How to Break Bench Press Plateaus

by in Training November 30, 2019

In a weight lifting culture that emphasis progress and celebrates personal bests, the last thing we want to encounter in our training is a plateau. By definition, a plateau is to “stop increasing or progressing; to remain at a stable level of achievement.” [1]

Most lifters undergo a bench press plateau at some point in their training career, where they aren’t able to add weight to the bar or increase how many reps they can do with a given load. Not seeing these numbers increase for weeks or months at a time can be frustrating and can feel like a lot of time and energy invested with little to no return.

Let’s break these plateaus.

I’m going to share six proven ways to breakthrough bench press plateaus with you that I’ve seen work in practice. Most of these points will help you break plateaus on other lifts as well, so you want to look at these as concepts rather than specific points.

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1. Using the Right Progression Scheme

A progression scheme is a structure or pattern that a lifter can follow to progress their lifts. Let’s look at three progression schemes called Single Progression, Double Progression, and Linear Periodization.

SINGLE PROGRESSION is where your focus is to increase the weight on the bar each time you bench, even if it’s only by 5 lbs (2.5 kg) while hitting a similar amount of repetitions.

Let’s say you aim to bench press for 3 sets of 8 reps each week. Here’s how your progress would look.

Week 1: 205 lbs (93 kg) x 8

Week 2: 210 lbs (93 kg) x 8

Week 3: 215 lbs (93 kg) x 8

Single Progression is excellent for beginners or lifters who have taken an extended period off lifting since they are far from their “strength ceiling” or genetic potential. [2] It’s a fast way to find out what your max is since you’re continuously adding weight and approaching your limit.

The problem is that once you’ve reached your current max, adding weight to the barbell at this rate becomes difficult. This is the point where it can feel like you’ve plateaued. This is not your fault, because single progression has its limitations.

Let’s do some quick math.

If you added 5 lbs (2.5 kg) to your bench press every week for one year (which has 52 weeks), that would be a 260 lbs (122.6 kg) increase in your bench press in 12 months.

5 lbs (2.5 kg) x 52 weeks = 260 lbs (118 kg)

Now, I’m sure there are lifters who are genetically gifted or enhanced (on anabolic steroids) that have made this big of a jump in their bench press in a single year. But for the most part, I don’t know many people who have increased their bench at this rate.

Once you’ve made as much progress as you can using Single Progression, it’s time to move on to other progression schemes.

DOUBLE PROGRESSION is where you stick with the same weight until you can hit the top end of a rep range on all sets.

So let’s say your program says to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

If you can do 185 lbs (84 kg) for three sets of 8, you would stick with that load until you can do 12 reps on all sets. Once you’ve hit the top end of the rep range, you would then increase the weight and repeat the process.

Session 1: 185 x 10 x 10 x 10

Session 2: 185 x 12 x 11 x 10

Session 3: 185 x 12 x 12 x 11

Deload if necessary (see point number 4)

Session 4: 185 x 12 x 12 x 12

Session 5: 195 x 9 x 8 x 8

Double Progression gives you more time to adapt to a load before adding more weight to the bar. Hitting the top end of the rep range may take you several weeks, if not months. Be patient, and keep griding.

When it’s time to move up, your body will be ready for it!

Tracking training sessions

LINEAR PERIODIZATION is where you increase the weight being lifted each session while reducing the reps. You would then repeat the cycle with a heavier starting weight. Here’s how it works.

Session 1: 185 x 8

Session 2 195 x 6

Session 3: 205 x 4

The first cycle is complete. You can either “deload” (see point number 4) or repeat the sequence, starting with a heavier load.

Session 1: 190 x 8

Session 2: 200 x 6

Session 3: 210 x 4

Linear Periodization is fun because it allows you to train with different loads rather than sticking with the same load for weeks at a time. Feel free to use the progression scheme brings you the most progress. You may also notice different progression schemes work better for various lifts.

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2. Experimenting with Different Training Frequency

Training frequency is how many times per week a lifter trains a muscle group or performs a lift. Most people perform a chest-pressing movement once, maybe twice per week. Experimenting with a higher frequency by adding another chest-pressing session during the week can be the change needed to break a bench press plateau.

The way to increase training frequency is to take the current amount of chest-pressing working sets you do in a week and divide it into the new number of sessions.  So if you were doing 16 pressing sets in two sessions per week (8 sets per session), experiment with 5/6 pressing-sets spread across three sessions per week.

Lifting is a skill, and like any other skill, doing it more often should lead to more significant improvements. Also, distributing these sets throughout the week means “fresher” muscles for each chest-pressing session since it increases rest-days between sets.

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3. Finding Your Sweet Spot for Weekly Working-Sets

A working set is a challenging lifting set that doesn’t include warm-up sets. Different lifters respond differently to low, moderate, and high training volumes per week.

Each of us has a range for how many weekly working-sets produce the best results on an individual level. Here are some general ranges for working sets per week per muscle group to experiment with:

Low (start point): 10-12 sets per week

Moderate: 12-20 sets per week

High: 20+ sets per week.

Doing too many sets per week can make recovery an issue. If this is the case, scaling back can help you speed up your progress. On the other hand, doing too little may be the reason you’re not progressing as quickly as you should.

So keep track of your weekly sets and start experimenting to find your sweet spot!

