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The Bench Press

For more than three decades, the lift commonly viewed as the test of strength
has been the bench press. From its inception in competition, it has been the
most popular lift in single lift competition, and often, when someone who has no
idea what powerlifting or Olympic lifting is all about, will pose the question How
much do you bench? to anyone who lifts. It is the second lift in a powerlifting
competition, and even athletes who are strong on the other two lifts need to
develop proficiency in the bench press to achieve an exceptional total. While this
lift is practiced by nearly everyone, even those who have no idea what a snatch,
clean and jerk or squat is, this document is primarily written for powerlifters or
those who wish to develop a maximal bench with minimal risk of injury.
The bench press is executed while lying flat on the back, the only contested lift
where this occurs. The agonists (prime movers) in the bench are the triceps,
deltoids, pectoralis major and minor, and the latissimus dorsai. Numerous
smaller muscles are used to stabilize the body while lifting, but these are the
primary focus. Performed properly, the bench can produce incredible muscular
hypertrophy of the pressing muscles, although specific assistance work will still
need to be performed to achieve maximal poundages.
The set up for the bench consists of lying flat on the bench, with the head,
shoulders, and hips on the bench, and the feet flat on the floor. While some
federations may allow variations of this, as a general rule it is good to practice
this set up. Certain lifters may not be able to reach the floor, and may use plates
or blocks to allow the athlete to achieve a respectable amount of leg drive. One
of the most overlooked aspects of the bench is the amount of power that can be
transferred from the legs to the torso, but this is only possible if the hips are
driven strongly into the bench, and the abdominals and lower back are used to
keep the torso stable. This is made easier for the athlete by arching, where the
lower back is extended. This also serves to allow the lats to be recruited more
efficiently by the athlete. The scapulae should be retracted to their fullest extent.
This can not only shorten the bench stroke as well, but decrease the angle of
rotation of the shoulder joint, limiting opening of the acromial process.
The grip will influence numerous factors; bar path, muscle recruitment and
activation, bar placement, and risk of injury. As a general rule, most powerlifters
will use a wide grip, shortening the distance the bar must travel and reducing the
necessary work to lockout the weight.(10, 36) A narrow grip enables lifters to
generate more force initially, but hinders force production at lockout. A wider grip
has been shown to limit initial force production.(31) It is also worth noting that a
wider grip generally allows far less horizontal bar displacement than a closer
grip. Contrary to popular belief, a wider grip does not stress the pectorals more
than a closer grip, although the triceps are recruited to a much greater degree
with a narrower grip due to the greater vertical displacement of the bar.(10)
While there is no greater recruitment of the pectorals secondary to a wider grip,
the muscles will be subject to a greater stretch, which can result in increased
force generation.(19) It goes without saying that the thumbs should be wrapped
firmly around the bar, which will not only help ensure the safety of the lifter, but
will make it easier to keep the wrists straight. Keeping the wrists straight allows
the bar to be supported over the radius and ulna, instead of being held in
position by the much smaller and weaker tendons of the wrist.
Unracking the bar is a part of the set up, and can result in a poor lift if it is not
given the attention it deserves. Ideally, the bar should be taken out of the rack
by the lifter, allowing the athlete to tighten the lats as the bar moves into

position. However, since it is not an ideal world, a spotter is often used. If the is
the case, the spotter should provide no more assistance than absolutely
necessary, and a poor lift off can be worse than no help at all, especially in the
case of smaller lifters, who can be pulled not only out of position, but clear of the
bench by an overly enthusiastic assistant. When the bar is unracked, it should
be taken at full extension, both because the athlete must demonstrate control of
the bar for a successful lift in competition, but to ensure that the muscles are
tight and the set up is correct. A single second of adjustment can avoid what
seems like an eternal struggle to press a weight that is out of position.
Elbow position on both the descent and ascent will determine many things,
including risk of injury to the shoulders, activation of the lats and triceps, as well
as bar position. This is one of the most ignored factors when benching. It will be
discussed in more detail during both the raising and lowering phases, but one
thing will be mentioned first: do not flare the elbows out to the side to place
more emphasis on the chest, as bodybuilding lore often states. This will result in
a severe amount of strain at the shoulder joints, as it opens the acromial process
to an extreme degree.
