Training for the NFL Combine bench press test

The ultimate test of muscular strength and endurance for the upper body is the 225-pound bench maximum repetitions test at the NFL Combine. The most reps since the 2000 Combine was set by current Washington Redskin defensive tackle Stephen Paea in 2011. He wowed teams with 49 reps.

For this test, many factors impact an athlete's performance, including the length of their arms, the genes they possess for muscular endurance and also their training history (their high school and college strength programs along with their NFL Combine training program).

About the Test

The athlete sets up for the test by laying on his back, flat on the bench, and placing his hands on the barbell at shoulder width. The goal is to press 225 pounds of weight as many times as possible. The rules are simple: The bar must touch the chest, the elbows must straighten completely at the top, the butt must remain in contact with the bench and the hips may not rise up during the upward press motion. A spotter is necessary for safety, due to the athlete testing until muscular failure.

Training for the Test

As the old saying goes, "You must first know where you are before you know where you are going." Hence, the athlete must complete a 225-pound bench maximum repetitions pretest evaluation the first week of the training program.

The program design must include different training concepts with the end test in mind. Our program for the NFL draft prospects training at Ignition focuses one day on developing "upper body power" (heavier weights with less reps) and the other day on developing "max endurance" (lighter sets to failure). The combination of power and endurance allows athletes to exceed their all-time best performances in this drill. Last year, Lucky Whitehead, the Dallas Cowboys rookie standout, performed 17 reps more at his pro day than he had performed on his pretest. The average athlete at Ignition improves six reps in fewer than two months of training.

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"I think the combination of just getting stronger, putting on lean muscle mass, and using the techniques learned while training at Ignition helped me increase my reps by 17 in 2 months of training," Whitehead said. "The adrenaline rush you get from being in front of NFL scouts and coaches helps you push out a couple of more reps as well."

Top Exercises to Improve the Bench Rep Test

Different muscle groups are involved in the bench test. Training your chest and back are important because the "pecs and lats" are major contributors to dominating the bench press lift. Here are some exercises used to train for the bench.

  1. Weighted Pull-Ups - A good exercise to provide strength to the lats. The exercise requires one to pull heavy weight, which helps create the front-to-back muscle balance necessary to push heavy weight.
    1. Chain Bench Press - One of the exercises I like to use to help in the lockout phase of the lift is the chain bench. The chains provide varied resistance, which can make locking out at the end of a rep more difficult. Not only does it target the pecs, but the triceps as well.
    2. Drop Sets to Failure - Exercises that force your muscles to failure will properly prepare you for the bench test and build your muscular endurance. Choose an exercise and go until you cannot go any longer, lighten the weight and go to failure once again. Repeat for up to four sets.
    3. Training your grip helps as well, because as your grip strength improves, the lighter the bar will feel in your hands. Using thick bars to do bench press, rows and bicep curls is just one way to improve grip strength.

Tips to Dominate the Bench Rep Test

Here are several concepts to help you dominate the bench rep test:

  1. Pinch your shoulder blades back to limit the distance you have to move the bar.
    1. Arch your back, which also allows you to shorten the distance you must move the bar.
    2. Have a fighter's mindset: Attack the test by being aggressive, methodical and confident in the training you have had for the test.
    3. Move the bar with speed. The slower you move the weight, the less chance you have of doing a lot of reps. Generally speaking, you only have 20 to 30 seconds until muscular failure starts setting in, so fight all-out to complete as many reps as possible during that time.

Top Mistakes When Testing the Bench Rep Test

I recently asked Carolina Panthers Head Strength Coach Joe Kenn some common mistakes that he has noticed while watching athletes compete on the bench press at the combine over the years. He stated these four miscues:

  1. Not having a proper setup that secures the athlete to the bench with their feet firmly planted into the floor.
    1. Not having smooth, methodical reps.
    2. Not dropping the barbell to the chest with a consistent midpoint contact.
    3. Not fully extending at the elbows on the lockout of the bench.

Keep your eyes on this year's NFL Combine to see which athletes dominate the bench press. Then consider the thousands of reps trained for that opportunity.

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