As with any of the ‘big 3’ exercises, there will inevitably come a time where you reach a plateau with your strength in the exercise. This plateau will normally happen for one of three main reasons:
- Your body isn’t getting enough rest and recovery between workouts
- You aren’t eating sufficient calories to promote an increase in strength
- Your training routine has become too similar from week to week, with no real shock to your muscles
While the first two of these reasons are certainly important, this article will take a look at what you can do to add variation to your chest workouts, and the most effective training techniques to break a bench press plateau.
Find your weakness
Assuming your diet and rest is adequate for recovery, it’s important to find any weaknesses in your actual bench press movement. This exercise can be broken down to 3 main sections; the lowering of the bar, the change in direction and the press of the bar back to the start position.
While it might be simpler to break the exercise down into just the lowering of the bar and the press, the change in direction of the bar is an area where many people’s strength will fail. When performed with strict form, this change in direction is actually what can take the most energy.
Where on the lowering of the bar you could rely on just controlling the descent at a steady speed, you now have to not only bring this heavy weight to a stop, but also change its direction and get the bar moving against the direction in naturally wants to move in.
With these 3 portions to the bench press it’s often only one that will be stopping you from increasing your strength. The first thing to do is find out which section of the movement is holding you back and consistently causing your one rep max attempts to fail. This area can then be built on until you are making consistent strength gains again.
No matter what the exercise, there is always the possibility that one side of your body will develop stronger than the other. It could be that you can perform one more rep of dumbbell curls with your right arm than your left, or in the case of the bench press one tricep may be stronger at pressing than the other.
This imbalance can prevent you from increasing the weight on the bar, but is a problem that does have a simple solution. If you are used to only benching with a barbell in your chest workouts then it’s relatively easy for one side to compensate the other. By switching up your routine to alternate between barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press then this will help even out your strength.
For example, one week focus on flat barbell bench press, then the next week focus on flat dumbbell bench press.
This allows you to isolate each tricep and shoulder and to identify if you do have a weaker side. With each arm now pressing independently there won’t be any ability for one to compensate for the other and your strength levels should even out to fix any imbalance.
Lowering the bar
If you are struggling to lower the bar all the way to your chest in a controlled way, the chances are it’s the lower half of the movement that you are struggling with. This is where the focus gets loaded more on your shoulders than on the triceps, and your chest and anterior deltoids start doing most of the work.
If you feel strong through the top half but weak in the lower half and when approaching your chest, then try building up the strength in your shoulders. If you are currently only performing isolation exercises such as side lateral raises or even shoulder pressing in a seated cable machine then try switching to overhead presses with a barbell.
This will give you a much better range of motion and work both your shoulders and triceps. The lowering of the bar to your shoulders after the press will really help with the lowering of the bar during your bench press.
Another important area to think about is your stability on the bench. While pressing your feet firmly into the ground will help keep your lower body stable, having a strong upper back will help keep the movement of the bar stable throughout the bench press. This is why it can be useful to include barbell rows and deadlifts in your back workouts.
Best exercises for improvement:
The change in direction
While including more compound strength exercises in your shoulder workouts will also help when you need to start pressing the bar, there are also a couple more advanced training methods that you can try.
The first of these involves a smith machine or power cage, essentially something with safety rails or locks that you can safely rest the bar on. Next, lie down on the bench and make sure the bar is supported right at the lowest point of your bench press.
Leave the bar at this low position and slide out from the bench to load up the barbell with the required weight. You will then be performing sets of bench presses, but from a static starting position at the lowest and weakest part of your lift.
If you are always letting the bar rest on the supports before pressing again, this takes out any momentum from the exercise and gets your muscles used to pressing heavier weights from that position.
The second option that you can also try is rest pause. This doesn’t necessarily require heavy weight, but is more about keeping complete control of the bar through this lowest section of the bench press.
You can perform these by pressing the bar off the rack, lowering it to your chest, pausing for 2 to 3 seconds and then pressing straight up with as much explosive strength as you can.
Best exercises for improvement:
Pressing the barbell back to its starting position
If your bench press is weakest when you are pressing the bar back to the start position, it’s probably due to a weakness in your triceps. The most common cause of weakness in tricep muscles is the trend towards overtraining with too many isolation movements.
Many people read the monthly magazines and see all variations of lying tricep extensions, dumbbell kickbacks, rope pressdowns…the list goes on. If you want to gain serious strength in your triceps then there are really only 3 main exercises you need to include in your workouts.
You should also combine one pressdown exercise, preferably the straight bar variation.
The reason these 3 exercises are so effective is essentially due to being able to load the most weight on your triceps, while still maintaining a wide range of motion to hit all three heads of the muscle (Lateral, Long and Medial).
These 3 exercises are also virtually limitless in the amount of weight that you can add, which means you can always stay within lower rep ranges if this is what gives you the greatest gains in your strength.
For more advanced lifters, an additional technique is to bench press through just the top half or third of the movement. This can be safely performed in a smith machine or power rack with the safety bars / collars limiting how far the bar can be lowered.
This then allows you to load the bar with a much heavier weight than you would normally be able to perform the full bench press with and completely isolate the weakest portion of your bench press.
Summary of how to break a bench press plateau
Strengthen this section by building your triceps with heavy compound exercises that hit all 3 heads of the tricep, such as close grip bench press and weighted dips.
Using a smith machine with locking collars, bands, blocks or safety rails in a power rack will all help to build strength through one specific portion of the bench press.
In our next article we will be focussing on the diet, recovery and supplementation that can improve your strength, as well as a training program you can use so be sure to check back soon.