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Plyometric Bench Press Training for More Strength and Power

Plyometric Bench Press Training for More Strength and Power
Kenny Croxdale, BA, CSCS and Tom Morris MS, CSCS

Reprinted with the permission of the author and Mike Lambert - Powerlifting USA Magazine - May/02. Powerlifting USA subscriptions- Call 1-800-448-7693 to order.

Powerlifters are beginning to learn that speed development is fundamental to increasing the amount of weight lifted. Many powerlifters find speed training difficult to accept because of the low resistances often utilized. The typical individual will ask themselves "How can I increase my max by lifting lighter weights more explosively?" This article will review some of the research regarding the importance of speed training for power development and how speed training can be used to increase an individual's 1RM on the bench press.

First let’s define what power is. Power is equal to force multiplied by distance divided by time.
Power = Force x Distance/Time
Since the terms force and strength are often used interchangeably and distance divided by time is the same thing as speed, power can more simply be defined as strength multiplied by speed.
Strength x Speed = POWER.
"Since strength and speed are components of power, increasing one while neglecting the other limits total power development. Unfortunately, many players focus on strength because they are familiar with this traditional and well-established mode of training. Because strength and speed have a multiplicative impact on power, athletes can make greater gains if they develop both components. For example, if an arbitrary strength score for an athlete was 2, and the athlete's arbitrary speed score also was 2, the hypothetical power rating would be:
2 x 2 = 4
Doubling strength without altering speed would double power:
4 x 2 = 8
If the same athlete made only a 50 percent gain in strength and an equal gain in speed, the power rating would be:
3 x 3 = 9" (Brittenham, 1997)
Now one begins to understand Louie Simmons' concept of using training percentages of 60% or below to increase one's power in the bench press. Research indicates that Louie Simmons has been right on the money with his training percentages for power. I'm sure Louie finds this comforting.
A recent study perfo rmed by a group of Australian researchers (Baker, et. al., 2001) indicates that training percentages should be in the range of 46 to 62% of 1 RM when the goal is to develop power on the be nch press. These same researchers concluded that a resistance of 55% of one's max is the ideal resistance when training for explosiveness.

Although training with 55% of one's max will increase speed, there is a limit to how much speed one can develop when performing a traditional bench press with lower percentages. The fundamental problem with speed training on the bench press is that the bench press has never been nor will it ever be a true speed movement. Research by Dr. John Garhammer (1993) exposes the lack of potential explosiveness that is inherent when bench pressing. Garhammer measured the power outputs of elite Olympic and powerlifters. The highest average power output of any lift occurred during the second pull of the Olympic clean. The second pull of the clean was measured at an incredible 52.6 watts per kilo of bodyweight. In comparison, the highest power outputs of elite male powerlifters were 12 watts per kilo of bodyweight during the squat and deadlift. The bench press sputtered in at a very dismal 4 watts per kilo of bodyweight. Lowering the training percentages will not significantly increase the explosiveness of the bench press.

Another obstacle when training for an explosive bench press (even at lower percentages of 1 RM) is the deceleration of the bar during the lift. "Research has20shown as much as 75% of a movement can be devoted to slowing the bar down." (Flannagan, 2001). Elliot et al. (1989) revealed that during 1-RM bench presses, the bar decelerates for the final 24 % of the range of motion. At 81% of 1-RM, the bar deceleration occurs during the final 52% of the range of motion. The accompanying deceleration phases result in significantly decreased motor unit recruitment, velocity of movement, power production and compromises the effectiveness of the exercise." (Berry et. al., 2001)

The National Strength and Conditioning Association's Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes states that "performing speed repetitions as fast as possible with light weights (e.g., 30-45% of 1RM) in exercises in which the bar is held on to and must be decelerated at the end of the joint's range of motion (e.g., bench press) to protect the joint does not produce power or speed training but rather teaches the body how to decelerate, or slow down. If the load can be released into the air (i.e., the bar can be let go at the end of the range of motion), the negative effects are eliminated. Here is a situation in which the medicine ball became a rediscovered tool for upper-body power and plyometrics." (Pearson et. al., 2000)

Plyometric exercises are characterized by a powerful, explosive muscular contraction in response to an immediate, prior, rapid dynamic loading of the involved muscles. Rapid loading of the muscles and the associated stretch on those muscles causes a "stre tch reflex". This stretch reflex causes a proportional contraction of the stretched muscle thereby eliciting a more powerful movement had the muscle not been quickly loaded. Therefore, the goal of a plyom etric movement is to convert an eccentric contraction of a muscle group to a concentric contraction as soon as possible. The time between the eccentric contraction and the concentric contraction is called the amortization phase. Again, the goal is to decrease the length of the amortization phase.

Arguably, the single best upper body plyometric exercise simulating the bench press is the "power drop". The power drop involves having a training partner drop a medicine ball to you while you are on the floor lying on your back. You catch the medicine ball and immediately propel it as explosively as possible straight up to the ceiling. Your training partner then catches the medicine ball before it falls back to you. Your training partner then drops the medicine ball down to you for the second repetition of the set. It is suggested that power drops be performed for 5 sets of 2-5 reps. Complete recovery should be taken between sets.

It is critical that you focus on the quality of the movement. Power drops need to be performed as explosively as possible. After catching the medicine ball, you should eccentrically decelerate the ball to just above the chest. Once the medicine ball reaches the chest, you should as quickly as possible, concentrically thrust the ball straight towards the ceiling . It is important to minimize the time between the eccentric decelerating of the medicine ball and the explosive concentric "sending it through the roof" phase. By converting the eccentric contraction into the concent ric contraction as quickly as possible (minimizing the amortization phase), greater explosiveness is elicited by the involved muscles. Think of the medicine ball as a "hot potato". Once the medicine ball is eccentrically lowered to the chest, you want to get rid of the "hot potato" as fast as possible before it burns your hands.

