Shattering Your Plateaus in 3 Easy Steps
"Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime." – Lao "Captain Obvious" Tzu
Writing strength-training articles is a tricky undertaking. Using the metaphor above, you must decide whether to "feed" the reader or "teach" them to fish.
If I write an article that includes a 12-week periodized training program, then I've given you something that will aid you temporarily. However, once those 12 weeks are up, you're back on your own, trolling the Internet for your next training program. So much for consistency!
However, by teaching you concepts and techniques used by successful strength coaches, as well as the reasoning behind them, then I provide you with a life-long education that will allow you to design your own training programs.
This issue of self-reliance shouldn't be underestimated, as it will ultimately lead to increased performance in the gym, or bigger guns...if that's your thing.
The lesson that self-reliance leads to confidence has gone relatively unnoticed by the majority of weight lifters. This newfound confidence in your program-design abilities leads to increased motivation, which ultimately means greater weight on the bar, along with the admiration of men, women, children and small barnyard animals across the world.
Therefore, my aim with this article, and with your approval, this series of articles, is to not only provide you with the tools necessary to design and trouble shoot your own training programs, but to instill a sense of achievement and ownership.
The first issue I want to cover is one that all weight lifters will encounter at some point in their lifting career: the strength plateau.
Nothing is more frustrating than busting your ass in the gym day-in and day-out and no matter what you do, the weight on the bar stays the same. It's times like this that you question your dedication to the sport of weight lifting.
The only comfort you can find is in knowing that you're not the first person to encounter plateaus, as it's a topic that strongmen from as early as the 1800s spent considerable time and effort developing techniques for overcoming strength plateaus. Their techniques ranged from performing every variation of the lift in question during the same workout to performing the troublesome lift multiple times in the same day.
And you thought twice daily workouts are a recent innovation! Sorry, that was being done over 200 years ago. The problem with the majority of the techniques employed for overcoming plateaus is that they usually rely on performing more of what you're currently doing.
For instance, one of my current clients hired me to improve his bench press as his numbers in that lift hadn't improved since the last time Charlie Sheen's liver enzymes tested normal.
The standard barometer of success in his chosen sport is that he needs to bench press at least 1.75x bodyweight. When he hired me, he was approximately 75 pounds short.
His previous strength coach placed him on a three month "bench press specialization" program, which required him to bench press 3 times weekly. After three months, his bench press only improved 25 pounds. How's that for specialization?
I call this type of programming the, "If some is good, then more is better" approach. And while this approach does have some value, it was the correct answer to the wrong question. The issue was not his work capacity, or his volume of work, but rather the intensity, or the weight being used. To take advantage of the latter, one of the best tools at your disposal is partial range of motion repetitions.
Partial Range of Motion
When it comes to lifting more weight, whether the goal is strength or hypertrophy, the best approach is to break down a repetition to its individual parts and use a weight appropriate for that specific portion of the repetition.
For instance, due to improved leverage, you can use a higher intensity of resistance performing a 1/4 bench press than you can during a full repetition bench press. And it's only logical that if you only perform full repetitions, the amount of weight you use would be limited by what you could lift past your sticking point.
Therefore, the key to eliminating sticking points, which if neglected long term lead to particularly obstinate strength plateaus, is to use a higher intensity of weight in the range during which you possess the mechanical advantage.
Accommodating resistance – the use of chains, bands, or eccentric hooks for overload – also accomplishes this, but not with the precision that partial range of motion repetitions offer.
Besides, depending on the rules and regulations of your training facility, they might not allow you to use such devices anyway. However, by using a power rack with a set of safety bars, you can choose to intentionally overload a few specific degrees of the range of motion, i.e. your sticking points, while avoiding the wrath of your local YMCA certified holistic personal trainer/MonaVie distributor.
Here's one of the phases I designed to achieve my client's bench press goal:
A1) Top 1/4 bench press
3 sets, 4-6 reps
120 seconds rest
A2) Pull ups
3 sets, 5-7 reps
20 seconds rest
B1) Top 1/2 bench press
3 sets, 4-6 reps
100 seconds rest
B2) Chin ups
3 sets, 5-7 reps
100 seconds rest
C1) Full range bench press
3 sets, 4-6 reps
100 seconds rest
C2) Semi-supinated chin ups
3 sets, 5-7 reps
100 seconds rest
Top 1/4 bench press – The upper range of motion of the bench press offers the most advantageous leverage, allowing the use of weights considerably heavier than you're accustomed to when performing full range of motion reps.
Not only does this heavier weight provide a greater stimulus for strength and hypertrophy gains, but it also gets rid of the, "Oh shit" factor, as in when you unrack the barbell from the supports and, "Oh shit, this is heavy," runs through your mind.
This exercise not only provides a huge psychological boost, but it provides the added benefits of desensitizing the golgi tendon organs and subsequently recruiting a greater number of motor units. Performing this exercise first is vital, as the heavy loads will prime your nervous system for the work that follows.
