There is a love affair with the barbell bench press. The exercise elicits a level of excitement second to none. The “how much can you bench” question has been around for all time, it seems. But unless you’re a powerlifter, why does it matter? Aside from that sport, it’s just another exercise used to get stronger in the muscles it activates. Whatever.
But what if there’s more to bench pressing than the age-old bro science? And what if taking a negative attitude regarding this move is actually the most productive way to go? Let’s take a closer look at some new research on this classic movement.
The Biomechanics of Benching
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared concentric and eccentric repetitions to volitional muscle fatigue in the bench press. Reps were performed while the barbell was pressed upward-only (concentric) and then downward-only (eccentric). Both tests were performed to volitional muscle fatigue (VMF).
Eccentric muscle action entails muscle lengthening. In the barbell bench press, this would mean lowering the resistance from complete arm extension and bending the arms as the bar lowers to the chest. Believe it or not, all other factors being equal, the muscles involved in the bench press are stronger in the eccentric phase than when compared to the concentric, or raising, phase. In other words, you can lower “X” amount of resistance better than raising the same amount of resistance.
“The number of repetitions performed with 90% of a 1RM in the eccentric mode was significantly greater when compared to concentric (7.67 versus 4.57 reps).”
The underlying factors of concentric versus eccentric contraction get mechanical. These factors relate to the finer details involving the cross bridging of actin and myosin filaments within the muscle fiber-myofibril-sarcomere complexes. That is beyond the scope of this study and another discussion.
Testing the Bench Press
All technical science aside, this study aimed to determine two things:
- Relative to a 1RM, does eccentric (lowering-only) bench pressing result in greater strength improvements as compared to the concentric (raising-only) action?
- Also examined were the differences in the number of reps to failure at different relative percentages of a 1RM.
The subjects used in the study were healthy men of an average age of 24 years. They tested for a 1RM in both the concentric and eccentric phases of the bench press. They also tested for the maximum number of reps they could perform with 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90% of their 1RM.
In the concentric test, the resistance was mechanically lowered to the chest. The subjects then pressed the resistance to full-arm extension. It was then mechanically lowered and repeated. In the eccentric test, the resistance on the barbell was lowered from full-arm extension to the chest in a controlled manner for three seconds (:03). It was then mechanically raised to full-arm extension and repeated.
- The eccentric (lowering) 1RM average of 255lb/116kg was significantly greater than the concentric (raising) 1RM average of 206lb/94kg.
- The number of repetitions performed with 90% of a 1RM in the eccentric mode was significantly greater when compared to concentric (7.67 versus 4.57 reps).
- No significant differences resulted in the number of repetitions completed when bench pressing 60%, 70%, and 80% of the 1RM.
“[A]ll other factors being equal, the muscles involved in the bench press are stronger in the eccentric phase than when compared to the concentric.”
What can be gleaned from this study?
- Eccentric (lowering) work results in increased force-output potential
- Eccentric bench pressing creates less fatigue compared with concentric-only work, particularly at higher intensities.
Therefore, if you are into bench pressing, do your regular routine but consider the following:
- Include negative-only barbell bench workouts provided you have a competent spotter.
- You can also perform negative-only work on any plate-loading or selectorized chest press machine, assuming again you have a competent spotter.
- Eccentric-only work may take longer to recover from. Plan your workouts accordingly.
Check out these related articles:
- The Bench Press Is a Pull: 5 Cues You Might Be Missing
- I Got 99 Problems But the Bench Ain’t One
- The RAIL System: Shoulder Mobility for the Bench Press
- What’s New On Breaking Muscle Today
1. Kelly, S., Brown, L., Hooker, S., Swan, P., Buman, M., Alvar, B., and L. Black, Comparison of Concentric and Eccentric Bench Press Repetitions to Failure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2015, 29: 4, pp. 1027–1032.
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