccentric should move as slowly as you can maintain control of the weight. At near-max weight, start with half the speed of a normal rep and adjust from there.
- To add effectiveness and train your sticking point, as you tire on later sets/reps try and come to a complete stop at the sticking point and hold the bar there.
- If the weight is more than your spotter can easily handle adequately during the concentric lift, consider having side spotters assist as well.
There are a number of strategies to perform partial repetitions. Used properly, partial reps can be used effectively to overload with more weight than you would normally use. This will carry over to greater weight for the full ROM as well.
Board presses: Board presses are a strategy that allows you to overload the weight on your bench press. Have a (second) spotter hold a set of boards on your chest. Bring the bar down to the boards and press. Boards typically range from 1 board to 3 boards. Use proper bench press technique throughout the limited ROM.
A couple of strategies for using boards to increase your bench press 1RM include:
- Start with a slight personal record (PR) and press to 3 boards for sets of 3-5 reps. In subsequent bench training sessions, remove 1 board per session and reduce the reps you complete per set. By the end of the mini-cycle you should press the new PR from your chest for singles.
- Start with a significant PR and press to 3 boards. Rep range will be lower with the heavier weight. In subsequent weeks reduce the weight and remove a board. By the end of the mini-cycle you should again press a new PR from your chest for singles.
Pin Presses: Pin presses are similar to board presses in that they limit the ROM on your bench press and allow you to overload the weight used. They also allow you to perform the lift without assistance from spotters. They are limited, however, in the number pin settings you can use depending on the configuration of your squat cage.
Set up a flat bench in the squat cage. Set the safety pins so that when you lie on the bench the bar will not come all the way to your chest. Because of the limitation in settings of the safety pins, I generally use pin presses as a supplemental lift, not as a primary. Some strategies you can use with your pin presses:
- Set the pins at the midway point in your bench. Lift for a slight rep PR with a low rep range.
- Set the pins at the top end of your bench and practice lockouts at a significant PR weight. Pause at the top for a static hold (4-10 seconds).
Pin Squats: Similar to pin presses, pin squats allow you to limit the ROM for the squat, and overload your squat training. As with pin presses, pin squats shouldn’t be considered a primary squat exercise, you should not train to squat above parallel. When squatting, don’t anticipate the pins. Squat with normal squat technique until you hit the pins. Let the bar come to a complete stop on the pins and then drive straight back up.
Rack Pulls: Rack pulls are the ‘pin’ lifts for deadlifts. Typically you perform them in the squat cage, but you can also do them by placing blocks under the weights. Typical pin height can range from slightly below to slightly above the knee.
Although rack pulls shorten the ROM of the deadlift, when starting at or below the knee you may find that removing the initial leg drive from the pull can make them even more difficult than full ROM deadlifts.
It is important to maintain proper deadlift form when performing rack pulls. Grip the bar, rock back bringing your hips down and chest up before starting the pull.
Static hold is a strategy to allow you to handle significantly more weight than your 1RM. You don’t perform any of the lifts ROM. You unrack it, lock it out, hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. The strategy is to train your body and CNS to handle greater workloads.
Squat walkouts: Walkouts train you to handle weights significantly above your squat 1RM. Load the bar with 105-110% of your 1RM. Unrack and walk out the weight using perfect squat setup technique. Lock the bar out and hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. I usually add walkouts toward the end of a heavy training cycle.
Adding weight overloading strategies to your training program can train your body and CNS to handle heavier loads. Build them into your training programs wisely to spur strength gains.
- Handling near-max to max weight loads can take a toll on the body and CNS. Learn when to back off the workload to limit overtraining.
- Use limited ROM lifts sparingly as primary lifts. Don’t train your lifting patterns to limit your ROM when performing the full lifts.
- The goal is to overload the weight you are lifting; if you haven’t used weight overloading strategies learn what your limits are. Start conservatively and build the weight up.
- Learn and perfect proper technique for your primary lifts before implementing overloading strategies that modify the lift.
