Using Boards For a Bigger Bench
I was asked to put a little article together to talk about lifting with boards. I will preface this by saying that boards are typically used more in equipped benching, where a lifter needs to have brutal lockout power and can rely on the shirt for assistance off the chest. I do think boards have a place in raw lifting, even if it’s only for more variation or working specific weak points. This article will focus more on raw benching with boards. The template has two bench days per week. The first one will be your main bench day, where the lifter will choose a low board (.5 to 2) and start their press right below the raw sticking point. The second day will be more of an overload using high boards (2 to 3). Each day also has a smattering of assistance exercises focusing more on reps and hypertrophy.
How to Determine Board Height
This is always the big question. What boards should a lifter be using? The answer is that it varies depending on anthropometry and the sticking point. Focusing first on the main bench day, we would like the board press to start slightly below the sticking point. If a lifter gets stuck about 2” to 3” off their chest on a max effort raw bench, they should start with 1 board (1.5”). This will prevent them from using momentum off the chest to drive through the sticking point. For this reason, we want to make sure that every rep is initiated with a short pause (1/2 second is fine). Bouncing off the bench block or board will allow the lifter to cheat through the weak point. Most people will be starting at around 1 board. For those that have never worked with boards, each board is 1.5” thick. Some companies make ½ boards (0.75” thick). I would highly recommend getting a bench block or two. The bigger one goes from 1 board to 5 boards, and the little one goes from a ½ board to 2 boards. On the overload day, the lifter will want to start with something between 2 and 3 boards. Longer arm lifters with closer grips will typically go a little higher on boards. Whichever board you decide, make sure that it is an overload, meaning you can lift more that way than either off the chest or off the low board.
I set up a basic 12-week periodization program to follow. The first 11 weeks will be all boards. Week 12 will be a paused or TNG test of the full bench ROM on the main bench day. This is also a higher volume / lower intensity program. Focus on good rep quality and form with a slight pause at the bottom of each rep. In the earlier weeks, limit rest periods to about 2 mins per set. If you can’t keep up, add rest time, but in the future weeks work on slowly bringing that down. My main focus is RIR (Reps in Reserve). I use percentages to get a ballpark starting point, but the RIR will help determine exactly what weights need to be lifted during the session. For example, if a 300# max lifter started week 1 at roughly 68% (200#), that lifter would try to get a set of 8 with 4 reps in the tank. At that point, if it felt a little easy, they could jump up to 205# for the next set. If it felt ok, stick with 200# again. Or maybe drop a little weight if it was tough than expected. The first couple of weeks use 68% as the starting point, but ideally, the lifter can move up a little every week. It may not be on all sets. Even one or two sets at a higher weight than last time is an improvement. For the first week of overloads, I would recommend starting 10 to 20 pounds higher than the main bench day and going from there. Use RIR as your guide and get everything locked in for week 2. If the first set or two are way too easy trying to dial everything in, then I wouldn’t count them till they get near an RIR of 4. It’s hard to use a set percentage since many lifters don’t have practice in these additional lifts. It will take a little trial and error, but by week 2 most should have an idea of where they need to start. As the weeks progress, the RIR decreases, meaning things start to get harder. In the last 4 weeks, prioritize weight on the bar over the two-minute rest period. If you need 3 to 4 minutes for each set, that’s fine. Keep adding weight every set (when possible, even small amounts), or add weight every session. I give example percentages for each group of sets/reps. Use those percentages loosely and continue to focus on RIR. Towards the end of the cycle, a lifter may be pretty far ahead of the percentages, and that’s ok. For an advanced lifter, they may only be able to add 2-3% to their max on a 12-week cycle. More novice lifters could add 10%. For that reason, we focus on RIR.
These lifts are designed to help the lifter put on more upper-body mass. Nothing should be very challenging. It’s about putting in a lot of sets/reps, catching a pump, and moving on to the next lift. Take 1 to 2 minutes between each set max. I would do 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps for each exercise. I also like to do a small cadence on the concentric and eccentric portions of the lift. For the concentric portion, 1 second is fine. For the eccentric, shoot for 2 seconds. If a set is a little too easy, you can always slow the eccentric down a little more. For the first week or two, if a lifter isn’t used to doing a lot of repetition method work, they could start with 3 sets for each movement on week 1, and then slowly add sets as they adapt to the volume of work. For example, if I start a new movement like close stance tempo belt squats, and my target is 4 sets of 12, week 1 I might start with 2 sets. After the workout, during the recovery period, I make an assessment on how sore I am, etc. If it wasn’t too bad, then next week I will add a third set and go from there. The assistance lifts move up a lot slower than the main lifts. It’s not always going to be feasible to add weight every time. This is where the rep range comes into play. If a lifter curls 65# for 5 sets of 10 at about a 2 RIR, next time they can do the same weight and add a few reps on a couple of sets or all the sets if it’s easy. Once you can hit 15 reps, then it’s time to move up a little in weight and drop back down to 10 reps per set.
This is the moment to shine! Start the week off right by eating a good amount of food and getting extra rest. Eat a little more than normal the day or two before your main bench day. Instead of doing 1 board (like our initial example), use no board. If you normally do TNG bench, then try that for your new max. If you pause it, stick to the short pauses that were used during the training cycle. I would treat it like a meet. Do 3 attempts and add weight each time. The first attempt should be something you can hit for 3 reps. The second attempt should be something you can do for a double or an easy single. The last attempt should be a little higher than your old max. For the example listed above, a 300# max lifter might want to plan for 310 or 315 on the last set (assuming a later intermediate lifter). Plan the other two attempts around that last number.
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