Gene Rychlak Jr. is the best bench-presser in the world. Powerlifting experts coo over the 6-foot-1-inch, 380-pound behemoth’s physical attributes. His short arms bulge with massive triceps that propel eye-popping weights to the ceiling in an instant. The big stomach comes in handy, too—anything that stops the bar a couple of inches closer to lockout position can’t be bad. So, what does it all add up to? Rychlak can bench-press 965 pounds.
Scot Mendelson used to be the king of the supine weightlifters. Just last year, he set the world record at 875. On Saturday, at a meet in Dubuque, Iowa, the 320-pound Mendelson tried to reclaim the record and become an instant powerlifting legend by becoming the first man to crack the mythical 1,000-pound barrier. “I feel I have a 1,100 pound bench in me,” Mendelson promised a few days before the meet. “I think I can go between 1,030 and 1,050 in Iowa.” Then he added, “1,005 is really light for me right now.” As he lowered more than 1,000 pounds to his chest, Mendelson was sure the half-ton of metal was going right back up—his hypertrophied muscles and a magical denim shirt would make sure of that.
The bench press’s pre-eminent position in Americanweightlifting culture has come only in the past few decades. For most of the 20th century, lifters were judged based on how much they could lift over their heads. Serious weightlifters snickered at chesty bodybuilders who slaved away on the bench to expand their pectorals—”boobie builders,” they called them. As bodybuilding gained wider acceptance after World War II, the three powerlifting disciplines—the squat, dead lift, and especially the bench press—became known as the ultimate tests of strength.
For years, the bench press world record crept up slowly and steadily. In the 1950s, Canadian Doug Hepburn became the first man to bench 400, 450, and 500 pounds. In 1957, Hepburn told Muscle Power magazine that a 600-pound bench press was possible, but it wasn’t until 1967 that Pat Casey cracked that barrier. Ted Arcidi broke 700 in 1985, and it took another 17 years until Ryan Kennelly benched 800 pounds in 2002. Now, just two years later, 10 men have benched 800, and a couple are closing in on 1,000. So, why have records that stood up to the strongest men in the world for 50 years crumbled in the last two?
A super-shirt, mostly. In 1983, a college student and powerlifter named John Inzer started making shirts that supported benchers’ shoulders and deltoids. Word spread that the bench shirt not only prevented injuries but actually helped bounce the weight off your chest. The terminology on Inzer’s Web site reeks of pseudoscience—the top-of-the-line Inzer Phenom shirt “features the EVS (Escape Velocity System) built inside”—but the shirt’s effect is undeniable. As the record for the shirted bench press shot up to 965 pounds, the unshirted or “raw” markhas stayed at an earthly 713 pounds. (Scot Mendelson has that record.) Nowadays, every top bench-presser uses the shirt for safety and power. “The whole raw thing, you’re just asking for trouble if you’re going to be dealing with any kind of weight,” says Ryan Kennelly. “If you rip your pec, you rip your rotator cuff, you’re out of there. Thank God for bench shirts.”
The bench shirt—which comes in denim or polyester—has arms that jut out zombielike, perpendicular to the chest. The position is so awkward and the fit so tight that lifters typically need help swaddling themselves. As the bar starts to press the weightlifter’s arms down, a percentage of the load goes to deforming the shirt. High-end shirts are so taut that for the bar to even reach a bencher’s chest, the fabric has to be compressed with incredible force. (At one meet, Rychlak had to abandon an 890-pound lift because itwasn’t heavy enough to force the weight down to his pecs.) When the bencher starts to push the bar back up, the shirt acts like a spring. As the material snaps back to its original, zombie-arm orientation, the lifter’s elbows get a bit of extra help moving the weight back into the air.
Inzer says the bench shirt “brings out the deeper strength of a lifter.” Powerlifting traditionalists and scientists think the opposite. Indiana University biomechanics professor Jesus Dapena says the shirt helps lifters hoist more weight by using their arm bones—not their muscles—as levers. “I would consider it cheating, it’s helping you mechanically. You might as well have a pulley,” he says. Even so, all the top lifters trot out the same line: “The shirt alone isn’t going to lift that weight.” And don’t think wearing a bench shirt makes 1,000 pounds feel like nothing. Mendelson says that when he’s pressing 1,000, “I can feel my bones flexing.” The first time Kennelly held a half-ton he heard a humming noise and had blurred vision. “Now my central nervous system has adapted to it. I’m used to it,” he says.
While the bench shirt has been around for two decades, the last couple of years have seen marked improvements in shirt design and technology and an increased focus on shirt-based training methods. Because bench shirts severely restrict movement, lifters must practice and memorize an incredibly precise sequence of steps to bring the weight from the chest to lockout. The bench press has now “become more a finesse and technique sport than a brute strength sport,” says bench-shirt guru Bill Crawford, who leads the Metal Militia bench-press team. Rychlak, for one, could “probably put about 40-45 pounds on his bench by changing his body position and his feet.”
About the only thing that could stop world-class benchers before they reach 1,000 pounds is poverty. When Rychlak won this year’s Arnold Classic, the biggest meet in powerlifting, he only broke even after splitting the $2,500 prize with the three huge spotters he lugged to the contest with him. Because he’s the king of the hill, Rychlak has his detractors. He’s been accused of hiding bungee cords, Kevlar, and nylon rope in his bench shirt, he says. Others insist he’s on steroids because he lifts in meets that don’t require drug tests. “If you’ve got undisputable proof, show it,” Rychlak snaps.
Back in Iowa, Scot Mendelson was trying to make Rychlak old news. In front of about 400 spectators, he bellied up to the bench in his denim Inzer shirt, took some motivational slaps in the face from his wife/coach, and dug his heels in. His first attempt was at 903 pounds. On the press, the bar got about halfway up. Mendelson strained to lock his arms for a few seconds before a couple of men in yellow shirts swooped in to save him from death by crushing. On his next lift, Mendelson went for it: 1,003 pounds.
But the weight slipped and he couldn’t press it back up. He tried again on his final attempt but was just too tired.
“All that work for three lifts, and I didn’t do it. It’s depressing,” Mendelson said afterward. He does find some consolation in the performance of his bench shirt, though. “Unbelievable,” he marveled. “The shirt worked great.”
Special thanks to John Sanchez of American Powerlift Evolution and physicist Tom Steiger.