Strength in Different Positions of the Bench Press

Key Points:

  • Twelve resistance-trained men were tested in 1RM and in isometric (static) contractions in bench press in 12 different positions: from chest level to extended arms.
  • The weakest point was at a height of 4 cm off the chest. This was true both in a 1RM bench press and in isometric contractions.
  • In a 1RM bench press, the force output is at its highest immediately off the chest (0–1 cm) but then decreases quickly to its lowest point at 4 cm off the chest.

Which is your weakest position in the bench press? Is it at the bottom where the bar touches your chest? Slightly higher? Maybe somewhere in the middle of the lift?

If you know where the weakest position is in your bench press, it can guide your training, just like knowing how much your triceps contribute to your bench press at various grip widths. A study from Norway, published in 2012 sheds valuable light on this matter.1

Strength Testing at Different Positions in the Bench Press

The researchers recruited twelve resistance-trained young men with the following characteristics:

  • Age 21.7 years ±1.3 years
  • Bodyweight: 78 kg ± 5.8 kg
  • Height: 1.81 m ± 0.05 m
  • Bench Press 1RM: 104 kg ± 9 kg

The researchers then placed a bench on a force plate, attached a linear encoder to measure the vertical position and velocity of the barbell, and had the participants test their bench press strength in two conditions:

  • Bench press 1RM. The participants worked up to a 1RM in the bench press. That is, the heaviest weight they could lift for one repetition.
  • Isometric contractions. In this condition, the barbell was fixated, and the participants pushed as hard as possible against it in 12 different positions (from the chest, all the way up to lock-out), in randomized order.

Here’s the experimental setup, with the barbell fixated.

Bench press sticking point
Experimental setup: a force plate under the bench and a fixated barbell.

Thanks to the force plate, the researchers could measure the force output at different heights. The linear encoder enabled them to find the sticking region (the region where most lifts fail if they are just a little too heavy), defined as the area between the first local maximum velocity and the first local minimum velocity. In other words: the area where the barbell slows down to its minimum velocity before it starts accelerating again.

Velocity and the sticking region in the bench press. Shows only the concentric portion: from the chest to lock-out.

The Weakest Point in a 1RM Bench Press

Here is the mean force output of the participants’ 1RM attempts in the concentric, upward part of the lift.

Weakest point in the bench press

As you can see, the force output is at its highest at the very bottom of the lift: around 0–1 cm above the chest.

This is likely because of three reasons:

  1. The barbell must reverse from the eccentric portion and accelerate from unmoving to moving. This requires higher force than just keeping a steady velocity with the same weight.
  2. The muscles and tendons can generate more force because of the stretch-shortening cycle.
  3. The muscles can generate more force because of potentiation: they are already active from the eccentric portion, and the muscle fibers have already formed cross-bridges.

The point of lowest force output was at 4 cm off the chest, in the beginning of the sticking region, and then slightly higher as the participants cleared this region.

Note that as this is an actual 1RM lift, the participants don’t generate more force than necessary to complete the rep, which explains why the force output isn’t significantly higher in the post-sticking region. They simply keep applying the force necessary to move the bar up to lock-out, without losing control.

But how strong are you really in different positions of the bench press? If you where to push as hard as possible?

The Weakest Point in an Isometric Bench Press

For the next test, the researchers fixated the barbell at 12 different heights in randomized order: from chest level (0 cm) up to just under lock-out (31 cm).

The participants then got under the bar and pushed as hard as possible against an unmoving bar, and the force plate under the bench measured how much force they generated. That is: how strong they where at different heights.

Here’s the results:

Isometric Strength in Different Positions of the Bench Press

Once again, the weakest point in the lift was found to be at the height of 4 cm off the chest. But unlike a 1RM attempt, the participants pushed as hard as possible in each of the 12 different positions.

As you can see, the participants could push with more force the higher the barbell was placed, with the force really increasing rapidly from 10–13 cm or so and upwards. This has important implications regarding the arch when competing in the bench press. If you can cut away the bottom 10 cm by arching, you increase your lowest force output from about 880 N (in this case) to 980 N, which translates to approximately an 11% strength increase in the hardest part of the lift.

Take-Away and Practical Application

It is interesting to note that the weakest point in both an actual 1RM lift and a static contraction is at 4 cm off the chest. Get stronger in this area, and an inch or so above and below, and you’ve strengthened the largest bottle-neck in your bench press strength.

But how do you get stronger in this position?

Well, since it is the most challenging part of a bench press, just regular bench press training will strengthen this position.

It might be beneficial to periodically put some extra emphasis on this position, however. You could do that by implementing exercises that require you to generate force from the bottom position. And yes, I would generally recommend training from your chest, even if the weakest point was found to be 4 cm higher. Mostly because you have to get strong enough from your chest anyway, and if you do, you will have an easier time blasting past the 4 cm weak point.

Here are a few exercises that come to mind:

  • Paused bench press. If you compete in powerlifting, you should already be doing these at least leading up to competitions. But bench presses with an exaggerated pause (say 2–3 seconds) at your chest might help your “starting strength”.
  • Pin bench press. Set up your safety arms or some other kind of blocks or pins, so that you can rest the bar against these at chest height. Perform the bench press as usual, but put the bar down at the pins in the bottom, and let go of 50–100% of the tension in your muscles before you push the bar back up to straight arms.
  • Isometric bench press. Find some way to fix the barbell at your chest level. It could be as easy as setting it up like for a pin bench press but instead loading the bar with more than you can lift. Then you crawl under the bar, and press as hard as you can against the unmoving bar, for a few seconds per “rep”.
  • Band-resisted bench press (or bench press with chains). While these don’t challenge your weakest point much more than the regular bench press, they will better adapt the resistance curve in the bench press to your strength curve, making the lift heavier in the positions where you are stronger. This might add to your general muscle growth and overall strength in the bench press. Also, it could teach you to better accelerate off the chest and thus blast past your weakest point.

Good luck with your bench press training, and let me know if you try out any of the suggestions above! 🙂

Related reading:

Muscle group training guides:

Reference

  1. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(6):591-9. Is the occurrence of the sticking region the result of diminishing potentiation in bench press?