There are several bench press variations, but none is more specific to powerlifting than the “Board Bench Press”. In short, the board bench press utilizes wooden boards to overload the mid and top-end range of motion either through the amount of volume or intensity you can typically handle.
So why do powerlifters use boards for bench press? There are 5 reasons:
- A way to isolate and train specific ranges within the movement
- A way to isolate and train specific muscles
- A method for increasing bench frequency
- A means to increase total work and/or higher intensities
- A way to build confidence through nervous system adaptations
This article will cover each of these reasons in more detail and will give you sample workouts that the boarded bench press so that you understand how to structure it into your training program.
Let’s get started!
What Is The Board Bench Press?
The boarded bench press is when a lifter puts wooden boards on their chest to restrict the range of motion used.
The boards come in different heights, which are usually classified as 1, 2 or 3 with some as high as 4. Additionally, some powerlifting gyms have 1/2 boards. The difference between these board heights is how many individual boards you stack together.
So a 2-board is just two 1-boards put together. Similarly, a 3-board is three 1-boards put together.
The thickness of each board will range from 1.5 inches to 2 inches, which will depend on the manufacturing company (Rogue, Elite FTS, or Baltic Jack). However, most boards are simply constructed from your local hardware store using 2X4 plywood.
The downside of using boards is that you will need a training partner to hold them on your chest while benching. This is why I like using Bench Blokz (click for current price), which is a piece of equipment that straps onto the bar that allows you to bench press using boards alone.
Now that we know what boards are, let’s look at how they can be applied.
5 Reasons Why Powerlifters Use Boards
I use boards for bench press in at least three training cycles throughout the year. The following will describe 5 reasons why you should also consider using boards in your bench press training.
1. A Way To Isolate And Train Specific Ranges Within The Movement
Boards can be used to target areas within the range of motion that are weak.
When a lifter fails a bench press, it happens because their capacity does not meet the demand of the weight.
This is because the bench press has an ascending strength curve.
This means that different portions of the bench press are more difficult than others. We explain this concept more in our article on Banded Bench Press.
The first thing a lifter must recognize is where they are weak within that range, then isolate and train that specific range.
The majority of lifters will be weaker in the bottom and stronger at the top, however, this is influenced by the grip you choose to have on the barbell, your bench press set up, and your limb lengths.
To determine the range at which the lifter is weak, we must first identify that position – in other words, where the weakness occurs.
Most people believe that it occurs where the bar stops moving, however, that is a false assumption. The termination of the bar moving is only an after effect.
Instead, the weak range will be found where the bar begins to decelerate. Once that position is correctly identified, it is just below that point where you will want to program board presses in order to target your area of weakness.
Check out our complete guide if you have a weakness in the lockout of the bench press.
2. A way To Isolate And Train Specific Muscles
Boards can be used to target the muscles involved to press the barbell at certain ranges of motion.
The muscles used in the bench press are as follows:
- Bottom Position (Pectoralis Major): When the bar is being lowered to the bottom position of the bench press, the pectoralis major is under the most muscular tension in this eccentric phase and also during the initial part of the ascent in the concentric phase.
- Mid Position (Anterior Deltoid): When the bar is being lowered or raised in the mid position, the anterior deltoid is under the greatest amount of tension.
- Top-Position (Triceps): The triceps are used most when the bar is being locked out, as they contract into a shortened position to extend the elbow. Depending on the athlete’s grip, the triceps can be further recruited as the grip becomes narrower in the mid position of the lift.
Powerlifters can use boards to train these muscles within specific ranges leading to a greater hypertrophic effect (muscle gain). I mentioned this in my article on what to do if you’re weak in the mid-range of the bench press.
Greater hypertrophy of the tissues leads to greater strength potential as more muscle mass leads to greater motor unit recruitment. You think of it like this: having more muscle mass means having a bigger engine, and a bigger engine has greater potential to produce more power.
The boarded bench press was rated as one of my top bench press progressions to take your lift from a beginner to advanced level.
3. A Method For Increasing Bench Frequency
Boards can be a great way to start increasing your bench press frequency with little risk.
Whenever someone asks me how to “bench more” my first response is……. “bench more.”
What I mean by that is adding an additional bench workout to your current program or adding more volume within the plan.
