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How to Break a Bench Press Plateau

Reading Time: 7 minutes 3 seconds


DATE: 2020-05-12

Whether you've hit your own plateau in bench pressing or a client is struggling with a barrier, there are ways to break through it. A plateau can be frustrating; it makes you feel weak; it may even push you to quit or give up on a training routine.

Plateaus are normal. They happen to everyone. When working through a bench press plateau, make a few tweaks to training, diet, and lifestyle. Use these to ride through this downturn and ultimately break the plateau and see gains again.

Are your female clients bench pressing? They should, and here's why.

All About Bench Pressing

As a trainer or gym fanatic, you know what a bench press is. But your clients may be new to strength training, so it helps to be able to explain what the move is, what muscles it works, and why it's important for fitness.

Muscles Worked in a Bench Press

This is a great training exercise because it is a compound movement. In one exercise, you work several muscles. Doing this kind of exercise is important because it improves functional strength and movement. It also provides a more efficient workout, hitting several muscles at once. A bench press strengthens the muscles throughout the chest, shoulders, and arms.

Good Bench Press Form

The best way to do a bench press is to do it with correct form:

  1. Lie on a flat bench and grip the barbell, keeping hands just wider than the shoulders.

  2. Keep the feet pressed firmly and flatly on the ground and the hips pressed into the bench.

  3. Lower the barbell down to the chest. Elbows should be bending out to each side.

  4. The full range of motion stops when the elbows are just slightly lower than the bench.

  5. Press down into the feet and hips, lifting the barbell back up to the starting position.

Incorporating Bench Presses into a Fitness Routine

This is a good exercise to make part of a regular strength training routine. Do it two to three times per week with a day of rest in between. It can be a part of a workout for upper body strength or overall body strength.

To build muscle strength, do a smaller number of reps with heavier weights. Also add in other upper body strength moves, like pull-ups, bent over rows, lat pull downs, overhead presses, and push-ups. Also, try these moves for stronger back muscles, which will help improve overall strength and bench presses.

What is a Plateau and Why Does it Happen?

The bench press is a simple, yet compound movement that builds overall upper body strength. It is also a good measure of upper body strength. When you hit a plateau, it means you are no longer making gains. Your progress slows or completely stalls. You may even find that you have to go backward, turning to smaller weights just to do the same number of reps.

First of all, understand that a plateau is normal to some degree. You can't keep training in a linear fashion and expect to consistently go up and up. It just doesn't work that way. The body adapts with training and becomes more efficient. The margin for improvement gets smaller and smaller.

A true plateau, seeing no gains for weeks or months, is less normal but still happens to many people. It is in these situations that you need new strategies and changes to break through.

How to Break a Bench Press Plateau with a Few Simple Changes

A plateau in any exercise is disappointing and frustrating. It doesn't have to last forever, even though it may feel like it. A plateau is no reason to quit. Help your clients break through their barriers, and work on your own, with a few easy tweaks to your regular routine.

How to Break a Bench Press Plateau? First Know the Signs of Overtraining

Of course, the obvious sign that you've hit a plateau is that you're unable to increase reps or weight. But there are other, more subtle signs that indicate you're overtraining. This is a common problem that often leads to a plateau. If you recognize the signs early, you can make changes and rest more to avoid or minimize a strength plateau.

  • Your progress is getting slower. When you expect bigger gains but are seeing only small ones, you're probably approaching a plateau.

  • You just feel weaker, or "off" in all areas of training.

  • Motivation has taken a hit. You don't feel like going to the gym.

  • Your mood is more irritable than usual.

  • Your resting heart rate is higher than normal. It's more difficult and takes more time to get it back down after a workout.

Consider Taking a Break

This isn't easy to do for many trainers and fitness enthusiasts. Our tendency is to go hard all the time. But if you are seeing signs of overtraining, especially combined with a plateau, it's time for a break. This is an important part of periodization, and it benefits building strength in the long run. Take a few days, or up to a week, off from regular training. Do more low-key exercises instead, like walking or easy jogs. With some rest, you'll be ready to get back at it and start seeing gains again.

