At some point in your gym career, you will hit the dreaded ‘plateau’. Sure enough, you’ll be putting the time in, merrily lifting away them bam! All of a sudden the weight will stop increasing, the reps will start failing and the only thing growing will be frustration. This series of articles, starting with the bench press, aims to explore this all-too-common phenomenon and offer some methods (tested personally by yours truly) to move past it. Want to overcome the stagnation? Then read on for Bench Press Training Plateau: 13 Keys & Solutions to Overcoming Yours!
1. So, What is a Plateau?
A plateau is when you suddenly stop seeing progress and results from your regular workouts. They can affect all sorts of training from weightlifting to running: it’s essentially your body adapting to the impact of your workout. They are better avoided than overcome – regularly switching exercises is the best tactic, but they can still sneak up and ruin your day.
2. Are You Actually Plateauing, Why?
Say you’ve been following a routine for a few weeks, increasing the weight incrementally after every successful session. Then one day, you struggle to lift the new, slightly heavier bar, unable to complete your planned set of reps. Despite being equivalent to the world ending, this is not necessarily plateauing – especially if you’ve been successfully increasing the weight for weeks.
One bad session does not equal a plateau. Several sessions where the weight has stalled is a plateau – but only if you can safely say that all other parts of your life are on track (these things are more likely to suffer the longer you stick to a routine).
3. Ask Yourself, Questions Such As…Am I Getting Enough Sleep?
Aiming for 8-9 hours is advised, but make sure you get enough for you. Training after a long day at work is always going to be difficult, especially on low sleep. Am I eating enough of the right stuff? Are you hitting your macros?
Protein, carbs and fat are all crucial fuel, especially if training regularly throughout the week. Being able to recover between sessions and refuel your muscles is fundamental to a successful workout – not eating enough will impede you, even more so as the weights get heavier and your training more intense.
Ask yourself: Am I still actually following the routine? Is it just my bench press that is stagnating? If you can check off all these different variables and can confidently say that your moods, nutrition and sleep are perfect then you are probably plateauing.
4. How to Overcome a Bench Press Plateau Through Training
There are numerous potential ways to try and overcome a plateau in benching – but a good first step is identifying the weakest part of the lift.
Assuming you bench with correct form, there will be three parts to the lift. The eccentric movement (lowering the bar to the chest), a pause when the bar touches the chest and the concentric movement (pressing the bar back to lockout).
5. Performing Negatives
Although the eccentric seems the easiest part of the lift, controlling the bar on its descent is the best way to get used to actually pressing a heavier weight.
It requires a (COVID-safe) spotter to unrack the bar, and for you to slowly lower it to your chest. The spotter then helps you lift it back to full lockout. Simple as that.
If you do get stuck pressing, for example, 100kg, load 110kg on the bar then perform several negatives, performing a controlled eccentric by yourself and having the spotter help press the bar back up.
6. Board Press
If you identify where the weak part of your press is, then performing a board press could solve your problem. A board press is simply a bit of a wood or a foam yoga block placed on the chest to reduce the distance that the bar travels.
7. But How Can I Get a Stronger Bench Press by Quarter-Repping & Looking Odd in the Gym?
Doing a board press means you can move a heavier weight than your one-rep max. But the benefit of the board press is it can target your weak points and be adapted to suit them.
If you struggle on locking out during a rep, thicker blocks can isolate that part of the lift, allowing you to build strength specifically for that part. Likewise, it focuses more on your triceps!
Losing momentum at the bottom of the rep? Then investing in a slingshot could solve that problem. Specially designed for powerlifters by the renowned Mark Bell, (older brother to the director and powerlifter Chuck Bell, “Bigger, Faster, Stronger”) the slingshot is an elastic assistance device that forces strict form and allows the user to overload their muscles and lift beyond their max.
This device could serve as a safer way to push past a plateau, allowing your body to get used to pressing a heavier weight with perfect form and allowing you to keep momentum at the bottom of a rep.
9. Pause Reps & Dead-Stops
Other hacks that could help fight issues at the bottom of the rep and will be all too familiar to most powerlifters (or pump chasers) are pause reps and dead-stops. Starting with pause reps, they are best and safely performed with a lower weight than your usual working set.
Firstly, perform the eccentric part of the press as usual, but when the bar reaches the chest, stop for a few seconds. At this point your chest will begin crying out, your arms will tighten and your shoulders will start to ache. After a few agonising seconds – and with no momentum to help you – press the bar back up to full lockout.
Staying strict with the pause time and keeping a close eye on how your body adapts to pushing the weight back up is crucial to identifying a weak spot. You may discover your shoulders take the strain and your elbows flare out, suggesting form issues and a general chest weakness to be the culprit.
Dead stops are similar to pause reps but require a squat rack with adjustable safety bars. Place a bench in the squat rack, then lower the safeties so they sit slightly above the chest – no more than a few inches.
This completely cuts out any eccentric control or stretch reflex. Moving the weight from the safety bars demands considerable pectoral exertion – meaning your usual working set rep range or weight may be out the question. Nonetheless, it’s a good method to develop your pushing power.
10. Re-Evaluate Your Routine
When training regularly, warming up is paramount for any exercise – but be aware it could be fatiguing you before you even get to your working set. For example, when I was training with a friend, he noted how all his other lifts were progressing, but his bench press was not, it lagged behind considerably.
When I enquired a little further, it turned out he was benching the day after he would train back and normally deadlift. Furthermore, he would perform 5 warm-up sets, building his way up to his 90kg working set. By this point he performed a set with the 20kg bar; then at 40kg; followed by 50kg; then 60kg, another at 70kg before a final warm-up at 80kg; performing 8-10 reps for each.
By the time he was at 90kg, his chest had undergone a huge amount of volume, explaining why he was struggling to perform 3 reps. Besides, his back, core and glutes/legs were worn out from deadlifting the day before, all of which play a key role during the bench press.
11. Stop Benching
It sounds counter-intuitive, but your chest may not be the sole issue during a bench press. It’s crucial to remember that the lift employs the triceps, front deltoid, core and a large number of muscles in the back. If you’re struggling to progress, it could be due to a weak spot or imbalance in these muscles, not just in your chest per se.
By implementing ‘accessory lifts’ that isolate these muscles, eg. tricep dips, skull crushers, shoulder presses etc. you can strengthen these weaker muscles. Similarly, imbalances can be fixed through training with dumbbells instead of a bar and through working on an incline.
12. Poor Form
It’s worth restating, that if you’re struggling to consistently improve during a routine, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating right and resting adequately. Poor form is another factor that many don’t realise could be holding them back. As stated, the bench press utilises several different muscles – including your core and legs.
If you do not work the core, adequately bracing for the lift will be harder; likewise, activating leg drive will be significantly more difficult with weaker legs that have poor flexibility. Ever seen videos of powerlifters contorting themselves to move a weight? That is the most effective and safest position to bench press in.
By arching your back, you lock your shoulders in place, reducing the range of motion of the barbell. Similarly, it allows the presser to integrate leg drive into the movement and activate the core – possibly allowing you to press a greater weight without risking injuries.
13. The Main Lesson
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from this article is that if you have plateaued, there is no reason to give up hope and quit altogether. There are numerous changes, tips, keys and solutions that you can implement into your routine to work past a plateau. With a few different movements that allow for a safe overload, you’ll be busting through that plateau in no time!