Boost Your Bench With Bands
by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
How to use this valuable training tool to break through training plateaus. While the squat has rightfully earned its title as the king of lifts, the most popular exercise is the bench press. It is a relatively simple exercise that can pack a lot of muscle mass on the upper body quickly, along with getting you brutally strong. Its popularity has resulted in lots of experimentation, even in peer-reviewed research studies, to determine the fastest way to bench more. The upshot: If you want to bench bigger quickly, you should consider using bands and bungees.
The bench press has an ascending strength curve, meaning that you can display more force as you straighten your arms. In keeping with the theory of variable resistance, to get the most out of a bench press workout you’ll want to select exercises in which the resistance is greatest at the points at which you are strongest. Bands are an appropriate method of applying variable resistance because the exercise becomes more difficult as the bands are stretched.
A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that using bands results in “significantly higher power and velocity values” during the start of the lowering (eccentric) phase of an exercise and the finish of the lifting (concentric) phase. One practical application of this effect is using bands to improve explosive strength in the bench press.
Explosive strength is the ability to apply force at the start of the movement. An explosive start in the bench press assists you in pushing through the sticking point of the exercise, which is why many elite powerlifters often use relatively light weights in the bench press to work on this strength quality.
Using bands develops explosive strength; for example, during a conventional bench press there is a large deceleration period that is necessary to prevent trainees from hyperextending their joints. Using bands will increase the resistance at the end of the motion, so the deceleration period is shorter and trainees can apply more force to the bar for a greater range of motion. This training effect with band training was explored in a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The authors of the study concluded that due to increased muscle activation, using bands in conjunction with free weights was superior for developing peak force and peak power compared to free-weight training alone.
Before trying any of the practical applications of band training that follow, keep in mind several safety precautions when using bands on the bench press. The bottom of the bands should be securely anchored directly under the point where you will be pressing from to minimize a “slingshot” effect. Because bands are unstable, you should always have spotters – not only in case you miss the weight but also to help you remove and replace the barbell from the supports. It’s also important to check the bands before using them for damage that could cause them to snap during use.
In terms of program design, consider that bands are extremely stressful on the joints and connective tissues. To avoid overuse issues such as tendinitis, only use bands one workout out of two. The same guideline applies to using chains on the bench press – you would therefore not want to alternate a workout of band training with a workout of chain training on the bench press.
Next, because your focus with band training is to develop explosive strength, you should concentrate on acceleration with every repetition. Also, because this type of training is considered neural drive training, keep the repetitions between 1 and 3 per set.
To enable the nervous system to adequately recover between sets, longer rest intervals are required. One practical way to design a workout would be to superset bench presses with pull-ups, resting two minutes between each exercise and two minutes between each superset. A sample workout for an advanced trainee might be a superset of band bench presses and wide-grip pull-ups, 8-10 sets of 1-3 reps.
Another use of bands would be to anchor them to the top of a power rack so as to decrease the resistance as the bar approaches the chest. Doing this would simulate the effect of a bench press shirt and may be particularly useful for those who have difficulty with the lockout of the press. As with the conventional band bench press, the reverse band bench press also teaches you to accelerate the bar quickly off the chest.
There are no substitutes for the basics, and plenty of athletes have built big, strong bodies without using bands. But if you’re competing at the highest level or looking to get as strong as humanly possible in this great exercise, bands can be a powerful tool in your training toolbox.