A bench press plateau is beyond frustrating. You’ve been stuck at the same numbers for several months and no matter what you do nothing seems to be working.
This is the experience for many lifters after training for a couple of years. They see a huge increase in their bench press numbers quite rapidly, and then hit a roadblock that seems unbreakable. So how do you get through a bench press plateau?
Here are my 9 tips for breaking through a bench press plateau:
- Reduce the range of motion you need to press the weight
- Bring the bar down faster
- Create more tension through your hands and legs
- Utilize bench press accessories targeted at your area of weakness
- Perform volume overloads using boards
- Analyze your current training program
- Increase bench press frequency and volume
- Focus on tricep, shoulder, and pec development more broadly
- Understand the ‘rate of progression’ principle
In my role as the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, I’ve worked with hundreds of top bench pressors, some of whom became World Champions. On their journey, we had our fair share of bench press plateaus, and we used the principles discussed in this article to break through them.
Let me show you the best strategies I know for increasing your bench press numbers.
Tip #1: Reduce The Range of Motion You Need To Press The Weight
If you haven’t already figured it out, the bench press is a game of leverages.
You want to try to move the most amount of weight possible, but do it in the least possible distance.
Naturally, the person with long arms in the bench press will need to do more overall ‘work’ compared with someone with shorter arms — even if the weight on the barbell is the same.
If you do have long arms, check out 5 TRICKS FOR BENCH PRESSING WITH LONG ARMS
While you’re born with certain limb-lengths that you can’t change, there are certainly several strategies to reducing the range of motion of the bench press that you do have control over.
Let’s look at four strategies now:
Strategy #1: Set up a proper bench press arch
The bench press arch is the single best way to reduce the overall range of motion of the movement. The goal is to get as high on your traps as possible, lift your chest high, and have your low and mid-back elevated from the surface of the bench.
Read all about the bench press arch in our guide THE BENCH PRESS ARCH (HOW TO DO IT, BENEFITS, IS IT SAFE).
Strategy #2: Meet the bar with your chest
As you bring the bar down to your chest, think about “meeting the bar with your chest”, which will help you push your chest up high. So rather than thinking “I’m bringing the bar down to my chest”, think about “I’m bringing my chest up to the bar”.
This is a great cue if you feel like you’re weak off the chest in the bench press.
Strategy #3: Ensure maximum scapular retraction
Ensure that your shoulder position is retracted as much as possible prior to taking the bar off the rack. When your shoulder is pronated, it could lead to 2-4 more inches the bar needs to travel.
Strategy #4: Build a bigger chest
If you have limited chest mass then the bar will need to travel further compared with someone with a bigger overall torso. Creating more chest hypertrophy will be beneficial in that you’ll have greater force production potential, but you’ll also have the added benefit of a reduced range of motion.
Tip #2: Bring The Bar Down Faster
Beginner bench pressers will bring the bar down quite slowly in order to maximize muscular tension and overall control of the movement.
This is referred to as ‘eccentric tempo’.
However, over time the eccentric tempo of a movement will limit the strength potential. This is because your larger motor units within the muscle, the ones responsible for producing maximum force, get fatigued before you press the barbell off your chest.
Think of it like this:
- Your small motor units, responsible for low-level activity, recruit first as you bring the bar down.
- Once they fatigue, bigger and bigger motor units need to activate.
- At some point during a slow eccentric, the smaller motor units will reach their limits, and the largest motor units will kick in to assist.
- If your larger motor units are already fatigued by bringing the bar down, then the likelihood they will be able to contribute to the ‘up phase’ is severely limited.
The idea here is that if you can bring the bar down quicker while maintaining the same level of tension and control, then your larger motor units won’t experience as much stress and you’ll be able to utilize them on the way up.
So, practice bringing the bar down quicker and see what kind of result you get on your max strength.
Read about bench press tempo in our article HOW FAST SHOULD YOU BRING THE BAR DOWN
Tip #3: Create More Tension Through Your Hands And Legs
One of the more common faults for even the most experienced bench pressers is just being a bit lazy with how much tension they’re creating through their hands and legs.
If you’ve ever felt like the weight “just feels heavy today”, and there’s no real explanation for why, it usually has to do with not squeezing your hands or driving through your legs hard enough.
