You should never fail a bench press in the lockout.
In the height of my bench press career, I was training my bench press four times per week and two of those workouts were strictly focused on my lockout strength.
It was having a strong lockout that allowed me to bench press a career-high of 501lbs/227.5kg, become the Best Male Bench Presser in Canada on three occasions, and win a bronze medal at the World Bench Press Championships.
The 9 ways to improve your bench press lockout are:
- Intensity Overloads To Boards
- Volume Overloads To Boards
- Slingshot Bench Press
- Spoto Press (2-sec)
- High Pin Bench Press
- Narrow Grip Bench Press
- Banded Bench Press
- Don’t Skip Your Tricep Accessories
- High Rep Bench Press Training
At the end of this article, you’ll know exactly how to train your bench press lockout.
A quick note: some of the main tools you’ll need for training your lockout are: Bench Blockz, Mark Bell Slingshot, and WOD Nation Resistance Bands (click each of these links for equipment details and current pricing). I explain how to use them below.
What Does It Mean To Train Your Bench Press Lockout?
Training your bench press lockout means prioritizing the top 1/3 of the range of motion.
A common training strategy in powerlifting is to break down the movements into the various segments of the lift. Typically, this means training the bottom end, mid-end, and top-end range of motion.
The muscles used in the bench press are the pecs, shoulders, and triceps. However, in each segment of the lift different muscles are prioritized more than others. In the top-end range of motion, the triceps do most of the work in order to extend the elbow in its final position.
Therefore, training the lockout of the bench press will focus more on developing tricep strength.
However, training your lockout does more than just develop tricep strength, which we’ll cover next.
Benefits of Training Your Bench Press Lockout
There are 4 reasons why it’s important to train your bench press lockout:
Benefit #1: It Can Accommodate The Strength Curve
The strength curve refers to the different levels of force that you need to produce at various times throughout the lift.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you are lifting 80% of your 1 rep max for a single rep.
As you drive the bar off your chest, you need to produce a high level of force to get the bar moving in the upward direction. However, once you drive through your sticking point, you may actually stop producing the same amount of force that was required earlier in the lift.
In other words, as you push the bar up, you know that you can ‘casually’ lock your arms and still finish the lift without trying as hard compared with getting the bar moving off your chest.
This is the idea of the ‘strength curve’.
It’s the gap between the minimum force you NEED to produce to lift the barbell versus the absolute maximum amount of force you could produce if you were thinking about driving the barbell as hard as possible.
Takeaway: Training your lock-out will force you to apply maximum amounts of force in the top-end range of motion that doesn’t usually require you to ‘push’ as hard when going full range.
Benefit #2: It Can Target Sticking Points
Each lifter will have a different sticking point in the bench press.
If you always fail in the top 1/3 of the bench press, either under fatigue or heavy load, then your sticking point is at the lockout.
Therefore, your lockout would be considered the ‘limiting factor’ in your bench press. At this point, training your top-end range of motion through the methods I’ll describe in the next section will provide you with the biggest return on your training efforts.
Takeaway: assess where you lack strength within the range of motion and implement methods that improve your weaknesses.
Benefit #3: It Can Help Break Through Bench Press Plateaus
A bench press plateau is when you’ve been stuck at the same numbers over a long period of time (months and years).
If you’ve identified that your progress has significantly stalled, then it might be time to implement some “special method” protocols into your training program.
“Special methods” manipulate the training variables (sets, reps, load, rest) to create some sort of volume or intensity overload. In other words, doing something that allows you to lift more reps or weight than you would be able to handle under normal circumstances.
I’ll explain two specific protocols in the next section (intensity overloads and volume overloads), which both require some focus on training the lockout.
Takeaway: if you’ve hit a bench press plateau then you need to change your training methods, which can include overloading the top-end range of motion.
Benefit #4: It Can Help With Recovery & Shoulder Health
If you’re bench pressing multiple times per week, then you’ll want to consider the impact this may have on your recovery and overall shoulder health.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate for benching 2-4 times per week to optimize your strength. But, benching this often can beat up the shoulders depending on how heavy you’re going each session.
By training a portion of your workouts per week only focused on the lock-out phase of the movement, you will give your joint and tendon structures a break from the stress that otherwise would be created when taking the weight through the full range of motion.
