Over the years I have received many questions regarding the bench shirt. Why do they work, how to put one on, what size to get, how to use one effectively, which type to get, etc. Hopefully, the series of articles I will write over the next few months will answer all of these questions and more, and clear some of the questions many people have about the mysterious Bench Shirt.
What Exactly Is A "Bench Shirt"?
A bench shirt is a stiff supportive shirt, used to improve performance in the bench press, most often in powerlifting competitions to increase their 1 rep max. The bench shirt is basically artificial shoulders and pectoral (chest). The shirt resists the bench press movement (like compressing a powerful spring) thereby giving a boost off the chest.
- Originally the attire for powerlifting was similar to that for Olympic lifting. Lifters had the option of wearing a one-piece lifting suit, called a singlet, or a two-piece one made up of a t-shirt or tank top and a pair of shorts.
- were allowed in the form of ace bandages.
Additionally, a belt no wider than 4" could be used. However, at the 1968 AAU Senior Nationals there was significant controversy over lifters wearing multiple layers of trunks and wraps to aid their lifts. Soon, special squatting and support shorts turned up that helped when lifting.
- In 1973, the National Weightlifting Committee banned these supportive suits and all other supportive lifting gear other than a belt. These rules continued until 1974 when the IPF came into existence.
Bench shirts were originally brought to the market as a protective device, much like a lifting belt, knee wraps, etc. The "Bench Shirt" came into existence in 1983, when a college student and powerlifter named John Inzer started making shirts that supported benchers' shoulders and deltoids.
The original shirts were a tight polyester material that helped protect the shoulders and pectorals during heavy benching, such as during a competition. Word spread that the bench shirt not only prevented injuries but also actually helped bounce the weight off your chest.
Gear use is currently widespread in powerlifting with more federations offering equipped lifting than unequipped.
What Can A Shirt Add To Your Lift?
- Bench shirts can add approximately 10%-15% for a low quality shirt or perhaps as much as 20%, 30%+ to your single paused legal bench press with a good
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- shirt after you learn how to use your shirt.
Learning how to use the shirt, choosing a shirt that fits correctly, and choosing a shirt that fits your lifting technique is the key to getting the most out of your shirt. Some lifters depending on the equipment rules have gotten even higher percentages (45%-50%) from a bench shirt.
- Failure to use the shirt correctly, choosing a shirt that does not fit your technique can sometimes result in hurting your 1 rep max and having a lift that is less than a "raw" or unassisted (no shirt) lift.
Super-heavyweight Ryan Kennelly, benched 1070 pounds (476.3 kg) on 4/13/08 at the APA West Coast Iron Wars held in Kennewick, Washington using a bench shirt. It is said that his "raw" max is less than 700 pounds.
The heaviest bench press without any equipment to assist is held by Scot Mendelson with a lift of 715 lbs (324.3 kg)
Rules Governing Bench Shirts
Different powerlifting federations have different rules governing allowed equipment - for example:
- The only supportive equipment allowed by the 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation for bench press is a leather belt.
- The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) stipulates that support shirts must be "of one ply stretch material".
- The American Powerlifting Federation (APF) is the most popular powerlifting Federation in the World doesn't only allows single ply, and closed-back shirts.
- The United States Powerlifting Federation (USPF) only allows single ply, and closed-back shirts.
- The American Powerlifting Association (APA) only allows open-back shirts, and 2 ply gear. However, the APA also keeps limitations on the gear like no canvas, no shirts pulled down past the shoulders, etc.
- The USA Powerlifting (USAPL) allows single ply equipment.
- The World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters (WABDL) allows single or double ply, poly or denim, but the neck must be closed.
- The World Natural Powerlifting Federation (WNPF) allows single or double ply, poly or denim, open or closed back, but no canvas.
Prevalence Of Use
- While the use of bench shirts has always been hotly debated, it is a fact that the majority of lifters use them. In particular, the vast majority of elite and famous lifters use some form of bench shirt. For instance the current bench press record Ryan Kennelly (1070 pounds (476.3 kg) on 4/13/08), as well as legend Scot Mendelson (1008 lb (457.5 kg) 2/18/06.) have made amazing poundage's using the bench shirt.
Types Of Bench Shirts
In the beginning, there was only one type of bench shirt available. Now, Bench press shirts come in a wide range of styles and fitting types. Bench shirts are usually made of polyester, denim, or canvas and come in single- or multi-ply thicknesses. The two most popular types are the polyester and the denim bench press shirt. Kennely has made some of his largest lifts using an Inzer double Rage-X, or an Inzer double denim.
An important point to note, each shirt, as well as the brand changes the way in which weight is lifted. Therefore practicing in a shirt to identify which brand type works best for your style of lifting is essential.
Single Ply vs. Multiple Ply
- This is a simple concept that improved shirts by leaps and bounds. A single ply shirt is just that, one layer of poly or denim sewn into a shirt. A double has two layers in critical areas; a triple ply has three layers of material in critical areas.
The thicker the shirt, the more resistance is given, and the more additional power the bencher has available. Most polyester shirts these days are double ply, and double ply is essentially a standard in denim shirts and canvas shirts, as the extra layer prevents ripping of the material under extreme loads.
