“HOW much can you bench?” is a common question in athletics because this exercise has become the standard measurement of upper body strength and power. Although the bench is a great exercise endorsed by strength coaches everywhere, for boxers a better exercise is the incline bench press. The type of incline press I prefer is with a straight bar and the bench set at a 45-degree angle. I prefer pressing from this angle because the movement pattern is closer to the movements that occur in punching, and I prefer a straight bar because it enables the athlete to use the most weight in the exercise. Using more weight increases the intensity of the exercise, which in turn recruits the most powerful muscle fibers.
During the preparation phase I would use a variety of implements, such as the football bar (which offers several types of hand positions) and thick-handled barbells. The incline press can also be performed with dumbbells during the preparation phase, but the stability required reduces the amount of weight you could otherwise use, thus reducing the strength-building effect.
Although many trainers recommend bringing the dumbbells together at the top, I don’t like that option for two reasons. First, it’s easier to lose control of the weights, and second, it’s possible that with poorer-quality steel dumbbells the plates can chip at the top and cause metal shavings to get in your eyes.
How much weight and volume should a boxer be able to work up to in the incline bench press? There’s no upper limit, but as a coach, you don’t want your athletes to work the exercise so much that their strength in the involved muscles causes an imbalance in other muscles, especially the upper back muscles and the muscles that externally rotate the shoulder. For the gold standard, consider the results of Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jack Culcay, both world champions I have trained. Gamboa did an incline press with 120 kilos (264 lbs) for two reps, and Culcay did 125 kilos (275 lbs) for three reps. Lifts such as these would be respectable for a heavyweight fighter. Consider as well that these fighters worked their upper back muscles just as hard to maintain structural balance.
You can use chains and bands on incline presses to ensure that the resistance more closely matches the strength curve of the athlete. With the incline press, the athlete is stronger towards the finish of the lift, and chains and bands increase the resistance as the arms extend. The bands provide more eccentric (lowering) loading, which is more specific to boxing. As such, I would use chains on this exercise in the preparatory phase and then switch to bands as a competition nears.
Another type of training I would do with incline bench presses is functional isometrics. With functional isometrics, you perform a maximum isometric (no movement) contraction for about six seconds, followed by a dynamic movement for the same muscle group.
Appearing in the September 2010 issue of Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research was a study on the effects of isometric squats on vertical jump performance. The researchers concluded that functional isometrics “…may significantly enhance acute, short-term power output in resistance trained men.” Here is how to do it for the incline bench press.
Start by supporting a heavy weight on extended arms, such as your maximum for 1 repetition – don’t bend your arms, just support the weight. Then decrease the weight on the barbell by 15-20 percent and perform the incline bench press. What the isometric contraction does is recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers so they will be more activated during the conventional movement. This effect is what sport scientists call Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP).
You can also combine incline presses with medicine ball work. Although medicine ball training is overrated as a single training method, it can become considerably more effective when you precede it by heavy weight training exercises. For example, I would have a fighter perform a heavy set of incline bench presses for three reps, and immediately follow them with six medicine ball chest passes. In the latter exercise I prefer trainees to throw the med balls against a wall (because they tend to throw harder this way), but they may also throw the med balls to a training partner.
A word of caution: Bench presses and incline bench presses are the most dangerous exercises in the weightroom because the bar can crash onto the lifter’s face, throat, or chest. Serious injuries can result when you neglect to use spotters or if the spotters are improperly trained or are not paying attention – some individuals have died from bench press accidents. For this reason, strength coaches should have all athletes demonstrate they can properly spot each other during this exercise.
A single spotter is considered sufficient for safety reasons, but the spotter’s hands should always be under the bar and ready and able to catch the bar. Safer alternatives are using two spotters (one on each side) or three spotters (one behind the individual and one on each side). Any athlete who has no spotter should perform bench presses inside a power rack with safety pins set to catch the weight should the athlete lose control during the lift or be unable to finish the last repetition.
As for equipment, the bench should have firm upholstery to prevent athletes from slipping. The supports should have a wide yoke so athletes can easily return the bar from the supports upon completion; there are also special incline benches that have yokes on the supports that pivot from the start position to upright to reduce the stress on the rotator cuff when the lifter removes the bar from the supports. Also, the barbell should have sufficient knurling to allow a firm grip.
The incline bench press is a great upper body exercise for boxers. Follow my recommendations in this article, paying special attention to proper spotting, and watch how powerful your fighters can become.
As a strength coach for boxing, Moritz Klatten has trained three Olympic champions, four amateur world champions, and five professional world champions, including Yuriorikis Gamboa, Juan Carlos Gómezs, Herbie Hide, and Jack Culcay. Among the boxing coaches he has worked with are Ismael Salas, Orlando Cuellar, Fritz Sdunek, Michael Timm, Freddie Roach, Joey Gamache and Jimmy Montoya. Coach Klatten is also an accomplished strength coach for football and has attracted an international clientele that includes Zlatko Junuzović, Werder Bremen; Tolgay Arslan, Beşiktaş; and Piotr Trochowski, Augsburg. Coach Klatten works primarily out of Champ Performance, his own gym in Hamburg, Germany, where he offers strength coaching internships and operates a satellite training service to work with athletes worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org