Takeaway: exercises that focus on lockout strength most often involve partial ranges of motion, which will increase your recovery if you train bench press multiple times per week.
9 Ways To Improve Your Bench Press Lockout
The following exercises and protocols are the best ways to train your bench press lockout.
1. Intensity Overloads Using Boards
Intensity overloading is the idea of prioritizing the load on the barbell over the range of motion.
This means using a weight above what you normally could use and only pressing it in the top 1/3 range of motion.
This is achieved by using boards while bench press (click to read my full guide). The boards are placed on your chest to limit the range of motion and to only focus on the lockout. For example, using 3-board, which is three 2X4 boards stacked together.
Using boards to train the lockout has been shown in the scientific literature to help lifters increase strength after reaching a bench press plateau.
If you don’t have boards, you can pick up a set of Bench Blockz (click for current pricing), which strap onto the barbell:
Here is an example: Perform 4-5 sets of 2-4 reps @ 95-110% of your 1 rep max to a 2-board. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t be able to perform these intensities at full range. However, the boards allow you to overload the weight used in the lockout.
2. Volume Overloads Using Boards
Volume overloading is the idea of doing more reps than you otherwise would be able to do with the same load.
This is also achieved by using boards. My favorite way to program volume overloads is by doing some reps to your chest followed directly by some reps to boards with no rest in between.
Here is an example: 4-5 total sets: perform 5 reps to your chest @ 75% of your 1 rep max, followed by 4-8 reps to a 2-board at the same load.
The exact number of reps you do to boards doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re pushing yourself close to your fatigue limit at the end of each set. By doing this, you’re accumulating a lot of additional volume in the lockout phase of the bench press.
Boards are also a great way to work the mid-range of the bench press, which I discuss in a seperate article.
3. Slingshot Bench Press
The Slingshot bench press (click to read my full guide) is a variation that uses a piece of equipment called the Slingshot. It’s a specific fabric that wraps around your elbows and allows you to handle heavier loads for the same or more amount of reps.
The slingshot is another tool for overloading, which allows you to handle about 10-15% more weight in the bench press. However, unlike using boards for bench press, the Slingshot allows you to move the weight through the full range of motion.
As you bring the barbell down to your chest, the Slingshot creates elastic tension. This stored energy is released once you drive the barbell off your chest, which makes the lift easier in the bottom end range of motion, and harder in the mid-range and lockout.
You can pick up a Slingshot off Amazon (click for current pricing).
Here are two ways you can use the slingshot:
(1) Perform a workout like 5 sets of 5 reps but use 10-15% more load than you normally would without it
(2) Perform a workout like 5 sets of 5 reps without the slingshot using a challenging weight, and then on the final set put on the Slingshot and do a ‘burn out’ by using the same load but doing as many reps as possible.
4. Spoto Press (2-sec)
The Spoto press is a bench press variation where you bring the barbell down to about 3-4 inches off the chest, pause for 2-sec, and then drive the weight back up to lock-out. It’s a partial range of motion, like a board press, but without the boards.
The Spoto press is the go-to exercise for Shane Martin, the strongest bench presser in Canada, who has benched 340.5kg/750lbs in the 120kg equipped division. Here’s what Shane Martin had to say about the Spoto Press:
This variation forces you to hold the load in mid air, without the support of the touch, which will load your deltoids during the 2-sec pause portion and then forces your triceps to push the load from an unstable motionless state to lockout. This really emphasizes the triceps executing their duty in the bench to apply force, hard and purposeful. Working on that movement will develop both muscle groups and all the while improving your technique since holding the bar a few inches from your chest will continue to improve motor patterns of how a bench stroke should feel when correctly in the groove.Shane Martin, Canada’s Strongest Bench Presser
Here’s an example: Perform 4-5 total sets of 3-6 reps with 70-80% of your 1 rep max.
The goal is to keep the barbell motionless during the pause, so if you can’t do that, then you’ll need to drop the weight accordingly.
5. High Pin Bench Press
The high pin bench press is where you set up the safety pins in the power rack and start the movement with the barbell resting on the pins.
The high pin bench press can be used as an intensity overload, as explained earlier, but is a significantly harder variation.
This is because when the bar is on the pins, the weight is 100% de-loaded, meaning all of the weight is resting on the pins and you need to create enough concentric force to gain momentum from a dead stop. You don’t get the eccentric range of motion to build tension in your muscles.
