A bench press shirt, or bench shirt as it is commonly called, is a specialized type of shirt frequently used in the bench press portion of powerlifting competitions. The bench press is an exercise in which the lifter lies on his or her back and lowers a barbell until it touches the chest, then attempts to press it back up to arm’s length. Bench shirts not only assist in protecting the shoulders and chest from the weight of the bar during the exercise, they also actually make it possible for the lifter to lift significantly more weight than he or she could without wearing the shirt.
The earliest bench shirts, first produced in the 1980s, were mostly worn for protection, but they have evolved into very sophisticated garments that most powerlifters now wear for the explicit purpose of increasing the amount of weight that they can lift. At the heart of the physics of the bench shirt lies the concept of stored energy. The typical bench shirt is very tight and is sewn together in such a way that it is stretched even tighter across the chest as the bar is lowered in a bench press. This can make it very difficult — and even uncomfortable — for the lifter to lower the bar, but the payoff comes immediately afterward, when the lifter presses the bar again to arm’s length. All of the energy stored by the shirt as it is stretched during the lowering of the bar is released and added to the lifter’s own strength, thereby increasing the force that is applied to the bar, resulting in the lifter being able to lift a heavier weight than would otherwise be possible.
Bench shirts typically are made of polyester, denim or canvas. They can be constructed of one, two or more layers of material, with extra layers generally thought to provide more lifting power. Some bench shirts are closed in the back, and others are held together with straps or even left completely open. Personal preference often plays a role in which shirt a lifter will choose, but different powerlifting federations also place restrictions on which types of shirts are allowed in their competitions.
The bench shirt is now a staple among professional powerlifters, but it is not a necessary garment for the everyday exerciser or fitness enthusiast. Those interested in training for powerlifting should seek out expert coaching on lifting technique and make use of a bench shirt only after becoming proficient in lifting without one. It also is important for the lifter to keep in mind that wearing a bench shirt can give an inaccurate estimate of one’s true strength, and less weight should accordingly be used if a bench shirt is not being worn. In addition, bench presses — with or without a bench shirt — should always be done with a spotter, a person who stands behind the bench ready to assist in the event that the lifter cannot press the bar fully under his or her own power.