The descending phase is critical, and will directly determine the ability of the
athlete to press the weight. When the bar is lowered, it should be brought low on
the torso, to the apex of the arch. This serves to decrease the distance that the
bar is pressed, reducing the work done by the athlete during both the eccentric
and concentric phases. To enable the bar to be lowered properly, the elbows
should move toward the lifter as the bar comes down. This should be done with a
feeling of rowing the bar down with the lats, but achieving the feel of this can
take time. Tension should be maintained throughout the body as this is
occurring, to preserve the potential energy of the stretch reflex.(7)
The pause is required in competition, and while this is one of the many things
that separates a competition bench from a gym lift, it is often one of the most
important. The ability to preserve a stretch reflex is crucial to any athlete who
needs to hit a big number in competition. When the bar is paused, the most
important thing to do is not relax, tension must be maintained throughout the
entire body. The stretch reflex can be maintained for up to two seconds in a
trained athlete, although a novice will struggle to achieve 25% of this result.(7)
The concentric portion of the lift is the most difficult, and can present a variety of
problems to the athlete. One fact that should be noted is that, once the bar is
paused, the lifter should not allow the bar to sink further, using the ribcage or
stomach to propel the bar upward. This is heaving, and is cause for a lift to be
turned down. As the bar begins to ascend, it should be driven upward with as
much force as possible, both to take advantage of the myotactic response, as
well as to push through any possible sticking point.(13, 30) The elbows should be
maintained as close to the body as possible until the sticking point is reached, at
which point they should flare outward, reducing the movement arm about the
elbow and improving the leverage of the triceps.
The bar should be driven upward in as straight a line as possible. Quite simply,
this requires the least amount of work on the part of the athlete. Some lifters are
taught to push the bar back (back to the rack) and this is quite incorrect, even
though several good benchers do so. Benching in this manner increases the
amount of work that the lifter must perform, and decreases the involvement of
the lats. Some coaches and athletes are under the impression that this will more
fully utilize the musculature of the upper back, but this is not the case. It would
be if the athlete were vertical instead of horizontal, however, as the bar is simply

drifting over the face, the athlete is in no way utilizing muscular force to pull it
Common errors that occur when benching are discussed briefly. They all have
several things in common. First, they all indicate that the lifter is not strong
enough to move the weight properly, and should decrease the poundage until
their ability grows to match his desires. Second, they all indicate that the lifter
needs further education in the realm of strength training. Third, they all have the
potential to cause injury.
Excessive arching is common among gym lifters, who should know to keep their
hips on the bench. However, when the ego takes over, the body often loses
control. The lifter will push the hips up off of the bench, in order to improve his
leverage. While this can help someone lock out a lift they would otherwise have
missed, it can caused a great deal of strain on the vertebrae of the lower back
and the neck. The lumbar vertebrae will be compressed unevenly, increasing the
shearing force the spine is subject to, and putting the lifter at risk for serious
injury. An even more extreme form of arching can have the lifter actually
compressing the vertebrae of the neck.
Bouncing the bar off of the chest is another common technique exhibited by
those who seek to impress their friends with the fact that they have survived as
long as they have. This is, quite simply, an easy way to damage the ribs,
sternum, or even completely fracture the xiphoid process. In addition to the
potential for injury, people who utilize this technique will begin to develop a
weakness in the bottom of the bench press, necessitating further bouncing of the
bar, which is quite a viscous circle.
One last error will be discussed, and that is the improper use of spotters. While a
spotter is a good idea when benching, using one (or more) to perform the lift
instead of pressing the weight to full extension is not a habit that the serious
strength athlete should develop. While there may be a place for heavy negatives
in the recreational athletes program, there is a disadvantage to performing them
as well, in that they cause the greatest degree of microtrauma to muscle fibers
than any other standard type of training. While a muscle may be able to handle
approximately 120% of its maximal concentric load during the eccentric phase,
this does not in any way serve to optimize the central nervous system, and it is,
in fact, more fatiguing to the athlete than standard training, increasing the
recovery time and lessening the amount of training time. (29, 41, 60, 61)
There is at least one school of thought which would have athletes believe that
there is little benefit to performing a regular bench press, and that machine type
bench exercises are just as good, if not superior to the bench press.
