When Harrison Phillips put up 42 reps on the Bench Press at the 2018 NFL Combine, he joined an exclusive club.
Since 1998, only eighteen men have managed to eclipse the 40-rep mark at the Combine. While Phillips’ result is the most by any player in the last four years, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his total.
“I’m happy that I walked away with the most at (this year’s) Combine, but with the lofty goals I had—assuming at my worst, I’d get 45, and at my best, 53, it wasn’t everything I needed,” Phillips says.
Phillips can take some solace in the fact that only one active NFL player—Dontari Poe—exceeded the 42-rep mark. Russell Bodine, a center for the Buffalo Bills, got exactly 42 reps. So even though he fell short of his lofty goal at the Combine, Phillips will enter the NFL as one of the league’s top three benchers.
The former Stanford defensive tackle will bring a whole lot more than that to the table, as he’s one of the premier prospects in this year’s NFL Draft. As a senior, he totaled a ridiculous 103 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 5 sacks en route to AP All-America third-team honors. But his big Bench Press will undoubtedly be a topic as soon as he’s selected in the draft, so we connected with Phillips to find out how he built such impressive upper-body strength and talk about the record-setting performance that never materialized.
Growing up in Nebraska, Phillips was an outlier from birth. He measured in the 99th percentile for height and weight, and broke the record for longest baby at the hospital where he was born. “(I came) three weeks early, I was over 10 pounds, 24 inches long. I was a big baby,” says Phillips, who now measures 6-foot-4, 307 pounds. That impressive size led to an accelerated development, as Phillips’ parents, Paul and Tammie, recall him not just walking, but full-on running, well before his first birthday.
By the time he was 5 years old, Phillips had discovered the modest gym his father had set up in the basement. He was already wrestling at the time, so he figured he might as well build some strength. Phillips began performing 100 Push-Ups and 100 Sit-Ups every night before dinner, and eventually began integrating some light dumbbell work. “After a couple years of doing the 100 and 100, I’d try to do 100 Chest Flies with 10-pound dumbbells, or do the Sit-Ups while holding a dumbbell across my chest,” Phillips recalls.
He didn’t step foot into a proper gym or weight room until he was in 8th grade, and the inspiration for that again stemmed from wrestling. Phillips had established himself as one of the most dominant youth wrestlers in the Omaha area by that time, and a coach named Scott Bohlken saw great things in his future at Millard West High. “He said, ‘You’re unbelievable at wrestling and I believe you’re going to come in and start for us as a true freshman. But, if you want to win a state championship as a freshman, you’ve got to get stronger. You’re a 13-year-old boy, you’re going to be going against 18-year-old, fully developed men.’ I was wrestling 190 pounds, (so a lot of my opponents) would be like starting middle linebackers at these schools,” Phillips recalls.
Inspired by the conversation, Phillips bought a gym membership and started pumping iron. But when he attempted his first real Bench Press, he quickly found himself humbled. He was training with a friend who was significantly smaller than himself (yet slightly older), yet his buddy was moving weight better than he was. “His dad had him bench pressing at their house for a few years, so he had experience. In the gym the first time, we put on 95 pounds. He hit it for like five or six reps pretty easily. I tried it, and I couldn’t even do it. And I was a good 30 to 40 pounds heavier than my friend,” Phillips says. “My only prior experience was Push-Ups, and it was a lot different than that.” But Phillips didn’t give up. They lowered the weight, he figured out the correct grip and positioning, and ended up getting up 95 pounds by the end of that same workout.
Phillips soon became a bonafide gym rat, and it only took about a month for his Bench Press max to jump from 95 to 195. He set a goal to get up 225 before his freshman year of high school. “July through August, that was my goal. So I was hitting pecs, triceps, my back muscles, my shoulders. Right before my freshman year, I hit it,” Philips says. While an injury knocked him out of the state wrestling tournament before he had a shot at the title, his allegiance to the weight room was firmly established. Over the course of his freshman year, his Bench Press max shot up from 225 to 315. Around that time, he sought out a trainer named Matt Richardson, who would help him develop throughout high school and college and whom he still works with to this day.
