As a competitive powerlifter, I’ve always struggled with the bench press. Once I started taking my training seriously, my deadlift and squat skyrocketed from the 500 to over 800 fairly quickly (“quickly” in this case meaning about 3 years), but my bench has floundered in the low-400 range. That’s a huge discrepancy!
For a long time, I just accepted my lousy bench, because my squat and deadlift were good enough for me to win meets regardless – and besides, I really hated benching. That really didn’t change at all until I tried my hand at bodybuilding, and found that to grow my lagging chest, shoulders, and triceps, I had to do a lot more bench pressing (and more flyes, pushups, and assorted cable crap). To my surprise – and absolutely no one else’s – all this upper-body work improved my bench quite a bit.
Now, I’m still not a world-class bencher, and the truth is, I’m probably never going to set all-time records in the press. But in my opinion, that makes me a better bench coach, because I’ve had to go through the same struggles you probably have. I know how much a bench plateau sucks, but I also know that it’s possible to overcome.Here are the strategies that I used to do so.
Strategy 1: Be patient.
For most lifters, the bench press is a difficult lift to bring up: those who are naturally gifted with good leverages can make steady progress, but nearly everyone else struggles. I believe (and I admit I have no evidence to support this) that this fact can be attributed to the tendency for technique improvements to provide relatively fewer benefits for the bench than the squat and deadlift. For example, those with short femurs can deadlift using a sumo stance to dramatically increase their potential; and those with long femurs can use knee wraps to improve their squat. In the bench, while you can widen your grip and increase your arch to shorten your range of motion, you're more or less stuck with what you've got.
So, the first rule of bench progress is a boring one: be patient. The more you can set realistic expectations, train within your ability to recover, and do so over the long term, the more your bench will improve.
Which brings us to:
Strategy 2: Train (Much) Lighter
For most lifters, the upper body seems to respond poorly to “grinding" through slow, heavy reps, unlike the lower body. That’s probably because the muscle groups primarily involved in the bench (chest, shoulders, triceps) are smaller than those in the squat and DL (back, legs). Oftentimes, lifters just can’t grind on the bench press (at least, not at first) and instead it feels like they quickly hit a wall that’s impossible to push through.
Personally, I find that grinding, when training at higher percentages of my 1RM, causes my progress to stall fairly quickly. I don’t have a good explanation for that, although I imagine it somehow involves the central nervous system, because grinding on high-rep sets has proved far less detrimental.
So, here are my rules 2 and 3 for bench press progress:
- Keep RPEs on the lower end (7.5-9) when training over 85% 1RM.
- Push hard by incorporating higher-RPE, higher-rep sets on a regular (but not necessarily constant) basis.
Strategy 3: Increase Volume.
Again, this step follows logically from the previous one: if you’re decreasing average training intensity (defined here as both a percentage of 1RM and as a measure of effort), you have the flexibility to increase training volume without overreaching. In fact, to provide a sufficient training stimulus, I believe that you should increase volume.(If that doesn’t make sense, make sure to check out the video below).
Here’s a really, really simple broscience explanation: why do you think many bodybuilders excel at the bench but not the squat or deadlift? The former typically responds well to marathon pumping sessions for the involved muscle groups; the latter do not. I’m not saying that you should go out and spend a whole session cranking out flyes and cable crossovers, but I am saying that choosing a few different pressing variations for the cookie-cutter 3-5 sets of 5-12 reps might be a good way to structure your bench press accessories.
Strategy 4: Get Bigger.
This one is pretty simple and not always possible, especially for those who are trying to stay in a certain weight class. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that gaining weight improves the bench press – and honestly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re adding muscle or not. A “power belly” can shorten your range of motion on the press as much or more than huge pecs and arms.
If you don’t want to get bigger, you’re going to have to focus on your technique to reduce those leverages. Widening your grip and arching your back can provide that improved leverage, but I do want to throw in a word of caution, here: not everyone is built to press like this:
If you can get into that position, and feel strong, then by all means do so. But I see a lot of lifters who are not well-suited for a huge arch try to make it work anyway, for the sake of “optimal” technique. Remember, everything is individual: for you, the optimal technique might not necessarily mean the shortest range of motion possible.
Again, keep in mind that these are by no means the only ways to improve your bench — nor will they work for everyone. But I do truly believe they will work for many lifters, if (and only if) incorporated into a sound overall training plan. Need help coming up with a plan like that? Click here for a discount on my flagship course, Unf*ck Your Program — the only powerlifting program that will teach you how to train yourself for maximal gains!
Got questions? Drop me a line at [email protected], and make sure to Think Strong and Train Hard!