Using boards to build your Bench Press is simply the best way to address weaknesses and improve your groove. This article will hopefully explain how and why to use boards. My training partners and I have taken our benches though the roof mainly by using this exercise. Hopefully you can too!
Go to Home Depot and buy some 2x6s. A 2x6 is 1.5 inches thick. So a 1 board reduces the ROM by 1.5 inches, a 2 board by 3 inches, etc. You can save money by going to the “cull wood” bin and buying Home Depot’s throwaways. You can cut the boards to a length you want to work with, mine is about 13 inches. Secure them together with nails or woodscrews. A hint: Use Nails or screws less than 3 inches long. If you don’t understand this hint, stop reading the article right here. Go to Google and look up “dumbbell kickbacks”, or maybe just “dumbbell”, then meditate. Some lifters cut them a bit longer and fashion a handle on the end for a partner to hold. If you are short of partners to hold the board on your chest, you can put it under your t-shirt and it will stay in place fairly well. When using big weights, and you will very quickly, you will be best served by two end of the bar spotters and a lift off man. An extra person to hold the board on your chest helps too.
Weak points. Using partial range of motion is an old tried and true training trick. You can use the power rack for this, but that is best left for deadlift rack pulls because the deadlift has no eccentric before the lift. Even lowering the weight to pins and then pressing it back up is different as you loose tightness and unload your muscles when the bar touches the pins.
This is why high box squats are different than partial squats to pins in the power rack. For the Bench Press, the board press is much superior to the power rack pin press because you must lower the weight, establishing the right groove, staying tight, and developing some stretch reflex. Trying to start a dead stop weight off pins usually causes your shoulders to extend forward, and causes elbow and shoulder problems. Some get a lot out of pin presses, but some people get a lot out of suffering. The longer boards with handles might come in handy here. But that is an individual life style choice.
Ryan Carr performing a board press
Board presses allow you to overload the upper end of the Bench Press range of Motion, de-sensitize you to heavy weights in your hands (you can’t make a lift if you are scared by it when you take it on a hand off) and allow you to recruit all the fibers in the triceps. I won’t go into how or why, but there is a reason the long head of the triceps is called the “lazy head”. Suffice it to say it won’t be lazy with this exercise.
The Board press can be done with various grips and various board heights. I have 1, 2, 3, and 4 boards pre-built that I leave in my gym, and a few extra 2 and 3 boards that I take with me if traveling. You can build your traveling boards out of 2x4s if you want. If you have longer arms, you might need a 5 board set up. There are generally 3 main grips for board work; close grip with the index finger touching or close to the smooth part of the bar, pinky on ring where the pinkies lie on the ring that marks the max legal grip width, and meet grip with the max legal grip ring covered by the index finger.
You can use a range of approaces on the board press, but my favorites are a max effort workout, and an assistance workout done after full range work. On the max effort workout, we warm up to an easy single full range of motion, then go to the board work for 2-5 heavy singles. We may do this raw or shirted, with various grips. We keep PR records at every board height with each grip. We attempt weights we are sure we can lift, and are shocked if we miss. If we miss, we analyze completely why we miss, either technique or weakness.
If done raw, we stay at just one individual board height for the day, usually near our meet sticking point or below the sticking point, trying to break a PR, then dropping down to 90% of our best that day for a triple, then 80% of our best that day for 5 rep set, or maybe try 5x5 at 80-85%% of our best single that day, depending on how much volume we desire that week. If I miss a PR raw, I might check what the next wider grip PR is and give that a try. If we are using a shirt, we only use the meet grip and then will try to hit two adjacent board heights, working downward in general.
Sometimes, if we miss something we will go back up or down like the Metal Militia guys do and re-do what we did wrong. Then we take the shirt off and do sets of 3-8 reps at our weak point. My raw down sets after shirt work are always done with 4 boards as that is my meet sticking point. On both days our last set is usually a close grip set off the last board we used, and we may do some higher reps here if we feel strong. This is supra-maximal training so you can only do so much on a shirted board day. You will also notice you can only do this every other week at most if you use the shirt. If done raw, you can do a different max effort exercise the next week. You can do a max effort exercise two or three weeks in a row while learning the groove of that lift, but once you have it down changing max effort exercises weekly is optimal.
My general approach is to do a Max effort day alternated with a speed day every Monday. Every Thursday I do a raw day. This is tailored to my weaknesses. I need less speed work because I am fast naturally. Remember to train most what you do need to improve.