Unfortunately, research does not support this. Studies have shown that not only
is there greater muscle activity during the bench press (20, 31, 33) but that
there is also greater recruitment of the stabilizing muscles to support the
musculature used in the bench press (16, 17, 45) This is particularly true of the
deltoid, and while all muscles of the deltoid are active to one degree or another
during any movement of the upper arm, with one head being the agonist and the
others synergists,(40) this difference is highly significant with respect to the
bench press.(33)
Lifters, whether powerlifters, bodybuilders, or recreational lifters often argue
about which muscles are most involved in the bench. Unfortunately, there is no
clear cut answer. The following information is compiled from electromyographical
analysis (EMG) performed within several studies, and in every case the EMG

signal was quantified by calculating the integral of the EMG pattern (IMEG) as
the area under the linear envelope.(60) The data were analyzed through a
repeated measures ANOVA (analysis of normal variance) using type III sums of
squares where possible.(1) This method of review was also used when assessing
% maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC). All anatomical references
were reviewed with respect to electrode placement with respect to both
anatomical accuracy as well as sensitivity as diagnostic tools (9, 12, 19, 24, 25,
37, 39, 42, 43, 61)
What the above paragraph indicates is that, when all factors are considered and
standardized, including individual variations such as biomechanics, fiber type,
rate of force development, etc. the following can be surmised (all data based on
averages of 60% and 80% 1rm):
% MVIC of agonists:
Triceps: 110%
Anterior deltoid: 95%
Pectoralis Major: 75%
The most active portion of the triceps was the long head, which is even more
active with a narrow grip. This is true even when overhead pressing, assuming
the elbows are fully adducted. This is secondary to the greater degree of elbow
flexion, in which the triceps brachii functions as the agonist.
The anterior deltoid will be more active the more the trunk is inclined, as well as
being more active with a wider grip. This is due to the fact that the anterior
deltoid is not merely an flexor of the humerus, but also an adductor of it. Wide
hand spacing during a vertical press will cause mainly glenohumeral abduction,
whereas with a narrow grip the primary movement is flexion.
The sternocostal head of the pectoralis major is little affected by hand spacing,
but is directly affected by trunk inclination. The greater the inclination, the less
the activation. There is also a slightly greater activation of this muscle with a
wider hand spacing, due, in general, to the fact that with a wider grip, the elbows
tend to move away from the midline of the body, which increases the degree of
horizontal flexion of the humerus.
The clavicular head of the pectoralis major is affected by both hand spacing as
well as trunk inclination. The narrower the grip, the greater the activation, as
well as the greater the inclination, the greater the activation. There are several
factors for this, including the fact that vertical bar displacement is greatest
during an incline press. This is also due to the fact that the clavicular head is
involved in horizontal flexion and adduction in addition to pure flexion. The
clavicular head will maintain its function as a flexor of the glenohumeral joint
until humerus moves above the horizontal position. This is why it is rather
inactive when the torso is vertical, as little flexion is occurring.
The latissimus dorsai is highly active at the initiation of the concentric phase,
with greater activity the closer the elbows are maintained to the torso, due to the
degree of adduction required. The latissimus dorsai is an extensor at the
glenohumeral joint as well as being a humeral adductor, which explains its
activity during every type of pressing.
Numerous training programs have been devised, and will not be discussed here
in great detail. A modest discussion of the various methods of training will be

Maximal effort method: The maximal effort method consists of lifting a maximal
(1RM) load, with the goal being improvement of both intramuscular and
intermuscular coordination. The central nervous system system is maximally
stimulated, with central nervous system inhibition being reduced, and the
greatest number of motor units are recruited using this method.(61) The primary
disadvantages of this method are that it induces minimal hypertrophy, as only
one or two reps are performed, as well as the fact that the central nervous
system will attenuate rather quickly, and so exercises must be rotated regularly.
