When I watched my first powerlifting contest, there was no such thing as a bench shirt. This contest was the Michigan State Championships in 1982. I'm pretty sure Inzer launched the "bench press shirt" sometime about 2 years later. The promise of benching bigger weights was a lure I could not resist. Especially since the bench press was my weakest lift. I'd never been very good at the bench.
When Bench Shirts First Came Out...
Looking back I think I may have been good for close to 400 in the 198lb class. I never came close to that in a meet due to injuries that linger today (multiple pec & shoulder strains). Bench shirts were such a pain in the rear to get on and off. I probably got 20-30lbs out of the shirt. That's probably in the pathetic range even for back then. But, I am not sure.
I have been retired from competition since about 1993. Recently, there have been some HUGE benches made. In fact, huge benches are being made left and right in all weight classes. Inzer recently launched their new shirt The Phenom while competitor Titan put out the Fury. I figured they definitely had made improvements in these shirts. It appears they had it wrong years ago. The concept was right, but I don't think the design was right for where the support should be.
I am not sure who was the first person to split the back on the shirt, but I believe that change may have been the most significant along with changing the arm positions. Couple that with greater triceps support and guys and gals figuring out that they need to use the bench shirt (for those who are smart) all the time in their training and you have BIG bench presses. I was very curious though about my theories. Thanks to Bob Lipinski I was able to actually test a Fury bench shirt and see for myself.
Bob lent me a size 48 Fury. I guess it's not one of the latest with the new material either. Bob gave me some tips that were "spot on" for using the shirt. When it arrived in the mail, I opened it up and could see right away how Titan had skirted the "no open back" rule that I believe the USAPL has. They merely put a stretchy material for the back. Bob had said I would probably be able to put the shirt on myself and he was again right on the money. He told me to line up the seams on the back of arms and make sure to use a belt to hold it down. I put the shirt on myself with no problem. No bloody knuckles this time!
Using The Bench Press Shirt
First, I was in no shape to be trying for maximum singles, so that was out of the question let alone risk blowing out another shoulder or pec. I knew a measly 225 would likely give me an idea of the shirt's capabilities. Man, the shirt was TIGHT across the chest when I tried to just push my arms back. Bob told me when I laid down that I should push out on my abs to help keep the shirt in place.
Sure enough, I could feel the shirt want to pull up. A very tight belt would also help keep it in place or like I have seen in videos -- a partner doing one last tug down while you lie on the bench. So, I take 225 off and start down. It starts ripping the crap out of my triceps. Boy, MUCH different than the old Inzer blast shirt. I put the bar back after I went half way down. Geeez!
Ok, I guess it was time to PULL the bar down to my chest. So, I laid back down again and got the handoff from my son. I pulled and pulled all the while my arms felt like they were in blood pressure cuffs. Down... down... then it hit my chest and I put just a slight upward force and it literally FLEW UP off my chest.
I was shocked. All the pressure built up on the way down was released like a rocket taking off. BOOM! I swear it was as easy as an empty bar! My old Inzer blast shirt NEVER felt like that! I got up and quickly had my son help me pull it over my head and off. It literally scared the crap out of me.
Mostly because I know how strength or perceived strength can hypnotize you and lure you to the dark side of stupidity. What scared me is the fact that these shirts enable one to handle poundages much greater than what they are really capable of lifting without the shirt.
Frankly, I am surprised there isn't more pec tears due to these things or triceps injuries. Let me tell you this, I sure have a new respect for those wearing them when they help them lift much heavier weights. It's called having BIG KAHUNAS! I sure don't have the kahunas now to load up to 100lbs or more over my raw max and try and bench it. Maybe I am just getting old? :) It's probably the thought of finally ripping a pec in full that makes me cluck like a chicken. Especially since one of these shirts would likely allow me to use even more weight for a max.
It was definitely fun trying one of the modern day bench shirts; especially since I had bought one of the first "grandpa's" of these modern day shirts so I could compare the two. The remembrance I will have for my test is a nice linear "zipper" like bruise on both triceps that looks like I just had triceps surgery on both arms! Special thanks go to Bob Lipinski for sending me the shirt so I could try it.
Bob has done an official 518 pounds (it looked easy) in a contest and my guess he's going to do more in the future. Good luck Bob! If you decide to compete in powerlifting in the bench press, make sure you do your homework with regard to bench shirts. Because competing without one these days would be like entering a gun fight with a butter knife!