The bench press likes to stall hard and fast more than any of the other big barbell lifts. There’s less muscle mass involved during the bench compared to the squat or deadlift, so there’s less room for technical error and less ability to “muscle” through heavy weights. A bench press plateau can take months or even years to break, which can lead to frustration and seemingly-wasted training sessions.
In my experience, lifters tend to stall at common strength levels:
Women: 115-135 lbs
Lighter Men: 225 lbs
Heavier Men: 300-315 lbs
Recently in the CSP women’s powerlifting group, we had a handful of lifters who overcame their bench stagnation and are now pressing the “big girl plates” as they love to call them (just watch how happy my distance-based client Jen got after hitting her first 135 bench!).
Incredibly proud of #bonvecstrength athlete @jennycoops_ for hitting her first 135 #benchpress! This was a big goal that Jen set her sights on and she fought for every pound along the way. Patience and consistency for the win. Well done Jen!!! #powerlifting #bonvecstrength #ladieswholift #girlswhopowerlift
After looking back at their training logs, I came across some common threads that helped tremendously. Use these three strategies to break your own bench press plateau:
1. BENCH HEAVY TWICE A WEEK
Squatting or deadlifting heavy more than once a week is rarely advisable since they target similar muscle groups and provide similar stress to the back, hips and shoulders. However, there aren’t any other upper body powerlifts, so it makes sense to train the bench press heavy more frequently. Rather than sticking to the traditional heavy day and speed/repetition day approach, I had our ladies train heavy (i.e. 85 percent of 1RM or above) twice a week for 10 weeks.
The benefits were plentiful, but I’ll discuss the two big ones. First, it got them comfortable handling heavy weights more often. There’s a huge mental component to unracking a heavy bar and holding it over your face. If even for a moment you get scared of knocking your own teeth out with the barbell, your chances of success go way down.
Second, it improved their technique with heavier weights. Whether because of muscular weakness, inexperience, lack of confidence or all three, many lifters see their technique fall apart on heavy bench attempts. You’ll often see a handful of things go out the window:
- Elbows flare too early
- Upper back arch collapses
- Butt comes off the bench
- Lowering the bar too fast/too slow
- Rushing the pause on the chest
For example, Hilary could demolish anything up to 110, but as soon as 115 got on the bar, she struggled to keep good form. But after handling between 105-110 twice a week for several weeks, 115 suddenly became no big deal.
Great lifters make heavy weights look the same as the empty bar, and benching heavy twice a week reinforced this.
2. USE THE REST-PAUSE METHOD
A favorite technique of Texas-based strength coach Josh Bryant (listen to him on The Strength House Podcast), the rest-pause method involves using mini-breaks within a set to allow you to do more reps with better technique. For example:
- Use a weight you could do for about 5 reps
- Do 3-4 reps (1-2 shy of failure)
- Rest 15 seconds
- Do 1-2 more reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Do 1-2 more reps
Suddenly you’ve done 6-8 reps with a weight you normally could only do five times. It’s a sneaky way to rapidly increase how much volume you can do with a given weight, which skyrockets strength levels in record time.
This also teaches lifters to avoid failing reps in training. You have to know your body and stop just shy of failure, otherwise you’ll get smashed by the second and third round of each rest-pause set. Our ladies who learned to reduce the number of missed reps in training saw their bench numbers increase much faster.
We typically used the rest-pause method on our second bench session of the week after a more traditional heavy day. It looked something like this:
|Heavy Day||Rest-Pause Day (15 sec breaks)|
|Week 1||1×3, 1×5, 1xAMRAP @ 80%||2 x (3xAMRAP @ 80%)|
|Week 2||1×2, 1×3, 1xAMRAP @ 87.5%||2 x (3xAMRAP @ 87.5%)|
|Week 3||1×1, 1×2, 1xAMRAP @ 90%||2 x (3xAMRAP @ 90%)|
|Week 4 (Deload)||3×5 @ 75%||2 x (3×3 @ 75%)|
As you can see, the percentages are the same each week. The rest-pause day adds up to more total volume (sets x reps) and gets done faster, which increases training density (e.g. work done in a given amount of time).
3. PUSH THE OVERHEAD PRESS
A great bench press needs a strong initial push off the chest, and nothing helps the start of the bench press like a pair of strong shoulders. I’d long ignored the importance of the overhead press as a bench builder, but we saw our ladies destroy their bench press plateau when we started focusing more on getting strong overhead.
The shoulders are most involved in the bottom part of the bench press. The focus gradually shifts to the triceps as the bar approaches lockout, but the triceps don’t matter much if the bar gets superglued to your chest whenever the weights get heavy. We found many of our ladies missing heavy reps very close to the chest, so I added in overhead pressing once a week.
I was surprised how many of our lifters struggled with very light weights. We’re talking 55-65 lbs. Granted, female lifters tend to have less relative upper body strength than their male counterparts, but I knew if we could improve their shoulder strength, their bench would go up.
We used a lot of variety. I switched the pressing variation every few weeks to avoid stagnation because there’s not a lot of room to add weight each set between 45-65 lbs. We used:
- Strict overhead presses
- Push presses
- Seated overhead press
- Scrape-the-rack presses
Once we saw our ladies getting more in the 75-85 lbs range with their presses, the 105 benchers quickly got to 115 and the 115 benchers got to 135 and beyond.
BREAK YOUR BENCH PRESS PLATEAU
If you’re struggling to get your bench numbers to move, try implementing these three methods into your training. They’re nothing revolutionary, but they lead to more high-quality training sessions and address common weak points.
And if you REALLY want to take your bench to the next level, subscribe to my newsletter below to receive 2 free bench press e-books and a comprehensive how-to-bench video tutorial.