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Augmenting the Bench Press With Elastic Resistance: Scientific and Practical Applications

Kuntz, Chad R. DPT, CSCS1; Masi, Michael DPT, CSCS1; Lorenz, Daniel DPT, PT, LAT, CSCS, USAW2,3

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 5 - p 96-102
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000093

INTRODUCTION

The bench press is a core upper-body exercise that is used by a vast amount of sport and health enthusiasts. Traditionally, the bench press has been performed using either a barbell or dumbbells in the various parameters such as strength, hypertrophy, power, and muscular endurance to meet the user's goals. Guidelines have been established for repetitions, sets, intensity, and rest breaks (4) to aide an individual in setting up a workout regimen based on their specific goals (Table 1). However, an individual is not limited to training within these particular parameters. Manipulating training variables by increasing emphasis on eccentric control or using external means such as weighted chains, sleeves, bench shirts, and elastic bands may favorably augment the exercise and yield greater muscular development as well as other attributes.

Table 1
Table 1:
Guidelines for dosing and rest (4)

The eccentric phase of the bench press is the lowering of the barbell toward the chest. When performed slowly with an overload of weight, there can be considerable increases in cross-sectional area of the agonist muscle groups through hypertrophy of the muscle fibers (1,32). Thus, if used correctly, heavy eccentric work can become a key component in an individual's training regimen.

Using elastic resistance or weighted chains in conjunction with free weight is a form of variable resistance training (VRT), which gets its name from the progressive and sometimes exponential increase in tension that is applied throughout the range of motion. Research suggests VRT is a superior method in increasing strength, power, force production, and overall electromyography activity when compared with conventional resistance training (7,37). Elastic bands have gained popularity in powerlifting organizations to enhance strength and power, primarily on the back squat, deadlift, and bench press exercises (35). Weighted chains provide similar benefits by improving the load at the maximal joint leverage of the muscle and decreasing the load when the muscle joint has minimal leverage. Furthermore, the oscillations provided by the weighted chains are known to increase the use of stabilizing muscles throughout the range of motion (12). Although they have less practical advantages as they are heavy, noisy, and cumbersome, which makes them difficult to store and transport.

In a typical periodized training regimen, exercise parameters are introduced in this general order; endurance, hypertrophy, strength/power, and active rest. During the hypertrophy phase, the goal is to increase the cross-sectional area of the agonist musculature. The increase in muscle fiber size is directly proportional to its ability to maximally generate force, irrespective of the fiber type (9). Muscle size is monitored through anthropometric testing until a target goal is reached. At this point, the strength/power phase begins in which the general focus is shifted to enhance force and power production usually by a means of decreasing volume and increasing intensity. It is within these 2 phases, hypertrophy and strength/power, that the adjunct use of elastic resistance could be used.

This article will outline the physiological benefits of using elastic resistance with the bench press exercise to efficiently meet particular benchmarks within the training regimen. The 2 bench press exercise techniques explored in this article include isolated eccentric exercise with elastic resistance (ECC-VRT) and equated concentric/eccentric loading with elastic resistance (COM-VRT).

EXERCISE TECHNIQUES

To properly perform the bench press with variable elastic resistance, traditional guidelines should be followed. The user must maintain a supine position on the bench with the feet planted on the ground while maintaining the 5-point body contact position (13). A closed, pronated grip should be positioned slightly wider than shoulder width. The downward movement phase, or the eccentric phase, lasts until the bar touches the midchest. The upward movement phase, or concentric phase, lasts until the elbows are fully locked out.

Performing the bench press with elastic resistance requires a nontraditional setup. Preferably, 2 elastic bands should be placed from the ground to the barbell where their vector pulls vertical to the floor. This can be accomplished by securing the elastic bands from the ends of the barbell to a heavy dumbbell located directly below on the ground or underneath the bench press cross support (Figure).

Figure
Figure:
patron using variable elastic resistance on the bench press with a light band under the bench press cross support.

