How to Increase Even the Most Stubborn Bench
If you have been working out for any length of time, no doubt you have run into a plateau on the bench press. The experience of not being able to increase the weight on a bench press or even losing strength is all too common.
Below, you will find the three steps you must take in order to get your bench press up to new highs.
Step #1. Lower Or Vary The Weight
A lifter reaches a plateau when he finds that he is unable to continue to add weights or reps from week to week on a particular exercise. By definition, this means that the trainee is likely training to failure with every workout, as otherwise you would not know if your weights had plateaued or not.
Instead of banging your proverbial head against the wall by miserably failing at performing a higher weight, instead drop your weights by about 10% so that you are not failing with every workout. Every week, increase the weight by 2-3%.
After a month's time, you will be back at the weight that you had formerly plateaued at. If your training program and diet is good, you can be sure that by the time you get to your old training weight, you will be able to add more weight to your bench as if that plateau never existed.
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Often, this recovery period with a lower weight than normal is enough to allow your body the time it needs to make positive adaptations manifested by an improved bench press.
Step #2: Perform More Rep Work
Many people who struggle to increase their bench press will find that increasing their actual volume on the bench press will be just what they need to kick-start their benching strength.
Volume is an imaginary gym measure of work load and simply refers to the number of reps of an exercise multiplied by the weight used. For example, 1 set of 10 reps with 100 pounds (1*10*100) leads to a volume of 1000 units. On the other hand, 1 set of 1 rep with 400 pounds (1*1*400) is a volume of just 400 units. While 10 reps with 100 pounds is much easier than doing 400 pounds for 1 rep, the volume on the easier set is higher.
Volume is important because it seems to be strongly related to hypertrophy (muscle growth), particularly when the weight involved is at least 50% of your 1 rep maximum. Having a high volume also means a lot of reps which allows the lifter to practice form and be more comfortable with benching.
Running into a plateau is common in programs with low volume. If the only bench pressing you do is working up to a heavy max and then you switch over to other exercises, this leads to a very low volume on the bench press despite a lot of intensity expended there.
You need a decent amount of volume on the flat barbell bench press in particular if you want to increase your max on this exercise. As your second exercise on one of your upper body workout days, try to do 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps with a moderately challenging weight. Do this for a month and your max bench should start moving again.
Step #3: Increase Your Caloric Intake
Increasing your caloric intake is easy - just eat more food. Assuming you already have a decent muscle-building diet, you can increase your calories evenly. Just add 300-500 calories per day in the form of some extra protein, carbohydrates, and fats. This could be in the form of an extra snack before bed if you are having trouble eating enough as it is.
Increasing your caloric intake works best when combined with step #2 that involves adding in more rep work. Extra volume and more calories will ultimately lead to more muscle mass which will certainly allow you to bench press more (and quickly too)!
Step #4: Focus On Another Pressing Exercise
If the previous 3 steps fail, sometimes working on a new pressing exercise can be just what you need to improve your bench press. When getting stuck, I have had great success by dropping the flat bench press from the "primary exercise" slot of the Critical Bench program 2.0 and instead focusing on Incline Barbell Bench Press for the primary exercise of workout 1 and Barbell Military Press for primary exercise of workout 2.
However, this does not mean you should drop barbell bench press entirely, particularly if you are not already an advanced trainee (i.e. 350 lbs+ bench press) you should still be performing the flat barbell bench press as one of the secondary exercises on one of your upper body workouts.
If you are still struggling to break past a stubborn bench press plateau, perhaps you should consider the Critical Bench Program. It is highly likely that this program is very different from your current program, and the novel stimulus such a program could provide may lead to new and improved training effects: