At one point or another, most aspiring weight trainers will hit a plateau that causes their weight training routines to become stale.
At this point, a weight trainer will no longer make any strength gains. This is perfectly natural and happens to everyone who weight trains for any length of time.
I’ve personally experienced this phenomenon and it sucks. First, you stop getting stronger, and secondly, your muscles stop growing.
Back in my late teens, I vividly remember trying to get over the 300 pound mark for my bench press. For some reason, I was stuck at 295 pounds and had the hardest time trying to get over the 300 pound threshold.
What was I doing wrong? I mean, I showed up to the gym with a strong mental attitude, I felt I was eating properly, and I trained very, very hard.
I just couldn’t get 300 pounds down and up. However, one of the owners of the gym I was attending took me aside and said “listen, your going about this all wrong”. He pointed out to me that what I was doing would not help and I would have to approach this thing from a different angle.
First of all , he asked me what I was eating. I told him that I would eat about 3 to 4 times per day, with about 2,500 to 3,000 calories. That had to change. I was told to increase my calorie intake to 3,500 calories to 4,000 calories per day with about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Why increase the calories? It is virtually impossible to keep getting stronger and stronger without adding more and more nutrients to your diet – It won’t happen.
Secondly , I was told to take a week or two off from training. My body was being over trained and needed a rest. I couldn’t understand this reasoning but I couldn’t argue with the guy because he was huge! It turns out that this was one of the main culprits for my training plateau and my body really needed a rest.
Thirdly , I was dehydrated. I was told to drink 10 to 12 – 8oz glasses of water per day. It was especially important to drink 2 glasses prior to training, 3 to 4 glasses when training, and 2 immediately after training. Why so much water I asked? His reply was that muscle needed a lot of water for contraction and any dehydration will severely impact these contractions. Again, he was right.
Fourthly , I was not rested properly. I thought I was getting enough sleep but because of my active lifestyle, my body was being battered. I added an additional hour of sleep to my schedule.
Lastly , once I resumed training, I approached the bench press and chest training from a whole different perspective. Here’s what I did:
I learned to prioritize my chest. That is, I trained only chest on the first day of my training cycle. By prioritizing my chest, I was able to put more effort and concentration on my movements.
I concentrated on movements that would help me with the bench press. I had to get rid of all isolation exercises such as the pec deck and cable fly’s. My exercises were structured as follows:
Where’s the bench press? The bench press was not allowed into my schedule until I did 3 weeks of strict dumbbells. You see, what was pointed out to me was that my weak point was the lower portion of the movement and when I used the barbell, I was actually bouncing the weight a little bit and neglected the bottom portion of the movement. Also, my left arm was naturally stronger (I fixed that problem) than my right arm. This didn’t help the strength of my right arm. If I could get my right arm up to par with my left, I would have a better bench press. The only way to do this was to work with dumbbells. Take a look at the image below.
The bottom portion of the movement is the most important part of the bench press and it MUST be strengthened. By using strict dumbbell presses, I was told to really go down low with the dumbbells and really concentrate on the bottom portion of the movement and come up hard. I did 3 to 4 weeks of this and started to progress with the dumbbells.
At this part of my program, my mentor added the bench press but only light presses for the first two weeks to get my body primed for the movement. I have to admit, I felt really, really good doing the bench press. My new schedule looked as follows:
What my mentor was doing was showing me the correct way to add progressive resistance to my bench press. Over the next 4 weeks, my bench press was improving 100%. However, I was not allowed to do any 1 reps maximums.
Now, here is where I blasted past my lifts. I was doing a set of 6 to 7 reps (unassisted) with 275 pounds. Prior to that, I was getting maybe 2 or 3 reps. After maybe 2 more weeks of training, I added more weight and lowered the rep range to 3 to 5. I was able to get 295 pounds for 4 unassisted repetitions in the bench press.
About two weeks later, I was able to bench press 315 pounds for two reps. I finally blasted by the 300 pound mark and the best part was that I was getting stronger and stronger. The last part of my cycle was the icing on the cake.
What my mentor did was add 2 weeks of negative training. That is, I was loading the bar with about 365 pounds and was only lowering the weight to my chest and he would assist with lifting the weight back up. The result? I added another 15 pound to my bench press. In total, my bench press went up to 330 pounds before I took a two week rest. In total, this program was about 10 weeks long and I added about 45 pounds to my bench press. Remember, I was working at the bench press for quite some time so I was no beginner.
I also decreased the number of total sets I did for my training. Instead of doing 20 sets per body part, I reduced it to 10 to 12 sets. My body weight also increase by 20 pounds!
This is very, very important and one that will play a huge part in getting past your bench press plateau. You must change your exercises around for all your other body parts. I recommend that you start using the close grip bench press for your triceps workout and front shoulder press for your main shoulder exercise. If you can start to get stronger for these two exercises, you will start to get stronger on your bench press. Here’s is what a sample training regiment will look like:
Here is a sample training schedule:
Chest and Abs
Back and Biceps
Shoulders and Triceps
The changes I made all worked together to improve my overall bench press. Firstly, I took about a week and a half off from training to allow body to recover. During that time, I increased my calorie intake by 1,500 calories and added 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
When I resumed weight training, I had to prioritize my chest and my main exercise, the bench press.
Chest was done alone and first in my weight training cycle. At first, I had to get rid of the bench press for about 3 weeks and really concentrated on getting stronger using the dumbbells for my bench press.
Once I was able to get stronger with the dumbbells, I added the bench press to my weight training schedule.
However, I slowly added more weight with each passing week, all the while really concentrating on my dumbbell movements – Especially the lower part of the movement. Once I started to get stronger and stronger in the bench press, the weight increased and the reps decreased. Near the end of my program, I used negative repetitions for about 2 to 3 weeks. Afterwards, I took two weeks off to allow my body to heal.
Two weeks later, I repeated this same process and again, got stronger. Now I have to point out that negatives are an advanced technique and you can only do these types of repetitions for about 3 weeks max. Otherwise, you risk your chances of injury.
I hope my experience will shed some light on how to get past a bench press plateau. Follow these guidelines and I’m 100% positive that you will blast past your bench press plateau.
Good luck and all the best,
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.