If more than one set (repetition) is to be performed, then a lengthy rest period
may be required. (3, 4, 21, 53)
Repeated effort method: This method utilizes submaximal effort with higher reps
to stimulate maximal hypertrophy.(61) The basis for this method is that the
larger the muscles peak cross sectional area (PCSA), the greater the strength of
the individual muscle. The disadvantages to this method are that the central
nervous system is not highly stimulated with this method, as well as the fact that
as the muscles become fatigued, form begins to suffer, decreasing proper motor
unit recruitment patterns. As multiple sets are normally performed using this
method, rest periods should be long enough to allow the athlete sufficient
recovery time, but, over time, the athlete should strive to reduce the rest time
in-between sets (3, 4, 21, 46, 53)
Dynamic effort method: This method uses sub-maximal (light) weights to
increase rate of force development.(61) This method will also potentate the
myotactile response, as the weight is moved quickly. Repetitions are low, to
ensure proper technique, and sets are high, to allow for greater motor unit
recruitment. Rest periods should be kept low, as the various systems, such as
the central nervous system, musculoskeletal, etc. are not heavily taxed during a
single set. (4, 21, 41, 53)
A brief discussion of assistance work and its effects, as well as specific bench
techniques, is quite appropriate. Assistance work is of critical importance, a point
which has often been illustrated. When an athlete cannot progress in a certain
lift, it is not the lift itself which is weak, but there is a weak link (muscle group)
in the kinematic chain. The key to successful assistance work is determining
which muscle group is the weakest and determining the appropriate technique to
strengthen it.
General guidelines are hard to present, but, nevertheless, an attempt will be
Weak at the initiation of the concentric phase (out of the bottom): Strengthen
lats, pecs, as well as learn how to recruit lats properly.
Weak at the midpoint: Strengthen the shoulders, and work on specific exercises
to train the sticking point.
Weak at lockout: Triceps, triceps, and triceps. The triceps are active throughout
the entire lift, but most active the closer the bar moves toward lockout. Specific
exercises to strengthen the lockout can be used as well.
Bench assistance work will be divided into several basic categories, with a
general discussion about the effects of each category of exercises, with extra
discussion for specific functions of individual exercises if necessary. The
categories include flat benching exercises, partial pressing exercises, bench-like
exercises, assistance work for the triceps, assistance work for the deltoids,

assistance work for the traps, assistance work for the lats, assistance work for
the biceps and forearms. The use of chains and bands will not be discussed, but
will be the focus of another discussion.
Flat bench: This lift needs to be examined in and of itself as it can be used with a
variety of methods, techniques, and set and rep schemes, all of which can have
an effect on bench performance. When trained dynamically, the athlete should
use a weight that allows the production of maximal force, which will generally
occur somewhere between 50 60% of the 1RM. This allows for greater force
development, allows the lift to be trained again more frequently as it is
performed in a very rapid manner, lessening the eccentric stress and resultant
fatigue, as well as maximizing the utilization of the stretch reflex.
The paused version of the bench press can be used to develop starting strength.
Many athletes will train with an extended pause (two or three seconds) to help
them further develop the necessary explosion off the chest, as well as the ability
to maintain tension in the paused position.
Heavy negatives: Not advised for the strength athlete. By the time an athlete is
advanced enough to perform them, the amount of recovery time necessary will
reduce practical training time. This exercise may be useful for novice athletes to
become accustomed to the feel of heavier weights through synaptic facilitation.
Illegal wide grip bench. Very useful for strengthening the bottom portion of the
bench which will occur secondary to hypertrophy, as these are generally
performed in the six rep range. The only caution is that this exercise can severely
open the acromial process, and should be used sparingly, and only by athletes
with healthy shoulders.
Pressing from the pins at chest level can work the start of the bench as well, but
it is difficult to recruitment maximal power from the torso, as there is no stretch
reflex, and no resulting tension. This can place the athlete at greater risk for
injury as well.
Benching with a cambered bar or a buffalo bar can also work the start of the
bench, but once again care must be taken to avoid injury to the shoulders as the
acromial process is quite open using these types of bars.
Close grip bench presses have been a not only a standard method for
powerlifters to strengthen the triceps and thus the lockout of the bench, but have
even been used by weightlifters as an assistance exercise to increase their ability
to execute the press decades before powerlifting was a recognized sport,
including the great Tommy Kono. (for the trivia-minded, Kono cleaned and
pressed 350 pounds at a bodyweight of 182.5 pounds)
Reverse grip bench pressing can provide quite a bit of stimulation for the triceps.
This method is little used, but could be far more prevalent if athletes did not
overlook this very useful exercise. It is, in fact, even more surprising when one
considers that the heaviest bench ever executed was performed with a reverse
grip. This was a standard assistance exercise for legendary bencher Rick Weil,
who eventually utilized it as his competition style, pushing 551 lbs. at a
bodyweight of 181 lbs.