Polyester (Poly) Shirts
- One of the first designs on the market.
- Polyester bench press shirts are by far the most popular type of shirt being used by benchers and world record holders today.
- Polyester bench press shirts are tight fitting shirts made with 1 or 2 layers of polyester.
- There are three main types of polyester bench press shirts today. They are:
- Shirts using the same (or similar) type of fabric throughout the whole shirt. These types of shirts are extremely tight and hard to get on. It usually requires 3 people to get one on.
- Shirts which has the back split open (either permanently, or the backs may fasten up with Velcro). This type of shirt gives the lifter a bit more flexibility when they're not lifting.
- Shirts with a thin, "stretchy" material on the back (said to be created to get around "no open back" rules by some of the federations, such as the USAPL and APF.
- The shirt is made in such a way, that the fabric of the shirt needs to be stretched when the bencher is holding the bar and moving it downwards. When the bencher pushes the bar back up, the fabric is relaxed.
- In general, the sleeves of the shirt are angled in such a way as to require stretching the fabric to move the arms toward the chest when holding the bar, such that the stretch of the shirt adds to the force a lifter's muscles can provide.
- The additional benching power of the poly shirt comes from the stretching of the shirt material and the compression of the lifter's body.
- This power can make it difficult to make the bar touch the chest. For advanced lifters, thicker shirts built from multiple layers of material can make touching the bar even more difficult. The multiple layers do add additional resistance, and therefore power to the shirt.
- Several manufacturers make poly shirts in many different designs. Some shirts are made entirely of the same material throughout, others have a different material for the back of the shirt, and still other have the back of the shirt split open and fastened with Velcro, or even left completely open.
Wearing The Poly Shirt
- Poly shirts must fit the wearer very tight and can be extremely uncomfortable.
- If a poly shirt doesn't hurt, it is much too loose.
- Poly shirts are known to chaff, cut and bruise the underarms severely.
- Therefore many beginners might opt to try a looser fitting shirt, like denim, first.
- They can be very difficult to get on.
- Shirts made entirely from one type of material with a fully closed back are especially difficult, and may require several helpers to place the shirt on the lifter.
- Shirts with Velcro backs, stretchy back material, and completely open backs have become much more common simply because they are easier to get on the lifter.
- All poly shirts must be pulled up the lifter's arms as far as possible first.
- It is always important to make certain the shirt is straight. If the sleeve is twisted, it can very negatively affect a lift (seams can be used as an indicator of straightness and positioning of the shirt).
- Once the shirt is in position on the arms, the shirt must be pulled over the head (or pulled around the shoulders for an open back model), and pulled down the torso, with all of the wrinkles worked out of the fabric. If the shirt is a Velcro design, the Velcro should now be fastened.
- Once this is done the seams around the deltoid and under the armpit should be checked to ensure that they are still straight. If not they should again be readjusted.
- If the shirt is tight fitting like it is designed to be worn it can take as much as 15-25 minutes to get the shirt ready for the lifter.
Using The Poly Shirt
- Like with any shirt type, each type and brand of poly shirt has its own unique characteristics. Some like the Titan Fury, or the open back version of Inzer's Phenom, seem to work best in a low groove where the bar touches below the pecs (chest). People that bench high on the chest, seem to favor shirts like the Inzer Blast Shirts.
It is important to recognize that not only do shirts fit differently for different people, but each individual shirt has its own unique groove, which must be learned in order to achieve maximum performance. For example, the Inzer EHPHD Blast Shirt tends to drive the bar path over the lifter's face. The lifter has to compensate for this by purposely forcing the bar path lower.
- A denim bench-press shirt is similar in shape to a polyester shirt, and works in the same principal.
- The denim must be stretched in order for the weight to be brought down to the chest.
- Denim shirts provide more support than poly shirts because denim is less flexible than polyester.
- Denim shirts are considered to be the top of the line.
- The denim shirt creates its power by twisting and straining the fabric, and by compressing the lifter's body.
- Denim shirts do not work for everyone because the material and the way it is put the benchers body is under an enormous amount of pressure.
- The shirts are also not the choice for many because for the denim bench press shirt to work effectively, the bencher must use perfect technique. If the technique is not 100% correct, the increase will be negligible (the bencher may even bomb on a weight that they could lift raw).
- They can be purchased with single to triple reinforcement, with Velcro, etc. Prices typically range from $40 for single ply to $200 for triple reinforcement.
Wearing A Denim Shirt
- Because denim is less flexible than polyester, a denim bench press shirt does not have to be worn as tight as a polyester shirt.
- Most denim shirts have at least a mostly split back, making them significantly easier to put on.
- Completely open-back denim shirts are easy to wear. Just slip up the arms, and tug into place.
Using The Denim Shirt
- Because of the tightness of the fabric, the denim shirt can support much more weight than a comparable poly shirt. The stress placed on a lifter's body by a denim shirt can be severe. In many cases, a lifter will not be able to even touch the bar to his or her chest with weight he or she could bench without the shirt.
- In general, denim shirts perform best when used in a low groove.