“He was my guy…If I didn’t seek him out, I don’t think I would’ve been the strongest bencher in the draft,” Philips says. “By my junior and senior years of high school, I was getting up 225 for over 30 reps.”
That’s a freakish accomplishment, but even a monster like Phillips isn’t immune to plateaus. He recalls 405 being the weight that seemed impossible to surpass. “405. Four plates. All I could do was get it for one rep. I was probably stuck at that for three straight months with my trainer. I’d get it for one, try it for two—nope. If I put 410 on the bar, I couldn’t get it. It was like a mental block,” Phillips says.
Phillips on the gridiron at Millard West (Via WestWildcats.org)
That’s when Richardson employed a smart plateau-shattering technique—they walked away from the exercise all together for an extended period of time. Instead of bench pressing, Phillips utilized a number of variations that targeted potential points of weakness in his pressing movement and focused on building up his stabilizer muscles.
“We walked away from it completely for a full month. I did triceps, single-arm presses, dumbbell benches, stuff with bands. We’d take those big bands in the weight room people will use to assist Pull-Ups, and I’d put my hands on there and do Push-Ups on the unstable surface. That strengthened all the small muscles, and then I’d do it with my feet elevated to hit the muscles (from) a little different angle. I was strengthening all those little muscles in the pecs, the shoulders, the triceps, and even the traps and back. I came back a month a half later and hit 405 for five reps. That was a big one,” Phillips says.
By the time he graduated from Millard West, Philips’ Bench Press max had reached an astonishing 475 pounds—which is where it remains to this day. The strength staff at Stanford, led by Director of Sports Performance Shannon Turley, saw little benefit in piling 500 pounds on a barbell and having Phillips get underneath it. The risk of injury simply wasn’t worth it. Stanford football also prioritizes play strength (or functional strength) over weight room strength, a fact Phillips learned the hard way. With the freshman class assembled for their first workout, Turley asked who had the biggest Bench Press. Phillips, confident in his ability, raised his hand and announced he could put up 450 (he smartly stated slightly less than his real max, anticipating Turley may put him on the spot right then and there). Turley looked skeptical, and that irked Phillips. A few days later, at Phillips’ behest, Turley had him throw 315 pounds on the bar.
“He said, ‘OK, if you can bench 405 for reps, you can probably do 315 pretty easily, right? So we warm up, put 315 on the bar. He goes ‘OK, let’s see your grip.’ And I had this real big wide grip. ‘He goes OK, bring your hands in. Nope, bring your hands in more. More.’ So he puts my hands right above my chest—I’d call it a Close-Grip Bench Press,” Phillips says. “I lift if off, slam it down fast, punch it up as hard as I can, and I get it. He goes ‘Oh, no no no. That doesn’t count. No bouncing off your chest. And four seconds on the way down.’ I’m like what? He says ‘Yeah, no bouncing. Lower the bar, let it barely touch your chest, and have the bar take four seconds to get there. Then pause for a second on your chest, then push it up.’ So I come down, 1, 2, 3, 4. Pause for one. Push!—Can’t move it at all. He’s gotta pull it off my chest.”
Turley proceeded to explain to Phillips that if he can’t control the weight, the odds of it translating to the field are drastically lessened. So while Phillips never again benched over 475 pounds, he developed a totally different type of strength during his four years on The Farm. “When I ended up working to 315 with the proper eccentric, the proper iso hold, the proper concentric—you get so much stronger. It’s just a different strength. Physically, your play strength increases. It doesn’t matter if you can bench 500 pounds if you can’t go out and put it on the field,” Phillips says. “It was kind of a culture shock (at first) and we butted heads about it a few times, but I definitely learned to understand what he was doing and how it made me a better football player.”
That functional strength is immediately evident in Phillips’ game film, where he explosively locks out linemen and keeps them at bay as he searches for the ballcarrier.
