Paused bench press for non-stop gains
How much ya bench? We've all been asked it. We've all hammered the exercise so we can answer without going red in the face. And most of us have been doing it wrong.
The average bench presser wants two things: to be stronger, and to look better. Not necessarily in that order. So they train accordingly, thinking if they just carry on benching 3 sets of 10 for long enough, usually with a weight so heavy they have to bounce the bar off their chest, or stop several inches short of it, they'll be throwing up 3 plates with 20 inch arms in no time.
The above average bench presser knows this is a recipe for stalled progress and injury.
Enter the paused bench press.
A word of warning: make sure you have a spotter before you try this. You might be surprised how much less weight you can handle.
Benefits of the paused bench press
Powerlifting federations often differ in their rules for each lift, but one thing they all agree on is that a bench press must include a pause on the chest – usually between a half and 2 seconds – to be legal.
The logic behind this is that it prevents dangerous cheats like using the sternum as a trampoline for the bar, and minimises the stretch reflex – the tendency for muscles to involuntarily contract after stretching – making the paused bench a purer and more reliable test of maximal strength. And they seem to be right: a 2014 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed a 38% greater rate of error when measuring strength with unpaused bench press compared to paused (Pallarés et al., 2014).
Powerlifters are well advised to train how they compete, so paused bench is a must for for them. But even if you never plan to step on the platform, standardising your lifts like this is a good idea. Not only is it safer, but it allows you to track your progress more accurately – letting you know if your program is working.
Paused bench press is hard. Ever noticed that touch and go deadlifts are easier than when you reset between reps? Same principle. By eliminating the stretch reflex you're forcing your muscles to generate massive explosive power from a dead stop; it's common to see a 10kg+ difference between paused and unpaused maxes.`
Pausing will cause a drop in bar speed off the chest. This is a good thing. Most lifters use the momentum generated by the stretch reflex to power through the bottom portion of the bench, meaning their muscles don't need to produce maximal force during these first 5 or 6 inches. Most lifters also have a sticking point, where they fail max attempts, about 5 or 6 inches off the chest. See a pattern?
By pausing you'll eliminate this reliance on momentum, forcing your muscles to produce maximal power throughout the entire range of motion, including where they're weakest. Over time this will translate to more strength, and fewer failed maxes.
Pausing the bar on your chest also forces you to slow down and control the eccentric portion of the movement. Broscience has long held that training with controlled eccentrics like this can supercharge your gains, and hard science is now backing this up.
One explanation focuses on mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) – an enzyme which modifies how proteins behave in the body, and is thought to influence muscle hypertrophy (Kehat et al., 2010). A recent University of Nottingham study showed that MAPK activation happens only during eccentric training (Franchi et al., 2014).
The study split subjects into a concentric training group and an eccentric training group, before making them do a 3 month resistance training program. After 12 weeks the researchers saw an 11% increase in maximal voluntary isometric contraction (i.e. static strength) in the eccentric trainees – compared to 9% in the concentric group – and a massive 8% vs 2% increase in vastus lateralis size.
So, even if you're not that fussed about strength, and just want to look good at the beach, slow down, pause the bar, and watch the gains roll in.
Take a pause
How you utilise paused benching will depend on your goals. For aspiring powerlifters it should be a mainstay; for bodybuilders keeping constant tension on the muscles with unpaused benching may be better for most training sessions.
Either way, when programmed intelligently the paused bench press will help all lifters make massive gains in strength, size, and power.
Franchi, M., Atherton, P., Reeves, N., Flück, M., Williams, J., Mitchell, W., Selby, A., Beltran Valls, R. and Narici, M. (2014). Architectural, functional and molecular responses to concentric and eccentric loading in human skeletal muscle. Acta Physiologica, 210(3), pp.642-654.
Kehat, I., Davis, J., Tiburcy, M., Accornero, F., Saba-El-Leil, M., Maillet, M., York, A., Lorenz, J., Zimmermann, W., Meloche, S. and Molkentin, J. (2010). Extracellular Signal-Regulated Kinases 1 and 2 Regulate the Balance Between Eccentric and Concentric Cardiac Growth. Circulation Research, 108(2), pp.176-183.
Pallarés, J., Sánchez-Medina, L., Pérez, C., De La Cruz-Sánchez, E. and Mora-Rodriguez, R. (2014). Imposing a pause between the eccentric and concentric phases increases the reliability of isoinertial strength assessments. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(12), pp.1165-1175.
Image credit: Andrew Blight/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (Cropped from original)