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Bench Shirts – The Truth

Benchpress
Bench shirts aren't magica
l.  Made of tough material, they simply stretch when the bar is pulled to the chest.  You can't put on a bench shirt and magically add 100lbs to your press, unfortunately.  

Powerlifters are evenly split on the use of shirts.  On the one hand, shirts do a lot of the work.  That's undeniable.  They help.  A lot.  On the other hand, they don't help through the whole range of motion.  They're available in different strengths and fabrics; they take some practice.   While some can get as much as 200lbs or more out of a good shirt, some struggle to add 20lbs to their press.  What's more, most powerlifting federations have made bench shirts mandatory for competition.

Origins
Bench pressing began as an assistance exercise for the Jerk, an Olympic lift.  However, since big men with less mobility could do well in the bench press, squat, and deadlift – but perhaps not in the more athletic lifts, the Clean, Jerk, and Snatch – competitions sprung up for these new 'powerlifts' all over the place.  Most of the rules are still built on those of the Olympic lifts, but one in particular has changed the way athletes now train for the bench press.  I'm talking about the PAUSE.
In a powerlifting meet, after lowering the bar under control to your chest, you have to pause it, motionless, until the referee says, "Press!"  At that point, you explode upward, and pause at lockout.  This is harder than it sounds.  You may be motionless for anywhere from a split second up to 3 seconds (at which point your stretch reflex is significantly diminished.)  Since you're actually stronger at lowering a weight (eccentric phase) than holding it still, it's really tough on the shoulders to hold a maximal weight at the chest longer than a full second.  Bench press shirts were originally born to remove that stress at the shoulder.
The first bench press shirt was patented by Inzer (www.inzernet.com) in the 1980s.  Up until that point, bench presses approached 600lbs (Bill Kazmaier) but that was assumed to be the ceiling.  Inzer's first shirts didn't really do much, but they helped just enough to get athletes thinking of ways to use them better.  Inzer's shirt was a single-layer polyester (more on that below,) but when their patent ran out in the 1990s, other manufacturers were already ready and waiting in the wings, including Titan and Crain.
These days, a single-ply poly is rare.  I have one, but I also have a single-ply denim, and there's a big difference.  Most big lifters are using triply-ply denim (some with a bit of poly sewn in,) and there's no chance you could ever use them.

How They Work
Bench shirts have very small chests, which have to be stretched out to the shoulders as the bar is lowered.  Grab a 3" stretch of your jeans, and try to stretch it to 12".  Not easy.  That's what a bench shirt does.  Most shirts are also stitched in such a way that your shoulders stay forward, your arms can't drift downward, and your elbows pull toward one another.  Watch a bench presser in between attempts: if he leaves his shirt on, he can't lower his arms.  
Bench shirts have a 'sweet spot' that lifters call 'the bubble.'  Essentially, if you bring the bar lower on your chest, you'll get more resistance from the shirt (good.)  If your arms drift back, you'll suddenly lose resistance, as if you were sliding off the side of a bubble (bad.)  Bench shirts can help, but if you get in trouble on your press, things can get very bad very quickly.

Types
Shirt1
Poly – a rubberish material.  Lots of pop out of the bottom of your press, but ridiculously hard to put on.  Notoriously painful; if you wear a poly shirt, your armpits are going to bleed.  So while you're trying to press a new PR, you're also bearing the pain of being cut, from your underarms to your lats.  They also take at least one strong helper to get on and seated properly.  It's not easy; it's so fatiguing on your assistant that they usually won't be able to bench that day.  As soon as your shirt's on, your circulation is cut off, so timing is critical.  Hard to wrap up when you can't feel your thumbs!

Shirt3
Denim – much more comfortable and easy to get on.  Usually have the back wide open, so you'll only need help pulling it tight across the back of the shoulders.  However, it's still not loose; you'll still bleed when the bar's coming down.  To work, the shirt has to anchor somewhere; that somewhere is your skin.  Denim is very resilient to stretch, which means there's not much of a 'pop' out of the hole.  However, since it's stronger than poly, if you know how to tweak it well, you'll get more out of the denim.

Problems you wouldn't expect
First off, there's the lockout.  If the shirt is tight enough to do anything, then there's no way you can make your current max touch your chest with the shirt on.  You'll have to pull it down as hard as possible, or add weight.  And since the shirt only helps for the first part of the lift, you'll have to press the increased weight back up.  For instance, if your raw bench is 300lbs, it's not unreasonable to try to add 20lbs to your bench with a shirt.  If your shirt's too strong, though, you'll never pull 320lbs to your chest.  If your shirt's not that strong, you'll have trouble pressing it back up.  That's why, for people bench pressing under 350lbs, carryover from the shirt isn't that big.  That's also why you can't just buy a triply-ply denim shirt, have it tailored, and press 800lbs.  That gap between the weight you can lock out and the weight required to touch – and pause at – your chest is too big.

Next, shirts wear out.  Especially poly.  You can wash them to shrink them back down, but that just makes them lose elasticity more quickly.  They're also pretty costly.

Last, even though they're customized to your measurements when you buy them, they're not always to your liking. The Internet is full of used bench shirts, worn once and discarded.  

Gene2
Are they cheating?
Used in a gym?  Absolutely.  If someone's using a bench shirt and not competing in, or training for, a real powerlifting meet, then they're doing it for show.  Maybe that's impressive to some.  Maybe it's acceptable to others.  But don't compare your bench numbers in a shirt to those of your unshirted friends; it's a very different lift.
Used in a meet?  No.  It's mandatory in most meets, like it or not.  There are some raw meets out there, and they're fine for those who like the 'real' bench press.  Every federation is different, too, about what they'll allow: the IPF is now accepting single-ply poly, while the WPO is very accepting of anything the lifter wants to wear.
This is an unanswerable question.  While they're not quite steroids, in that using a bench shirt takes a lot of skill and practice, it's not the same as a normal bench press.  They're practically two different sports.  Using even the best bench shirt takes a lot of practice and customization and blood, and the lifts are still ridiculous.  But they're not magical.  Your first time in a bench shirt will rarely yield a PR bench press.  
We keep a couple of old shirts around; if you'd like to try one for yourself, just ask.  Like everything else in the iron world, it's fun to try once, if only to say you've done it.

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