Top 1/2 bench press – This is one of the most common sticking points, and performing a top 1/2 repetition allows you to overload this position specifically, generating the strength required to drive the bar past this point. The heavier weights used in the previous movement (the top 1/4 bench) will allow the use of a heavier weight in this exercise, usually allowing for an additional 10-15% to be used. Can you say "facilitation?"
Full range bench press – Performing the full range of motion here allows you to specifically overload the most common sticking point, gettting the barbell off your chest. This exercise provides the added benefit of minimizing any altered length-tension relationships between muscle groups, which may occur from exclusively performing partial range of motion exercises. This is vital, as altered length-tensions will affect both the normal movements of joints and proprioceptive input to the CNS. If you think this part of the progression is unnecessary, talk to Wolfgang Unsold and Charles Poliquin. Yeah, that's what I thought.
And while you might be tempted to change the order of the pressing exercises, don't. The variations listed, in the exact same order presented, allow for the greatest loading. One of the tenets of weight training, whether working for strength or hypertrophy, is to always perform first the exercises that allow for the greatest loads.
Depending on your conditioning, the difference between performing the top 1/4 bench press first or last in your workout can mean a 25-35% reduction in the weight used. Why? The explanation is simple: you'll expend a significant amount of energy overloading your sticking points and you won't have anything left when it comes to handling the heaviest loads.
Pull-ups and chin-ups – You're probably thinking, "Shouldn't we perform some type of row instead of pull-ups? You know...cuz it's supposed to facilitate the bench 'n stuff?"
My success as a strength coach comes from correcting muscular and strength imbalances, which can be determined not only through a client assessment, but by reviewing my client's training logs. And after reviewing hundreds of training logs, I've reached the following conclusions: the majority of trainees, especially those whose strength levels have plateaued, not only devote more time to the exercises they enjoy, but usually also perform the easiest variations of exercises they don't enjoy.
So yes, rowing exercises are in direct opposition to bench presses, but a great number of trainees solely perform the different variations of rows specifically to avoid doing pull-ups.
Over time, this creates strength imbalances between scapular retraction and depression, leading to overly developed upper back thickness with nonexistent width. This is not only a function of ego, but also due to numerous strength coaches preaching that you "train the lats on the same plane as the bench."
This mantra is used as an excuse by trainees to completely omit the challenging hanging pull exercises from their training. In the long term, the difference in volume between horizontal pulling vs. vertical pulling will limit the amount of the weight you'll handle in the bench press.
Besides, haven't you heard that the lats will help drive the barbell off your chest?
The Set Up
Top 1/4 bench press – Position the safety bars so the barbell only travels 6-8 inches. For each rep, the barbell should make LIGHT contact with the safety bar before you press it to the starting position. I'll say it again, the barbell should make L-I-G-H-T contact...don't slam or drop the barbell onto the safety bars.
Performing the eccentric portion of the rep at a speed faster than the indicated tempo is a clear indication that you're using a weight beyond your current capabilities. Don't be that guy.
Top 1/2 bench press – Position the safety bars 2 inches below the top half of your range of motion. Again, let the number of reps determine the weight on the barbell, not your ego or your desire to impress the fitness bunny at the water fountain...unless she's Marla Duncan (blush)...in which case, do what you gotta' do.
Full Range Bench Press – By this point, your pecs should be twitching like Gary Busey on crystal meth during an earthquake. Make sure the barbell touches your chest for every rep. Again, don't mistake your pecs for a trampoline and try to ricochet the barbell off your sternum. Make your muscles do the work, not gravity.
As fatigue continues to accumulate, you'll be tempted to raise your hips off the bench to help you press the barbell off your chest. Don't! Keep your feet on the ground and your hips glued to the bench. If necessary, reduce the weight on the barbell. Proper form is a necessity for both injury prevention and improved performance.
- Sticking points limit how much weight you can lift in any given exercise.
- Partial range of motion exercises allow for heavier loads to be used, thereby placing great load on muscle fibers and improving neurological efficiency.
- To reduce the risk of injury, observe the prescribed exercise tempo and maintain proper form.
- Partial range of motion training can be applied to the majority of exercises, but is best reserved for multi-joint exercises.
- When performing partial range of motion training, always incorporate full range of motion sets within the workout.
- Ensure you use the same grip or stance for every partial range of motion exercise.
- When possible, have a training partner lift the barbell off the supports for you.
- Partial range of motion training is the best method for overcoming strength plateaus and only requires a squat rack.
Depending on your sport or physical/strength development, you may need to focus on other lifts besides the bench press. For those of you who fall into this category, I offer the following variations:
- 1/4 squat
- 1/2 squat
- Full squat
- 1/4 deadlift
- 1/2 deadlift
- Deadlift from floor
"No pain, no gain," was the mantra of the 80's. In the 90's, it became "Work smarter, not harder." For 2011, I offer, "Work smarter and harder."
To ensure constant improvement in the weight room, it's important to remember that variety is not only the spice of life, but a necessity. It's been stated numerous times, that the workout that took your bench press to 225 pounds will not get you to 315 pounds.
Don't allow yourself to be held captive by yesterday's success. The beauty of partial range of motion training is not only the ease with which you can introduce it into your current training, but the speed of returns on your time and effort invested.