When beginning ECC-VRT technique, the spotter will help lift the barbell off of the rack in coordination with the lifter. The lifter will then slowly lower the barbell throughout the downward movement in a controlled manner toward the chest. The total time spent during this completed range of motion should last approximately 4 seconds (1). Once the barbell has reached the low point of the eccentric phase, the spotter would then lift the barbell up until the arms are fully extended. It would be important to have the athlete do minimal to zero work upon the concentric phase and maximal work during the eccentric phase (see Video, Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A148). Literature suggests that eccentric contractions specific to the bench press movement may accommodate 140 and 246 percent of the concentric 1 repetition maximum (1RM) in men and women, respectively (14). These data reflect the efficient nature of eccentric contractions and accentuates the importance of using higher intensity loads to uphold the typical hypertrophy repetition range established in Table 1.

When performing the COM-VRT technique, the eccentric phase begins the bench press movement. Once the bar touches the chest, the athlete should be instructed to forcibly accelerate throughout the whole concentric motion (see Video, Supplemental Digital Content 2, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A149). In certain powerlifting organizations, pauses are required between the eccentric and concentric phase to eliminate any bouncing off the chest in attempt to accelerate the barbell. If desired, the pause can be used in the COM-VRT method as well.

ISOLATED ECCENTRIC LOADING WITH ELASTIC RESISTANCE

Adding elastic resistance to eccentric bench press training can be a favorable method of achieving overload of the agonist musculature, altering muscle architecture, altering motor unit recruitment, and providing variability to a workout regimen.

Overload is an important exercise principal in achieving muscle hypertrophy. It is achieved by progressively increasing exercise intensity, or load, throughout a training regimen. Eccentric contractions are unique in the sense that they can generate higher muscular forces than their counterpart, concentric contractions (28,32). These higher forces allow the user to handle intensities above 100% of their concentric 1RM. In a study comparing contraction type with specific motor unit recruitment, Nardone et al. (20) found that during eccentric contractions, there are a considerable amount of motor units firing that are silent in concentric and isometric contractions. Furthermore, Nardone et al. (20) reported that higher threshold motor units (fast-twitch fibers) were activated before lower threshold motor units (slow-twitch fibers) during high-intensity eccentric contractions. The fast-twitch muscle fibers respond with a greater degree of hypertrophy than slow-twitch muscle fibers and therefore are most responsible for increasing the cross-sectional area of agonist musculature (2). Thus, it is recommended that during the hypertrophic phase of a training regimen, isolated eccentric training should be considered to achieve overload, activate increased motor units, and target preferred muscle fibers.

There is a body of literature recognizing the ability of eccentric exercise to stimulate an adaptive response that serves as a protective effect against muscle damage known as the repeated bout effect (19,24,25,33). The exact mechanism is unknown, but it has been postulated that neural, mechanical, and cellular adaptations contribute to this process. Theories include changes in activation of motor units, increased passive and dynamic stiffness of agonist musculature, increased longitudinal sarcomeres in series, and blunted inflammatory responses, all of which may contribute to the prevention of injury (26). This accentuates the usefulness of eccentric exercise selection before progressing toward the higher intensity training involved in the strength/power phase.

As the barbell is lowered to the chest, the shoulder moves further into extreme ranges of motion. Caution should be taken when moving into these positions under heavy mechanical loads, especially taking into consideration the aggressive nature of eccentric activity. When using any percentage of elastic resistance, the overall load is decreased at the bottom of the repetition when the shoulder is under maximal stress, which may reduce the risk of injury (26). Despite the decreased load experienced toward the bottom of the eccentric phase, the user may still experience muscle adaptations (15,23). With this exercise technique, muscle damage evoked at the longer length-tension relationship of the muscle (bottom portion of the eccentric phase) may not be as profound as maximal effort eccentric work, but a tradeoff exists from a safety perspective as there is reduced stress on the joint.

When considering injury prevention, variability is an important component to regard. In addition to the phasic variability mentioned earlier, day-to-day variety may be achieved by manipulating variables such as exercise selection, grip types, type of contraction, exercise technique, etc. to mitigate excessive overlap in a training regimen. In excess, overlap may contribute to overtraining, which has many deleterious effects including hormonal changes, neurotransmitter imbalances, mood disturbances, muscular weakness, decreased total work capacity, and increased injuries or muscular strains (8,38). Avoidance of overtraining is of special importance during the hypertrophic phase of a training regimen considering the large volume of work typically performed. Elastic resistance added to the bench press can be another variation of training as it will focus most force production during the shorter length-tension relationship of the agonist musculature (16). The ratio of elastic to free weight resistance will determine the extent of this effect and also may be manipulated to achieve different results (as explained in the practical applications section in this article).

