Five Plateau-Busting Bench Press Tips

TAGS: unrack, bench press tips, plateau, Joe Schillero, control, mind, PR, bench press

There is very little margin for error in the bench press. Even the slightest mistake in technique or element of self-doubt can keep you stuck at a plateau for what will feel like an eternity. The lack of experienced training partners or expert evaluation of your bench press will cause you to practice bad habits until they are ingrained. These habits can build what seems like an immovable mountain between you and your next bench PR. As a coach, I get to see what common problems beginning and intermediate lifters share, and what bad habits they’ve developed that are easily fixed with time and effort. Below are five common bench problems and how to fix them in your training.

Tightness Ties Everything Together

The Problem: Everything seems to fall apart. You don’t have any power off the chest and can’t create leg drive. There only seems to be a five-pound difference between an easy lift and getting stapled.

The Fix: Getting your entire body tight from head to toe, beginning with the setup and building throughout the entire movement.

One of the most important principles for the bench press is maintaining tightness throughout your entire body. This begins the moment you setup on the bench, continues as you grab the bar, is maintained as you unrack the weight, and reaches its peak as you execute the lift.  Allowing any part of your body to get loose during the movement can lead to a missed lift, and possibly even injury.  You’ll notice that many of the problems listed below all tie in to this principle one way or another. Staying tight can remove a lot of weak links in your bench all at once.

A big part of staying tight during the lift is the positioning and engagement of your lats and legs. Team elitefts™ member and pro powerlifter Julia Ladewski evaluated bench technique at my recent seminar and explained that one of the biggest problems she sees with most people is not using or engaging the lats to stay tight. She noted, “most people just bring the bar down without any regard to being tight. Tightness should start by squeezing the bar, breaking the bar apart to engage the lats, and then taking a big deep breath to create even more tightness throughout the entire body.”

Remember that even when you’re doing a paused bench press, you need to remain tight the entire time the bar is touching your chest. If you let your arch collapse and lose leg drive, you’ll find yourself at a sticking point about two inches off your chest every time. Keep your legs and lats engaged, and make sure to drive your feet into the floor as you press the bar up. Leg drive can add a lot of weight to your bench if done correctly. Remember that tightness during the bench isn’t comfortable. If you’re exhausted just from holding your setup, you’re probably doing it right.

Effective Elbow Positioning

The Problem: You feel a lot of strain on the pecs and shoulders, feel loose, or you feel tight but notice your wrists bending back at lockout.

The Fix: Getting the elbows in the correct position relative to your wrists and trunk.

Elbow positioning is something that a lot of lifters get confused on, and it can translate to missed lifts and injuries depending on how severe the displacement. As a raw bench presser, the elbows should be tucked so that way they are directly underneath the wrists during the lift. A problem that many raw lifters experience is over-tucking their elbows, which can lead to the wrists bending back. In turn, they miss at lockout. You want your elbows to be tucked, but not to the extent that they are when you bench in gear. The same goes for flare: you can have slight elbow flare at lockout, but not as pronounced as you would when trying to maximize your bench shirt.

Many female lifters in particular struggle with this exaggerated elbow positioning, and it can affect bar path during the bench press. Alycia Israel, coach of the women’s strength training program OSU BarBELLES has seen that many female lifters who aren’t used to bench pressing will keep their elbows very wide. Keeping their elbows in this position far outside their body causes them to touch very high on their chest, which can create chest and shoulder pain during training. A lot of times, this is the result of being too loose, so as they learn to keep their lats tight it is important to make sure they don’t then over-compensate and tuck the elbows too close to their body.

Work on developing proper habits when training. Eventually, it will become second nature to keep your elbows in the correct position.

You Control the Weight, the Weight Doesn’t Control You.

The Problem: Touching point and bar speed are different on each rep, and the bar comes up unevenly.

The Fix: Controlling the eccentric part of the lift, and staying in your groove throughout the entire movement.

