Lessons from The Dead Zone: The Bench
Plateaus suck, and the stronger you are, the more frustrating they become.
I've seen very strong guys let plateaus drive them to the brink of insanity. They become obsessed to the point of being reckless, resorting to some seriously stupid "methods" in hopes of breaking through. And when their absolute best efforts still don't work, the shit can hit the fan in ugly ways.
This article is about smashing bench press plateaus. If your bench hasn't progressed in a long time or just isn't where it should be, this is for you.
Getting from Shit to Suck is a snap, and most committed lifters can get up to Good within five years or so. It's an okay place to be – you may be the best bencher in your big box gym and get tons of high fives – but in the grand scheme you're nothing special. Sorry if that bursts any bubbles.
Getting from Good to Great, however, puts you in very elite company. Few guys can ever do it, mainly because it requires getting through the Dead Zone, that period when absolutely nothing "works" and injuries (and frustration) start to mount.
The Dead Zone can last 10 years or longer, and it's often the last phase of a lifter's career before either injuries force them out or they get frustrated and quit.
The irony is, this lack of progress (the Dead Zone) is absolutely necessary for success, unless you're extremely gifted.
It's a shitty deal and woefully one-sided, but that's what we sign up for when we decide we want to be "serious lifters" and not just "strong guys who work out."
Besides, if it were so easy to be elite that everyone could do it, would you even bother?
In this new series called Lessons from the Dead Zone, I'll give you some basic, effective tips to get your Big 3 lifts moving again.
Some of the material will be stuff you'll have read before, but that doesn't make it any less valuable. Besides, I know from teaching hundreds of seminars that the guys who say they have "awesome technique" are usually the biggest disasters – their ego just doesn't let them see it.
Let's start with the bench press. Do everything I say in this article and you'll add 50 pounds to your bench. How's that for a sales pitch?
The Other Big 3
Any sticking point, whether in the bench press, the squat, or the deadlift, can be attributed to one of three things:
As a coach, the first thing I do is figure out which of the three is contributing most to the plateau, as this determines the path I take.
However, 90% of lifters think their issues are exclusively physical. They ask questions like, "What exercises should I do to improve my lockout?" and "How do I get stronger off the chest?" or "How often should I change my program?"
The problem is that roughly 70% of sticking points are really technique related, 20% are physical, and the remaining 10% are mental. So most stuck lifters looking for help are like dogs sniffing around the wrong fire hydrant.
I came to this conclusion after doing seminars for many years. In most seminars, I can help almost any stuck lifter hit a PR that same day.
Obviously these lifters didn't get stronger over the span of 8 hours, so their issue was either physical or mental. And since most mental issues don't manifest at a seminar, that leaves technique as the main reason.
However, to be thorough, we'll touch on all three.
The typical lifter with mental "issues" is a former bodybuilder. These are guys wrapped up in bodybuilding mantras like "feel the pecs contract" that run completely contrary to proper powerlifting bench press technique.
A powerlifting bench requires pushing with the whole body, not just the pecs. That fact is, a triceps pump is more indicative of a good PL bench than puffed-up pecs.
Then there are the self-imposed mental roadblocks. For example, at seminars guys will say, "I always get stuck four inches above the chest."
So I'll throw it back to them. "Always?" I ask.
"Yes," they say, "four inches above my chest."
I'll throw it back again. "Always?"
Now they start to get it. They've conditioned themselves to expect to miss. It dominates their mental dialogue throughout the lift when they want to be focused on technique and performance cues.
Other guys are the opposite. They're getting fucked over by too much false bravado and "rah rah rah" type of crap.
Again, the mind should be a blank void except for precise technique cues. If you let yourself get too aroused or are surrounded by overly amped spotters, these important cues will likely be forgotten or ignored.
For example, when I watch a lift on YouTube and I hear a bunch of yelling and swearing and carrying on during the setup, I know right away it will likely be a miss or just an ugly lift. On the other hand, if I hear a lot of "Tuck! Tuck! Tuck!" and "Belly up!" the outcome is usually much better.
It's not just rookies, either. Too much arousal can make even experienced lifters make a lot of obvious mistakes, like gripping the bar incorrectly or setting their feet improperly.
As for getting the right level of arousal, everyone's different. You need to find the level that works for you, the one that has your CNS firing yet not so much that it affects your technique.
Still, mental issues are not my specialty. I don't spend much time addressing them, as they're usually not the problem, and I have little to no patience for them. Get your head screwed on right, get some smart training partners, and grow some balls.
