Bench Press Plateau – 5 Exercises That Will Help
“How much do ya bench?”
This is one of, if not the most common weightlifting-related question both in and out of the gym. A few decades ago the bench press replaced the overhead press as the Golden Standard measurement for upper body size and strength.
When beginners embark on their journey to build muscle and strength, they are almost guaranteed to be brainwashed by online articles, gurus, and meatheads telling them that flat barbell bench press is the ONLY exercise they need to build a beefy chest. While the flat barbell bench press is an effective compound exercise for engaging the chest, shoulders, and triceps, it should not be the only upper body pressing exercise in your arsenal.
Despite your best efforts to adjust the frequency, volume, and intensity of the flat bench press, you may soon find yourself hitting a plateau and unable to add weight or repetitions. While repeating the same motion over and over can increase comfort with the exercise as well as neuromuscular adaption, it can lead to overuse injuries, muscle imbalances, and weaknesses over time.
Exercise variations are a critical tool in your workout arsenal for blasting through your flat bench press plateau.
Ensure each exercise variation you incorporate in to your routine has a purpose. Take a video of your form and carefully analyze weaknesses and sticking points.
While I am a fan of performing my ‘pet’ exercises, you should also include variations that you are not so good with but will provide significant benefit. This article provides five exercise variations that improve different lagging muscles and aspects of the lift based on where you struggle most.
Learn proper bench press from from MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner.
5 Exercises For a Bench Press Plateau
Incline Bench Press – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps
Hands down one of my favorite exercises for improving both your flat bench and overhead press. The incline bench press is considered the best compound exercise for building the pesky upper pecs, also known as the clavicular head of the pectoralis major.
The upper pecs often lag in size and strength in trainees that exclusively train the flat bench press. The steeper you set the incline, the more you engage the shoulders and the less you engage your chest muscles. To maximize chest, specifically upper pec involvement, and minimize the likelihood of the shoulders taking over, I prefer a lower incline of 30 degrees.
If your bench does not adjust to this angle, then a 45-degree angle is also fine. When setting up for the lift take a similar grip to the one used for flat bench. Throughout the movement ensure your butt and back stays on the pad, feet stay on the floor, and shoulder blades remain squeezed together.
If you have a spotter, rack pins, or a smith machine you can also try taking a wide grip on the barbell and lowering it to your clavicles. While this does increase the risk of impingement and injury, some trainees find that using a lighter weight and high repetition structure on this exercise leads to exceptional pumps in the upper pecs.
When your incline bench goes up then your flat bench will also increase.
Paused Bench Press – 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps
Are you weak at the bottom of the bench press when the bar is touching or hovering above your chest? Do you struggle to stay tight during the transition from lowering the bar down to pushing the bar up? If so, the paused bench press should be your go-to bench press exercise variation.
Paused exercise variations are an excellent tool for reinforcing proper form and practicing staying tight during various points of the lift. Start with approximately 50 to 60% of your one repetition maximum. Set up for the paused bench press exactly as you would for the flat bench press.
Unrack the bar and slowly lower the barbell until it is slightly above or just touching your chest. Hold this position for three to five seconds. While holding the barbell in this position focus on squeezing the shoulder blades down and back, pulling the bar apart, keeping your chest up, glutes flexed, and feet on the floor. After holding for the desired duration press back to the starting position with controlled force.
To increase the intensity and focus on multiple sticking points at once, add multiple pauses throughout the motion. For example, you can pause halfway during the bar’s descent, on or slightly above the chest, and halfway during the bar’s ascent.
Floor Press – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps
If you struggle with locking out the bench press, then your triceps are likely the limiting factor. When it comes to building strong and beefy triceps you can pick either the floor press or close grip bench press.
The close-grip bench press offers the advantage of an increased range of motion due to its narrow grip but the floor press is a more similar movement to locking out a traditional bench press. Furthermore, the floor press significantly decreases your ability to use body English or cheating to accomplish the rep since you’re lying flat on the floor during the movement.
Set up for the floor press by stepping in to or directly outside a squat rack and lying flat on the floor. While keeping your shoulders down and back extend your arms as if you were finishing a bench press repetition. This will be the height to set the barbell and the rack pins.
After setting and placing the barbell on the rack pins, add the desired amount of weight (typically 60 to 70% of your bench press one repetition maximum), and lay on the floor. Ensure you are positioned under the barbell exactly as you would be for a flat bench press. You can either completely extend your legs or bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor.
Extend your arms and unrack the bar. Slowly lower the barbell until your triceps and elbows almost touch the ground. Once you reach the desired depth press the barbell upwards and complete the rep.
Do not use momentum and bounce your elbows off the ground to move the bar. If you do not have a rack with adjustable pins you can employ a spotter to hand the bar off to you or you can use dumbbells.
Reverse Grip Bench Press – 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps
The reverse grip bench press is the perfect variation for increasing upper chest and tricep engagement as well as improving the packing and squeezing of your shoulder blades and upper back.
Many lifters that experience shoulder pain and discomfort during the traditional bench press find reverse grip bench press to be a pain free alternative. This is likely due to the biomechanics of the movement as you’re externally, rather than internally rotating your shoulders during the lowering portion of the lift.
Furthermore, many powerlifting federations accept the reverse grip bench press in competition which is great news for those who find traditional bench uncomfortable but still want to compete.
Set up for the reverse grip bench press exactly as you would for the flat bench press. Instead of taking a moderate pronated grip with palms facing away from you, take a moderate-to-wide supinated grip with palms facing towards you. Take a deep breath, brace your glutes and abdominals for impact, and unrack the bar.
Unracking the barbell can be awkward so be sure to set safety catches at approximately chest height or use a spotter. Once you’ve unracked the bar, tuck your shoulders and bend your elbows until the barbell is resting on or slightly above your chest.
At the bottom position of the lift your shoulder blades and upper back should feel extremely tight. Push through your heels, pull the bar apart, and press the bar upwards back to the start position.
If you’ve never performed this exercise, then prepare to be humbled. Start with 60 to 70% of your one repetition maximum.
Neutral Grip Bench Press – 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps
Except for reverse grip bench press, you can perform nearly all the bench press variations discussed thus far using dumbbells or barbells. Unless you have specialized equipment, I can guarantee that you will only be able to perform the neutral grip bench press using dumbbells.
This exercises variation offers an increased range-of-motion compared to the flat bench press, engages each arm independently, and places significantly less stress on the shoulders due to the lack of internal shoulder rotation. This exercise will spur chest hypertrophy, allow you to increase your pressing volume virtually pain free, and even out any imbalances between the pressing muscles on the left and right sides of your body.
Set up for this movement by selecting two dumbbells of equal weight and lying on a flat bench. Once you’re lying down, fully extend your arms so that your palms are facing each other. Your wrists and elbows should be in-line with your shoulders.
Take a deep breath, brace your abdominals for impact and slowly lower the dumbbells until the portion of the dumbbell closest to your face is hovering slightly above your armpits. Hold for one to two seconds and then press the dumbbells back to their starting positions.
Set the bench to a low incline and perform the neutral grip bench press to increase upper pec muscle fiber recruitment while saving your shoulders.
What are your favorite exercises to blast through plateaus on the bench? Let me know in the comments below!