If you’re thinking about competing in powerlifting, there is a specific set of rules for bench press that must be followed if you want to pass a lift successfully.
Interestingly, the bench press has more technical rules than any other lift. The main rules are associated with keeping your head, shoulders, and buttocks in contact with the bench, and your feet flat on the floor. Furthermore, you must pause the weight on your chest before pressing and have a constant forward motion of the barbell.
If you know these rules, you’re well on your way to a successful lift in competition. However, there are several additional rules that you need to follow if you want to leverage the bench press effectively. There are also several ways you can “cheat” the rules based on your own individual mechanics, which you’ll want to know in order to lift the most weight possible in the competition.
Let’s dive into the details a bit further!
The rules outlined in this article follow the International Powerlifting Federation standards. If you compete in another powerlifting federation you’ll want to make sure you understand any rules that may differ slightly.
The Role Of The Referees During Bench Press
The main difference between performing a bench press in training versus in a powerlifting competition is that you’ll be lifting in front of three referees.
These referees will be situated around you, two on each side of the platform and one behind you. The main job of these referees is to view the bench press in its entirety, making sure they have every angle of you in sight, and then watch for technical infractions.
The referee behind you, also known as the “Chief Referee”, has another job, which is to announce the commands that will dictate when you can start, press, and finish the movement.
You cannot start, press, or rack the barbell unless you have the referee command to do so. More on this later.
The reason for this is to standardize the movement across all athletes and to show control on either end of the movement. The referee wants to see that you’re starting and finishing with your arms locked and that the bar is motionless on the chest before pressing.
Rules Associated With The Bench Press Competition
Just before you walk onto the competition platform, your name will be called and the announcer will say that the “BAR IS LOADED”.
At that point, you have 60-seconds to get the start command from the Chief Referee
You can walk onto the platform, unrack the bar and take it out to your start position on your own time. However, from there you’ll need to wait for the first referee command “START” in order to bring the ar down to your chest.
The referee will wait for 5-seconds once the bar is unracked to assume the correct position. If you aren’t in the right position (more on this later), the referee will say “REPLACE” and tell you to correct the movement. If you still have time left on the clock from the initial 60-seconds, you can unrack the bar again and try to assume the correct position.
Once you get the ‘start’ command, you can’t change the position of your body on the bench press,. You must begin the movement and bring the barbell to your chest. When the bar is motionless on your chest, you will get the second referee command: “PRESS”.
At that point, you must drive the bar straight up. You cannot have any downward travel on the bar after the “press’ command, which also refers to ‘heaving’ the bar on the chest.
As you drive the bar to complete the movement, you must return the bar to the position you started with your elbows locked. The referee will make you hold the barbell over your chest until you’ve shown that you have ‘control’ of the movement. When the referee is satisfied, you’ll receive your final command: “RACK”.
At that point, the lift is over and you can return the barbell to the rack.
The referees will indicate whether they think the lift was successful or not by using a lighting system. Red lights mean the lift wasn’t successful,. White lights mean the lift was successful. You must have two-out-of-three refs indicate that the lift was good. In other words, 2/3 or 3/3 white lights mean the lift was successful. However, 1/3 or 0/3 white lights mean the lift was unsuccessful.
Once the lights turn on, you have 30-seconds to leave the platform. This is to limit extravagant celebrations after a successful lift that may slow down the pace of the competition.
Equipment Rules For Bench Press
Before you step onto the competition platform, you’ll need to make sure you have the right equipment. The equipment rules are standardized to make sure no athlete is getting an unfair advantage.
Here are the things you MUST wear:
- Singlet: A one-piece lifting suit.
- T-shirt: Must be cotton, polyester, or a blend of cotton/polyester.
- Shoes: Defined as ‘any sole on the foot’ as long as it’s ‘athletic’ (not a hiking boot).
Here are the things you CAN wear:
- Wrist wraps: Cannot exceed 1m in length.
- Knee sleeves: Cannot exceed 30cm in length.
- Belt: Cannot exceed 10cm in width or 13mm in thickness. No velcro belts are allowed. Lever or prong only.
Here are the things you CAN’T wear:
- Elbow sleeves
In powerlifting, there are also specific rules for the brands that you can wear in competition for certain pieces of equipment.
These pieces of equipment include singlets, belts, and wrist wraps. For these items, you must only wear ‘approved brands‘ to ensure that it’s made from a material that doesn’t give one athlete an advantage over another.
Please check the ‘approved brands’ link for an up to date list of what brands you can and cannot wear in competition. The three most popular brands are Inzer, Titan, and SBD, so if you get equipment from any of those manufacturers then you’ll be fine to compete.
Technical Rules For The Bench Press
There are several technical rules that relate to your bench press set up, and the execution of the movement:
- You must lie flat with your head, shoulders, and buttocks in contact with the bench surface. The feet must also be flat on the floor and not be in contact with the bench or its supports. The referees will look for this position before giving you the start command. Furthermore, if you have long hair, you are required to tie it up so that the referees can see that the back of your head is in full contact with the bench press. Maintaining contact with these areas must remain consistent throughout the execution of the movement.