These are the big rocks. It's a shit ton to cover, and I've covered it all before, so start by watching this video. It covers some basic stuff that 90% of guys at the gym don't do.
I also suggest reading this article. This one is special for me because it's my very first T Nation article, published way back in 2000. And yes, wise ass, what worked 12 years ago will still work today.
With that out of the way, here are the top technique issues I see when guys complain about a "stuck" bench press.
1. They don't know how to get tight.
A guy who simply hops onto a bench and starts pressing is a shitty bencher. This isn't bodybuilding – there's a whole ceremony of actions that must take place during the set-up before you even touch the bar.
A powerlifting bench press is a full body exercise, and to effectively recruit the lower body into the movement, force must transfer through the hips and torso to the bar. The only way this is possible without a serious energy leak is to be tight – feet pushed into the floor, upper back driving into the bench.
So how do you assess tightness? If you're set-up and I walk over and push your knee, it shouldn't budge. In fact, once you're gripping the bar, I shouldn't be able to move any part of your body. You and the bar should be like one solid piece of iron.
It starts with finding your upper back tension. Most guys don't have a clue what this even is, so here's a test:
Lie on the bench with your feet on the bench and go into a wrestler's bridge – basically push your hips as high up as you can while driving your feet and upper back into the bench.
Feel that tension in your upper back? Remember it, cause that's exactly the level of upper back tightness you want during your set-up.
It should not be comfortable. The fact is, you should be turning purple when you take the bar out. The worst part of the bench press is the setup, so if it sucks to do, then you're starting to do it right.
The good news is, all this tightness doesn't just transfer force better, it's also much better for shoulder health.
2. They're misaligned.
The barbell must be in line with the wrists and elbows. The number one thing I see are the wrists being cocked back. This takes them out of alignment and leads to less force transfer.
Correcting this solves a ton of problems. It helps keep the bar from travelling too far behind the elbow, which turns the bench press into a triceps extension, or too far in front of the elbow, which results in a shoulder rotation and/or dumping the bar on the stomach.
3. They have no leg drive.
Guys refuse to accept how important this is. To say it again, the bench press is a full body exercise, and if you aren't driving with your legs you're leaving a ton of force on the table. If you want to bodybuild, then fucking bodybuild – don't try to mix methods cause you'll only achieve marginal results in either.
Here's how you do it. If you bench with your feet out in front, then push your toes through the front of your shoes (like you were trying to scoot up the bench) while driving your back down into the bench. Basically, you're trying to push the floor away from the bench with your feet while driving your traps into the bench.
If you're the type who prefers to tuck their feet under for a really big arch, try to push the heels down into the floor. This flexes the ass and helps achieve greater upper back tightness. The heels may never be totally flat on the floor (though some federations require it), but remember that leg drive comes from pushing the heels down.
This is what everyone thinks is holding them back. What's the magic exercise, the secret sauce to get me from a piss-poor bench to the Big Kahuna?
Face it, this isn't what's holding you back. You don't know how to fucking bench, period. Quit reading now and review the article links and video from the beginning (I know you skipped it) and then read the previous section a few more times. Cause this here isn't your issue, friend.
But just in case it is, I'll address each sticking point:
1. Weak at the bottom.
Dynamic work. This fixes almost anything. Being weak off the chest is no exception. Include at least one Dynamic Effort day a week.
Dumbbell work. Doing sets of relatively heavy DB presses in the 10-15 rep range works well. Notice I said "relatively heavy" and "10-15 reps" – this is tough. Rest as long as necessary between sets to hit the rep targets.
Don't go too heavy. Sets of 4-6 reps may look more bad-ass, but I've never seen them do shit for bench press performance. Don't forget to tuck your elbows – just because it's a dumbbell movement doesn't mean we're now bodybuilding.
Floor press. You want to stop 1-2 inches above the chest, which can be problematic if you're a long-armed skinny bastard. Do Maximum Effort-type work, for 1-3 reps.
Ultra-wide bench presses. Grip should be forefinger on the rings using a Texas power bar. This should be done for higher reps – 50% of 1RM for sets of 5-6. Dumbbells can also be used for variety.
Soft-touch bench presses. These are great for bottom-end work. Slowly lower to your belly, pause for a moment, and drive up.
Board presses. Use a single board and come to a soft touch, not a bounce. For guys who train alone and can't use boards, my store (eliteFTS.com) will have an attachment available soon called the Shoulder Saver pad. It's a foam pad that clicks onto any Olympic bar that mimics the board press. Stay tuned.