You can always get more tension through your hands and legs. Always.
Let’s review the following bench press cues.
Cue #1: Creating tension through your hands
I always tell my athletes to “leave fingerprints on the bar”. This is how hard I expect them to grip before taking the bar off the rack. The key is doing it in your set up, not when you’re already benching.
Cue #2: Creating tension through your legs
You want to be driving as hard as you can into the floor with your legs before taking the bar off the rack. Then, once you’re benching, you need to maintain your leg drive both down and up. Think about pushing into your feet ‘away from you’, so that you push your torso ‘up and back’ into the bench press.
Tip #4: Utilize Bench Press Accessories Targeted At Your Area Of Weakness
If you want to break through your bench press plateau you need to implement specific bench press accessories that are targeted at your weak areas within the range of motion.
To identify your weak areas, look to where you have a sticking point when you’re pressing a maximal weight. (Note: I wrote a separate article on what to do if you’re weak in the middle of the bench press).
A sticking point is characterized by a deceleration of bar speed, and once the bar slows down or stops it’s much harder to regain upward momentum.
It’s pretty simple:
If you struggle to get the weight off the chest, implement bottom-end bench press variations. Do the same if you have mid and top-end sticking points.
Bench press accessories will either:
- Increase the time under tension. This will induce hypertrophy adaptation (i.e. changes within the muscle)
- Place greater mechanical demand on specific joint angles. This will induce technical adaptation (i.e. changes with your technique).
- Use overloading principles. This will induce neural adaptation (i.e. changes with how your brain sends signals to your muscles).
So, stop picking your accessory movements haphazardly and start being strategic with what range of motion you’re targeting. For example, if you want to target the top-end range of motion do a boarded bench press or training with chains.
Learn about our tried, tested, and true bench press accessories: 10 BENCH PRESS ACCESSORIES TO IMPROVE STRENGTH & TECHNIQUE. You may also want to try 9 HIGHLY EFFECTIVE BENCH PRESS ALTERNATIVES.
Tip #5: Perform “Special Methods”
Perhaps one of the reasons why you have a bench press plateau is because you’re just doing the same boring set/rep protocol week-after-week.
Don’t get me wrong, “boring protocols” will get you very far. But the problem is when you repeat the same thing over and over again expecting to get the same result that you once did.
For lifters who have been simply repeating the same 5 X 5 @ 75% or 3 X 3 @ 85% protocol, program a block of training focused on “special methods”.
Special methods manipulate the acute training variables (sets, reps, load, rest) to create some sort of volume or intensity overload, i.e. purposely doing more volume or weight than you would be able to handle under normal circumstances.
Let’s discuss two of my favorite special methods for bench press.
Special Method #1: Cluster Sets
Cluster sets are sometimes called the ‘rest-pause method’.
They have been shown to produce greater results in hypertrophy compared with traditional set/reps protocols.
This is where you perform a specific number of reps to your chest at a given load. Then you rack the bar, wait for 20-seconds, and perform another bout of reps. You can actually repeat this pattern two or three times (i.e. work-rest-work-rest-work), depending on the load and your level of fatigue.
Once you’ve finished your cluster sets, you would take your typical 3-4 minutes rest, and perform another cluster set.
Here’s an example: 4 total sets: Perform 4 + 4 @ 80% of 1RM
The idea here is that you’re overloading the number of reps that you would normally be able to handle.
You probably wouldn’t be able to do 4 sets of 8 reps @ 80%, so by breaking up the reps into two mini-sets, it becomes possible (albeit still very challenging).
Get ready to become very sore if you’ve never done this protocol before.
Special Method #2: Board Combos
Board combos use wooden boards to overload the bench press either through the amount of volume or intensity you can typically handle.
Using boards is a form of training ‘partial reps’, which has been shown in the scientific literature as a tool to help athletes continue to increase strength after reaching a bench press plateau.
My favorite way to use boards is by doing some reps to your chest followed directly by some reps to boards (no rest in between).
Here’s an example: 4 total sets: Perform 6 reps to your chest + 4-8 reps to boards @ 75% of 1RM.
