5 Tips For Shirted BenchersDec 18, 2020
For those who have tried it, know what it’s like. Shirted benching is a skill. As much as some want to downplay the technical precision involved with this style of benching, it certainly ramps up the intricacies of benching! While raw benching can be compared to racing bikes, shirted benching is like racing souped up cars. There are more variables, it’s higher octane, and the stakes are high. You can handle more weight, but one wrong move and it’s coming down quick!
The nature of shirted benching lends itself to feelings of unmatched satisfaction, but also of extreme frustration. When things are good, they’re good. When things are bad, they’re really bad. More times than not, they’re bad. It’s the price of entry. When you get involved with equipped lifting, you understand that you’re going to experience frustration and your patience will be tested. On the flipside, when you strike big, it is the greatest feeling in the world.
I want to share with you some tips I’ve accumulated while working my way up the ranks of equipped benching. Some tricks that will help you not only handle more weight, but hit successfully with a higher percentage rate. These are things I have utilized in my training en route to an 820 lb bench, and what I have used with the many athletes I have coached.
Positioning The Shirt
The placement of a bench shirt is going to have major implications on how the lift feels and is ultimately executed. The smallest adjustment to the positioning of the collar or the sleeves can make or break a lift. If the collar is dropped too soon, the shirt can become too tight to effectively touch the weight to the chest. If the shirt isn’t adjusted properly for a big third attempt, there may not be enough pop off the chest to complete the lift. Positioning hugely impacts the performance of the lift.
Lets first cover how to put the shirt on. First order of business is getting your arms into the sleeves. The sleeves should ideally be tight enough so that it is difficult to fit the arm through without partner assistance, baby powder to eliminate friction, or shirt slippers. I personally recommend worrying less about pulling the shirt up until you see elbow exposed, and more on the positioning of the sleeve relative to the armpit. If you position most shirts correctly, the elbow being exposed is usually an afterthought. Besides, most shirts you’re able to fold the material of the sleeve above the elbow or get the sleeves tailored shorter.
Rather, what I focus on when placing my bench shirt is the positioning of the sleeve seam on the back of my tricep. I know my shirt is set well and in a good initial position when I feel the tension of the seam of the sleeve right on top of the “horseshoe” of the tricep. Right on top of the tricep muscle is where I like to start my shirt for training and for openers in a meet. It can always be adjusted from there.
My favorite assistance with getting the shirt on is shirt slippers. This can be any slick material that will help the sleeves slide up. Wear it just above the elbow so it is easier to pull out from under the sleeve after. This is my favorite assistance because it makes your life so much easier, and doesn’t involve the potential mess of baby powder. God forbid you get that on your hands, or the sleeves shift around while your benching. They are cost effective and work wonders. A simple plastic bag will do the trick as well.
Next you’ll want to set the collar. The trick here is to not set your collar so low that it makes the shirt too tight. Arch back and puff your chest out as a training partner pulls the front of the shirt down. Just pull the collar down enough so that it sits comfortably on the bulk of your chest. I typically leave mine, and my athlete’s collars there for the bulk of training and for meet openers.
Now that we took care of the key aspects to putting a shirt on, let’s discuss how to jack up your shirt. As I mentioned earlier, a minor displacement of the collar or shirt sleeve can greatly influence how the shirt performs. There are two major ways to increase the tightness of the shirt. Lowering the collar, and bunching/lowering the sleeves. It is important to note that the shirt adjustment must be timely executed. A tighter shirt raises the demands for technical precision and total body tightness. Sure you will be supported to lift more weight, but you also need to be trained enough to actually handle the increased weight. If you’re not confident or skilled yet, I suggest leaving the shirt without making an effort to jack it up.
The collar is typically the first place I look to for increased tightness. Lowering the collar will improve your pop off the chest. It will also be harder to touch so you want to save this. If you have a good intuitive feel for what you need in the shirt, you can adjust as needed. What I typically recommend to our inexperienced athletes is to leave the shirt for the opener, pull the collar down slightly for the second attempt, and depending on how that goes, pull the collar down more and pull the shirt sleeves lower for the third. Bunching the sleeves is another technique you can use to increase tightness. This comes down to pinching and folding the sleeve layers upon themselves. This creates more thickness to the material that will stretch behind the triceps. Doing this additionally helps you support weight at lockout.
Breaking In The Shirt
When you first receive a bench shirt, especially a brand new one, it should fit tightly. A good tight competition fit shirt isn’t designed to be touched in first session. You want to “break” your shirt in over multiple training sessions. “Breaking your shirt in” entails simply stretching the material.
Upon first use you’re likely not going to be able to position your hands where you’d want, and you won’t be able to get the weight very close to your chest. Due to this you’ll spend the first few sessions training in a closer grip until you can reach wider, and working down in board heights.
A common break in process popularized by Brian Carroll involves a 5 week break in process.
Week 1: Pinkies on the ring to a 3 board
Week 2: 1 finger wider to a 2 board
Week 3: 1 finger wider to a 1 board
Week 4: Competition grip to a 1 board
Week 5: You should be ready to touch
This is a simple progression where each week you are working to get your grip wider as well as lowering weight closer to your chest. Most break in protocols are going to have a similar progression as this. Depending on the tightness of the shirt and the structure of the lifter, this may take less or more time. To measure the stretch of your shirt, you can actually take a tape measure to measure seam to seam on the chest plate. This measurement should be increasing slightly session to session. You can also use this recording to dial in where you want to be with new shirts in the future.
I also recommend spraying your bench shirt with water. Take a squirt bottle and spray the collar, chest seams, and the back of the sleeves. When the material is wet, it will stretch with more ease. One good spray at the start of the session is usually suffice but if you have a ways to go to break your shirt in, I recommend repeating this process as often as every set. The goal being getting the shirt to a point where you feel comfortable touching your opener at the meet.
There are some additional tricks here as well. Need more room in the arms? Ask Tom Brady to deflate a football for you (I can say that, I’m a pats fan!). Put the deflated ball into a sleeve of the shirt, and pump it up while it’s in there. Spray the shirt sleeves and let it sit. The uniform distribution of tension over time will help it expand.
You can also stretch the chest plate of a shirt between two barbells in the same manner. Put one sleeve through a racked bar, and hang another loaded barbell through the other sleeve. I would only use this as a last ditch effort to really get the shirt stretched out. I’m not a big fan of this prolonged forced stretch unless really needed. In the past I felt it took away from some of the pop I’d get out of the shirt. I highly recommend breaking in the shirt via simply lifting in the shirt so it stretches how it will perform.
One strategy I recommend so that you can get the most out of a tight shirt at a meet is owning two fits of shirts. One loose used or old shirt that you can touch in with good ease, and a tight shirt you will save the touching in for the meet. This way you can train full range but also save all the pop in the tight shirt for the right time. When you advance in your shirted training, you will value that pop more and more in time and realize how quickly a shirt can stretch on you. Gaining size or making alterations is a good way to get more life out of your shirt.
Touching In The Shirt
The way you bench in the shirt is going to be different than how you would bench raw. There is a unique groove you want to employ here that will help you get the most out of what the shirt can provide you. It ultimately results in a lower touch point and a more aggressive press back. There will also be a significant tucking of the elbows on the way down.
I find that most lifters have a hard time touching due to two reasons. One is they become impatient. Shirted benching requires patience and precision. Like I alluded to in the intro, one wrong move and that weight will collapse you. The tighter the shirt, the more resistance you will meet traveling down with the bar. The more you are relying on your back strength and the force of the weight to get you down. This causes the bar to hover for quite some time.
If you’ve ever seen a good equipped bench, you might notice how long it takes to get the weight down. Impatient lifters will misgroove the weight when it gets closer to the chest. A slight franticness kicks in and lifters will take the path of least resistance in a last ditch effort to touch the bar. This means dumping the bar towards their belly or falling out of groove completely and dropping the weight. This is something I stress to my athletes. I’d rather they just stop completely or press up early in training rather than make these latch ditch efforts to touch weights. Know where you want to be and don’t let the tension of the shirt displace you.