By the time Phillips arrived at EXOS to prepare for the Combine, he believed the record could be within his grasp. One thing he had to contend with that many other big Combine benchers don’t? Long arms. In fact, of the 14 men who’ve put up 42 or more reps at the NFL Combine, just one had arms longer than Phillips’ 33 7/8 inches. The energy and time it takes to completely lock out those long arms is a key disadvantage in the event, so Phillips practiced a sort of “false lockout” that he could execute at lightning-fast speed. Stephen Paea, who put up 49 reps at the 2011 NFL Combine, utilized a similar technique.
“We went back and watched when Stephen Paea hit 49 reps and he wasn’t completely locking out some of his reps. When you’re going that fast, sometimes it’s very hard to lock out or it puts a lot of stress on your elbows to lock out when you’re going so fast. So we said, ‘Hey, let’s do it how you do at Stanford with a little bit of a false lockout, just moving the bar and hitting the reps easy. If they let you do it, and they understand you’re moving it really fast, you can break the record. If not, you’ll have to adjust as soon as they start deducting reps and start locking out more,” Phillips says. “So that’s the mindset I had when I was training. We thought they were all good unless they were gonna be really strict and make me completely lock it out.”
With his approach set, Phillips went to work on maximizing his number of reps. One limiting factor in the event is the amount of time you hold the bar. The longer you have 225 pounds in your hands, the more tired your arms are going to get. That’s why the speed that you bang out the reps is critically important. At EXOS, Phillips learned to wait as long as possible into the test before stopping to catch his breath.
“When I had been doing it on my own, I’d stop around 23 or 24 and catch my breath. They said, ‘No, you need to hit as many reps as you can before you stop and catch your breath. Then I was doing more and more as we trained, stopping at 35. Then we stop-clock recorded how fast it took me to do certain amounts of reps. One thing that blew them away was I could do 10 reps in less than 6 seconds,” Phillips says. “For a while, I was pretty certain I was going to break the record—but I kept it under wraps. Because I know the environment is not set up for you to do that.”
He’s right—it’s not. Sleep is at a minimum at the NFL Combine, and the Bench Press test is preceded by hours of mind-numbing psychological testing. You know about the Wonderlic, but there are many other tests teams can utilize. 2015 NFL Combine participant and current CFL running back Ross Scheuerman once told STACK he had to face four consecutive psychological tests in the six hours leading up to his Bench Press. When Phillips finally found himself on the bench—which, since 2017, is open to the public and held in front of a large grandstand—he already knew he wasn’t quite at his best. But the Combine is about perseverance, and that’s exactly what he planned to do.
As he took control of the bar, Phillips began firing off reps at an extraordinary pace. But just a couple reps into the event, he heard the dreaded words from the Director. “Immediately, rep 3, rep 4, I hear, ‘No, no, no, you gotta lock that out more!.’ As soon as I heard that, I knew—eh, probably not going to get 53, 52 like I thought,” Phillips says. Phillips ultimately put up the bar 45 times, but he had two reps deducted for less-than-full lockouts and had his final rep deducted for racking the bar himself. That left him with an official result of 42 reps—not quite what he was hoping for, but still a spectacular display of upper-body strength and muscular endurance. When paired with his 4.50 Short Shuttle (second-best among defensive tackles) and 7.28 3-Cone Drill (tied for second-best among defensive tackles), Phillips’ combine was undeniably impressive.
What’s more, Phillips says his punch now feels more explosive than ever, which should make him an even bigger menace in the trenches. He sent a blocking sled into another galaxy at Stanford’s recent Pro Day. “I definitely feel more explosive. I could feel it at my Pro Day, when I’m hitting these bags and stuff. I could feel that really quick fast-twitch (muscle), which is important,” Phillips says. “I just know when I come into this NFL season, I’ll be stronger than I was last season.”
As far as advice to younger athletes on the Bench Press goes, Phillips stresses that it’s about persistence and patience. “There were some times where I was almost insecure to Bench Press in front of my friends, because they were smaller than me but lifting more than me…everyone develops at a (different) time,” Phillips says. “But you just kinda have to get over that and understand that everyone has a baseline but you can always increase that baseline. And when you plateau, find other ways to still get in work and don’t just give up.”
Photo Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images, Allan Hamilton/Getty Images