While there’s value in just about any board work you can do with the bench press, the 3-board tends to be the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to training with boards.
So, what is the 3-board bench press? The 3-board bench press is a bench press variation with a shortened range of motion. By reducing the ROM to allow the bar to hit the 3-board instead of your chest, lifters can overload their weights, build their lockout muscles, and improve their competitive bench press.
There are several reasons to incorporate the 3-board press into your program that we’ll dive into below.
I wrote an entire article on why powerlifters use boards for bench press, which include all board heights, not just the 3-board, which will be the topic of this article.
3-Board Bench Press: Overview
The 3-board bench press is simply a variation of the bench press that allows you to lower the bar to a board or block instead of all the way down to your chest.
The board itself is a bit of a misnomer, because the board is not three inches thick – it’s closer to five or six inches thick. The term 3-board (or 1-board or 2-board) comes from the common practice of stacking three 2×4 studs together. The number of studs in the stack is the name of the board.
More recently, durable, foam molds that can squeeze onto the middle of the barbell have become a popular way to perform board presses without relying on someone else to hold the board. These are called bench blocks and I highly recommend every powerlifter gets a set (click for today’s price on Amazon).
While many folks will criticize gym bros for “half-repping” their bench press when they see it in the wild, performing reps to a 3-board has immense value to a lifter, just the same way as box squats, or deadlift off of blocks.
By reducing the range of motion, the lifter can focus on only that lockout portion of the lift, and virtually leave your pecs (and other muscles required to move the bar off of your chest) out of it.
Check out my article on the 5 ways to strengthen your bench press lockout.
Muscles Worked In The 3-Board Bench Press
The bench press in its standard form utilizes the pecs, triceps, shoulders, and lats to lower the bar to your chest and then press it back to the top.
Let’s break down the stages of the lift and what muscles are being most utilized in the bench press.
- The triceps, shoulders, and lats are most utilized at the start of the rep as you begin moving the bar down. Yes the lats – a good bench presser will “pull” the bar to their chest, not simply resist it lowering too fast.
- The triceps and shoulders will also be your primary muscles at the end up of the lift as you lock it out.
- The pecs are most utilized at the bottom of the rep, as the bar passes the halfway point, touches your chest, and you start to press it upward again.
So what’s different with the 3-board press?
- Since we aren’t lowering the bar all the way to our chest, but about 6 inches above it, the pecs are only moderately used in this variation.
- The 3-board press relies almost entirely on your triceps and shoulders, with your core muscles stabilizing you throughout the press.
4 Benefits Of Doing 3-Board Bench Press
Here are four main benefits to training with the 3-board press:
- It can strengthen your lockout
- It can overload your training weights
- You can “preview” heavier weights
- You can build tricep hypertrophy
Strengthen Your Lockout
First and foremost, this lift is simplifying the bench press to focus on your lockout.
When you remove the bottom portion of the bench press, you don’t have to expend all the energy it takes to move the bar all the way down to your chest and back up again. We can “zoom in” on the part of the lift we want to strengthen – in this case, the lockout.
We’ve all seen guys bench more weight when they half-rep the weight, only to fail when they try to perform the same weight with full ROM. The same principle applies when we hit the board with the barbell.
Now with the board, you can perform reps with a weight that you would have a hard time repping if you had to do the full ROM. All those extra reps on your lockout muscles will prepare you for a better lift when you get back to performing the full ROM.
Overload Your Training Weights
The name of the game in strength training and powerlifting is progressive overload. We have to keep introducing factors that make training harder, or we’ll stop getting stronger.
A great way to do that for your bench is with the 3-board press. As we established above, you can typically do more weight to a 3-board than you would be able to do for the full ROM, so use it as an opportunity to add some weight above what you normally do for a given rep range and overload that way.
For example, if you usually rep 225 lbs for 5 sets of 5 reps, try doing 5-10% more weight with 240-250 lbs for 3-5 reps to a 3-board.
This will build your confidence (and, well, your muscles) so that you are more capable of performing those reps with full ROM when your program eventually calls for it on your normal bench press.
Preview Heavier Weights
Similar to the benefit above, a 3-board press is a great way to feel a weight in your hands that you can’t yet perform for full ROM.
If your big goal is to bench 315, don’t let the first time you attempt 315 be the first time you feel 315 in your hands.
Using a board press, you can get the feeling of unracking 315, lowering it half way, and pressing it up again long before you’re able to do it to competition standards.
Getting a feel for the weight this way is a safe and effective way to get over mental barriers, boost your confidence, and get a preview of things ahead without just recklessly attempting a weight you can’t handle yet.
This is one reason I love the 3-board press. By limiting the range of motion, I get much closer to isolating the tricep to be the only muscle doing the work, which is key for muscle growth.