Partial bench exercises can take a wide variety of forms, and will be further
subdivided into several categories: initial, or the start of the concentric, lockout,
which will be used to refer to any portion of the bench higher than of the

distance to lockout, or specific. One difficulty arises in that exercises with specific
variations with respect to the height at which they are performed, such as board
presses, and presses from the rack, will fall into a different category based on
the bench stroke of the individual. An athlete with a short bench stroke may find
that the three board press strengthens the lockout, whereas an individual with a
very long bench stroke will find that it strengthens the start or the mid-range of
the bench. The same is true for partial presses from the rack. One of the keys to
making partial exercises effective is that they must be performed in the correct
range, with the joints at the proper angle.
Partial training is based on the attenuation principle, where the intent is to train
in the range of motion where there is demand for maximal force production. This
method is used to overload the musculoskeletal system as well as the central
nervous system with supramaximal loads in the area of the ROM where maximal
force is produced.(40) This also produces a decline in neural inhibition.(55)
Numerous studies have shown that there is an area of the ROM where maximal
force production occurs, and this area is often referred to as the sticking point.
(13, 31, 57) Studies have shown that partial ROM training increases strength
primarily at the trained ROM, although there is a certain amount of variance. (18,
27, 28, 48) It is worth noting that partial ROM exercise produces greater torque
compared to full ROM exercise. (47, 58) One other benefit of performing partials
is the lessened eccentric phase, which will result in less microtrauma, allowing
quicker recovery.(29)
Board Press: Allows the lifter to maintain tension throughout the torso but still
work a partial ROM. Much of the weight is transferred to the athlete at the
bottom of the rep, when the bar is paused.
Rack Press: Similar to board press, but harder for the athlete to maintain tension
in the torso. This exercise is easier to vary, as changing pin heights is relatively
simple, but there is greater risk of injury if the athlete does not achieve the
appropriate levels of muscular tension prior to the concentric phase. This
exercise can also be used to push very heavy weights, allowing the central
nervous system to be better conditioned for handling heavier weights.
Floor Press: Good for working the initial portion of the bench. For lifters with
weak triceps, this may not be the best assistance exercise.
Isometric press: This exercise involves utilizing a power rack with the pins set
just above and below the sticking point. The athlete will then press the weight off
the pins, forcibly contacting the next set of pins. This will be repeated for a total
of three times, and when the bar contacts the pins the third time, the athlete
should push against the pins for at least six seconds, with the goal of exhausting
every possible muscle fiber.
Work for the triceps is basically the same. Variations of extensions, as the
function of the triceps is to extend the elbow joint. There are a great many types
of extension, so many, in fact, that they would be the subject for an entire
document of their own. The purpose of all of them is to increase the strength of
the triceps through hypertrophy, and a wide number of set and rep schemes can
be used. Only a couple exercises will be mentioned specifically.
Dips: Good for the novice, who is not used to pushing heavy weight. As the
athlete becomes more advanced, there is the matter of diminishing returns.
Perhaps it is because of the strain on the shoulder joint, the fact that so many
muscles are involved that it is hard to target a specific weakness with this

exercise, or for some unknown reason, but advanced athletes seem to benefit
very little from this exercise.
French Press: Yet another overlooked exercise. Whether seated or standing, this
exercise provides a benefit many other do not: it fully stretches the long head of
the triceps, which crosses the shoulder joint. This can be quite beneficial for a
lifter who has been doing short range isolation movements.
Pushdowns: These exercises do very little to truly develop functional strength,
and should be used only for active recovery or as GPP.
Exercise for the shoulder girdle are of the utmost importance. Not only the
anterior deltoid, which functions as an agonist in the bench press, but the medial
and posterior deltoids, the trapezius, as well as the rotator cuff and rhomboids.
Pressing exercises, whether with barbells or dumbbells, are one of the best all
around shoulder exercises. The anterior and medial deltoid will be directly
stimulated, and the posterior will function as synergists. The traps will be used to
support the musculature of the shoulders during overhead pressing as well.
Pressing can also be performed from various pin heights within the rack, adding
extra variations to the lifters arsenal.