Overloading your training volume: the strategies discussed here are designed to push you past your limits in total volume for a particular lift. Simply put, the purpose is to help you get more total reps in a workout than you typically would for a given lift and weight. These strategies take the intensity level of your training up a notch.
You don’t have to train to failure on every set of every lift, or even in your primary lifts in every session to make progress. For most of my training I use Prilepin’s Table to plan my primary lift’s weight, sets and reps. On my supplemental and assistance lifts I generally target a training range that ends within 1-3 reps of failure. You can make consistent gains stopping just short of failure; however taking your sets for a particular lift to failure can increase the intensity of your workout.
The rest of the strategies in this article will help you take your sets past your failure point. This will force your body to recruit more muscle fibers than would normally be used for the given lift, and help you get stronger and bigger. That is the goal, right?
Having your spotter help you complete additional reps at the end of the set is the simplest way to increase your training volume. Just because your spotter helps you with some reps does not diminish the effectiveness of the set. Quite the contrary, the increased volume past failure can make for a highly effective training session.
The strategy is simple. Take the set to failure and continue lifting for additional reps using assistance from your spotter. For a given set target 2-3 forced reps at most per set. More than that and your spotter will end up lifting the weight for you, and will likely not be pleased.
Your spotter should give you just enough assistance to get past the sticking point enabling you to complete the rep unassisted. If you are at complete failure and cannot lock out the lift, your spotter should give you enough assistance to keep the bar moving at near your normal tempo for that lift, but should not take the weight away from you. You should be forced to press with all of your remaining strength as the spotter helps you lock out the lift. Maintain strict lifting technique and continue driving. Let your spotter give you just the boost you need to complete the reps.
Total Rep Sets:
In terms of complexity, the total rep sets scheme is also relatively simple. If you cannot complete the target reps in your lifting sets, simply add sets until you hit your target reps for the lift. For example, at 70% of my max on a given lift, using Prilepin’s Table I typically plan to complete 5×4 reps. If I miss some reps I continue lifting until I complete all 20 reps (example, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1).
I typically only use this approach for my primary lifts. Supplemental and assistance work can be greatly affected by the primary lift’s volume and intensity. If I have to adjust weight or reps on supplemental lifts in an individual session I usually don’t sweat it too much.
Cluster sets can help you get more reps per set than you typically could in a particular set. Complete the target reps for the set, rack the weight, pause, and then continue to failure. Using the 70% example above, each set would go something like this:
- Complete 4 reps
- Rack the weight, pause 10 seconds
- Unrack and continue lifting to failure
If the number of reps you get in the second part of the cluster is equal to or greater than the target reps in the primary component the weight is too light. In the 70% example your target range would be 4 reps in the primary part and 2-3 reps in the second portion of the lift.
I saved the best for last. And by best I mean horrific.
For best results use 2 spotters for drop sets, and leave collars off (if you can do so safely). The key to drop set pain is rapid weight changes between drops. To perform drop sets:
- Unrack the weight and lift until failure
- Rack the weight
- Spotters quickly change the plates dropping to the next weight
- Without resting unrack again and continue lifting to failure
- Repeat the process until you hit the target number of subsets
A few tips to maximize the effectiveness of your drop sets:
- Plan out your sets ahead and either load the bar with plates that can be easily stripped (for example if you’re squatting, you can easily drop a 45lb/20kg plate with each drop), or have the weights handy for your spotters if they must swap plates on and off
- A good range is 3-5 subsets in a given drop set
- Drop sets are most effective when your first weight is heavy enough to complete a reasonable number of reps – not less than 5 and not more than 8
Drop sets are exceptionally intense. Don’t try to use this strategy on all sets in a given lift. One or two drop sets is likely to do enough damage for the day.
Volume overloading will take you to failure and beyond. For safety and to maximize their effectiveness it is very important that you have a trusted spotter assisting you.
These strategies are a great way to crank up your training intensity. Use them in moderation, limit them to one lift in a session and don’t use more than one strategy in that session. Very high intensity strategies like drop sets shouldn’t be used for all sets in a session.
Try plugging volume overloading into your training program and crank up your training intensity.