The exact number of reps you do to boards doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re pushing yourself close to your fatigue limit each set. The idea is that you’re doing more load that you’d normally be able to handle for the given rep range (even if some of the reps are done in a partial range of motion).
This special method requires a training partner to hold boards on your chest, so it might not be something that everyone can do easily.
Something to note: Because the use of special methods creates an overload training effect, it’s important that you implement them sparingly within the training program. I also advise that you implement them under the supervision of a qualified coach, but the risk is yours to take.
Tip #6: Analyze Your Current Training Program
If you haven’t analyzed your training program recently, then it may be time to take a critical look.
Bench press plateaus can often be a direct result of poor programming decisions.
So let’s talk about some of the key things you want to analyze:
Are you on a properly periodized training program or are you doing “random training”?
Periodization is an overall concept of training that deals with the division of the training process into specific phases
If you’re going into the gym and doing ‘random stuff’ then you’re not optimizing your progression. You can likely approach training randomly when you first start because ‘something is better than nothing’. But over time, this approach stops working and you need a periodized training program.
How long have you been running the same program?
Perhaps you are on a periodized training program, but you’ve just been running the same phase for too long. Each phase of training has a natural shelf life, and at some point, you need to switch your program to continue seeing progress.
Quick story: I had a powerlifter come to me with a strength plateau who said he had been running the 5-3-1 program for 8 months (a popular online program for powerlifting). I wasn’t surprised he had a plateau because you can’t run the same program over and over again and get the same results.
Do you have an adequate ratio between ‘hypertrophy’ and ‘strength’ phases?
Take a look at the ratio between how many hypertrophy vs. strength phases you’ve done over the past 6 months. If you’ve consistently done one phase more than the other, then consider switching focuses.
Need to do a hypertrophy phase? Drop the reps and increase the intensity.
Need to do a strength phase? Increase the reps and drop the intensity.
For most people, it can be that simple.
Have you been tracking your training progressions?
If you haven’t started tracking your training then you’re not capturing important clues as to why you might have a bench press plateau in the first place.
A good tracking system should include writing out everything you do in the gym either using pen & paper, or one of the many fitness tracking apps.
Tracking your training can be an easy way to see gaps in your training programs. It can also be a good way to assess what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. It can be as simple as saying “I felt strong during these weeks”, and then looking at what you were doing leading up to that point in time.
Once you’ve identified these things, you can do more of the things that worked, and less of the things that didn’t.
Have you been implementing progressive overload principles?
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during training
Once you’ve started tracking your training, you need to determine whether or not you have been adding progressive overload principles over time.
This could be things like doing:
- More weight for the same amount of reps
- More reps with the same load
- More sets for the same reps and load
- Or any combination of training variables
It’s easy to add progressive overload principles if you’re doing a periodized training program and you’re tracking your training.
Are you consistent with your workouts or are there gaps in your training?
If you have gaps in your training where you’re cutting your workouts short or missing workouts, and these instances are happening frequently, then this can why you have a bench press plateau.
The key to any training program is being consistent over a long period of time. Breaking through your bench press plateau can be as easy as putting training as the #1 priority for a while and making some sacrifices in other aspects of your life.
Tip # 7: Increase bench press frequency and volume
If you really want to increase your bench press beyond your previous numbers, you should consider doing a ‘bench-focused’ phase of training.
This would involve increasing your bench press frequency and volume beyond your usual capacities for a 8-12 week timeframe.
Let’s take a look at what your program would look like with increased frequency and volume:
Training frequency refers to how many times per week you bench press.
- If you only bench press 1X/week, start benching 2X/ week.
- If you bench press 2X/ week, start benching 3X/week.
- If you bench press 3X/week, start benching 4X/week.
What are the benefits of increasing frequency?
BENEFIT #1: You will naturally get more practice at the movement. This should make you a more proficient bench presser simply because you’re practicing the technique more often.
BENEFIT #2: You can prioritize different qualities of training each day. For example, here’s what you could do benching 3X/week:
- Day 1: High volume, moderate intensity, focused on hypertrophy adaptations
- Day 2: Moderate volume, high intensity, focused on strength adaptations
- Day 3: Moderate volume, moderate intensity, focused on a bench press accessory targeting your area of weakness
BENEFIT #3: You can increase your overall training volume.