Pressing behind the neck is often viewed as dangerous, and this is true: if the
athlete does not maintain adequate flexibility in the shoulders, strength in the
external rotators, and a certain amount of flexibility in the chest. As at least one
of these factors is generally sadly lacking, this variation of pressing exercise can
be quite hard on the athlete.
Snatch Grip Press Behind the Neck: This exercise is rarely performed in the
United States, as Olympic weightlifting is not as popular as it once was. This
exercise is one of the reasons when Overhead lifting was the rule, rather than
the exception, that rotator cuff injuries were few and far between.
The strength and recruitment of the latissimus dorsai is essential to a big bench,
and so correspondingly the lats should be trained in the manner which not only
most closely simulates the motion of the bench, but allows the athlete to achieve
greater recruitment of the lats. As the lats are basically worked in two directions
(there are minute exceptions which are not very applicable) exercises will be
grouped into two categories.
Chins/Pullups/Pulldowns: All excellent movements for strengthening the lats, and
chins and pull ups are superior to pulldowns due to the greater number of motor
units recruited. If an athlete is going to perform chins or pull ups, care must be
taken not to bounce out of the bottom portion of the exercise, as this can cause
bicep tendonitis or other elbow problems.
Rows: While certain types of rows have been shown to display a higher EMG
activation rating, such a s dumbbell rows, the athlete working to improve the
bench should make the row as specific as possible. Ideally, this will be with the
chest supported, the bar held in the same grip, and it is rowed in the same plane
as the bench is executed. Rotating different variations of this exercise can be
The trapezius is a muscle that helps stabilize the entire shoulder girdle, as well
as the neck and head, and is often neglected in many conventional programs.

The basic exercise for strengthening the trapezius is the shrug. This exercise can
be performed with barbells or dumbbells, and can be performed in an explosive
manner allowing more weight to be used as well as increasing the effective ROM.
The other method for strengthening the traps as well as the upper back would be
the Olympic lifts. While learning the classic (full) versions of the snatch and clean
and jerk could be counter productive, partial versions of the quick lifts can be
readily learned and provide a degree of stimulation to the upper back that is
unparalleled by other forms of lifting.
The power snatch is one of the best exercises for strengthening the upper back
that has ever been practiced. In addition to strengthening the traps, posterior
deltoids, rhomboids and teres major, the external rotators are strengthened quite
thoroughly. This exercise, or a variation of it, is often used for this very purpose.
The power clean will work the traps quite well, and more weight can be used
than in the power snatch. This exercise will work the posterior deltoids,
rhomboids, and teres major, but it does not strengthen the external rotators to
the same degree as the power snatch. If strengthening the external rotators is
the primary goal, dumbbells can be more effective.
Pulls: Whether executed with a snatch or clean grip, performed from the deck,
the hang, or pins, Olympic pulls can work the traps through an incredible range
of motion, and there will be some stimulation of the other muscles of the upper
Biceps: The only function the biceps brachialis serves is as a stabilizer in the
bench press. For this reason, there is little reason for the athlete interested in
strengthening the bench to spend much time curling. The brachialis serves as a
stabilizer as well, and often more so than the biceps, so reverse curls and
hammer curls can be of some use.
Forearms: The muscular of the forearm is far more important to the bench than
the biceps. The brachioradialis serves to stabilize the elbow joint, and the
extensors and flexors stabilize the wrist joint.
Reverse Curls: This exercise primarily strengthens the brachioradialis, but also
serves to strengthen the brachialis.
Hammer Curls: Similar to reverse curls, with less effect on the brachioradialis,
but more stimulation of the brachialis.
Wrist Curls: Can be used to strengthen both the flexors and the extensors.
Grip work: Grip work in general can be divided into a few categories as well, but
the primary interest of the athlete seeking to improve the bench is static
A final note: Aside from the obvious cautions about using spotters or a power
rack, there is one other difficulty that is often overlooked. The bench press will
heavily work the internal rotators (supraspinatus and infraspinatus) but not
stress the externals to any great degree. The external rotators (subscapularis
and teres minor) are equally important, and should receive attention. While
mention has been made of the fact that some of the Olympic lifts work the
external rotators, this needs to be stressed. If these moves are not utilized, a
certain amount of specific work for these small muscles should be included. The

key aspect to any training program is that the health of the athlete is paramount.
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