One last concept for your bag of tricks. George Halbert, one of the best Bench Pressers in the world, advocates the “Halbert Press” to learn to feel your triceps drive correctly and how to lower the bar with your lats. Set up with a 3 or 4 board on your chest, using a close grip. Lower it like you are trying to touch your stomach. With elbows tucked and bringing the weight low toward your feet rather than your head, you will feel your lats while lowering the weight and your triceps drive as you press back up. Try to remember this feel as you drive up those benches with your meet grip! If you have problems feeling this, try doing some one-arm pushups to get this feel. Then go back to the Halbert Press.
Hint 1A: Another topic, but no Bench Press article can be complete without some mention of lats. Train your lats often with different approaches in both rowing and pulling down planes. Make sure you are doing as much volume for lats as for Bench press, if not more.
Shirted ME Day (27 Dec 04)
Raw Bench Press 135x5,225x3,315x1 Shirt on 4 board 425x1, 515x1, 605x1, 3Board 605xX, 585xX, both missed near lockout. 4 Board 515x6, 3 Board 515x4, shirt off 4 Board 425x6, close grip 385x3
Raw ME Day (16 Feb 05) Raw Bench Press 135x5,225x3,315x1, 3 Board Meet Grip 405x1, 410x1, 460xX, pinky on ring 365x5x2 sets, close grip 315x7
Assistance After a Workout (09 Dec 04) Raw bench press135x5,225x3,315x3,335x3x3 3 Board meet Grip 365x3,405x3, 3 Board Close Grip 335x4, 315x5x2
Brandon Cass Pictured Above
That Groove Thing. Learning to hold your groove on the descent is more than half the battle of a big bench. The bar path going up should be very close to the bar path going down. The Russians advocate learning a lift in segments, and so do we. When learning to use a Bench Press Shirt THERE IS NO BETTER WAY TO TRAIN than down the boards. Trying to use a new shirt for full ROM is a very difficult approach. You will be overwhelmed by the weight and getting it to touch. The key here is to get your shirt pulled down as low as possible in the front, and secure it in place with your belt and by pushing out with your abs against your belt. Set up on the bench, so you don’t have a long handoff distance from the racks. Do some raw warm-ups as shown above, then put the shirt on and start at a 4 board. This weight will probably be around your raw max. Lower it to the board, pause, and press up. You need to lower the bar toward your sternum by lowering with your elbows tucked toward your body, somewhat like a one arm pushup. In a denim shirt the touch point is even lower, the first rib. Keep working down the boards, feeling the groove. As you push up a slight elbow flare will occur. The hands and elbows MUST ALWAYS TRACK UNDER THE BAR. Touching is not easy in a top end shirt. I find the 2 board predicts my meet lift pretty well after a taper.
(13 Feb04) BP 135x5x2,225x3, 315x2 shirt on 4 Board 495/545x1, 3 Board 545PRx1, 2 Board 525PRx1, 1 Board 525PRx1, full ROM 495PRx1, 4 Board 495x5, shirt off 4 Board close grip 315x8 Note: I had not benched 500 in a meet when I did this workout and was learning the Fury single ply shirt. This was way too much work for a normal workout. One month later I hit 474 in a meet in the Fury, then two months after that I hit 500 for the first time and then 525 on a fourth attempt.
Art vs. Science
As you can see there is some randomness in these workouts. A Max effort board day is a fun, aggressive workout done best with good friends and training partners. Smack talk, harsh criticism, shouts of derision at a missed lift, and big time support of your friends when you make a lift make this a lot of fun. Sometimes you can go a bit by feel here on boards and grip, limited only by how much work you want to do. Keep in mind this is big time training and must be carefully worked in. For the heavy sets I use tight wrist wraps. I do an easy ME 2 board workout two Mondays before a meet, working up to my opener for a double or triple, then a raw 4 board downset. Some lats and abs and I am done. The last Monday before a meet I do an easy speed day with 50 pounds of chains, for me using around 225, alternating close and meet grips for 8 sets of 3.
Say hello to a PR!
Ryan Kennelly Pictured Above
Jack Reape, AKA powerlifter54, is a Graduate with Merit of the US Naval Academy with a BS in Operations Analysis. He serves in the US Navy and competes locally and nationally when time permits. He is a multi time State, Region, and US Military National Champion.
Two things to add, since writing the article above I have dropped from 240lbs down to 225 and just hit 580 in a single ply katana, and I now think the 1 board best predicts my meet lift. (1 board PR is 585) Why not a lot of full rom stuff some might ask, because it takes too much out of my shoulders, and at almost 45 I protect what I have!