Accommodating resistance: the bench press
Those loud guys at your gym. The ones with spaghetti arms spilling out of their beast mode tank tops, whose training programs seem to involve 80% talking, 15% making women uncomfortable, and 5% half repping the bench press? They're on to something.
Before you open up Ebay and make the worse sartorial mistake of your life (we've got better shirts anyway) or decide an unblinking death-stare will net you the partner of your dreams, I'm on about that last 5%. While you're as likely to see the half reppers make decent gains as you are to come across an insightful essay on intersectional feminism written by Brett Kavanaugh, that doesn't mean they can't teach us about something useful.
Namely, the strength curve.
The science of strength curves
We already know the half reppers are boosting the amount of weight they can handle by avoiding the bottom half of the lift. But this isn't solely down to reducing range of motion – it's also because they're stronger in the top half than the bottom half. Here's why.
At any point in a given movement pattern the human body is capable of producing a particular amount of maximal force. When these changes in force production are plotted on a graph you get a neat curving line, thus the 'strength curve'. Several factors influence this. One is biomechanical leverage, determined by joint angle – the angle between two body parts on either side of a joint, such as forearm and upper arm.
The matters because the torque produced by movement around a joint is equal to the force applied by a muscle multiplied by that muscle's perpendicular distance from the joint. And this distance – known as the moment arm – changes depending on joint angle. For the triceps the optimal joint angle for producing torque is near the middle of the elbow's range of motion (Frey-Law et al, 2012). If you're benching correctly this should be close to your lockout position.
Another factor is the degree of muscle contraction or elongation (Zatsiorsky, 1995). This alters the degree of overlap between filaments made of the motor proteins myosin and actin -- which work together inside individual muscle sarcomeres to make them contract (Smith et al, 1996). We can take a simple rule of thumb from this: in most cases actin and myosin filaments are optimally overlapped while the muscle is at its relaxed length (Arandjelović, 2010). For the muscles involved in the bench press this optimal position is, again, towards the lockout.
So joint angle and filament overlap work together to produce a bench press strength curve which makes the top half of the lift easier for most lifters, but how can we use this to get bigger and stronger? The answer is accommodating resistance.
Training the strength curve: accommodating resistance
Described by 'Soviet System' legend Vladimir Zatsiorsky in the 1980s, and popularised by the equally legendary Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell in the late 90s, accommodating resistance simply means adapting the resistance of a given lift to account for the strength curve.
This can take many forms: from performing partials to overload the strongest portion of the lift, like our half reppers, to using machines with special cams which adjust resistance throughout the movement in line with the average strength curve.
But one method outshines all the others, and has been adopted across the strength training world due to its track record of producing elite level squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. Renowned coach and multiple champion powerlifter Dave Tate even credits the method with making a 500lb bench and an 800lb squat 'a joke' when he trained under Louie Simmons at Westside. That method is the use of resistance bands and chains.
Now if you train at the kind of gym with chains laying about you probably either know all this already, or have a coach to do the thinking for you. And if you don't you're unlikely to fancy carrying 100kg of chains around in your gym bag. So for the remainder we'll focus on bands, which are not only cheaper and more portable, but come in a wider range of tensions. See the full range here.
How to: the banded bench press
Now you know the theory behind accommodating resistance and how effective it can be, here's one way to implement it into your training.
To perform a banded bench press:
Set up your bench in a power rack with band hooks if you have access to one, otherwise grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and put one under each end of the bar.
Choose a pair of bands appropriate for your strength level. If your 1 rep max is less than 140kg the blue 23kg bands are recommended, or even the lighter greens or yellows. From 140 to 180kg go for the reds with 36kg of resistance. Above 180kg – you probably already know what you're doing, but the black 54kg bands might suit you. And for the strongest out there there's the 68kg whites.
Loop the bands through the hooks/over the dumbbells, and loop the other ends over the sleeves of the barbell – either before adding plates or after, it doesn't matter.
- Lift. You'll notice a couple of things: the bands force you to accelerate hard throughout the entire movement, even at lockout, and will speed up the negative portion even as they release tension at the bottom. These progressive concentrics and accelerated eccentrics – terms coined at Westside – give the bands their unique training effect. Make sure you start light and have a spotter on hand until you're used to it.
More to come
Keep an eye out for the next article in the Accommodating Resistance series, which looks at the deadlift. In the mean time grab some bands and get to work.
Arandjelović, O. (2010). A mathematical model of neuromuscular adaptation to resistance training and its application in a computer simulation of accommodating loads. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 110(3), pp.523-538.
Frey-Law, L., Laake, A., Avin, K., Heitsman, J., Marler, T. and Abdel-Malek, K. (2012). Knee and Elbow 3D Strength Surfaces: Peak Torque-Angle-Velocity Relationships. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 28(6), pp.726-737.
Smith, L., Weiss, E. and Lehmkukl, L. (1996). Brunnstrom's clinical kinesiology. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.
Zatsiorsky, V. (1995). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign: Human Kinetics