I like to use the high pin press over boards when I want to work the final few inches of the lock-out. I set up the safety pins so that when my hands are on the barbell, my elbows are starting with only a slight bend in them.
Here’s an example: Perform 4-5 total sets of 2-5 reps with 110-150% of your 1 rep max.
The goal is to lift as much weight as possible for just a few inches in the lock-out.
6. Narrow Grip Bench Press
The narrow grip bench press is when you grip the barbell with a shoulder-width distance, which places greater emphasis on the triceps. As we know, the triceps are responsible for extending the elbow in the lockout position.
It’s important that when you take a narrower grip that you tuck the elbows more underneath of the barbell (click to read my full guide). This will further target the triceps, which will have a better carryover to the lockout phase of the lift.
I like to use the narrow grip bench press to build hypertrophy for the triceps. Therefore, I’m mostly programming the movement with higher reps and lower intensities.
Here’s an example: perform 3-4 sets total sets with 6-10 reps at 60-70% of your 1 rep max.
Take a look at my article on how powerlifters train their arms.
7. Banded Bench Press
The banded bench press (click for my full guide) is a method of attaching a band to the barbell. So as you press the barbell off your chest, the bands will add greater resistance through the mid and top-end range of motion.
Using bands on bench press teach lifters not to be ‘lazy’ with how they lock the weight out. It will force lifters to drive as hard as they can through the full range of motion, and not simply produce the minimum amount of force required.
The thicker the band used, the more resistance you’ll get at the top end range of motion. I recommend starting with 10-35lbs of resistance and then moving to the 30-60lbs or 40-80lbs of resistance.
My favorite set of bands to use is from WOD Nation (click for current pricing).
Here’s an example: 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 55-65% of your 1 rep max, plus the resistance band.
The goal is to drive the barbell as hard as possible and have a high intent to move the barbell with speed.
8. Don’t Skip Your Tricep Accessories
Powerlifters love to train the squat, bench press, and deadlift. However, they sometimes neglect accessory work because they either don’t have time, believe all they need to do to get strong is the powerlifting movements, or they’re just simply too lazy.
Don’t fall into this mindset as it can limit your potential on the bench press, especially if you don’t implement some form of tricep accessories into your training.
In fact, tricep accessories are so important that 10-time World Powerlifting Champion, Jennifer Thompson, said that she programs an entire workout focused on tricep accessories and training the top-end range of the bench press.
Take a look at my list of 16 Tricep Exercises To Increase Bench Press Strength. You’ll want to pick 1-3 exercises from this list and perform them 1-2 days per week following a bench press workout.
My go-to favorite tricep accessories are: Floor Lying EZ Bar Skull Crushers, Single-Arm Overhead Rope Tricep Extensions, and Narrow Grip Medicine Ball Push-Ups.
I’ve also been a fan of the Swiss Bar Bench Press; however, not a lot of people have access to this specialty barbell.
9. High Rep Bench Press Training
At certain times throughout the year, it’s a good idea to prioritize high-rep bench press training (12-20 reps).
While this sort of rep work isn’t going to increase strength in the short-term, it will create an environment for your muscles to grow, which in the long-term will build a bigger engine for your muscles to produce force.
The reason why I advocate for reps as high as 20 is that the load used will be significantly lower (45-55% of your 1 rep max). With these loads, your pecs and shoulders won’t fatigue, and therefore your limiting muscle group will be your triceps.
In other words, rather than taking your chest and shoulders to fatigue, you will find that your triceps burn out quicker. It’s been shown that when you take a muscle group to failure, it can stimulate significant muscle hypertrophy.
So if you’ve never done high rep bench press training, try it for a 3-4 week microcycle.
Training the bench press lockout involves selecting the right exercises and protocols to work the triceps, as well as overload the top-end range of motion.
I would select one bench press variation that focuses on building top-end strength that you add to your program. Stick with this exercise over a 4-6 week time period and add some element of progression, either more load or volume.
Once you’ve exhausted your progressions for that exercise, I would select another bench press variation from the list above that continues targeting the lockout. So if you did board bench press for the first 4-6-weeks, you could choose to do banded bench press the next 4-6 weeks.
Continue to repeat this process until you’ve developed sufficient bench press lockout strength to break through your plateau.