The bench press, one of the most beloved and frustrating lifts that can be performed in the gym. Barbell training journeys often start on the bench, and ironically, they often get stuck on the bench as well. In respects to barbell compound movements, the bench press can be one of the toughest lifts to progress at times.
Bench press mechanics are simple in nature, but begin to get more complex as weight continues to go up. The deadlift and squat can be stubborn at times, yet they tend to be a little easier to work with when it comes to grinding through sticking points and plateaus. The bench press on the other hand is a whole different animal. This movement requires precision and crystal clear fine-tuning when new 1-RMs are on the horizon.
It’s pretty common to encounter bench press plateaus from time-to-time, and they can be incredibly frustrating to work through. A lot of times more volume is the answer, although, there are some useful accessories and training methods worth trying when it comes to breaking through a bench press plateau.
Did You Really Hit a Plateau?
Before going any further, let’s make one thing clear: A plateau is not defined as one or two bad days in the gym on a certain lift. Far too often, newer lifters have a bad training day and assume they have plateau’d on a particular lift, and that’s typically far from the reality.
There are a ton of different factors that could contribute to one or two “off” lifting day such as stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, being worn down, and that’s on top other life factors. Now, if your bench press has been stalled for a few months and you can’t seem to move past a certain number whether it be due to physical strength or a mental roadblock, then you have a case for a legitimate bench press plateau.
Before implementing any of the techniques below, it’s important to be objective with your current lifting state and truly assess if you need to change things up.
Bench Press Plateau Techniques
Overall Bench Press Plateau
Typical Problems: Stale programming, lack of foundational strength, lagging muscle groups.
1. Avoid the Barbell and Opt for Dumbbells
One way to break through a bench press plateau is to actually avoid using the barbell for a full micro or meso training cycle. Instead of hitting the barbell bench press, make the dumbbell bench press your primary movement on your pressing day. This can not only provide a mentality with a refresh towards the bench press, but it can also be a great way to focus on and highlight weak points with the dumbbell bench press variation.
Dumbbells provide a few unique benefits on the bench press that the barbell simply can not do.
- First, they allow you to move with a slightly larger range of motion, which can help increase the stretch of the musculature needed in the bench.
- Second, they are performed unilaterally, so they can help highlight imbalances of weaknesses on one side of the bench press.
- Third, dumbbells can be useful when trying to give the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint a little rest and recovery. You can grip dumbbells neutrally, perform them with a normal bench grip, or diagonally to accommodate for potential shoulder problems.
If you opt for the dumbbell bench press over the barbell for a micro/meso training cycle, then you can still use barbell bench press variations (incline and decline), but do so sparingly to give the body some proper rest and recovery.
2. Bench More Often and Vary the Reps
Something that’s interesting about the bench press is how it responds to higher volume training. Of the big three (squat, bench press, and deadlift), the bench press is typically suggested to respond more favorably with a higher training volume and more exposure. A higher training volume and its benefits can vary from athlete to athlete, but the bench press is a highly technical movement, so it makes sense when you consider a higher exposure facilitating better bench improvements.
To improve the bench press as a whole, then power, strength, and hypertrophy should all be considered. These factors all play a role together when it comes to pressing heavy weight and if one is out of alignment, then the others can suffer.
On the bench press, don’t be afraid to play around with different rep schemes and intensities. Often times, a plateau is simply indicative of a rep scheme and intensity that has run dry. For example, if you were linearly increasing weight for 12-weeks in a row in the 5-rep range and suddenly hit a wall, then shift your reps and play with different intensities to train the bench press in a different manner (power, relative strength, hypertrophy, etc.).
Remember, if you shift bench intensities and reps suddenly — build a plan based off of that. This can help you progressing with your new shifted direction, as opposed to simply throwing in a varied rep/intensity day here and there.
3. 1 ¼ Reps
The 1 ¼ rep is another awesome tool for building work capacity and working through plateaus. This rep scheme is useful when you need to strictly build your work capacity on the bench. To perform a 1 ¼ bench press, you’ll bring the barbell down to the chest, press up halfway, bring the barbell back down to the chest, then complete the press and lockout.
You can perform 1 ¼ reps with both dumbbells and a barbell, and this makes them useful for strengthening the bench press on multiple fronts. If you choose to perform 1 ¼ reps, remember to drop the intensity slightly to account for the additional workload.
Stuck Off the Chest
Typical Problems: Weak chest muscles, inconsistent form, and poor loading mechanics.
4. Spoto Presses
If you find that your bench press is stalling in the first portion off the chest, then take a few weeks and try implementing Spoto Presses into your routine. This exercise is often promoted by strength coach and powerlifter Jonnie Candito — and that’s for good reason. The Spoto Press entails a normal barbell bench press, but instead of bringing the barbell all the way to the chest, you stop the bar just shy of contact and pause.
