About five years ago, I was training for an equipped full power meet and it was opener week. I was following something I had seen other lifters do in their training videos and was taking my opener to a half board. After completing the lift, a teammate asked me, “what is the point of that half board?” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t answer the question. I think I parroted something I’d heard someone else say, explaining I was “conserving energy” or not wasting the “pop” in my shirt. I was full of shit.
The truth was, I had no reason to bench to that half board. In fact, the reason I gravitated towards using it was because I hated touching in my bench shirt. That part was always terrible and it was where my equipped benches usually went wrong. In hindsight, that 3/4” thick board was a mind game. I routinely pushed my belly up or flattened out by more than that distance on any given lift in training. The truth was, I wasn’t that good at executing a full range of motion bench in my shirt and that board was nothing but a mental crutch. That mental crutch kept my shirted bench stuck at 600lbs @ 308 for almost three years.
My roots were in the Metal Militia and I never used boards in my shirt for the first several years of my training. At some point, I got away from that, and followed the lead of other strong lifters that seemed to have success using them. Enter Bill Crawford. After 3 years without success, I got in touch with Bill C. and drove up to Lake George to see if he had any suggestions to fix my bench. He told me to float triples and touch the third rep, a training method I was very familiar with, but hadn’t done in a long time. As I slowed down an inch from touching on the third rep, he screamed at the top of his lungs over the blaring music, “Go! Go! Just fucking go!” Afraid he was going to grab the bar and push it down during the lift to get me to touch (he seemed crazy enough to do it), I tucked my elbows, dumped the bar out, and touched and pressed the weight faster than I ever had before. Over the next 3 years, I never used a single board with my bench shirt and my bench went from hovering at 600lbs to 750lbs in the same weight class and wearing the same exact bench shirt. It took me a long time to realize why the approach worked. Here are a three things I’ve learned along the way.
1. You need to practice how you play. You have to touch and press a full rep in a meet, so logic would tell you it’s probably not a bad idea to do one of those (at least) once in a while. And if you only do it once in a while, that rare occurrence should look pretty damn good. If it doesn’t, wouldn’t it be a good idea to directly work on and practice that way once in a while?
2. No one benches to a board the same way they bench to the touch. The most efficient shirted bench is fluid and efficient, with minimal effort. Efficiently completing a shirted bench is usually the result of the ideal balance of speed (least possible time under load) and the ability to execute an efficient movement pattern under that load. If you only perform the lift with a partial range of motion in training, you only train to move the weight most efficiently in that range of motion. As soon as you increase the range of motion, that strategy has to change. If you lock your shirt up at a 2 board, you’re not going to touch if you’re in that same position at the time you’re hovering at a 2 board during a full rep.
3. You don’t need more weight to touch. I’m gonna say it louder for everyone in the back. YOU DON’T NEED MORE WEIGHT TO TOUCH! If you can’t touch, the shirt is too tight for your skill level in a bench shirt, but you can probably touch (with 75% of your max) in almost any shirt you can get on by yourself if you tuck your elbows, break your wrists, and push your belly up enough. If you bench MM style, you shouldn’t be spreading the shirt to touch, you should be tucking your elbows and moving the bar out to your belly, taking the minimal amount of tension off the chest plate needed to touch the weight before throwing it back to lockout.
Are there any people who can or should bench with boards? Of course. There are exceptions to every rule. Some have injuries they are working around. Others bench with different shirts, with different techniques, or have different strategies altogether. I’m just sharing what has been taught to me by much better benchers than myself. Two of them held ATWRs regardless of weight class in the equipped bench- Bill Crawford and Will Barotti. These guys built their entire careers on this approach and spend a lot of time passing their knowledge on to us. So if you claim you’re Metal Militia and you’re benching to boards in your shirt, you’re disrespecting the history of our club.