Chest day is probably an all-time favorite training day of all athletes around the World. Everybody likes hitting chest. That’s why you have to sit in line for the bench press each Monday. I remember Phil Heath said this in an interview: “when I’m training chest I have hundreds of fans sitting in line to train with me. When it’s leg day I’m happy if I have 2 or 3.”
As an untrained beginner, you will notice rapid strength gains. You will literally be able to add more weight to the bar every time you get to the gym. That’s perfectly normal and that’s how it works for newbies.
Once you’ve reached a certain level and have been serious about your training for 6-12 months, you will notice that it will become increasingly more difficult to make progress. Eventually, you will plateau. You just won’t be able to do more reps or increase the weight anymore.
I remember that happened at 245 pounds for me. Anyways, if you’re at that point right now, this article is going to come in helpful. We’re outlining a handful of tips that will help you push more weight in no time.
#1 Start off with bench press first
When you’re trying to break through a plateau on a specific exercise, whatever it might be, always start your workouts with that exercise. You are always stronger on the first exercise you do and lose a little bit of strength as you go through your workouts.
There’s ATP being consumed, glycogen levels get lower and there’s lactic acid getting accumulated inside your muscles. All these factors decrease your performance as you go through your workouts.
So regardless of what your normal routine looks like when you hit a plateau on a specific exercise and you want to overcome that, start your workouts with that particular exercise.
#2 Be focused & determined
I think this tip right here is probably the most underrated thing you can do to improve your performance. Being mentally prepared and “in the zone” before a heavy set is crucial. So shut off any distractions and think about your next set.
Listening to music that gets me pumped up and works great for me, and I’m sure it does for many of you as well. I also like to take a few seconds while I’m under the bar to clear out my mind and picture in my mind how I’m grabbing the bar, un-rack it and then perform the rep successfully.
I came across a study that kind of confirms this as well. It looks like when you’re all pumped up, your power output can go up with 8% and when you are distracted it can go up with 12%. So I guess, it’s not just me.
#3 Try out different rep ranges
Another thing you can do is to mix-up your normal rep range. So if you’re a guy that always sticks in the 4-8 rep range, drop the weight a little bit and do 8-12 reps instead. And the other way around, if you’re doing high rep sets most of the times, switch to low rep sets.
Even if this might not seem like a big deal, it actually makes a lot of difference on the inside. High reps will help you fatigue your muscles, which will stimulate growth, medium reps will trigger myofibrillar muscle growth and low reps will increase strength.
Sometimes it takes a combination of all three to break through a plateau if you have been stuck with it for a while.
#4 Tuck in your elbows
I learned this trick from a friend of mine who’s a power-lifter.
When you keep your arms at a 45-degree angle from your body and use a slightly narrower grip, you will actually push the bar up using more of your chest and triceps. At the same time, you will be taking quite a lot of weight and stress off your shoulders, which will improve performance and minimize the risk of injuries.
Getting the form right will require a little bit of practice at first. It’s like imagining you are bending the bar when you tuck in your arms closer to your torso. Practice this using light weight and work your way up when you feel that you’ve accommodated with the movement.
#5 Double check your setup and form
Lastly but not least, you want to make sure you’re setting up everything correctly and you are using good form.
When you lay back on the bench, the bar should align perfectly with your eyes. That’s how you’ll know if you are too high up or too low on the bench. Then, the height of the bar should allow you to easily un-rack it, without reach out or pushing it up too much when you do so.
Hand placement should be just a little bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Make sure your wrists are straight up, not bend backward.
Next, from the top position, start lowering the bar using a medium speed. The negative part of the rep should last 1 second or so. I’m sure you’ve heard many people saying that you should do the negative really, really slow, but if you are trying to increase your performance that doesn’t help.
So lower the bar at a normal speed until it touches your chest, and from there push it up as explosively as you can. There should be no pause at the bottom of the movement.
It helps to imagine you are actually pushing yourself away from the bar instead of pushing the bar up. Kind of like when you’re doing push-ups. Don’t know why that is, but many experienced bodybuilders share this thought.
#6 Eat more
Nutrition is crucial when you’re trying to increase strength.
First and foremost, if you have been training for more than one year, you want to make sure you are not in a deficit when you try to increase your bench press PR or any PR for that matter.
Yes, when you’re a newbie you can lose fat and build muscle at the same time, but once you have trained long enough you will never have that privilege again. If you want to get stronger you will need to eat more. And not just anything, you want to eat more of the right stuff.
Now, it doesn’t have to be a whole lot more. That will just make you fat. A 10% surplus should do the trick. So if you normally eat 3,000 kcal, add another 300 kcal to your daily meal and get those 300 extra calories from carbs.
Carbohydrates are broken down into glycogen which gets stored in the muscles and gets used as the primary source of energy during the workouts.
#7 Make sure your training frequency is in check
I was able to increase my performance in the gym, not only for the bench press but for other key lifts as well, just by adjusting my training frequency.
If you’re not taking enough time off between workouts, or on the opposite side, if you’re taking too long between two workouts, you can’t optimize your performance. So you will be either over-training or under-training.
There are no strict rules when it comes to this topic, so your best course of action would be to simply play around with your training frequency and see what happens. Sure, you will also need to take a look at your training volume – how many reps and sets you’re doing – and at your training intensity – how heavy you go.
Most of the times, when you’re training high intensity you will need between 5 and 7 days to recover.
#8 Work on other areas of your chest
One mistake that I’ve seen many people do is to stick with the flat bench press forever. Your chest muscle, like any other muscle, is tridimensional and needs to be trained using a variety of different exercises that will target different areas.
Having a well-developed upper chest is very important. So if you feel like your upper chest is lacking behind, work on improving that by focusing on incline bench press for a while. The chest version of dips is also great for strengthening the lower part of your chest.
Switch over to using dumbbells instead of a barbell for a while. You will target different areas of your pectorals and you will build a stronger all-around chest. So when you get back to hitting that bench press PR again you might have a nice surprise.
So there you have it – 8 different tips you can start implementing right away to break through your bench press plateau. Pick one or two and give it a try. Doesn’t work? Pick another one and another one. Eventually, you will be able to figure out what works for you personally and increase your bench press in no time.