Pin presses. Forget I wrote this. I hate pin presses. The pins can never be set exactly where they should be and they've been the root cause of many a pec tear. I would much prefer you do a suspended bench press from chains, as this allows you to press the bar from exactly where you need it.
2. Weak in the Middle
Dynamic work. Imagine if I took a light, flimsy balsa wood board and held it at your sticking point and told you to press the bar slowly into it. The board would likely bend and flex but would stay intact.
Then I tell you to do the same thing but this time lift explosively. The barbell would crash through the board.
Now we repeat the scenarios except we'll use a thick, dense piece of pine held at your sticking point.
You press slow and the board doesn't budge. Then you press explosively and this time the board doesn't crack, but it does bounce up a few inches. That becomes your new sticking point.
That's how Dynamic work affects your mid-range sticking point. It helps you blow through it so you can reach ranges where you may be stronger and finish the lift.
Board presses. Use three-boards for a weak middle range.
Incline close-grip bench press. The incline takes the lats out of the movement, putting more focus on the triceps and shoulders. Grip the bar a thumb away from the smooth on a Texas power bar and push heavy, for sets of 3-5 reps.
Incline DB presses. Keep the reps higher (10-15) and the palms facing inward.
Slight decline presses. Don't use too much of a decline, otherwise the ROM will be too short. Keep the reps on the higher side – I've seen way too many injuries from this.
3. Weak at the Top.
Welcome to triceps heaven.
4-board and 3-board presses. Go for low reps here. It's an elbow-friendly movement so get after it!
Suspended bench press from the high position. This should be set to about the same height as the 3-board press.
JM press. This is a highly underrated exercise. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing how to JM Press. Learn it.
Triceps extensions. There are too many to list – rolling DB triceps extensions, triceps extensions from the floor, etc. – just don't do the same one every workout. Rotate a different one in right before you usually get stuck.
How do you determine where you get stuck? By keeping a detailed training log. So if your log shows that at week 5 of using a particular exercise you tend to plateau, start changing things up at week 4.
Addressing The Weak Point
Once you identify where you're weak and how to address it, the smartest approach is to split things up into three phases.
In the first two phases, you address your weak points first while putting your strong points on the backburner. So if you suck at the lockout, for two phases your focus would be on board presses, JM presses, and extensions.
On the third phase, however, you flip the script – you avoid your weak points and just hit your strong points.
This helps maintain balance while preventing overuse injuries, with the third phase also setting up a nice supercompensation bounce.
Now let's set it up.
Create Your Own Program
If you've followed my writing, you'll know I absolutely hate writing general strength-based programs because while they may work for a few, they'll be largely ineffective for many.
Strength programming needs to be an individualized process, and this becomes even more important when you're stuck in the Dead Zone.
So what I'll do here is offer a general template for you to set something up on your own.
While it's no substitute for having a good coach assess your technique and do your programming, it should still be highly informative and may open your eyes to options that could kick start your lagging bench. This info will work whether you use a shirt or not.
Day 1 – Dynamic Effort Day, aka Speed Day
Speed Bench (Press the bar as fast as you can)
Do a lot of warm-up sets. Start with just the empty bar and don't move up until you feel ready for the next weight. If you're going to use 185 pounds your warm-ups might look like this:
45 pounds for 4 sets of 10 reps
95 pounds for 2 sets of 5 reps
115 pounds for 2 sets of 5 reps
135 pounds for 2 sets of 5 reps
145 pounds for 3 reps
155 pounds for 3 reps
165 pounds for 3 reps
175 pounds for 3 reps
- I prefer any set above 30% to be lower in volume (3-5 reps) with more sets. For example, I like to program 2 sets of 5 reps instead of 1 set of 10 reps.
There are several reasons for this. First, it's easier to focus and stay tight with good technique for 3-5 reps than it is for 10.
In a typical set of 10 reps you'll see technique break down with every rep over 3-5 simply because fatigue sets in. So if 7 reps of our 10 are performed with less than optimal technique, you're essentially spending twice as much time reinforcing poor technique as you are improving it.
A second reason is more warm-up sets means more time spent working on your set-up. Most technical issues are a result of poor set-up, and the more this can be practiced, the better.
For the work sets I'd suggest a four-week wave:
Week 1: 10 sets of 5 reps @ 50% 1RM, 90 seconds rest
Week 2: 8 sets of 5 reps @ 52% 1RM, 60 seconds rest
Week 3: 9 sets of 3 reps @ 54% 1RM, 60 seconds rest
Week 4: 8 sets of 3 reps @ 56% 1RM, 45 seconds rest
Week 5: Repeat week 1
- Over the four week wave there's a 12% increase in intensity with a 41% decrease in workload.
