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Board Pressing is a method where an athlete benches to a reduced range of motion, segmenting their range into 1-board, 2-board, or 3-board increments. Implementing board pressing can lead to a number of positive adaptations that will aid in an athletes’ bench press training. Using boards for bench press can:
1. Act as a method to increase bench frequency safely and effectively
2. Increase proprioceptive skills
3. Achieve volume overloading
4. Achieve intensity overloading
5. Target weak points within the range of motion
Before going into further detail, it is important to note that pin pressing is not a substitute for board pressing. Pin pressing is the method of setting the safety pins higher than normal so that the bar touches the pins at a particular range of motion during the eccentric phase. The athlete would rest the bar on the pins, sometimes at chest level, sometimes slightly higher, and then lift the bar from the pins to lock-out. Both pin pressing and board pressing are methods that reduce the range of motion for bench press. However, pin pressing offloads the entire weight when the bar rests on the pins while board pressing still requires an athlete to produce static force as the bar touches the boards. For the purposes of this article, know that these two exercises are mutually exclusive and programmed for different outcomes – the workouts I suggest below should not be repeated by substituting boards for pins.
The argument for increasing frequency of training for bench press is the same as any of the powerlifting movements or sport skill generally. Increasing frequency allows for two primary outcomes: (1) the opportunity to practice the movement more regularly, thus reinforcing and improving the technical components of the lift; and (2) allowing an athlete to increase total volume by dispersing their overall tonnage across multiple training days.
Top bench pressers are public about “benching more frequently” in order to “bench more”, some saying they bench between three to seven times per week depending on the training cycle. As a novice or intermediate athlete, we look to what top level athletes are doing, and try and mimic some of their practices into our own day-to-day training. However, what’s overlooked is the process in which top athletes went through, sometimes over the course of many years, in order to implement their now advanced training practices.
Increasing frequency is something that needs to be determined by an athlete’s readiness to handle multiple training sessions per week of the same skill. In the case of bench press, one of the primary considerations is an athlete’s tissue and joint integrity. This is the idea that an athlete’s tendons, ligaments, and joints need to be healthy enough at the onset to handle increased frequency; but more importantly, planning and programming an increased frequency means allowing adequate time between sessions for tissues and joints to adapt to the new stimulus. This is where boards can assist in maintaining an athlete’s tissue and joint integrity in the process of increasing frequency.
There are multiple muscles involved in a bench press, including the prime movers pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps, as well as stabilizing rotator cuff muscles, such as infraspinatus and teres minor. At the greatest angle of the movement, when the bar touches the chest, the anterior forces on the shoulder are at its maximum. At the same time, the rotator cuff muscles must exert greater compensatory forces to counter the anterior forces through the shoulder. We must agree then that the highest risk for compromising tissue and joint integrity is when the force through the shoulder joint is at its maximum – when the bar is at chest level. Therefore, by reducing the range of motion in a bench press we reduce the amount of force that is applied at the level of the joint.
A method to reduce the range of motion in a bench press can be achieved through using boards. With board training, we can increase frequency and simultaneously prioritize tissue and joint health throughout that process. When starting to increase bench frequency from one training sessions per week, to two or more, boards should be used on the additional training day in order to limit force through the shoulder joint and allow the body to adapt to this new frequency of training. After a few weeks or months of this implementation, the goal would be to slowly reduce the amount of boards used in training (i.e. 3-boards to 1-board) in order to have that additional training day completed at a full range of motion. From there after, increasing frequency should follow the same pattern: perform your normal training days with a full range of motion, add the additional training day using boards, and then incrementally reduce the amount of boards until the movement is performed at full range.
Use a 3-board with moderate volume and low intensity
Use a 2-board with moderate volume and moderate intensity
Use a combination of 1-board and full range of motion with moderate volume and moderate intensity (the majority of sets should still be performed at 1-board)
Use full range of motion, and slowly increase volume and/or intensity as tolerated
Proprioception refers to an athlete’s sense of his or her positioning relative to other body parts or objects. This includes how certain parts change or affect other elements of the body, and how strength and acceleration are employed within a particular movement. An athlete who has strong proprioceptive skills has a heighted awareness of where his or her body is in space, and can manipulate and control body parts in such a way that it aligns with the most desirable range of motion.
Athletes that can execute each rep with precision and accuracy, over the course of a workout, from warm-up to work sets, can be said to have strong proprioceptive skills. Conversely, athletes who are inconsistent with their technique, such as touching the bar in different places on the chest each rep; descending the bar sometimes slower or faster from rep-to-rep; or failing to keep the bar path in a similar trajectory can be said to have weak proprioceptive skills. The best benchers know where his or her body is in space, know the desired range of motion, and can place his or her body and the bar accordingly to achieve those goals.
Board pressing is a method that can be used to increase an athlete’s proprioceptive ability. The boards act as an external tool to technically challenge various ranges of motion. Importantly, when implementing boards to increase proprioceptive ability, the goal is to mimic a competition style bench at all times. For example, the same eccentric speed that an athlete uses when performing full range of motion should be the same speed executed when using boards. Likewise, board pressing should not change the trajectory of the bar, and the bar path should be the same with or without boards. As a result, boards overemphasize a particular position within the range of motion, and the athlete will need to ensure that those positional elements are held to the desired pattern.
Furthermore, the goal of executing a competition pause on the chest is to stop the bar on command, i.e. stopping the bar when you want it to stop. Some athletes have an issue with ‘stopping’ the bar. The issue manifests when an athlete gets ‘crushed’ on the chest or allows the bar to sink in, all of which contribute to losing tightness and increasing the duration of the press command in competition. In order to learn how to ‘stop the bar on command’ an athlete must know where the bar is in relation to their chest and have adequate ability to apply the necessary force at the necessary times to halt the movement. To aid in this ability, athletes can use board pressing as a tool. Getting athletes to use a variety of board heights will generally increase movement sense of where the bar is in space in relation to those boards and how to accurately apply force to stop the bar on command. The idea here is that if an athlete has the proprioceptive skills to stop the bar on a 3-board or 2-board or 1-board effectively they will inevitably be able to stop the bar on command on his or her chest when required. The goal is to know where the bar is in space, whether it’s knowing how to stop the bar on a particular board height or on the chest during a competition movement.
The focus when using boards as a proprioceptive tool should be:
• Maintaining the same eccentric speed as a competition bench
• Maintaining the same trajectory as a competition bench
• Building consistency in the touch points on the various board heights, i.e. touching the board in the same place each rep
• Stopping the bar on command, i.e. actively applying force to stop the bar from ‘crashing’ into the boards
Use a descending board protocol to improve proprioceptive ability. A descending board protocol would include starting at a high board height and over the course of a single set decreasing the board height. For example, you could start at 3-board, move to 2-board, and finish with 1-board. Similarly, you could start at 2-board, move to 1-board, and finish with reps to your chest. In the program below, I have merged these two styles in a weekly undulating fashion. Remember, this method is for technical improvements so your perceived exertion should not be maximal or near maximal. The purpose when using descending boards is to bring the bar down with the same speed whether it’s a 3-board, 2-board, or 1-board, and not ‘crash’ the bar into the boards, but rather stop the bar on command and have identical movement trajectory to a competition-style bench.
6 sets of 2 reps (3-board) + 2 reps (2-board) + 2 reps (1-board) @ 70%
6 sets of 1 rep (2-board) + 1 rep (1-board) + 1 rep (chest) @ 72.5%
6 sets of 2 reps (3-board) + 2 reps (2-board) + 2 reps (1-board) @ 75%
6 sets of 1 rep (2-board) + 1 rep (1-board) + 1 rep (chest) @ 77.5%
Volume is a measure of how much work an athlete completes within a given timeframe. The work completed by an athlete is calculated by multiplying the sets, reps, and bar load to give an overall volume, e.g. 5 sets of 5 reps at 100lbs = 2500lbs of volume (or work). Increasing volume will lead to a greater overall training stimulus. For example, it is much more challenging to do 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of an athlete’s 1 rep max versus only performing 1 set of the same rep range and intensity. Therefore, increasing an athlete’s capacity for handling more volume will lead to greater adaptations in both size and strength of a muscle.
When planning to increase training volume, an athlete must look at how much work is being completed within a given timeframe. For example, an athlete might be able to handle 2000lbs of volume for a particular workout, and then over the course of multiple weeks of training look to exceed that volume. If at the end of a training cycle the athlete is now able to handle 3000lbs of volume it can be concluded that they have increased their work capacity.
However, volume overloading is the principle of applying methods in order to handle more volume than would typically be possible under a single session training context – not necessarily over the course of multiple weeks. Using the example above, let’s say an athlete’s capacity for volume is 2000lbs for a particular workout. Volume overloading would then be achieved by implementing methods to exceed that athlete’s normal tolerance for volume within that individual workout. In this way, volume overloading provides a fast-tracked means to handling more volume in a shorter period of time. Using boards is a method to achieve volume overloading for bench press.
Side note: If you’re looking to examine what your normal tolerance for volume is within a single workout or training week you can use the MyStrengthBook software to track and analyze that data. MyStrengthBook is a web application launching in summer 2016 that allows powerlifters to build workouts, plan training programs, and assess training metrics that lead to better performance. To sign-up for a free enter your email at the bottom of this article.
Use ascending board protocols to achieve volume overloading. When using boards to achieve volume overloading the key is to prioritize the full range of motion and only utilize the boards to perform reps above and beyond what is possible in the full range. For example, an athlete would perform reps to their chest with a high relative intensity (i.e. a higher Rate of Perceived Exertion), and then add ascending boards to achieve reps that wouldn’t be possible to the chest. In the workout examples below, athletes would perform a fixed number of reps to their chest plus an additional amount of reps to boards (or a combination of board heights).
Understand that volume overloading through boards causes training stress above and beyond what an athlete can typically handle. Therefore, it should be implemented sparingly within an athlete’s long term programming. Additionally, the following method is only optimal for advanced athletes who already have a high tolerance for volume in bench press.
When given a choice in rep range the goal is to aim for the higher rep protocol, but scaling the reps down if needed (especially to avoid failure).
5-6 sets of 4 reps (chest) + 2-4 reps (2-board) @ 75-77.5%
5-6 sets of 3 reps (chest) + 1 rep (1-board) + 1 rep (2-board) @ 80%
5-6 sets of 4 reps (chest) + 2-4 reps (2-board) @ 80-82.5%
5-6 sets of 3 reps (chest) + 1 rep (1-board) + 1 rep (2-board) @ 85%
When most people think of using boards in their bench press training they do so with the primary goal of achieving intensity overloads. This is the idea that an athlete is using a load that would not typically be possible for that particular rep range in a full range of motion. For example, if an athlete can do three reps to their chest with 300lbs (assuming this is a maximal or near maximal effort), then using a greater load to boards for the same rep range would be considered an intensity overload for that movement. As a result, the athlete is doing more weight for the same number of reps to a reduced range of motion.
There are both psychological and physiological benefits of doing intensity overloading.
As a psychological benefit, athletes get an opportunity to ‘feel’ more weight on his or her body in a particular movement pattern. This is important for athletes who experience apprehension around handling loads over 100% of their 1RM. For these athletes, handling supramaximal loads to a reduced range of motion provide a low-risk training context to increase readiness and confidence to lift above and beyond his or her previous numbers. The theory here is that once an athlete has a sense of how these heavier loads feel then he or she will be more ready to execute on those lifts in a full range of motion when required to do so.
Physiologically, there are two theories that support intensity overloads:
(1) There is greater force production with less muscle recruitment. Force is measured by mass (the load of the bar) and acceleration (speed of the bar). With more load, the body produces more force, as long as the speed of the bar is maintained when compared to full range of motion. In this way, we are able to produce higher amounts of force than typically possible without activating additional motor units. The theory here is that once an athlete returns to full range of motion they have the potential to apply greater amounts of force to the barbell.
(2) The intensity overload inhibits the golgi tendon organ (GTO) allowing more work to be performed. Inside the muscle there are certain mechanisms that protect our bodies from exerting more force than the body can handle to prevent us from potential injury (the role of the GTO). By having these muscles produce large forces in a shortened range of motion (e.g. to boards) we are able to inhibit these mechanisms and train the muscle to perform more work because they would be unable to do so with full range of motion.
In order to maximize intensity overloading, an athlete will want to significantly increase the amount of load that would normally be possible for a particular rep range. A general rule of thumb when selecting intensity overloads is using 8-10% (or more) above an athlete’s normal level of strength. To achieve this athletes are recommended to use a 2-board or 3-board since these board heights will reduce the range of motion to such a degree that significant loads can be handled. In contrast, using a 1-board is still considered close enough to full range so the 8-10% (or more) overload might not be possible.
