The plateau. It’s any powerlifter’s, bodybuilder’s, fitness trainer’s, or even regular gym goer’s, dreaded word. You’ve been making steady progress, boasting of personal bests, watching those weights get larger and larger when suddenly.. It tapers out. Nothing goes up. You just keep hitting the same numbers, training session after training session. For the first couple of days, you think.. Ok. And then a week goes by and you realise: Your bench press is not going up. Then comes the constant barrage of mental questions: How do I get my bench press back? Why am I getting weaker in bench pressing?
Stop thinking those thoughts. You’re not getting weaker. You’re experiencing one of the dreaded plateaus and they’re perfectly normal. Sometimes they last days, and sometimes weeks, but in bodybuilding, some plateaus have been known to last years. However! If your bench press is stuck we’re here with 5 simple methods that you can try to rejuvenate those numbers and start recollecting personal bests.
1. Switch to Supportive Exercises.
Yes, this involves temporarily avoiding the barbell. No, it’s not forever. One way to reset your routine and break through the plateau is to avoid the barbell for a full micro or meso training cycle. We recommend making the dumbbell bench press your primary movement on your training day. Not only does this give you a complete mental refresh, you’re also helping to train the same muscles the barbell would be training: Dumbbells allow for a larger range of motion which increases the muscular stretch needed for bench pressing, they’re performed unilaterally which will highlight any imbalances in your pressing and thirdly they give your shoulder joint rest and recovery.
You can still use barbell bench press variations if you do swap to dumbbells, but do this sparingly – you want to give your body some rest, recovery and reset to re-stimulate that muscle growth!
2. Adopt the Rest/Pause Method
Sounds obvious, right? But before you start worrying about missing days in the gym – we don’t mean full on no gym rest days (although those should always be included in any gym routine!). We’re talking about the rest-pause method coined by Texan strength coach Josh Bryant, or alternatively known, cluster sets.
Cluster sets, or the rest/pause method quite literally resembles its name. You incorporate mini-breaks into a set to help you hit more reps with better technique, which has been shown to produce greater results in hypertrophy compared to any other traditional set and rep techniques.
One example set using this method would look like this:
- Pick a weight you could comfortably use for about 5 straight reps
- Perform 3 or 4 reps
- Rest for anywhere between 15-20 seconds
- Perform 1 or 2 reps
- Rest again for either 15 or 20 seconds
- Complete a final 1-2 reps
Notice anything? Yep, in that example set you’ve done 6 to 8 repetitions with a weight you could normally only rep five times. It’s a sly way to trick your body into gently but rapidly increasing how much volume you can press with a particular weight, which helps to exceed strength levels in record time and in the case of a plateau, uses our next method: The good old “Bench more” to kick-start that climb.
3. Bench More.
But don’t over-train! What we mean by the standard “just do it more often!” is just that. Make a certain period of your training focused on being bench-orientated. An example could be as simple as:
- If you’re currently bench pressing 1x a week, start benching 2x week.
- If you’re currently bench pressing 2x a week, start benching 3x a week.
- And so on.
Out of the three, squat, bench press and deadlift, the exercise that tends to respond best to a higher training volume is the bench press. Due to it being so technical, it makes sense that it’s a case of practice makes perfect.
However if your method is to increase your training, make sure you consider combining power, strength and hypertrophy as these are all elements that must work in unison to provide results. Plus experimenting with different rep schemes and intensities can also provide a lively refresh and reset to your muscle mass as sometimes plateaus are just signs of a rep scheme or intensity programme that’s hit a wall. Incorporating this variation into your training could look like:
- Day 1: High volume, moderate intensity, primary focus: Hypertrophy adaptations
- Day 2: Moderate volume, high intensity, primary focus: Strength adaptations
- Day 3: Moderate volume, moderate intensity, primary focus; Bench press accessory specific to your area of weakness.
Not just in that fancy gym wear. Bench Press accessories are exercises that primarily improve strength and technique, and because they’re fine-tuning the muscles made for lifting, can often power you through a plateau.
The best way to implement bench press accessories is to identify your areas of weakness, which should become apparent in any sticking points you experience when lifting a maximal weight. For example if your weakness is struggling to lift the weight off the chest, implement bottom-end bench press variations, and do the exact same if you suffer from mid and/or top-end sticking points.
A roundup of the most recommended accessories are:
- Strict overhead presses
- Seated overhead press
- Feet Elevated Bench Press
- Push presses
- Paused Bench Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Scrape-the-rack presses
Be strategic! It’s important that the accessory you choose is best suited for your weakness, as accessories either increase hypertrophy adaptation through time spent under tension, induce technical adaptation through increased mechanical demand on certain joints and angles, or by utilising overloading principles, promote neural adaptation (your brain changes how it sends the signals to your muscles).
5. Eat More!
Sensibly. Our last tip is often the first given to anyone struggling with a plateau. For example, those losing weight are often told to temporarily increase their caloric intake to give a boost to the metabolism.
When doing any type of strength building exercise, it’s important to have the strength in your muscles so that you can hit those personal bests and also lift the weights! That strength comes from your body converting protein and fat into cold, hard, shredded muscle – but if you’ve hit a weight plateau, it’s a case of your muscles being physically unable to lift any more than they can at that moment.
The simplest advice is to only increase your caloric intake by around 500 calories, and make sure most importantly that it does align with your macros, so consult your weight tracking app beforehand. Often when it comes to bodybuilding, the largest personal bests coincide with the biggest gains in weight, so yes, that extra bit of pizza may really be worth it in the long-run.