Ebben et. al. (1999) recommend medicine ball training loads of approximately 30% of 1RM for biomechanically comparable weight training exercises. The researchers developed the following regression equation to identify the height from which to drop the medicine ball based on the required training load and the weight of the medicine ball being used. Therefore, if the training load and weight of the medicine ball are known, the following equation is used to determine the height from which to drop the ball when performing power drops:

Height in inches = [Training Load - [(weight of medicine ball in pounds)(6.09)] + 105.37]/3.19

Therefore, let us assume that if a lifters 1RM for the bench press is 300 pounds, 30% of their 1RM is 90 pounds. Ninety pounds is their training load. Let us also assume that the lifter has a 10-pound medicine ball available to them for use. By plugging in the training load of 90 pounds and the medicine ball weight of 10 pou nds into the above formula, the lifter would need to have the 10 pound ball dropped from a height of 42 inches in order to develop the desired training load when performing this plyometric power drop exercise.

More simply, multiply the weight of the medicine ball that is available to you (10 pounds in this example) by the constant 6.09. This gives you 60.9. Next, subtract this number (60.9) from the training load you need to work out with (90). 90 – 60.9 = 29.1. Now take this newly calculated number (29.1) and add the constant of 105.37 to it which gives you 134.47. Finally, take this number and divide it by yet another constant of 3.19 which gives you your final answer of 42. This means that the 10 pound medicine ball must be dropped from 42 inches (the distance between where the ball is dropped from and the outstretched hands) in order to elicit a training load of 90 pounds.
Jay Schroeder, strength coach with EVO-FIT in Mesa, Arizona focuses on plyometric bench press exercises of a comparable nature to increase the speed and strength of the athletes he trains. Schroeder uses a "contraption that looks like a bench-press machine beneath four poles. A heavy, rectangular, metal slab slides up and down the poles." Athletes "lie on the bench and push the slab up, let it go, and catch it, repeatedly." (Bruton, 2001)

This was one of the methods Schroeder used in training Adam Archuleta, safety with the Saint Louis Rams . Archuleta's beginning bench press of 265 pounds was moved in 2.76 seconds for the concentric phase. After training the plyometric bench press, Archuleta's concentric bench of 530 pounds is moved in 1.09 seconds. (Nawrocki, 2001) . Schroder's program revolves around absorbing and rapidly repelling force, i.e., plyometrics.

Plyometric bench press training with the Smith machine can somewhat duplicate the medicine ball drop and Schroder's training method. Research by the previously mentioned Australian group utilized plyometric bench press throws using the Smith machine. The Smith machine bench press throws are performed by catapulting the bar as high as one can into the air. The lifter then catches the returning bar with an open palm and decelerates the bar to just above the chest. At that point, the lifter reverses the direction of the bar as quickly as possible and launches it into the air once again. Needless to say, this can be a potentially dangerous activity and should be performed with great care.

Schroeder also uses a free weight bench press for plyometric training. However, turning a free weight bar into a projectile poses numerous problems. It is suggested that one practice these activities with minimal resistance before attempting heavier weights.

In summary, research shows training the bench press with percentages of 55% of 1 RM is an effective method that should be used to develop power. However, "(t)his not only develops power in a very narrow range of motion, but also=2 0trains the muscle to "put on the brakes" for three quarters of the movement! Imagine the disastrous consequences of training a boxer to slow down a punch for the last 75% of the movement or a football lineman to explode only pa rtly off the line of scrimmage." (Flannagan, 2001). This same analogy can be applied to benching, squatting and deadlifiting. The objective is to ram the weight through the roof and through the sticking point. Therefore, training for power must also include plyometric exercises that maximize the stretch reflex. Exercises like the medicine ball drop, Smith machine bench press throws and free weight bench press throws fully exploit the stretch reflex. Combining low percentages in one's bench training along with plyometric bench press movements will provide a greater stimulus than just one of these methods alone. The ultimate result will be an increase in your 1RM.
Baker, D., S. Nance and M. Moore. The load that maximizes the average power output during explosive bench press throws in highly trained athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 15(1): 20-24. 2001.

Berry, M. and B. Ebben, [] Free Weight Variable Resistance: Power-Up USA, Inc., 2001.

Brittenham, G. [] Volleyball Players’ Guide to Safe Plyometrics: AVCA Online, 1997.

Bruton, M. [] Philadelphia Newspapers In c., Sunday, May 6, 2001

Ebben, W., D. Blandard, and R. Jensen. Quantification of medicine ball vertical impact forces: Estimating effective training loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 13(3): 271-274. 1999.

Elliot, B. and G. Wilson. A biomechanical analysis of the sticking region in the bench press. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 21: 450-464. 1989.

Flannagan, S. Improve performance with ballistic training. Strength and Health. Spring 2001.

Garhammer, J. A review of power output studies of Olympic and powerlifting: Methodology, performance, prediction and evaluation test. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 7(2): 76-89. 1993.

Nawrocki, N. [] The Athlete's Edge: ‘Evo'lutionary training: Archuleta explodes past his competition: Pro Football Weekly's Internet Edition, June 19, 2001

Pearson, D., A. Faigenbaum, M. Conley and W. Kraemer. The National Strength and Conditioning Association's basic guidelines for the resistance training of athletes. Strength a nd Conditioning Journal. 22(4): 14-27. 2000