While athletes can program intensity overloads as a standalone exercise, i.e. performing it at the beginning of the exercise order with all sets and reps structured around boards, it is commonly prescribed following some sets and reps at full range. For example, an athlete might do X sets of X reps at full range of motion with moderate to high intensities, followed by boards using an intensity that wouldn’t be possible at full range. Whether you program the intensity overloads as a standalone or following some full range work it should be considered within the broader priorities of the program. The example below includes a mix of both protocols.
It is also important to recognize that intensity overloading should be programmed following a block of training where an athlete has built up the capacity to handle heavier loads. Once an athlete has completed this accumulation period then a program like this can be executed.
Over the weeks, I have prescribed some flexibility in the rep ranges since some of the board work is loaded using a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). It is important to stay within the RPE by doing more or less reps with a fixed load in order to achieve the desired exertion. Until an athlete understands his or her capacity for handling certain loads to various board heights a flexible rep range should be programmed.
3 sets of 3 reps (2-board), find loads that allows for 9RPE (approx. 90-100% of 1RM)
3 sets of 3 reps (3-board), find loads that allow for 9RPE (approx. 100-110% of 1RM)
3 sets of 3 reps @ 77.5% (1 set), 80% (1 set), 82.5% (1 set)
1-2 set of 2-3 reps (1-board) @ 85%
1 set of 1-2 reps (2-board) @ 9RPE
1 set of 1-2 reps (3-board) @ 9RPE
3 sets of 3 reps (2-board), find loads that allows for 9RPE (95-105% of 1RM)
3 sets of 3 reps (3-board), find loads that allow for 9RPE (105-115% of 1RM)
3 sets of 3 reps @ 77.5% (1 set), 80% (1 set), 82.5% (1 set)
1-2 set of 2-3 reps (1-board) @ 9RPE
1 set of 1-2 reps (2-board) @ 9RPE
1 set of 1-2 reps (3-board) @ 9RPE
Weak point training is the idea that athletes will target certain ranges within the movement that are seen to be deficient – often identified as a ‘sticking point’. The theory here is that we want to target ‘sticking points’, and the muscles involved in creating a lack of force production in those ranges of motion. It is well known that within a range of motion rates of muscular contraction vary for certain muscles, e.g. some muscles are activated more than others depending on where the bar is in relation to the body.
In a bench press various muscles are used to a greater degree than others depending on whether the bar is in the bottom, mid, or top range:
Bottom Range (Pectoralis): The pectoralis major is the primary muscle used in the bench press. Pectoralis are used the greatest in the lower portion of the eccentric phase and the early portion of the concentric phase (e.g. when the bar is around chest level).
Mid-Range (Anterior Deltoid): The anterior deltoid assists in flexion of the shoulders, particularly when the upper arm is closer to the side of the body. The anterior deltoids are used the greatest in the mid position in both the eccentric and concentric phases (e.g. when the bar is at the mid-point of the lift).
Top-Range (Triceps): The triceps are used to extend the elbow during the lock-out of a bench press. They are used the greatest during the top end of the concentric phase compared with the eccentric phase; however, athletes that have a narrower grip will also involve the triceps more through the mid-range of the lift.
After assessing where an athlete might have a ‘sticking point’ in their bench press, he or she might choose to implement boards to target muscles that might be responsible for the lack of force production.
When considering weak point training, we must remember that both the size of the muscle (hypertrophy) and neural qualities (motor recruitment, firing rate, etc.) will aid in overcoming a ‘sticking point’. A muscle that is bigger has greater potential for force production following a period when neural qualities are trained. Therefore, an athlete’s periodization should be structured with both hypertrophy and max strength as training outcomes. The hypertrophy work will result in increases in muscle size, and the max strength work will result in the ability to recruit higher threshold motor units within the muscle. The goal of using boards to aid in this process is so the exact muscles within the range of motion that are seen to be responsible for the ‘sticking point’ are targeted and trained.
It is important to accurately identify where in the range of motion a ‘sticking point’ exists. The best way to determine your sticking point is through evaluating the bar speed in certain ranges of the movement under higher intensities or with some fatigue. If you find the bar slowing or stalling in a particular range or you always fail maximal reps in the same range, then you have identified a sticking point. Use the bottom range, mid-range, or top range workouts to address your weak points with boards. Keep in mind the following is only one way to program training variables around weak points, and there are multiple methods and modalities to achieve this outcome.
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