Analyze the Situation

It's easy to look at stalled progress and declare you've hit a plateau. But before making that statement, take a good hard look at what you or your client has been doing, and not doing. You may feel as if you're doing everything right and still not seeing progress, but that is not always the case.

Sometimes when you think you've hit a plateau, the truth is that you really haven't been doing everything right to make progress. Look at the specifics of training and whether you're really doing the best program to make gains. Then look at other lifestyle aspects, like sleep or diet, that may be stalling progress.

Vary Your Training

Once you've addressed the above issues, and you still have a plateau, it's time to make specific changes to training. The same routine over and over causes your body to adapt to those specifics so that gains stop coming.

Start by increasing volume. By adding more reps, more sets, or heavier weights, you challenge your muscles and force them to adapt and grow. Increase volume by one measure weekly. If you still haven't progressed after a few weeks, try another strategy.

Increase Time Under Tension

Another variation you can make to a typical routine is to slow down movements to increase time under tension. This is the time that a muscle or group of muscles is under stress during exercise. Doing fewer reps, more slowly, triggers a hypoxic environment in the muscles. This, in turn, builds both strength and hypertrophy (1).

Try Different Ranges of Motion in Your Gym Workouts

The principle of specificity is an important guideline in strength training. It's pretty simple and says that if you want to improve a certain movement, do that movement more. So, for instance, if you are trying to improve your bench press and break a plateau, you should be practicing the full range of motion. Repeating that movement should increase strength and help you press heavier weights.

It's an important principle that can be applied to a number of training situations, but it isn't set in stone. A recent study found that to improve a full bench press, it may help to practice the movement in different ranges of motions. Here's what the research says (2):

  • Participants in the study trained for a bench press by either doing the exercise with a full range of motion, half range of motion, or one-third range of motion.

  • The participants were tested later on the bench press for each range of motion.

  • According to the principle of specificity, each participant should have improved the most for the range of motion that they trained.

  • The researchers found that those who trained for a full range of motion improved the most, for full, half, and one-third.

  • Those who only did one-third movements had the least improvement for all the exercises. This contradicts the principle of specificity, which states that to improve in one-third movements, you should do one-third movements.

It seems obvious that to bust a plateau for a particular exercise, that you would simply do that exercise more. And that generally works, but it may be limiting. What this study shows is that you get more benefits and will see more improvements by including variations, specifically different ranges of motion.

Try Drop Sets

This method helps you fatigue the muscles you're working on to stimulate more growth. Start with a set of bench press reps at your max weight until you reach failure. Once you've hit failure, reach for a lighter set of weights and do it again. Keep dropping the weight down and doing reps to failure. The lighter weights will allow you to progress even when you've gotten fatigued at your highest set. This builds strength and growth over time.

Add in Supportive Exercises

Other exercises that build the same muscles will help you improve your bench pressing. Also work on seemingly unrelated muscles that help you lift. Include these regularly to break through a bench press plateau: barbell rows, glute bridges, shoulder presses, close grip push-ups, and dumbbell pullovers.

The bench press is a great fitness tool, and it's a diagnostic measure for progress in strength gains. Stalling out on this move can feel like a failure. Just keep in mind that plateaus happen and that progress stalls naturally. Try these tricks for your own workouts and your clients' and bust through that plateau every time.

If you love getting into the details and specifics of weightlifting and training, you were born to be a personal trainer. Get certified on your schedule. Check out the ISSA's Certified Personal Trainer - Self-Guided Study Program to start your new career.

  1. Nishimura, A., Sugita, M., Kato, K., Fukuda, A., Sudo, A., and Uchida, A. (2010, December). Hypoxia Increases Muscle Hypertrophy Induced by Resistance Training. Int. J. Sports. Physiol. Perform.5(4), 497-508. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21266734

  2. Martinez-Cava, A., Hernandez-Belmonte, A., Courel-Ibanez, J., Moran-Navarro, R., Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J., and Pallares, J.G. (2019). Bench Press at Full Range of Motion Produces Greater Neuromuscular Adaptations Than Partial Executions After Prolonged Resistance Training. J. Strength Cond. Res.doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003391. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31567719

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