There isn’t many better feelings than beating your old bench-press mark. It may have happened a lot during your early days of lifting, those fast gains soon start to slow down as you become more seasoned. Fairly quickly, you’ll require a more disciplined approach than simply getting a heavy bar moving and giving it everything you’ve got.
If you find that your bench-press gains have stalled, it is time to examine some proven approaches that can get you back on track again. They address specific weak links along the movement, giving you help where you need it the most.
Before we pull apart the bench press and it’s associated maladies. Let us first make sure your form is right. Bad form is often misattributed to weakness (This also applies to many other lifts too). However, you may not need to work on improving your bench-press starting strength or lockout, you simply may just need to tighten up your form.
A long-winded information section on the intricacies of the bench press is a bit beyond this particular article but I can give you the necessities needed to get deeper into assistance training:
If you can definitely check off all the items on the list then you’re ready to talk about selecting assistance lifts. If not, work on getting better at the full-range barbell bench press. Once you have mastered that, come back to this article for further assistance.
Now it is time to do some sleuthing. There are no assistance solutions out there, you must investigate to find the issue and then plan assistance training based on that evidence.
Anyone doing a bench press must overcome two weak areas: the start and the finish. Lots of men and women can lockout a VW but have trouble getting the bar out of the bottom position, some exist at the other end of the spectrum, rocketing weight off the chest, only to fail as the press progresses into the mid and upper ranges.
If you are unsure which describes you, have someone film you doing a heavy bench-press set. Warm-up to about 90% of your 1-rep max and press it for as many reps as you can. When you have finished, watch the video and take a look where you start to struggle. The note where you begin to fail on your last rep. You will know straight away which group you belong too.
Do you have a hard time getting going? In most cases, you can best address this by either picking up the pace with dedicated speed work, or doing the absolute opposite and hanging out for a few seconds at the bottom of the bench-press range of motion, here is how to program both.
Speed Bench Presses
The speed/dynamic-effort bench press is a powerlifting staple popularized decades ago by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. It is a great way to increase bench-press volume without overtraining whilst also improving the speed off the chest.
You will do this by progressing the speed bench press for a month, doing lots of sets of just a few reps with 50-60% of your 1-rep max. As an example, if your max bench press was 275 pounds, you will use just 135 pounds during the first week.
You can set it up like this:
Make the speed bench your main bench-pressing movement one day per week, or your first-level assistance exercise after your heavy bench presses. If you choose to use the speed bench as a main exercise, bench heavy on one other upper-body training day per week, keeping the loads between 80-85%.
Paused Bench Presses
An isometric pause at the bottom-press position does wonders for building strength and power out of the hole. This is because under normal conditions, when you change direction out of the hole, there is built-up elastic energy which helps propel you over the bottom portion of the lift. When you stop at the bottom momentarily, that built-up energy is lost so you now have to work much harder getting the bar out of the hole.
The process is simple. Use loads between 80-90% of your 1RM and pause for 3-5 seconds in the bottom position, holding the bar slightly off your chest while maintaining full-body tension. Once you have paused for the prescribed time, press the bar as fast as possible.
This method works well with speed bench presses. Perform the paused reps on your other weekly bench-press day.
Here is a simple way to program paused bench presses:
Remember you need to know your one-rep max for the bench press for this to work and then simply multiply it by the percentage you are doing that week, this becomes the load for all your sets.
If you can blast the weight off your chest but struggle at lockout then I also have a solution for you as well. In both of these choices you will be overloading the top of the bench-press movement.
Like the speed bench, the board press is a powerlifting staple. Bench-press boards are 2×4 or 2×6 planks that are nailed or screwed together and placed upon the chest to shorten the range of motion so you are doing only the upper half of the lift. Once the boards are placed on your chest and usually held there by a lifting partner, you bring the bar down to touch the boards and then press it back up.
Board presses do a couple of things for a bad lockout. Firstly, they allow you to use more weight than normal bench-press sets do. This overloads the movement and trains the nervous system to handle more weight during full-range efforts. They also help you practice pressing through your deficient range of motion. The combination is deadly.
Board presses are a great main bench-press exercise, but they are also great as a first-level assistance exercises meaning they are done immediately after finishing all of your normal bench-press sets.
I have found three-board 2×4’s or 2×6’s stacked on one another to be the most productive. They seem to have the best carryover to full-range bench presses. They also have programming versatility since they work so well with heavy sets of 1-5 reps but are equally great for sets of 5-10 reps.
Let us just say your main full-range bench press sets are heavy sets of 3 reps and you’re using board presses as your first-assistance exercise. In this case, do 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps.
Reverse-band bench presses are a full-range bench press with help at the bottom of the movement from elastic training bands. The bands are hooked around the bar and also to the top of the squat rack. This gives you a ton of help out of the bottom position, whilst requiring you to bear the brunt of the load as the press continues towards lockout.
These are really great for training you to press hard and fast through the full range of motion, while overloading the press over the top to train your nervous system to handle heavier weights.
Programming is simple: You program this the same way you do as board presses. Do 5-10 reps if this movement is a first-assistance exercise and perform 3-5 sets.
There is one upside to having a stalled bench press. Many people have been where you are before and they have come out of it stronger and bigger than before.
Another upside to consider is the methodology is not complicated, it’s almost always one of three points: improve your form, get stronger out of the bottom or get stronger at the top. Find out as much as you can, find the flaw and then do the reps and you will soon see a huge improvement to your chest press.
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