A regular part of my hypertrophy training is close grip bench press to a 3-board for 5-12 reps, depending on the week. This is also a great backoff set on days when you are already working with a 3-board and want to really hit the triceps afterward.
I love that I can be focused on hypertrophy, but utilize a movement that is so similar to my competitive bench press that I feel the work I’m putting in to grow that tricep will pass over to my bench press much better than a french curl, for example (overhead tricep extension with a dumbbell behind your head).
It’s also far less taxing than a full ROM bench press, allowing me to get more reps with less fatigue to my Central Nervous System (CNS).
Check out my article on the 16 best tricep exercises to increase your bench press.
How To Set Up The 3-Board Bench Press
There are two general ways to set up the board press – one with assistance, and one you can do on your own. I’ve also got you a few creative solutions you can use as a third alternative.
If you have a friend or someone to help, set up under the barbell the way you normally would for a bench press. Have your friend hold the 3-board and place it firmly on your chest while you perform the bench press.
As most powerlifters arch their back, your chest will be rounded at the top. I find it best to sit the board parallel with the upper chest as it declines toward your neck, rather than setting the board perfectly level at the peak of your chest so the board doesn’t tip or shift when you hit it with the barbell.
If you have a bench block (click for today’s price on Amazon), you can simply attach the bench block to the bar and perform your reps as normal.
In a pinch, I’ve used an extra pair of wrist wraps to wrap a wooden board around a barbell when I didn’t have any available to assist me.
I’ve also kept an extra t-shirt in my gym bag for this very reason. When it’s time to press to a board, I slip on the extra shirt, slide the board between the two t-shirts, and it stays snug on my chest while I do my bench work to the board.
3-Board Bench Press Technique (5 Tips)
Just because it’s a shorter ROM doesn’t mean this lift is easier than a normal bench press. If anything, remember that we’ve removed the largest muscles from this lift and you now have to rely on just your triceps and shoulders to get the job done.
A big predictor of whether or not you’ll have a successful rep is whether or not you tighten up before your press.
Just like any powerlift, take that deep breath into your diaphragm, brace, drive with your legs, engage every muscle in your core, and then press.
Mimic Same Bar Path as Regular Bench Press
This is critical. The last thing we want is for board work to negatively affect the way we press for full ROM.
As you warm up, note where your touchpoint is on your chest. Then note where the bar is about 6 inches above that touch point. Have your lifting partner set the board right over that touch point.
As you descend, aim for your chest touchpoint and note where the board stops the bar. Hit that same spot on the board each time. That’s your board touchpoint.
NOTE: because most bar paths on the bench press are diagonal and not vertical, it’s unlikely that your touchpoint on the board press will be straight above your touch point on your chest. Don’t just aim for a spot 6 inches straight over your chest.
Mimic Same Eccentric Tempo as Regular Bench Press
The same thing can be said for timing as it can for the bar path. We are trying to make our standard bench press stronger, so it’s logical that we do everything with the 3-board press the same as the bench, just with shorter ROM.
We are limiting the number of variables we are changing, and the only change should be that the bar only descends to the board. Everything else remains the same.
So as you start your lift, pull it down to the board touchpoint with the same tempo as you would a normal bench press.
Keep it consistent and you won’t have any difficulty transitioning back to a conventional bench press.
Pause (Don’t Rest)
Hold yourself accountable to pause on the board. It’s always tempting to just knock the board or bounce the bar on it, but it’ll benefit you greatly to pause.
First, because any competitive bench is going to require a slight pause, so you may as well acclimate to always pausing your bench press, even with boards and abbreviated ROM.
Second, because it’ll make your triceps work harder and therefore get stronger.
Third, because your technique will stay clean and you won’t risk collapsing or momentarily relaxing and having to build tension and force again to get the bar moving back upward.
On that note, remember this is a PAUSE, not a REST. If you REST the bar on the board, you are relaxing your muscles, losing all tension and force, and will make it much harder or even impossible to press the bar back up.
A pause means the motion stops, but you continue exerting force into the bar – but only enough force to hold it in place so it neither moves down or up.
Ease into The Overload Training
While this is a great variation for overloading, progress that overload like you would any program.
For the same reasons that you wouldn’t add 90lbs to your max and attempt it, don’t add a bunch of weight to your bench just because you’ve got a friend holding a 3-board for you.
Take a methodical approach and start with a weight you can do for reps. For your first workout with a board, just get used to how it feels with that weight and don’t even add more to it yet.
How To Program The 3-Board Bench Press
As with any progressive overload program, it should be done, well, progressively.
- Week 1 of a board program might have a lifter using 85% of his or her 1 rep max to a 3-board for 5 sets of 3 reps.
- Week 2 the weight increased by 2.5% and the reps/sets remain the same
- Week 3 the weight stays at 87.5%, but the reps/sets changes to 4 sets of 5 (one less set, but 2 extra reps per set).
- Week 4 increases the weight 2.5% to 90% of 1RM, and the reps/sets shifts back to 4-5 sets of 3.
- Week 5 increases to 92.5% for 3 sets of 3 reps.
Alternatively, you could keep the weight and reps constant, but use a progressively shorter stack of boards week over week until the lifter is performing the full ROM with that weight.
Alternatives to 3-Board Bench Press
There are a few other ways to shorten your ROM on a bench press, and they won’t always require having an extra piece of equipment like a 3-board or a Bench Block.
High Pin Bench Press
Similar to pin presses with the squat or rack pulls with the deadlift, we use the safety bars on the rack or bench press to limit how low the bar can descend.
Set the safety bars on your rack so that the empty barbell sits about 6 inches above your touch point. Be sure to set this with the empty barbell so you can adjust easily.
Perform the bench press the same way we described above for a 3-board press, using the technique recommendations above. The only difference is the safety bars are stopping the ROM, not a board in the middle of the bar.
You’ll notice if you lie on the floor and try to perform a bench press that the floor will stop your elbows from descending behind you and you can’t touch the barbell to your chest (unless you drop it – don’t do that).
You can use the natural backstop of the floor on your elbows to perform limited ROM reps just like you would to a board or safety bars.
Use a power rack (or rack that lets you set the barbell 2-3 feet of the floor) to set the empty barbell on a lower setting so you can reach it from the floor. Lie on the floor under the barbell as you would on a bench (arched back and all). Unrack the barbell and perform a rep, feeling your elbows hit the floor at their lowest point.
You’ll get the same benefit to your lockout muscles as you would with a board press, but with the floor stopping you instead of a board.
The biggest difference with the floor press is you remove your leg drive entirely. That will take a few more pounds of your max load, so be sure to warm up with a lighter weight so you don’t surprise yourself that you can’t floor press the same weight you can press to a 3-board.
Reverse Band Bench Press
A reverse band bench press is another variation that will help you focus on your lockout. In this variation, bands are anchored ABOVE the barbell to give assistance to the lifter when the bar is on their chest and offer diminishing assistance as the bar moves upward to the lockout.
In this variation, you’ll perform the full ROM, but you have a dynamic load – meaning it gets easier at the bottom and harder at the top, depending on how stretched the bands are at various stages of the lift.
Even though you still touch your chest with this variation, the bands assist so much at the bottom that it’s a great way to get similar benefits to the 3-board press if you have access to bands instead of a board.
Check out my deep dive on the reverse band bench press for more.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Can You 3-Board Bench Press Compared With A Regular Bench Press?
A lifter can press more when they are using a 3-board than they would be able to do with full ROM. Personally, I can perform 2-3 reps for several sets with my max bench when using a 3-board.
Can You Determine A 1 Rep Bench Max From A 3-Board Bench Press?
Overtime, if you measured both your 3-board bench progress/max and you measured your standard bench progress/max, you may find a correlation, but it will vary lifter to lifter. There are too many variables to rely on 3-board press as a measure of overall bench press potential.
How Often Should I Train With A 3-Board?
Variations like the 3-board press should be a regular part of a powerlifting program to strengthen the lockout and add variety to the programming. It’s commonly used during strength-building blocks, peaking blocks, and hypertrophy blocks alike.
What’s The Difference Between A 3-Board and Boards of Other Sizes?
The only difference is how much or how little the board limits your range of motion. The 3-board tends to be the sweet spot that cuts the ROM in half for most lifters, but you may find you need work that is best served with a thinner or thicker stack of boards.
Can I Just Perform Half Reps Without A Board or Something to Stop The Bar?
Generally yes, but that’s a variation called the Spoto Bench Press, where you stop the bar at a desired point in the lift that isn’t your chest. However, it can be inconsistent, as the lifter won’t stop the bar exactly in the same place every time the way a board will.
Check Out Our Other Bench Press Guides:
- 6 Decline Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
- 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
- Reverse Grip Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
- Reverse Band Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Why Do It?
- Dead Bench Press: How To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
- Touch and Go Bench Press: Should You Pause or Not?
- The Slingshot for Bench Press (Complete Guide & Review)
- Cambered Bar Bench Press: Benefits, How-To, Technique
- Isometric Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press: How To, Pros, Cons
- Negative Bench Press: What Is It, How-To, Benefits, Mistakes
The 3-board press is a staple of the powerlifter’s programming. As every powerlifter knows, the squat, bench, and deadlift can all be broken down into stages of the lift, and you must strengthen each stage of the lift as your strength goes up over time.
The 3-board bench press is easily my favorite method for strengthening the lockout of the bench press, but also serves as an excellent way to overload your bench, build your triceps with hypertrophy, and gain confidence with heavier weights you can’t quite handle just yet.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.