This produces three outcomes:
- It increases the amount of overall volume, which is a primary driver of muscle growth
- It allows you to practice the skill of bench pressing more frequently to better the movement
- When adding a bench press day using boards, it can increase the frequency without overloading the body structures since bringing the barbell through the full range of motion is more taxing
One common mistake an athlete will make when looking to increase bench frequency is adding more total work via volume or intensity than their bodies can handle.
Using a board will reduce the range and therefore decrease the total stress on the upper body.
Read more about 17 Exercises That Will Improve Your Bench Press Strength.
4. A Means To Increase Total Work And/Or Higher Intensities
Boards can allow you to increase the amount of volume and intensity you normally do at specific rep ranges.
Every athlete has biological limits and when they exceed those progression stops and the possibility of injury increases.
Implementing partial ranges with boards allows more reps or more weight to be completed without the athlete bringing the bar all the way to the chest.
For example, let’s say a lifter can bench press 150kg to their chest for 5 reps. You could then program a workout where they complete 5 reps to their chest using 150kg, and then go straight into an additional 2-3 reps to a 2-board with the same weight.
Alternatively, lifters can do overload methods such as using 95%-105% of their 1 rep max and performing multiple repetitions to a 3-board where they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do that intensity for the same number of reps to their chest.
In both scenarios, the lifter is handling more volume or intensity than their biological limits would naturally allow, which will stimulate continued progression.
Training with chains is a similar modality to training with boards. Check out our guide to training with chains in powerlifting.
5. A Way To Build Confidence Through Nervous System Adaptations
Boards can allow lifters to ‘feel’ heavier weight in their hands, which increases their confidence for handling heavier loads.
In the bench press, consistently using boards with percentages above 100% can give a mental boost in confidence because the shock factor is lessened when you actually attempt the weight to your chest.
What this means is that developing confidence before a max or new max attempt will remove any apprehension on the part of the lifter and this will lead to a greater chance of success.
Don’t downplay the importance of ‘feeling confident’ under heavy weights, as it takes a lot of mental skill to attempt weights that you’ve never previously handled.
Overload training was mentioned as a “special method” in my article on 10 Special Exercises To Improve Your Powerlifting Movements.
The Drawbacks of Using Boards For Bench Press
Now that we talked about the reasons for doing bench press, I want to discuss some of the drawbacks. In some cases, boards might not be helpful or necessary.
If an athlete struggles in the bottom position of the bench press then adding boards become less of a priority
A better alternative would be to program 1-4 sec paused benches, extra-wide bench press or paused dumbbell presses to strengthen the bottom position range of motion.
Boards do not come with someone to hold them.
Good help is crucial as positioning boards is a skill and a training partner must know to pay attention and place the boards correctly at the right time.
An alternative to a partner is using a Bench Blokz (click for current pricing) that attaches to the bar.
Skill Acquisition Is Still Underdeveloped
As a new lifter attempting to learn bench press technique, adding boards when the basics of these techniques are not yet acquired will not be effective.
Using boards for bench press requires a lifter to already have proficient technique because you wouldn’t want to overload volume or intensity when the technique is sub-par.
The 2-board bench press was included in my article on the Best Bench Press Variations. Check it out for more exercises to include in your bench press programming
Differences In Board Heights – Why You’d Use 1-Board or 2-Board or 3-Board
As mentioned previously utilizing boards offer many opportunities to improve bench press performance. The following is how you would choose which board height you use and for what purpose:
Bottom Position: 1/2-1 Board
If breaking the chest is not a problem for you but you run out of speed very fast and get stuck in the mid-range, using a 1/2 – 1 board is best.
Mid Position: 2-Board
If speed is lost as you enter the mid-range, the 2-board will be your best friend. Spending time in the position where you are weak will force adaptation to greater strength. Mixing your grip with narrow grip may also be beneficial for some pectoralis major, anterior deltoid and tricep development.
Top-Position: 2-3 Board
Using a 3-board in this position will help the triceps during the lockout.
Due to the reduced range, higher percentages should be utilized as well as mid to narrow grips.
One thing to consider here is that the length or the lifter’s arms and their set up can alter the guidelines.