- You must wrap your thumb around the bar. No reverse or ‘suicide grip’ is allowed either. The reason why this rule exists is simply that there’s a higher chance of dropping the barbell with any movement of the barbell in your hand.
- Your hands must not exceed 81cm, which means the index must cover the hashmark on the barbell. As I will explain later, there’s a way you can get your hands further than the 81cm while still keeping your index fingers on the bar.
- You must wait for all referee commands, which include ‘start’, ‘press’, and ‘rack’. The referees will be looking for you to show control at either end of the movement. Any failure to listen to the referee’s command will result in a no-lift.
- The barbell cannot touch your belt. The barbell can touch anywhere on your chest or stomach, but it cannot touch your belt. It used to be a rule that you couldn’t touch below your sternum, but that rule is now obsolete. So all you need to make sure is that your belt doesn’t obstruct your touch point. Most lifters don’t wear belts during bench press, so this isn’t a concern.
- The whole of the bar must travel upward after the ‘press command’. This means that you cannot ‘heave’ the bar into the chest or have any downward movement as you’re attempting to lock the weight out. Importantly, the rules refer to the ‘whole of the bar’, which means that if one side of the bar comes down, that’s permissible. This rule exists because one arm might be stronger than the other, and if you lock one arm before the other, it’s not a cause for failure. I repeat: you can lock-out the bar with one arm first, before the other, and it’s totally fine.
How to “Cheat The Rules” For Bench Press
In any sport, athletes try to push the boundaries of what’s accepted within the rules in order to squeeze every advantage possible. In the bench press, it’s no different.
There are two primary ways that athletes “cheat the rules” in order to lift more weight. It’s not actually cheating — it’s more like taking what’s NOT written in the rule book and bending the rules in their favor.
1. Athletes use a bench press arch
I’ve already posted a complete guide to the bench press arch. But in short, the rules say the head, shoulders, and buttocks need to lie flat on the bench, but there’s no reference to the back. As such, you can elevate your chest by arching your low and mid back, using your shoulders and buttocks as pivot points.
The main benefit of using a bench press arch is that you can reduce the range of motion that you are required to lift the weight. Other benefits include being able to recruit more muscle fibers of the lower pec and increase the stabilization of the shoulder joint.
Most powerlifters arch during the bench press for these reasons, and it would be advantageous for anyone looking to compete in powerlifting to implement this style of benching.
2. Athletes use an ultra-wide grip
For the same reasons above, if your goal is to reduce the range of motion, then you’ll want to take the widest grip possible.
I’m not suggesting that everyone will find a wide grip beneficial. In fact, as mentioned in my post on muscles used in the bench press, a wider grip will recruit more of the pec muscles and less of the tricep muscles. So if you have weak pecs and strong triceps, you’ll want to take a narrower grip.
However, if you’re already in a wide grip and have strong pec muscles, then several athletes are bending the rules by using a “Japanese Style Grip” to grip the bar even wider.
This style of grip allows you to place your hands technically wider than what is allowed (81cm) while leaving your index finger within the legal boundaries. Since the rules only mention the index finger and not the hand, this is a loophole that athletes have found to grip the bar ultra-wide.
Here’s a quick explanation by JP Cauchi, former World Record Powerlifter, on how to use the Japaense Style Grip:
My Advice For Anyone Just Starting To Compete
It’s important to recognize that it doesn’t matter how strong you are in training if you can’t operate within the standards that are set out by the sports federation.
Ultimately, this is what makes powerlifting a sport — The fact that it has rules and regulations that hold athletes to a standardized movement. If you’re not already moving to these standards in training, then I would drop any other element of your technique that you’re trying to develop, and solely focus on lifting to the technical requirements of the sport.
The hardest part about following the rules, such as pausing on the chest or keeping your buttocks on the bench, is simply being honest with yourself on how you’re performing. If you’re inconsistent with implementing the technical rules in training, then it’s not all of a sudden going to come together in a competitive environment.
The number piece of advice I give my athletes is that the ‘worst rep in training’ is going to be the ‘best rep in competition. So if your worst rep in training is breaking one of the technical rules in the bench press, then you can guarantee that in competition, when that movement pattern is already ingrained, it will present itself on the platform.
Lastly, I recommend athletes get familiar with the referee commands in training. Almost every first-time powerlifter I know has missed a lift in competition because they forgot one of the referee commands. Have a training partner or friend call out the commands for you in training, and get at least one month of practice with it before competing.
When you bench press in a powerlifting competition you have to follow the rules of the competition (the timing of the event), the equipment rules (what you can or cannot wear), the rules of the movement (how you can perform the lift), and the referee commands.
Each of these sets of rules creates a standardized procedure for every athlete to follow, and it’s the major difference between benching in the gym versus benching in a competition.
Be relentless about how consistent you are about following the movement standards and commands in training, and you’ll find that you’re able to lift to your maximum potential in the competition environment.