Bench Shirt Basics
By Clint Harwood – Canada’s first 800+ bencher!
I’m a gear-‘ho. Yep. It’s true. I love powerlifting gear in general and bench shirts in particular. I enjoy the nerdy aspects of tweaking and fiddling my training and technique to the last decimal place to get every last bit I can out of my equipment. In this article I try to enunciate the principles behind how to adjust a bench shirt, so that the new shirt user can learn shirts faster, and an experienced lifter will know precisely how to jack up his shirt, just by looking at it.
In this first column, I’d like to introduce terminology that we’ll need later on, and then dive into the theoretical aspects of how to get more or less out of your bench shirt. The difference between this column and every other “How to Jack Up Your Bench Shirt” is that I want to go into the principles of what changes the tension in the shirt. We’ll use these principles to build a solid theoretical framework that you can use to jack up new and unfamiliar shirts.
Before we dive into the theory of what makes a bench shirt work, we need to cover a few terms, just to make sure we are all talking about the same thing.
The line of tension is the part of the shirt that actually stretches and acts as the spring. When you lift in a bench shirt, you are not actually stretching the entire garment; the work is really being done by a band that is, at most, 4 inches wide. The line of Tension runs more or less directly between the lower part of your shoulders. This is a key point in understanding how to set your shirt. I have seen people lavish tremendous attention on parts of their shirt that cannot and will not stretch during the lift. You should concentrate most on the part that is actually doing the work.
Those of us who are familiar with shirted benching will know that shirts have a path in which they “prefer” to guide the weight, which is often called the groove. Moving your arms to follow the groove will ensure that you maximize the support the shirt gives you while still allowing you to touch the bar to your chest. Typically, this means you “tuck” your arms into your body on the way down and flare your elbows out on the way up; however, the exact details are unique to your body and to the shirt.
It is easy to tell if you fall out of the groove: The shirt will either lock up and leave you unable to touch any weight, or it will very suddenly relinquish all support of the weight.. This is generally the point at which your spotters will prove their worth.
One last piece of definition that we need to clear up before we get into the meat of the article is the anchor point. The anchor point is the place on your arm that the shirt grabs and holds on to. The shirt acts as if the line of tension is only attached to one, one-inch-wide circle around your arm.
This is a key point, so it bears repeating. Let’s all say it together now: “The shirt acts as if the line of tension is only attached to one, one-inch-wide circle around your arm.” This is really obvious when you take the shirt off, as the anchor point is generally the region in which all the bruising takes place. Different shirts anchor very differently; stretchy poly shirts will generally catch at the back of the triceps, where denim harness-style shirts will anchor closer to the cuffs.
How Does a Bench Shirt Work?
A bench shirt acts as a giant spring sitting on your chest. This spring presses the weight upwards. The shirt stores energy as the weight is lowered and releases it as the weight is raised. However, that energy will only be release efficiently as long as neither the shirt nor your ribs collapse under this strain.
This is why it is so critical to remain tight underneath the shirt while you are benching, even though the tension in the shirt is trying to drive you through the bench. If you fail to keep yourself tight, you will lose the energy you stored in the shirt and you will (at best) not get any benefit from it.
When you ask someone how to jack up a bench shirt, the first thing they say is, “Pull the front down,” and for the most part they are correct, however pulling the front of a shirt down has two very different modes of action. Let’s talk for a minute about what those are.
The first mode of action is to stretch a smaller piece of the chest plate. If you look at most bench shirts they taper towards the neckline. That is to say that if you draw a line between the sleeves, that line is shorter at the collar than it is at the pecs. By pulling the shirt down, we are simulating wearing a smaller shirt, without having to change shirts between attempts. This does a lot of things, most of them good. You get more pop off the bottom, and the shirt supports the lift higher up into the lockout range. Pulling the shirt down in front will often lower the groove, and in most non-IPF cases that too is good. You have to be careful however to look at the shirt you are working with. There are some shirts which actually get larger as you move towards the collar. Not only can you easily see this visually, but you can tell by using it. If you pull a shirt down in front, and the groove changes but the tension doesn’t; look at the taper on the shirt.
The second mode of action is to involve the collar. This is where the fun begins. Typically a collar has at least twice as many plies as the chest plate of the shirt, and sometimes it has more, a lot more. So what this means is if when you pull that shirt down in front, and you start to involve the collar, the shirt becomes a lot more difficult to stretch. In essence you are simulating wearing a shirt made out of a much stronger material. This has a very profound effect, and when you are lifting you will know right away the first time you manage to involve your collar. The shirt will become hugely more supportive, very quickly, and you’ll find yourself struggling to get weights a hundred pounds over your max to touch a four board. If you are engaging the collar is really quite obvious, to the eye, but it is even more obvious to the lifter. For example I have a shirt that will comfortably touch 550lbs when only stretching the chest plate. If you pull the shirt down an inch, staying in the collar, the amount of weight you need to touch goes up by 50 lbs or so. So pull the shirt down an inch and it takes 600 to touch, another inch, 650. As soon as you hit the collar, the touch-weight jumps up 150lbs pretty much immediately; so the shirt goes from being able to touch 650 to floating 800 at a two-board by pulling the front down the next inch.
There is one last good way to adjust your bench shirt, and that is to adjust the anchor point. Archimedes said that given a large enough lever and a firm place to stand, he could move the world. The same holds true for your bench shirt. The place where it attaches to your arm (the anchor point) is critical in the execution of a lift. The amount of force that the shirt can exert on your arms increases as the anchor point moves down from your shoulders and towards your elbows, because the shirt uses your upper arm bone as a lever. The more of the lever the shirt can use the more the power. Now you’ll note that nobody talked about this with the old denim shirts, as they tended to anchor at the cuffs, which meant that it just wasn’t reasonable to try to move it any closer to the elbow. With the advent of the modern tight-sleeve poly shirt, however, we can seriously start to use this for adjustments. The advantage that you see with adjusting your anchor point is that is almost always adjusts the range through which the shirt helps. If you are having trouble with lockouts, but are touching easily, try to adjust the anchor.
Of course, you need pretty tight sleeves to play with an anchor point, or else the shirt will just slip back to the path of least resistance.
The next time you are going for a heavy attempt, take a serious look at what you are doing. Don’t just pull the front of the shirt down; think about how much you are pulling it down, and why. Are you pulling the collar into the line of tension? If not, should you be? Are your sleeves tight enough to adjust your anchor point? Can you do that repeatably? If you are having trouble getting a touch, can you fight those sleeves up a little higher?
By putting some things together you can really achieve some interesting tweaks. For example; I had one lifter who seemed strong, but had to go way too heavy to get anything to touch in his shirt. His problem was the collar in the line of tension. First off we pulled the shirt up in front, to get the lifter to where he could touch something. Of course in doing so, the shirt became loose, and he lost a lot of support. To counteract this, we pulled his sleeves down, lowering his anchor point, and restoring support. So now he had support through a longer range of motion, but by not stretching the collar, he got to easier touches. In fifteen minutes he picked up a 50 lb PR.
By knowing the effect you are trying to achieve, you can eliminate a lot of guesswork in tweaking your shirt before a lift. There is nothing more practical than a good theory.
Next time around, we’ll talk about how to spot a shirted bench press. There are a lot of pitfalls, and with lifter safety on the line, it is a discussion that simply cannot be glossed over.