The Spoto Press is useful for off the chest-oriented bench press plateaus because it requires lifters to focus on two key factors. First, it helps with reinforcing overall body tension during the bench press, which is a fundamental key for success, especially at the start of the press. If the upper body is losing tightness, then the solid foundation that is being pressed from is basically useless.
Second, it promotes attention to tempo and full muscle contractions. The Spoto Press helps take the normal bench press’s precision up a level by requiring an athlete to slow down and ensure they are pausing correctly. This in return can translate to understanding where a press might be falling short. For example, if you notice you pause at the bottom and the triceps are solely on fire, while the the upper body is relatively unfazed (chest, rear delts, etc.), then you may not be contracting and benching properly.
5. Tempos and Pauses
If you compete in powerlifting, then you probably know about tempo and pauses far too well in the bench press. Tempo and pauses are incredibly powerful tools for building a strong bench press. In tempo training, intensities are usually dropped slightly in order to adhere to a specific loading pattern and timeline. For anyone new to tempo training, there will be three (sometimes four) numbers attached to lifts and will resemble the example below,
Bench Press 3 x 5 — Tempo: 311
- 3 = 3-second eccentric (lowering)
- 1 = 1-second pause at the bottom
- 1 = 1-second concentric (pressing)
*Note, if there’s a fourth number used, then it’s used to indicate a hold at the top of a movement. This fourth number is most useful for pulling movements like chin-ups, pull-ups, and deadlifts.
Increasing tempo can be useful for promoting a strong bench at the bottom of the press because it can help facilitate your ability to load force into the eccentric and into bench, then shift that force into the bar. Tempo can also be useful to promote proper form and consistent reps.
Outside of tempo, you can also pause in the bench press to bust through an off-the-chest plateau. A pause is pretty much synonymous to using tempos, and can help facilitate better proprioception when holding weight and kinesthetic awareness of where you might be falling short off the chest. If you’re new to using pauses, then start with a lighter intensity and work on staying strict with pause times.
6. Dead Stop Bench Press
The dead stop bench press is another useful tool for busting through a plateau at the bottom of the bench press. To perform the dead stop bench press, you’ll set a squat rack’s safeties about 1-3″ off the chest so the barbell will not be in contact with the body. Once you’re set under the barbell, then you’ll simply press from the dead stop position.
Why does it work? As opposed to allowing you to load eccentrically, the dead stop bench press focuses on building concentric strength with absolutely no momentum or stretch shortening cycle. This can help promote a stronger start position on the bench and improve your ability to produce force through the barbell, as you have literally no momentum to do so.
Stuck At Lockout
Typical Problems: Lagging triceps, inconsistent form, poor pressing mechanics.
7. Floor Presses and Rack Lockouts
A plateau problem that resonates at the lockout of a bench press could be due to lagging tricep strength. Two bench press variations that are fantastic for building stronger triceps are the floor press and rack lockouts. The floor press uses the floor as a stopping point during the press, so your range of motion is pretty much cut in half.
By cutting the range of motion in half, the triceps are then forced to serve as the primary movers for the full exercise, which can help improve lockout. Also, you can typically load the floor press slightly heavier than your standard bench press, or perform with it higher reps to reap benefits.
Rack lockouts are similar to dead stop bench presses, but the press will start much higher in relation to the body. Generally, a rack lockout will start with a height that facilitates a 90 degree or greater angle with the elbow joint. This allows you to supra-maximally load the bench press because the range of motion is 50% or less of what it normally is. Plus, the triceps are going to be heavily worked, as they’re the prime movers when locking out the bench press.
8. Heavy Bench Press Holds
Heavy bench holds are one of elite powerlifter and world record holder Jen Thompson’s favorite accessories for building a big press. This entails taking a supra-maximal weight from the rack and simply holding it at lockout for a time oriented goal. In our underrated powerlifting accessories article, Thompson recommended taking about 150% of your current 1-RM and holding it at lockout for about 15-seconds.
If you choose to perform heavy lockouts, then it’s important to remember two things. First, always utilize a spotter for liftoffs and placing the barbell back on the rack safely. Second, scale the time oriented goal towards your level of fitness. If you are brand new to this exercise, then opt for a shallower time goal like 5 or 10-seconds.
Sometimes the best way to beat a bench press plateau is to simply press more. If that’s not working and you’re still struggling to improve, then it might be time to objectively assess where you might be falling short on the bench press. Instead of looking at a plateau as a whole, try to pinpoint where exactly a bench problem lies, then work backwards from there!
Feature image from Maksim Toome/Shutterstock.