There are many other waves that can be used (and that I do use), but this will work best for most readers.
For an advanced lifter, a flatter cycle is better. This is when there's very little change in intensity and workload but more manipulation of the resistance and/or bars (i.e., bands, chains, fat bars, cambered bars, Swiss bars, etc.).
- I know most people would think this is a 6% increase. Remember, we're looking at the increase – from 50 to 56 – which is 12%. (56/50 = .12)
The second movement of the day is what I call supplemental work. These are movements that you know will increase or build your building movements.
A building movement is a movement that you know carries over to the bench press. Usually these are used as Max Effort movements (the second day), but can also be used as supplemental movements if options are limited.
Let's say you know that every time your floor press goes up, your bench press goes up. The second movement in your program would be exercises that you know (or think) will carry over to the floor press.
Considering that the floor press takes the legs out of the press while maintaining lat involvement, the movements that build the floor press will be those that focus on the mid to lower part of the bench press – what most would call compound chest, pec, or delt movements.
Some examples would be JM Presses, low board presses, dumbbell floor presses, and triceps extensions. It's usually a safe bet to make this a heavy triceps movement.
Supplemental movements should be done in the heavy 3-5 rep range for 1-3 sets and for 4-5 week cycles. It's usually best to stay with this movement until you can no longer add weight or reps, and then swap it out.
These are what I call accessory movements. Taking the builder concept one step further, these are movements that will help make your supplemental movements stronger.
To back track, if you know the floor press builds your bench and plan on using dumbbell floor presses and JM presses to build your floor press, these are the movements to build your JM press and dumbbell floor press.
(I realize it starts to get a little overwhelming. How are you supposed to know what builds what? What the hell builds a dumbbell floor press? And what if I was wrong and dumbbell floor presses don't even build the floor press to begin with?)
First, realize that no single program will pull you out of the Dead Zone. If one did, odds are you would've found it by now.
The only way out is to pay attention and get smarter. You may not know the answers right now, but as you become aware of what to watch for you'll be amazed at how the answers start to reveal themselves to you.
Second, you always have the option of saying, "Fuck it, too complicated" and simply go back to what you've been doing the past five years. How's that been working out for you?
Back to the accessory movements. Typically these will be more isolation-type movements that will be trained in the 8-12 rep range for multiple sets. Examples would be exercises like face pulls, pushdowns, extensions, etc.
This is all the crap you have to do to maintain a certain degree of muscle balance and joint stability. Examples include external shoulder rotation, lat work, and rear delt work.
As a rule, find movements that work the muscle over a very large range of motion and don't worry about the amount of weight used. Use this movement to isolate the muscle that either gets pounded with your core training or just gets ignored. Higher-rep sets of 15-30 reps work best here.
In my programming I call this free time and usually cap it at 10-15 or 20 minutes, depending on how far away from a meet the person is. (The closer the meet, the less free time allowed.)
This is a time to do whatever goofy or fun stuff you want to do as long as the reps are over 8.
Day 2 – Max Effort Day
Select a movement that you know directly carries over to your bench press and wave it for 1-3 weeks. The more advanced you are, the more frequently you need to swap this movement out.
If you choose to run it for three weeks, a good rule of thumb is to use the first week to feel the movement out. Work up to a heavy set of 3 reps but not a ball-buster set – just heavy enough to get an idea of what you might be able to do for one rep if you had to. I call this your Perceived Max (PM).
On week 2, use your PM from week 1 as your guideline and go to 90% of that for a set of 1-3 reps. This time do bust your balls, but don't do more than 3 reps, even if you can. Also, don't do an extra set if you killed this one.
On the third week, go up to a ball-buster max set of 1.
If you're more advanced and need to change up movements every week because you can't break your record two weeks in a row, I suggest working up slowly (same warm-up style used for the Dynamic work) and listen to your body as you warm-up.
If you feel great, go for the one-rep record. If you feel a tad off then shoot for a triple record. If it all feels like dogshit then change movements before your work set or totally drop it and do more supplemental work instead.
Same as the Dynamic day but with a different movement.
Same as the Dynamic day but with a different movement.
Fourth Movement (and more)
Same as the Dynamic day but with different movement(s).
Same as the Dynamic day but with different movement(s).
I could write a lot more about bench press plateaus, but at a certain point general recommendations must give way to individualized programming. So start here for now. Figure out where you're weak and what exercises you need to get you over the hump. Establish an intelligent plan and get to work.