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4. Deloading

A deload is a period that allows your body to reduce fatigue and realize its new level of fitness. You can implement a deload by adding one week of reduced training volume and intensity to your training program. Here’s how you deload.

  1. Reduce the load on all lifts by 10-15%
  2. Do one less set than you usually do
  3. Do the low-end of the rep range on all sets
Reducing the weight during a deload

Note, this isn’t a full week off of the gym with your feet up on the couch (although, there is a time for this too). You’re still lifting and practising the movements, but you’re just not lifting as heavy or as hard as you typically do.

This short period of less volume will help you recover and come back stronger. This mini-break may be what you need to break your bench press plateau.

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5. A Bigger Muscle Has Greater Potential for Strength Output

Get bigger to get stronger or get stronger to get bigger? This question is the topic of discussion, not just in the comments of Instagram posts and YouTube videos, but among researchers and scientists. The answer isn’t as simple or clear cut as some make it.

A few studies looking at elite-level powerlifters found those who had the largest muscles were strongest. [4, 5] Now, this finding may sound painfully obvious to you, but it leads to an important question.

How much of our training and nutrition is optimized for building mass?

You see, the total amount of training volume you perform affects how much mass you will put on. [6]

If you’re continually chasing new personal bests and pushing to breaking plateaus, chances are you’re lifting pretty heavy in the low rep range of 1-6 most of the time. 

While this is great for increasing strength (and building muscle to a degree), spending more time in the higher rep range of 6-15 will allow you to accumulate more volume in a similar, if not less, amount of time.

Along with a slight calorie surplus and adequate amounts of protein, increasing training volume will lead to more significant gains in muscle mass.

Size matters.

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6. Recovery Outside of the Gym

We spend most of our time outside of the gym. Fundamental factors such as sleep, nutrition, and how we manage stress all play a vital role in how we recover and perform in the gym.

SLEEP is the most powerful recovery tool that we have. This 2018 systematic review that included 17 studies found consecutive nights of sleep restriction reduced force output of multi-joint movements. [7] Sleep restriction simply meaning not enough quality sleep.

I interviewed sleep research Dr. Amy Bender, and she advised that most adults should get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Most adults need between 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night

If getting adequate sleep during the night isn’t possible, then including a 30-minute power nap throughout the day has been shown to have a positive impact on weight lifting performance in exercises like the bench press. [8]

NUTRITION – Consuming enough total calories and sufficient amounts of daily protein will benefit lifting progress in both the short and long term.

In the short term, experienced lifters are likely to experience a decline in their bench press when lowering calories to reduce body fat. Weight training requires energy, and since a calorie is a unit of energy, lifting performance is best when we’re consuming enough calories to maintain our current body weight or in a slight calorie surplus.

Calorie restriction typically involves carbohydrate restriction, which can lead to lower levels of glycogen. Depleted glycogen levels when dieting is something to be aware of when trying to break plateaus on your bench press.

In the long term, consuming adequate amounts of protein is going to help build and repair muscle. A larger muscle has more potential for strength output (as mentioned in point 5).

Aim to consume at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. [9] Increasing this amount can be beneficial for lean, dieting lifters.

Mixing while eggs and egg whites for a high-protein breakfast

STRESS is another factor that affects adaptation from resistance training. This 2008 study that included 138 participates found that “low-stress participants experienced a significantly greater increase in the bench press and squat than their high-stress counterparts.” [10]

So we want to be aware of our stress levels, and explore ways to deal with the root cause of our stressors and have strategies to relieve stress when it occurs.

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If you implement these strategies, you will be able to break bench press plateaus and press more weight for more reps in no time.

If you’d like to watch my YouTube video on this topic, click here.

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References:

  1. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/plateau
  2. Baker DG. 10-year changes in upper body strength and power in elite professional rugby league players–the effect of training age, stage, and content. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Feb;27(2):285-92.
  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained MenMed Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94–103.
  4. Ye X, Loenneke JP, Fahs CA, Rossow LM, Thiebaud RS, Kim D, Bemben MG, Abe T. Relationship between lifting performance and skeletal muscle mass in elite powerlifters. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2013 Aug;53(4):409-14.
  5. Brechue WF, Abe T. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Feb;86(4):327-36.
  6. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained MenMed Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94–103.
  7. Knowles OE, Drinkwater EJ, Urwin CS, Lamon S, Aisbett B. Inadequate sleep and muscle strength: Implications for resistance training. J Sci Med Sport. 2018 Sep;21(9):959-968. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2018.01.012. Epub 2018 Feb 2. Review.
  8. Brotherton EJ, Moseley SE, Langan-Evans C, Pullinger SA, Robertson CM, Burniston JG, Edwards BJ. Effects of two nights partial sleep deprivation on an evening submaximal weightlifting performance; are 1 h powernaps useful on the day of competition? Chronobiol Int. 2019 Mar;36(3):407-426. doi:10.1080/07420528.2018.1552702. Epub 2019 Jan 10.
  9. Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et alA systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2018;52:376-384.
  10. Bartholomew, J.B., et al., Strength gains after resistance training: the effect of stressful, adverse life events. J Strength Cond Res, 2008. 22(4): p. 1215-21.
  11. Muscle and Strength Pyramids – Training

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