- Open-back denim shirts work best when the bar is actually touched on the lifter's stomach.
- A denim shirt does require a great deal of very refined technique to use properly; therefore it takes a lot of practice and should not be used by beginners in powerlifting meets without sufficient prior experience using the shirt.
- Because precise technique is of paramount importance, even skilled lifters can miss lifts that they have hit before because of technique. Technique is paramount.
- There are also shirts made of canvas.
- Canvas bench shirts work on basically the same principle as denim shirts.
- They are said to be even more supportive than denim.
- They can be purchased with single to triple reinforcement, with Velcro, etc. Prices typically range from $40 for single ply to $200 for triple reinforcement.
Availability & Cost
- Today's shirts are highly evolved, purpose built garments designed with the intent of lifting more weight. There are now several companies selling bench shirts, offering varying levels of shirts, in various materials, various plys, ranging in price from less than $40 to well over $200.
Choosing Your Bench Press Shirt
Different shirts types work differently for different benchers. The key in choosing the right shirt for you is to choose a shirt that works best with your style of lifting.
Choose a shirt based on how good your arch is and where you lower the bar. If you choose the wrong shirt, you can screw up your lift rather than helping your lift. The bottom line is you need to test them out through your trial and error experiences and you will find the shirt that works for you.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, it is important to discuss the importance of sleeve angle, fabric type, and open vs. closed back.
Importance Of Sleeve Angle
- Sleeve angle is what makes a shirt work. For instance, shirts with a 90° sleeve angle allows for the maximum energy to be stored as soon as the elbows are cracked and the bar descent begins. More energy storage (resistance) means more explosive power and higher max poundages.
Importance Of Fabric Type
- As I stated earlier each type of shirt has its plusses and minuses. Whether it is an open-back shirt, denim vs. poly, angles sleeve or unique hemispherical sleeve.
The key again is finding the type and brand of shirt that supports your benching style. Some shirts work best in a low groove where the shirt tends to drive the bar path over the lifter's face. Other shirts work better in a higher groove where less compensation to force the bar path is needed.
Importance Of Back Panels
- Again, this component of a shirt can also be critical to success. Heavy back material can provide support however it can restrict optimal performance by making it more difficult to get and maintain an arch.
Many experienced lifters prefer stretch back material because it allows maximum lat expansion and lat utilization while benching, and does not pull you out of your groove. Another benefit for everyone is it takes less effort to put on and less effort to take off!
- It is very important to make sure that the shirt has a perfect fit. Shirts, regardless of brand or type are designed to fit the bencher as tight as possible. This makes them extremely uncomfortable for the bencher. As a general rule though, "the tighter the better". The tighter the shirt the more weight you can explode off of your chest with provided you are strong enough to handle the weight and have the lock out strength. If the shirt isn't tight enough, the shirt will not provide the appropriate support and the lifter will not get the maximum benefit from its use. You have to find the happy medium of shirt and strength.
Putting The Shirt On
- It is important to note that a new shirt should feel constricting and hard to put on. In fact, initial lifts using a new shirt may be poor. It takes practice to master a shirt. However, when the bencher breaks through the initial barrier they should find themselves pressing more weights than they could ever imagine.
- Although everyone sees bench shirts as a plus, allowing huge max lifts, it is also important to note that bench shirts pull your shoulders forward, may force you out of the groove, thereby contributing to
- if not used correctly.
Additionally, when used correctly a bench shirt can allow you to handle more weight than you have actually developed your body to handle. They cause extra strain across the shoulders, the wrists and elbows, therefore proper conditioning, and care should be employed.
Technique & Tips
Paying attention to the details of the shirt and your technique is 90% the battle. When you put a bench shirt on, make sure all the seams are properly lined up. It should not take 3 people an hour to get the shirt on, however, you should not be able to put it on yourself in 2 minutes either.
The shirt should be very tight. To help with putting on the shirt, you may opt to use some baby powder. Just a few sprinkles is needed. By rubbing it all over your upper body the shirt should go on a bit easier, since it will not chafe the skin as much. Some people also opt to use shirt slippers to help get the shirt on.
- Regarding the shirts use, if once you have it in, you have trouble getting the weight to touch the shirt, try spraying the shirt with a little water from a spray bottle. This will make it even easier for the weight to touch the shirt. By mastering the details, and by focusing, your lifts should improve.
Putting The Shirt On
- has shirt slippers. Use both baby powder and those. You also need someone to hold the top of your shirt on each side in the back, and circle your arms around like you are swimming as hard as you can. You should be able to get it on then, unless it is too small, but that should work.
Training With The Bench Shirt
- It takes time to adjust to a shirt and learn how to use one properly. Each shirt wears differently and is dependent upon the lifter and the lifters style of lifting. It has been my experience that it is best to start out wearing a loose fitting shirt when you start doing sets of five repetitions; slowly work up to a contest shirt as the weight gets heavier and repetitions decrease.
Once you learn how to use the shirt, you will have greater confidence and your max will increase.
Once you have done the research, picked the shirt you want to use, and practiced with the shirt, then your confidence should rise along with your max bench press!