Has your bench press been stuck for a while?
Been shooting for three plates for what seems like forever, but just can't seem to get there?
Take heart. All good lifters get stuck on a plateau every so often, and while it can be frustrating, it doesn't have to be insurmountable. Here's a six-week program for busting through the most stubborn plateau. I call it the Plateau Breaker.
This program is geared specifically toward the bench press, but the concepts can be applied to any lift. It's designed for intermediate or advanced level lifters (because if you're a beginner, then you shouldn't be hitting any plateaus yet).
The principles of this program are pretty simple. The two best ways to build maximum strength are the maximum effort method and the repetitive effort method, so that's what we'll be focusing on. You also need a lot of hard work (no shortage of that here), coupled with adequate rest to allow the body to recover.
Since you will be hitting the chest specifically only once a week on this program, you'll get enough rest and you'll need it. Finally it's been suggested that regular heavy training with the same exercise can lead to CNS burnout after 4 weeks, so we have some necessary variety in the program as well.
Here's what I want you to do: first, we need to know how much you can actually bench, so we'll have a test week. On Monday (or whichever day you train bench the heaviest), go in and find your max on the bench press. Obviously, you should use a spot, but don't count the lift if your form goes to hell, or if your spotter touches the bar. Then train as normal for the rest of that week (but don't train your chest again). Starting the following week, for the next six weeks, follow the Plateau Breaker program outlined below.
Week 1: Maximal Effort Week
|B||Incline Bench Press||5||3-5|
|C||Close Grip Bench Press||5||3-5|
Week 2: Repetitive Effort Week
|B||Incline Bench Press||3||12-20|
|C||Close Grip Bench Press||3||12-20|
Week 3: Maximal Effort Week
|B||Decline Bench Press||5||3-5|
|C||Hammer Strength Incline||5||3-8|
Week 4: Repetitive Effort Week
|B||Decline Bench Press||3||12-20|
|C||Hammer Strength Incline||3||12-20|
Week 5: Maximal Effort Week
|D||Pause Bench Press||5||3-5|
Week 6: Repetitive Effort Week
|D||Pause Bench Press||3||12-20|
As previously mentioned, this program is designed to be followed on a once a week split. A good split that works well with this setup is:
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5||Day 6 & 7|
You can flip either days 1 and 2 or days 4 and 5 if you prefer (not both of them), but since we're focusing on chest for 6 weeks, train it when you're fresh and feeling good. You can do abs more than once a week if you want.
The exercises listed are in the order they need to be performed, so don't change the order. Here's a quick explanation on some exercises that might be confusing:
You're probably saying, "well, duh." Yes, I know you know this exercise, but bear with me. It's the cornerstone of this program, so I want to make sure we're all doing it properly.
Grip the bar wider than shoulder width, so that your forearms are perpendicular to the bar at the bottom of the range of motion. If you already have a grip you love, go with it. Touch your chest on the lower half of the sternum. Nipple level works well.
Keep your elbows tucked 45-60 degrees on the way down, and on the beginning part of the way up. Slightly arc the bar back up toward your head as you press, particularly with the heavy weight and lower rep sets. Your butt, head and feet don't move during the set. A little arch in the lower back is fine if it works for you.
Close Grip Bench Press
Don't grip it tooclose: keep your hands just outside of the chest at the bottom. I find that putting two fingers on the smooth part of the bar and two fingers on the grip (knurling) works very well for almost everybody. Keep your elbows tucked.
Like a fly, but you start with your hands shoulder height, then bring them down in front of your waist.
Hammer Strength Incline
If you don't have access to this machine, you can substitute another incline machine that you like, or else do incline dumbbell presses.
Use two or three boards (two if you're weak near the bottom, three for everybody else). If you don't have boards, you can use a yoga block, a foam roller, or some 25-pound weights. In a pinch you can use a rack and do rack presses, but you really should get some boards, they're very useful and easy to make.
Board press using three boards
Variations using yoga block and foam roller
Homemade board press boards
This is simply a bench press performed on the floor, which limits your range of motion. Use about as much or more weight for this exercise as you do for the bench press.
When doing the floor press without a power rack, you can "rack" the weight on the end of a bench.
Pause Bench Press
Perform a normal bench press, but include a distinct pause on the chest for each rep, just like in an actual powerlifting competition. Count to yourself "one thousand one" (or "one Mississippi," or "one Jamie Eason" or whatever) with the bar on your chest and then press, doing this for each rep. Since this comes at the end of the workout and you may not be used to it, your weight will be down significantly, perhaps as much as 20% lower. The other reps are all touch and go.
The sets listed are work sets: we're assuming that you'll do 2 to 4 warm-ups sets on the first exercise of the day and 1-3 warm-up sets for every other exercise.
On the max effort days you can do sets across (the same weight for each work set like 275 x 5 x 5) or you can do ascending sets (i.e. 255 x 5, 265 x 5, 275 x 5, 285 x 5, 295 x 5), whichever you prefer. I generally prefer the ascending set style, especially on the first exercise.
On the repetitive effort days you can do sets across if you can manage it (often the weight stays the same but the reps drop like 225 x 20, 225 x 16, 225 x 12) or you can do descending sets where the weight decreases each set (i.e. 225 x 20, 205 x 20, 185 x 20). If you can't get the minimum number of reps listed on either day, the weight needs to be decreased.
When you repeat the bench press on weeks 3 and 4 try to use more weight than you did on weeks 1 and 2 (increase 2.5 to 10 pounds). So if you finished with 275 x 5 on week 1, try 280 x 5 on week 3.
This program is pretty brutal, so be prepared. On weeks 1, 3, and 5 you'll be going pretty heavy for a good number of exercises, and on weeks 2, 4, 6 you'll probably be doing a lot more reps than you're used to. You'll most likely get a huge pump in your chest (like someone is trying to blow air into the muscle; it feels fantastic!).
You may notice the weight you're lifting drop off a lot on the latter exercises, but don't sweat it. What this means is that you've fatigued the muscle, which is exactly what we're after. Don't let your ego get involved and lift heavy without doing the amount of recommended reps on the rep effort days.
Make sure your rest periods on the max effort days are as long as you need: 2-5 minutes usually works well. On the rep effort days, keep the rest under 3 minutes. These workouts will usually take about 60-90 minutes to complete.
Don't test your one-rep max again for any reason during this program. Once you've completed the plan, then you'll do another test week.
The week after you finish week 6, come in and max out again on the same day that you've been doing chest. Follow the same procedure that you used to find your one-rep max earlier, but this time, instead of just repeating your max, add 5 pounds to it. If you're successful, congratulations, you just set a new PR! If you have some strength still left in the tank, throw on another 5-10 pounds and try it again.
I'm not going to bullshit you and say you should expect to add 50 pounds to your bench in 6 weeks with this program. If you're intermediate or advanced, and on a true plateau, you already know that's practically impossible. But the vast majority of people who follow this routine add an honest 5-10 pounds to their bench, and I've had a few people add 20 pounds to it.
This routine isn't designed to be followed indefinitely. Once you do it for the recommended 6 weeks, follow another program for a while and wait at least 3 months before you come back and try it again. Each time, test your one-rep max before you start and after you finish so you'll know for sure what actually happened to you. Good luck with it. If you have any questions about the program, post them in the discussions section and I'll try to answer them there.