For example, someone with exceptionally long arms might require 3-4-board instead of the 2-3 board suggested here. In contrast, someone who has a big bench press with short arms would benefit more from a 2-board.
I wrote an entire article detailing the 3-board bench press, which is the go-to board height for a lot of lifters.
Program Example: Putting It All Together
It is important to understand that there are multiple ways to program boards into your training.
Think about where you have a sticking point, and then implement the specific protocols below for either bottom, mid, or top-end range of motion.
|Bottom / Chest Focus||Mid Range / Shoulder Focus||Top Position / Tricep Focus|
|Week 1||3 sets of 8 reps 60-67.5% 1/2 board to 1 board competition grip||3 sets of 8 reps 67.5-75% 2 board medium grip||3 sets of 8 reps 72.5-80% 3 board narrow grip|
|Week 2||4 sets of 6 reps 67.5%-75% 1/2 board to 1 board competition grip||4 sets of 6 reps 72.5-80% 2 board medium grip||4 sets of 6 reps 82.5-87.5% 3 board narrow grip|
|Week 3||5 sets of 4 reps 72.5-80% 1/2 board to 1 board competition grip||5 sets of 4 reps 82.5-87.5% 2 board medium grip||5 sets of 4 reps 85-92.5% 3 board narrow grip|
|Week 4||6 sets of 3 reps 77.5-85% 1/2 board to 1 board competition grip||6 sets of 3 reps 85-90% 2 board medium grip||6 sets of 3 reps 90-97.5% 3 board Narrow grip|
Board Bench Press vs Pin Press
Pin pressing is a variation where the safety pins are set at a desired height and the bar is lowered to them, paused, and then pressed to lock-out.
Different heights can produce different results. However, it is important to differentiate what is happening between pins/safeties and boards.
When the bar is on the pin the weight is 100% offloaded, meaning all of the weight is resting on the pins and the lifter must create enough concentric force to move the weight into the ascent.
When board pressing, at no time does this happen. There is an isometric contraction in the paused position of the board where the muscle is not changing length. This also creates a static force to control the weight where a pin press can offload the weight completely.
Board pressing also uses an eccentric load where pin pressing can, but not always does, if programmed to press from the pins. Because the exercises are not similar they should be programmed differently and pins/safeties are not to be substituted for boards.
Should Raw Lifters Use Boards?
Raw lifters should first learn the basics of bench press from set up, leg drive, bench arch, and bar path. Usually, these basics can be solidified within a couple of weeks for a new lifter.
From there, raw lifters should first increase frequency to ideal levels from which they recover. Ideally, this would be bringing up the number of times they bench press per week to 2-3 workouts.
Then, lifters should identify weak positions and weaker muscles in the bench press. They can target these muscle groups and ranges through a variety of bench press accessories.
From there they should begin increasing total work done by way of volume. In other words, doing more sets or reps with the same or increasing loads.
After these things are addressed, then the lifter can begin overloading the bench press with higher intensities by using boards, which will help lifters break through plateaus.
Are Boards Just For Equipped Powerlifters?
As I just explained, no.
However, equipped lifters do have some added benefits by using boards.
Note: equipped lifters use a very tight supportive shirt that allows them to bench press more weight than they would be able to do without it.
Equipped lifters often use boards to “break-in” a new bench shirt. This is done by stretching the shirt through various ranges of motion, starting on a 3-board and working their way down to a 1-board over several weeks of training.
As well, equipped lifters use boards to get accustomed to the different techniques or grooves of the shirt as the barbell gets closer to the chest.
Equipped lifters also need to train portions of the movement where the shirt is less supportive. Because the shirt is more supportive at the bottom of the range of motion, training using boards allows equipped lifters to get more volume and intensity in the top-end where the shirt doesn’t help.
If you are looking to increase your bench press max, using boards in your program will allow you to target ranges of motion that need more priority, increase muscle mass, train with higher frequencies, and build more confidence under heavier weights.
Another great exercise that has similar characteristics to the board press is the floor press (click to check out my complete guide).
About The Author
Chris has over 20,000 hours of high-level coaching experience. He has worked with powerlifters, award-winning fitness models, and professional athletes. He has been awarded Personal Trainer of The Year across Canada and is a nationally ranked powerlifter