Many people are always asking me questions about bench shirts. Which one I use, and which one I think is best are a couple of the most common questions I get from other lifters. Beginners often ask the question, what is that thing? Hopefully, the following article will help educate many, and dispel some of the rumors that seem to hover around bench shirts.
Bench shirts were originally brought to the market as a protective device, much like a lifting belt. The original shirts were a tight polyester material that helped protect the shoulders and pectorals during heavy benching, such as during a competition. Somewhere in the 1980's, lifters discovered that these bench shirts also could be used to provide an increase in the weight a lifter could move.
While the use of bench shirts has been hotly debated on the Internet, it is a fact that the majority of lifters use them. In particular, the vast majority of elite and famous lifters use some form of bench shirt. Today's shirts are highly evolved, purpose built garments designed with the intent of lifting more weight. While some powerlifters take offense to this, and feel that the purity of Powerlifting is negatively effected by bench shirts, it is very clear that the shirts are here to stay and have been solidly ingrained in the sport.
In the beginning, there was only one type of bench shirt available. Now, several companies sell varying levels of shirts, in various materials, ranging in price from less than $40 to well over $200. While I have not worn every shirt on the market, I have worn several of each type, and I can comment from personal knowledge on the characteristics of each type. I have worn at least 10 different bench shirts in the last 5 years. For the sake of generalization, there are basically two main categories of bench shirts, polyester and denim.
Polyester (poly) shirts were some of the first designs on the market, and are essentially the standard equipment choice of powerlifters from beginners to world record holders. The poly shirt consists of one or more layers of polyester or similar fabric sewn into a tight fitting garment. In general, the sleeves of the shirt are angled in such a way as to require stretching the fabric to move the arms toward the chest when holding the bar, such that the stretch of the shirt adds to the force a lifter's muscles can provide.
Poly shirts are made by several manufacturers in many different designs. Some shirts are made entirely of the same material throughout, others have a different material for the back of the shirt, and still other have the back of the shirt split open and fastened with Velcro, or even left completely open. In general, poly shirts must fit the wearer very tight. They are extremely uncomfortable, and are known to chaff the underarms severely. If a poly shirt doesn't hurt, it is much too loose. Different lifters like their shirts to fit differently, but it is universally accepted that tighter is usually better.
Each type and brand of poly shirt has its own unique characteristics. Some work very well benching high on the chest, such as the Inzer Blast Shirts and the closed back Phenom. Others such as the Titan Fury, or the open back version of Inzer's Phenom, seem to work best in a low groove where the bar touches below the pecs. The poly bench shirt changes the way in which weight is lifted. For example, the Inzer EHPHD Blast Shirt tends to drive the bar path over the lifter's face. The lifter has to compensate for this by purposely forcing the bar path lower. Each individual shirt has its own unique groove, which must be learned in order to achieve maximum performance.
The additional benching power of the poly shirt comes from the stretching of the shirt material and the compression of the lifter's body. This power can make it difficult to make the bar touch the chest. For advanced lifters, thicker shirts built from multiple layers of material can make touching the bar even more difficult. The multiple layers do add additional resistance, and therefore power to the shirt.
Incidentally, since the poly shirt is meant to be so tight, it can be very difficult to get on. Shirts made entirely from one type of material with a fully closed back are especially difficult, and may require several helpers to place the shirt on the lifter. Shirts with Velcro backs, stretchy back material, and completely open backs have become much more common simply because they are easier to get on the lifter. Some lifters use liberal amounts of baby powder to help the shirt slide onto their bodies.
All poly shirts must be pulled up the lifter's arms as far as possible first. It is always important to make certain the shirt is straight. If the sleeve is twisted, it can very negatively affect a lift. The seams of the shirt can be used as an indicator of straightness and positioning of the shirt. Once the shirt is in position on the arms, it must be pulled over the head, or pulled around the shoulders for an open back model. The shirt must be pulled down the torso, and all of the wrinkles worked out of the fabric. If the shirt is a Velcro design, the Velcro should now be fastened. At this point, final adjustments to straighten and position the shirt must be made. Typically, the seams around the deltoid and under the armpit need adjustment. This can be a painstaking process, but patience and attention to detail will prevail. I have often spent over 20 minutes putting a very tight poly shirt on a lifter.