Fatigue is a major contributing factor to overtraining and subsequent injury, and it is often reassessed during training to determine the need for an active rest period or a planned reduction in volume and intensity. It has been suggested that the addition of elastic resistance may impose a different effect on neuromuscular fatigue. This has been observed in a study comparing acute power output after bench press exercise with either combined (elastic and free weight) resistance or free weight resistance alone. A significant preservation of power was observed in the combined resistance groups (6,26). Furthermore, another study comparing combined resistance and free weight resistance analyzed the amount of repetitions their subjects could perform during a 70% 1RM bicep curl on the pulley cable (11). The group who participated with combined resistance had a reduced maximum number of repetitions, yet a similar perception of effort. These studies demonstrate the fatigue management benefits of incorporating VRT into a training regimen.

EQUATED ECCENTRIC/CONCENTRIC LOADING WITH ELASTIC RESISTANCE

During the strength and power phase of a periodized training regimen, there is a decrease in overall volume of work with a concomitant increase in intensity and specificity. Specificity is an important training principal to consider during exercise selection of the strength/power phase because it allows the athlete to train within the sport-specific motions required. For instance, a power lifter approaching the final phase of his/her training regimen will include competition style variations of their conventional lifts (e.g., flat bench work instead of floor press, barbell work instead of dumbbell work, shoulders width hand placement instead of inside grip). It is in this phase where the COM-VRT technique is recommended because it applies the specificity of the conventional bench press exercise with the component of elastic resistance, which has been shown to improve maximum strength and power when compared with traditional free weight training (7,12).

The concentric motion of the bench press exercise can be categorized into 4 phases: acceleration phase, sticking region, maximum strength region, and deceleration phase (17). The sticking region is defined as the unintentional deceleration or pausing of the bar and has been observed in lifts greater than 90% 1RM during 35–45% of the upward translation of the bar (10,17). A number of explanations have been proposed in the literature to explain this phenomenon: position-dependent strength, reduced effect of eccentric muscle potentiation, and altered muscle activation (36), all of which can be addressed by using elastic resistance.

When performing the COM-VRT technique, as the bar moves further from the chest, an increased number of motor units are required to compensate for the increased load. A positive correlation between increased mechanical load and increased motor unit recruitment is found throughout the entire repetition (30,34), which may result in favorable neural adaptations and altered muscle activation. When using free weight alone, there is no change in mechanical load, and consequentially, we may see a diminishing neural stimulus toward the lockout portion in an attempt to decelerate the bar (the deceleration phase) (21).

The neural advantage of the adjunct use of elastic resistance has been demonstrated in a study comparing 2 groups following the same resistance training protocol. There were 24 participants in total with no previous resistance training experience in the past 12 months, aged between 18 and 23 years, with 12 subjects performing with elastic bands and free weights and 12 subjects with free weights only. The participants performed 24 weeks of resistance training at 3 days per week focusing around the 3 conventional powerlifting exercises (squat, bench press, deadlift) and 7 accessory upper- and lower-body exercises. The subjects who trained with both the free weights and elastic bands had significantly greater strength gains in the bench press, back squat, and in lean body mass when compared with the other groups (31). The authors suggested that a neural mechanism is responsible for the performance improvements observed including increased agonist activation, decreased antagonist activation, and increased muscular coordination.

The addition of elastic resistance has shown to improve peak power when added to the back squat exercise (37). To the best of the authors' knowledge, only 1 study has been performed analyzing the impact of combined (elastic and free weight) resistance on power during the bench press exercise. A positive correlation between these 2 variables was found, although it was nonsignificant in their data (12). Other methods proposed to increase power involve ballistic training, in which the weight is accelerated throughout the whole range of motion, oftentimes resulting in the bar periodically being released from the hands upon lockout. One limitation of this training style is the required use of a smith machine to guide the bar, which consequentially reduces the degrees of freedom of the exercise. Also, this technique is associated with a decreased peak force production because of the decreased ability of the muscle to generate force at high rates of shortening (22). Because of the inverse relationship between force production and bar velocity, ballistic bench press training requires a decreased mechanical load when performing the exercise. Conversely, the COM-VRT technique may allow the user to increase peak power and peak force production while maintaining high intensities (overload) and the integrity of the bench press motion.