The second cause of struggle for most is how they are trying to touch. The touch of a raw bench is like a helicopter landing. It’s rather straight down and straight forward. Well the shirted groove is more relatable to a plane landing. There is going to be a horizontal component accompanying this groove. Many will either tuck their elbows too soon which locks up the shirt early, or they bench elbows wide and lock up the chest plate with nowhere to go.
Start your descent straight down, focusing more on the spread of the bar than the tuck of the elbows. Ride that bar down how you’d normally raw bench until the collar tightens up around your chest. As soon as you feel this happen, start breaking towards the top of your belly and tuck the elbows to get there. It’s not that you’re traveling lower, but rather you’re traveling on an angle to a higher touch point.
Training In The Shirt
There are a lot of ways to get stronger and train successfully. If you think your training system is the superior model for strength, it isn’t. I’m not going to make a case for the superior training program because that’s going to look different for everyone, but rather I’m going to share some of the main principles and tips that have helped me.
One of the big things that have helped my lifters and I get stronger is ditching the endless board work. For some reason, shirted training gets strongly associated with board use. While I love the boards to help break in the shirt, or to overload weight, I do not love it for getting stronger. If all you do is train high board work, unless you pair that with enough full range raw work you’re going to struggle severely in meets and with touching in general. Why? Because you’re not spending any time actually completing a lift! Bad at touching? Do more work full range. This is why I suggested a loose shirt for training purposes or another product which I love, Rich Putnam’s Bench Freak Band (benchfreak.com). It is a device similar to the likes of a slingshot in which you can groove and perform just like a shirt.
Treat your shirted training like any other training. Do the bulk of your training touching in a loose shirt or with an assistive device. Do more reps as well! I feel like rep work has gotten lost in the shirted training realm. We do it raw, why can’t we do it equipped? Training banded speed work in a loose shirt or doing a 5x3 workout are both things that have helped me and have contributed greatly towards my continued success without plateau. Overloading to boards or using boards to break in a shirt are great but make sure when it’s time to put the pedal to the metal, that you’re capable, confident, and ready!
Technique is everything when we are talking shirted benching. Your process needs to be dialed in! From the set up on, everything you do is a chance to put yourself in a better position, get tighter, and cut range of motion. The set up, albeit difficult in it’s own right, is traditionally easier for most to get down since it can be executed without being under load. I find the real trouble comes in during the unrack/take out phase. This will make or break a shirted lifter. How you communicate the hand off, how you stay tight to the bar coming out, how you lock the weight into your back, how you settle a tipsy bar, all play an enormous role in your success. Not to mention, needing well coordinated spotters for 3 man handoffs! It’s a hugely detailed process. I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. Focus on this phase of the bench, it will be the best thing you do for your strength!
Since shirted benching can be such an extreme overload on the body and the nervous system in particular, you want to pay close attention to rest and recovery. If you burn the candle too hot you will quickly accumulate fatigue, injury, and frustration. For these reasons, I encourage lifters benching over 500 lbs to never go more than 2 weeks in the shirt at a time without a weeks rest. Those benching under 500 lbs can usually get away with more shirted training but after 3-4 weeks you want to work in a break as well. You will only be able to display the strength you’d like to see if you’re recovered and well rested, otherwise you are getting a poor representation of your true strength.
Secondary work for equipped lifters includes a lot of partial range movements. Since you get such a boost initially from the compression of the material, you want to train your ability to handle and lock out weight! I keep 3 lifts in rotation for secondary work. Board press, floor press, and pin press. Simple and effective! These aren’t a selection of only 3 exercises though, you can create numerous variations by changing grips, adding chains or bands, board and pin height, speciality bars, etc. The possibilities are endless. This strategy makes it easy to program and remains highly effective.