Volume can be defined in several ways, including:
- The number of sets per exercise
- The total number of reps per exercise
- The ‘tonnage’ per exercise (Sets X Reps X load)
What is the main benefit of increasing volume?
BENEFIT #1: It’s been shown that people who have plateaued on low-to-moderate training volumes can benefit from an increase in training volume in both strength and hypertrophy.
Personally, I like tracking the tonnage per exercise, but this is likely beyond what the average lifter needs to do. To keep things simple, I would aim to increase the overall number of sets you do per week.
Here are some general volumes guidelines for you to follow:
- Aim to get 10-20 sets per week on the bench press (don’t count your warm-up sets)
- Within a single workout, the maximum number of sets should be 8
- If you’re on the low end of this range right now, slowly increase to the top end over several weeks
- Use ‘meaningful loads’ where at the end of each set you feel like you only have 1-2 reps left in the tank
- High volume cycles should probably not exceed 8-12 weeks
I would be shocked if you didn’t increase frequency and volume and didn’t see your bench press numbers go up, especially for novice-intermediate lifters.
Tip #8: Focus on tricep, shoulder, and pec development more broadly
You might have a well-structured bench press program, but if you don’t have a specific focus on bringing up your tricep, shoulder, and pec development more broadly then it’s probably contributing to your plateau.
This problem is quite common among competitive powerlifters. They become obsessed with the competition movements (squat, bench press, and deadlift), and ignore any other movements.
For these lifters, it can be beneficial doing a phase of training incorporating varied tricep, shoulder, and pec exercises that drive hypertrophy adaptations. The muscle you build using classic bodybuilding movements will help drive strength adaptations later in your training cycle.
These are exercises such as:
- Pec flys
- Cable tricep extensions
- Dumbbell lateral raises
- Swiss Bar Bench Press
- And so on
As well, single-joint exercises will help you maintain ligament and tendon health, which decreases your risk of injury over time. Getting a bench press related injury is a major contributor to plateaus because you have to regress your training while you heal.
Tip # 9: Understand the ‘rate of progression’ principle
One of the questions you should ask yourself is whether or not you’re experiencing a bench press plateau or whether your rate of progression is normal.
There are two things you need to understand:
First, just because you’ve had a bad couple of weeks doesn’t mean you have a bench press plateau.
If you’ve had a bad couple of weeks, perhaps it’s due to sleep, poor nutrition, being worn down from work or school. But it doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with your bench press technique or programming.
However, if your ‘bad couple of weeks’ turn into a ‘bad couple of months’ then you may have a legitimate bench press plateau that requires further investigation.
Second, understand that as you get stronger, and you ultimately get closer to your biological potential, the rate at which you adapt to training stimulus will begin to slow.
If you compare powerlifters’ gains in strength earlier vs. later in their career you will notice that more experienced lifters don’t see as fast progress compared with their novice counterparts.
Novice lifters can see extremely quick returns on their performance with simple training parameters, essentially setting personal bests every time they step into the gym.
However, people who have been lifting for 10+ years will be lucky to get the same weekly increments in strength as their novice counterparts over the course of several months of training.
So, when assessing your bench press plateau, recognize where you’re at within your training age, and then be patient in the process to exceed your prior numbers.
I have no doubt that you can break through your bench press plateau. The key to breaking through it is assessing the root cause.
Start by analyzing whether you can make improvements to your technique. Some of the technical changes might take several weeks and months to implement properly — so be patient.
Next, analyze your training program and see where you can make improvements, whether that’s exercise selection, increasing volume, increasing frequency, getting better at tracking, being more consistent, etc.
Try to pinpoint why you have a plateau in the first place and then work backward from there.
Check out my article on the 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
Prestes, J., Tibana, R., Sousa, E., Nascimento, D., Rocha, P., Camarco, N., Sousa, N., Willardson, J. 2019. Strength and muscular adaptations after 6 weeks of rest-pause vs. traditional multiple-sets resistance training in trained subjects. Journal of Strenth and Conditioning Research, 33(7): 113-121.
Vives, D., Gross, L. 2000. Partial or Full Range of Motion During The Bench Press. National Strength & Conditioning Association, 22(1), 55-56.