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

When using the ECC-VRT or COM-VRT methods, there are a multitude of machines, setups, and positions that may simulate the typical bench press movement. In this section, we will review the progression through 3 common variations of the bench press: smith machine bench press, barbell bench press, and dumbbell bench press. We will also provide insight on how to identify ideal parameters dependent on user goals and quantify the contribution of elastic resistance to an exercise.

The smith machine provides a guided range of motion, unlike a dumbbell or free weight bench press, and thus results in using less-stabilizing musculature (29). For novices, guided exercises such as the smith machine may be an acceptable place to start considering beginner weight trainers may exhibit a bilateral deficit and/or high levels of cocontraction (9). COM-VRT techniques have been shown to increase strength in untrained populations (7) and may be used with this variation of the bench press as well (see Video, Supplemental Digital Content 3, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A150). This is also a recommended technique when training without a spotter. As skill level increases, it is advised to increase the taxonomy of the exercise. The next progression would be to use the free weight bench press or dumbbell bench press as both of these exercises require greater activation of antagonist musculature to increase stability. Overcoming coactivation will yield increased torque at the elbow and shoulder, which translates to strength increments even in the absence of muscle hypertrophy (5).

When using combined elastic and free weight resistance, it is important to understand that different percentages of elastic load may yield different results. For instance, research suggests that a 10–15% contribution of elastic resistance lends to increases in strength, whereas a 35–50% contribution of elastic resistance lends to increases in power (3,7,12). It should also be noted that a ceiling effect has been observed in which a decline in performance is measured when the percentage of elastic resistance is too high (37). Direction for future research may include further exploration of the relationship between varying percentages of elastic resistance and its effects on performance, specifically its effect on stability and motor recruitment during explosive movements and controlled isokinetic movements.

To predict elastic resistance force, the following components need to be considered: the thickness of the band, the attachment technique used, the variation of exercise used, the anthropometrics of the user, and the manufacturer of the elastic bands (30). For instance, using 1 band with an attachment technique under the cross support of the bench press as seen in Supplemental Digital Content 1 (see Video, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A148) and Supplemental Digital Content 2 (see Video, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A149) yields 4 lengths of band resistance from the same band as opposed to the dumbbell attachment technique seen in Supplemental Digital Content 3 (see Video, http://links.lww.com/SCJ/A150), which yields 4 lengths of band resistance across 2 bands. Furthermore, the depth of the cross support, the height of the bench press, and the reach of the user may significantly affect band length and tension. Considering the multifactorial influence on elastic load, it is recommended that each user adopt their own method of quantification to match their unique set of circumstances.

Ideally, the tension on the bands would be measured using a dynamometer to assess the force at that stretched distance. The user's 1RM can be calculated using the Epley Formula as follows (18,27):

  1. Add free weight (w).
  2. Perform bench until failure.
  3. Record number of completed reps (n).
  4. Plug Weight (w) and Reps (n) into equation below:

The equivocal 1RM with the added elastic resistance can be easily calculated by subtracting the poundage yielded by the bands (quantified by the dynamometric reading or the poundage given in Table 2). The percentage of elastic or free weight resistance can be calculated by taking its respective force and dividing it by the net force (Elastic + Free Weight).

Table 2
Table 2:
Sizes of commercially available elastic bands and their concomitant resistance in pounds

It may be proposed that a periodized training regimen using eccentric focused work and variable elastic resistance may expedite increases in hypertrophy, strength, and power. With these exercise techniques, an athlete can take full advantage of the nonlinearity within a periodization protocol. The suggestions within this article, when applied safely and appropriately, should aid athletes in reaching specific benchmarks within their periodization.

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Keywords:

bench press; elastic band; periodization; strength training; variable resistance training

Supplemental Digital Content

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