Break the Bench Press Plateau

Bench Press Plateau

You’ve been training consistently for months, paying particular attention to certain lifts, and while your squat and deadlift scores have been going up recently, your bench press hasn’t moved in the last couple months.

In short you have hit a plateau.

This happens to every lifter at some points and can be very frustrating, all though for some new lifters it should be seen as the moment you stopped being a new lifter and finally reached the regular lifter club (sadly you don’t get a membership pack).

So is there anything that can be done? Or do you simply ride it out? Well that depends.

In this article we will look at some changes you can make but if you have already tried them then yes you might just need to be patient.

1. Establish your 1 Rep Max

For many people, the gym is not a place for science it is a place to lift weights and then go home. If you have reached a plateau though, you might want to reconsider.

Firstly, if you aren’t properly measuring and recording your lifts how can you be sure you have in fact reached a plateau?

What you need to do is dedicate a session each to discovering your 1-RM for both Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Bench Press. Make sure you do these at opposite ends of the week so that you have fully recovered, and don’t perform any chest, shoulder, or tricep exercises in between.

When you have your 1-RM measurements you can properly assess your future progress, and work out whether you are satisfied with where you are currently at.

2. Make Small Increases to the Weight

Now that you have established your one rep max you can look at how to increase it, we will be discussing strategies and techniques later on but right now we need to cover a basic concept.

Increasing the load is the only way that you are going to promote growth. Where most people mess up though is that they try to increase the load by too much at a time.

For example, let’s say that you can perform 6 reps at 90kg on the barbell bench press. You have begun to find that slightly easy so decide to increase the weight. Many gym goers would now put 100kg onto the bar, fail, and then declare themselves as experiencing a plateau. What a sensible gym goer should do though is to increase the weight to 92.5kg.

Adding the tiny 1.25kg plates onto the bar might make you feel like an idiot but following this method is the best way to increase your strength. Being patient and consistent are the best ways to break a plateau.

3. Use Dumbbells to Improve Muscle Symmetry

Also known as a muscular imbalance, muscle symmetry is crucial for increasing your bench press numbers.

If one arm is significantly stronger than the other you will be limited to what your weakest arm can manage. Just like in the army, the whole squad marches at the speed of the slowest soldier.

If you are only training with the barbell you will never address this issue because the weight can be distributed so that your stronger arm can take more of the strain.

Using dumbbells forces both arms to lift the same weight, doing so consistently will eventually allow your less-dominant arm to catch up. Which will result in you being able to lift more during the barbell bench press.

4. Get your Technique Right

This is the most important consideration, is your technique optimal? Because if not then you can possibly increase your bench by as much as 10%.

Have you got your shoulders retracted so that your chest is pushed out? Are your feet drawn up underneath you so that you can use your legs to drive the weight up? Is your head flush with the bench throughout the lift?

Are you performing the full range of motion? Because if not you aren’t working the chest sufficiently and your strength will be stunted. Short term this may actually lower your 1-RM as it is forcing you to increase ROM, but long term this will really help.

5. Get the Correct Grip

While most studies say that the difference between the grips is minimal [1], there is enough evidence that widening your grip can help you lift more weight as it shortens the distance that the bar has to travel [2].

This does not mean you should always train with a wide grip (this can cause shoulder injuries), it does show you that there is an effect. Try experimenting with slightly wider and narrower grips to see which suits you best.

Remember, a closer grip will place much more emphasis on the triceps, while a wider grip will place more on the pectorals. While you’re doing this you might want to think about adding some close-grip benches to your repertoire, as they have a huge influence on triceps they can help you lift more during regular bench presses.

6. Use both Barbells and Dumbbells

As mentioned in point 3, dumbbells can help address muscle imbalances but they also have other benefits. They tend to target the lower part of your pecs whilst the barbell version targets the upper part. Training both will give you the best of both worlds.

Also, while barbells allow you to lift more weight, up to 17% more in one study [3]. Dumbbells provide an increased range of motion which will help improve chest strength.

7. Use Eccentric Training

By only performing the lowering part of the bench press, you can lift more weight and gain strength [4].

Use a set of negative reps once or twice a week at the end of your regular bench press sets.

8. Use a Full Body Training Program

Training chest once per week, even if it is for a full hour is not as effective as training chest two or three times per week by utilising a full body program.

Even if you only train chest for ten to twenty minutes per session (due to you having other muscle groups to fit in the session) you will still get better results compared to the Chest Day crew [5].

9. Increase your Calories

A plateau might be a sign that you are not consuming enough calories to fully recover and grow between sessions.

Muscle Protein Synthesis requires increased protein to work properly, this is why athletes require double the protein of sedentary people [6]. Simply increasing the amount of protein in your diet could be the answer to your bench press issues.

10. Improve your Rest

This means improve your rest period between sets, you can increase the time or the quality and see if that makes a difference.

It also means improve your sleep, multiple studies have shown increased sleep has a positive effect on athletic performance [7]

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[1] Lehman, G. 2005. The Influence of Grip Width and Forearm Pronation/Supination on Upper-Body Myoelectric Activity During the Flat Bench Press. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19(3): 587-91
[2] Wagner, L., Evans, S., Weir, J., Housh, T., Johnson, G. 1992. The Effect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics 8: 1-10
[3] Saeterbakken, A., Van Den Tillaar, R., Fimland, M. 2011. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of Sports Sciences 29(0): 1-6
[4] Roig, M., O’Brien, K., Kirk, G., Murray, R., McKinnon, P., Shadgan, B., Reid, D. 2008. The effects of resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine 43(8): 556-68
[5] Schoenfeld, B., Ratamess, N., Peterson, M., Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, R. 2015. Influence on Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29(7): 1821-1829
[6] Tarnopolsky, M., Atkinson, S., MacDougall, J., Chesley, A., Phillips, S., Schwarcz, H. 1992. Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology 73(5): 1986-95
[7] Mah, C., Mah, K., Dement, W. 2007. The Effects of Extra Sleep on Mood and Athletic Performance amongst Collegiate Athletes. Sleep 30[suppl]

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