In this article, I will discuss the differences between a powerlifting bench press and a traditional bench press.
First off, note that powerlifting is a loose term. The goal of the powerlifting bench press and powerlifting in general is to lift as much weight as possible. With that said, there are literally hundreds of powerlifting organizations around the world, all with a variety of rules and regulations.
With that said, the powerlifting bench press is the bench press that allows you to lift the most weight. I discuss optimal form in the bench press technique article. If you are looking for information on form, please see that article.
Powerlifting Bench Press
The rest of this article will be dedicated to common discrepancies in form requirements between different powerlifting organizations and how powerlifting gear changes the powerlifting bench press.
Differences in Form Requirements
As mentioned earlier, different powerlifting federations have different requirements for form that can significantly effect the powerlifting bench press. Below, I will list the common differences and what it might mean to you as a powerlifter.
Some federations require the entire foot to remain flat on the floor, while some federations only require toe contact. Toe-only organizations will have slightly higher bench press totals as a result. Nearly every organization requires that the foot not slide on the ground but remaining place throughout the duration of the lift.
If you are not an advanced lifter, keep your feet flat. Wearing squat shoes will lift the heel some and can add a few pounds to your bench.
The split on this is fairly even among organizations. The strict powerlifting meets require the butt to remain in contact with the bench at all times throughout the lift. The looser organizations allow the lifter to keep their hips completely off the bench.
Lifting your hips off the bench allows the lifter to move more weight, as the arch is tighter and the bar has much less distance to travel. Unfortunately, arching in this manner does load the facet joints in the spine to a significant degree.
Some federations require the head to maintain contact with the bench throughout the duration of the lift, while other federations allow the lifter to flex the neck. It makes little difference in the strength of the powerlifting bench press so this is nothing to worry about. Keep your head against the bench if you do not have a reason for elevating it.
Grip position is one source of major controversy in the bench press community. A few organizations allow lifters to take extremely wide grips, which inflates the poundages of their bench press. Finding the right grip is a lengthy subject, so I put together an article on the best bench press grip which you should read if you do not know where to put your hands.
Powerlifting gear is very common and can radically alter the amount of pounds bench pressed by the lifter. The most common pieces of bench pressing gear are bench shirts, belts, wrist wraps (wraps, not straps), and elbow sleeves.
Wrist Wraps and Belts
Most federations, even “raw” (unequipped) federations allow the lifters to wear belts and wrist wraps during the powerlifting bench press. The combined effect of the two pieces of gear adds no more than 20 pounds to most lifters’ bench press poundages. However, these pieces of equipment help the lifter feel more secure and stable when attempting a max bench press.
Some federations do not allow wrist wraps, but most big benchers commonly agree that you will definitely want to wear wrist wraps when your powerlifting bench press gets over 400 pounds. The wrist is an unstable joint and you can sprain your wrist easily holding a very heavy barbell.
Bench press shirts are extremely tight and somewhat pliable shirts designed to increase bench press totals. They come in single-ply and multi-ply (multiple layers of material) varieties. Out of the federations that allow gear during the powerlifting bench press, about half require single-ply only shirts whereas about half allow multi-ply shirts.
Bench shirts add a substantial amount of pounds to a bench pressed. A skilled lifter can add nearly 300 pounds to their bench with a multi-ply shirt. An example of this is that the raw bench press record is in the low-700 pound range whereas the several lifters have benched over 1000 pounds with multi-ply shirts.
Note that training in these shirts is required for maximal effect. A newbie who cannot yet bench press 200 pounds will not be able to throw a shirt on and suddenly bench 500 pounds.
Elbow sleeves are the last common piece of equipment used when bench pressing. This piece of equipment offers little support during the powerlifting bench press and research has suggested that they actually increase injury risk. Lifters still wear this piece of equipment as it helps them bench press more weight despite safety risks.
There are some powerlifters that argue that bench press shirts help keep the lifter safe and stable when attempting maximal weight. There is some merit to this argument. However, elbow sleeves only exist to help the lifter move more weight and do not protect the lifter in any way. For this reason, elbow sleeves are not allowed in most raw meets.
There is no need to wear this piece of equipment unless you are lifting in a federation where this piece of equipment is allowed. Otherwise, it is nothing to worry about.