I also encourage some amount of raw work and full range work. This has always been a staple in my athletes and I’s training and will continue to be. Full range work keeps you strong throughout the entire range of motion, and from a mobility perspective, it keeps you able to perform a full range bench press without fear of injury. The raw work doesn’t have to be heavy but it keeps your body strong without the compression and support of the shirt which is important.
Lastly I find the value of back strength to be absolutely pivotal in terms of handling big weights. Control happens through our back and the old adage of big back, big bench remains true. First build it up, secondly learn how to use it. You can’t have one without the other. My favorite movements are those that build up the upper back such as meadow rows and pull ups, and those that work you statically such as any row hold variation.
Peaking In The Shirt
Peaking for a meet involves getting your body to handle the most it’s ever handled on an exact date in time. We like the romanticize the peaking process, when in reality it can be a simple process. Come into the meet fully rested, fully recovered, well fed, well hydrated, and confident and you will perform beyond your expectations.
Where I see lifters fail in peaking execution is in the need to push heavy weights so close to the meet. I have a saying that I stick to. Within 3 weeks of a meet you can’t get any stronger, you can only screw things up!. All the heavy lifting and work is done up to this point. There is nothing in this time you can do to build your strength, but rather only make sure execution is on point and recovery takes place. If you adopt this mindset you will be setting PR’s on the platform where they actually mean something. For example, in preparation for my 820 lb bench, I only handled 700+ lbs in one session that meet prep. I was well rested, well recovered, well hydrated, and thanks to some all you can eat sushi, well fed! I did the things I needed to do to execute how I needed to in the right moment and had the confidence to back it with precision and patience.
However, things aren’t always that cut and dry so there is also a programming model I like to utilize with my athletes!
4 weeks out - Raw 2-3 Board Press 5x3 (using shirted grip)
3 weeks out - Shirted Bench 1x3 (light float reps), 1x2 (Opener ½ board), 1x1 (2nd attempt 1-2 Board), 1x1 (3rd attempt 1.5-3 board)
2 weeks out - Bench Press 1x1 (Opener - weight determined previous week. Can be omitted if rest is needed)
1 week out - Bench Press (Raw Warm Ups)
For an advanced lifter looking to save their shirts pop for the meet, you can omit your opener 2 weeks out for either speed work, or light singles work in an assistive device. My general philosophy is that a double to a ½ board is a comfortable opener at the meet. This would be a good weight to start and compound on each attempt.
Keep the shirt adjustments to a minimum when doing your meet attempts day! Since you are benching to higher boards it really shouldn't be necessary, and if you know you can do the weight with the shirt set as is, then you know you have room to get it tighter at the meet. This session is all about gaining confidence.
Since fluctuations in body weight can affect a shirts performance so much, I recommend weighing yourself before your meet attempts session and throughout the training cycle for that matter. Know what weight you are at for each session, that way you know what to maintain around for the meet. A sudden gain or loss of 5 lbs in the 3 weeks leading up to a meet can really shift everything. Even more so than training, weight control should be the focus in the remaining time prior to a meet. If you need to tighten up a bit before a meet, gain a pound or two, and if you need the shirt to be a tad looser for an easier touch, lose a pound or two.
Don’t try to do too much and you will be fine. Remember, once the meet attempt session is over, you can only screw things up! So be careful!
I love equipped benching because of these additional variables! Some like knowing they can express the strength they have built up at any given time, others like manipulating additional factors to express supra maximal strength. Equipped lifting is a sport of precision and mastery. Either you’re going to allow the equipment to work with you or against you. Earlier on, it’s probably going to work against you more times than not. However as you build experience and get a feel for the different shirts out there, you start to build a mastery of the sport and I think that’s the coolest part! Similar to a QB in football who has mastered the playbook and the art of reading defenses.
Even better is the ability to pass this knowledge on to those starting out in equipped lifting. If you remember your first time benching in a shirt, it was probably a mess! However you had good teachers and helping hands to push you along. I hope this article has proven valuable to you and my hope is that you pass on to others just like information has been passed on to you!
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