Many lifters find denim shirts intimidating. I spent two years deciding if I was "ready" to move up to a denim shirt. Only after taking the plunge did I find that the denim shirt suits me much better. Denim shirts provide more support than poly shirts, and are considered to be the top of the line. There are also shirts made of canvas, but those work on basically the same principle as denim shirts. I have no personal experience with canvas, but from stories I have heard, they are even more supportive than denim.
Denim shirts are sewn from one or more layers of denim material (basically the same material as blue jeans), into a shape very similar to a poly shirt. Most denim shirts have at least a mostly split back, making them significantly easier to put on. I prefer to use completely open back denim shirts, which are simply slipped up the arms, and tugged into place. Denim shirts are not required to be as tight as a poly shirt, making them infinitely more comfortable. I can wear my shirt for over an hour without any real discomfort.
In general, denim shirts all perform better when used in a low groove. Open back denim shirts work best when the bar is actually touched on the lifter's stomach. A denim shirt does require a great deal of very refined technique to use properly. I have spent a great deal of time with the best coaches in the world, and I have yet to reach proficiency, let alone perfection.
The denim shirt creates its power by twisting and straining the fabric, and by compressing the lifter's body. Because of the tenacity of the fabric, the denim shirt can support much more weight than a comparable poly shirt. The stress placed on a lifter's body by a denim shirt can be severe. In many cases, a lifter will not be able to even touch the bar to his or her chest with weight he or she could bench without the shirt.
Because of this, precise technique becomes very important in a denim shirt. Some lifters will see "hit or miss" results, and that is because of technique. Everything has to come together perfectly for the denim shirt to perform. What would normally be an off day can easily become a complete disaster in a denim. Everyone has seen meet results where a normally flawless lifter not only performed sub-par on the bench, but bombed miserably. Technique is paramount.
Single Ply vs. Double Ply
This is a simple concept that improved shirts by leaps and bounds. A single ply shirt is just that, one layer of poly or denim sewn into a shirt. A double (or more) ply has multiple layers of material in critical areas. For example, a double ply poly shirt will be two layers of polyester material sewn together for the front and the arms of the shirt. Especially in poly shirts, a double ply shirt will increase the weight a lifter can move. Double ply is essentially a standard in denim shirts, as the extra layer prevents ripping of the material under extreme loads.
How to Choose a Bench Shirt
With all the choices available, how does a lifter decide which shirt to use?? Start off with the rule book of your chosen federation. Each governing body has a set of regulations pertaining to the bench shirt. WABDL allows single or double ply, poly or denim, but the neck must be closed. WNPF allows single or double ply, poly or denim, open or closed back, but no canvas. USAPL allows single ply poly only. IPF requires individual brands to pay a fee for approval of shirts, so individual brands may or may not be legal, even though they must al be single ply poly.
So, once you are familiar with the rules of the federation you intend to lift in, and you know which shirts conform, how do you choose? The best way is to find lifters who use the various shirts, and find out how they bench. Do they bench elbows out, high on the chest? Or do they bench elbows in, touching the stomach? Different shirts all have different characteristics. Do some research, compare your budget against the price of the available choices, and pick the highest performance shirt you can use in your federation.
Once you have done the research, picked the shirt you want to use, and you are ready to go, be ready to do some real work. You can not simply put a bench shirt on and add 50 or 100 pounds to your bench. A shirt requires technique, special training methods, and extensive practice. I spent 4 years teaching myself to use a poly shirt effectively. I spent the entire year of 2003 learning my denim shirt under the best coach in the world, and I'm not entirely proficient yet. Train in your shirt as often as possible, and keep practicing technique.
Lift big, and stay strong.
And always remember, Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.