A common problem, especially with beginning lifters, is learning how to control the bar during the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift. This works hand-in-hand with the first principle of staying tight throughout the entire movement. At the recent Build Your Bench Clinic at The Ohio State University, I saw that many lifters struggled to control the bar all the way to their chests. The last inch or so before reaching their chest the bar would quickly dip and they would have a slight bounce to begin the press.  This is typically a combination of physical, technical, and mental weaknesses (Dave Tate explains these three types of weakness in his “8 Keys” article). The problem is physical because often times they haven’t trained the bench correctly enough to build chest and front delt strength. The problem is technical because they haven’t benched correctly and have built a habit of dropping the bar to their chest. The problem is mental because when the weight feels heavy they rush the last inch due to lack of confidence in their strength.

Team elitefts™ member and pro powerlifter Jennifer Petrosino noted that this is also an area with which female lifters tend to struggle. She said that it is common to see female lifters lower the bar in an erratic path as opposed to in a straight line directly to their chest. Fixing those physical, technical, and mental errors will help get their bench on the right path. In my experience, most beginning female lifters are much stronger than they think they are. It’s just a matter of building confidence and consistency in training.

To help build strength off the chest (physical aspect), you can work on paused bench, incline bench, and front delt work. To build the technical and mental aspects, work on keeping your bench air-tight and don’t allow doubt or laziness to cause a weak link in your setup or execution. University of Pittsburgh strength coach Kevin Argauer says that keeping tight will also help fix the problem of bar control. “To help fix this we had many of the lifters go through a mental checklist as they were setting up: Fill up with air, squeeze the bar as tight as possible, pull the lats tight, bring the bar down to the same place on your chest every rep, and drive the bar through the entire range of motion as hard as possible.” If you keep a tight squeeze on the bar, it will help control your descent.

Don’t Underestimate the Unrack

The Problem: You get tight during your setup and everything seems good to go, but when you get the weight in your hands everything falls apart.

The Fix: Maintaining your tightness and setup during the unrack and letting the bar settle in the right position before lowering it to your chest.

After working with attendees at the bench clinic, their setups started to look better and better. However, for many of them, as soon as they unracked the bar, everything would start to fall apart. They would get tight initially, but then would loosen their shoulders, lats, and legs.  Many lifters would also only bring the bar out a few inches from the rack, and then would have to bring the bar down at an angle to touch their chest. It’s important to understand as a raw bencher that you should be bringing the bar straight down to your chest. The shortest path from point A to point B is a straight line, and any extra movement is a waste of energy.

For many of them, continuing to work on tightness will help improve the unracking portion of the bench press. It’s important to keep the lats tight and shoulders tucked so that way the only thing that moves during the unrack is your arms. For bringing the bar out to the right position, work on letting the bar “settle” after you bring it out. This will help you feel if you’ve brought it out far enough. If you don’t feel strong in the position you bring it out to, work on playing around with different ones until you feel stable. Working on straight-arm pulldowns with a lat pulldown bar will also help build the muscles used to keep the bar stable and unrack the bar correctly.

Get Your Mind Right

The Problem: Consistently missing a weight that you know you’re strong enough to get. For instance, smoking 310 pounds over and over but getting crushed by 315 pounds.

The Fix: Mentally disciplining yourself to make all reps exactly the same, whether it’s a warm-up or a max attempt.

One of the biggest things I saw when we reached near-max or max weights with the bench clinic attendees was a lot of breakdowns caused by mental discipline. Many of the attendees started changing their technique as soon as the weight felt heavy in their hands, and this is the quickest way to set yourself up for missed lifts. Several lifters would either change their elbow tuck, change eccentric bar speed, or touch a different spot on their chest because the weight “felt heavy.” This is where mental discipline is built in training, and the reason taking your warm-up sets seriously is so important. Make every single rep in training look the same, whether its 70% of your max or 90%.  Technique cues need to be built into habits so that way when the weight “feels heavy” you don’t need to over-think the movement. Changing your technique when trying a max because of a lack of confidence will come back to bite you every time.  This is also why training partners are so important, so that you can focus on one or two cues and let them evaluate what your lift looks like. They can keep you accountable if they see you’re making changes that you shouldn’t during heavy lifts.

These are just a few tips to help you break out of your current bench press plateau. You probably noticed that many of the tips feed into each other, and this is why even fixing one or two problems should help you see dramatic increases in your bench. Remember that these tips will only work if you can build them into habits, and that will only happen by focusing on good technique from your warm-ups all the way through your work sets. Be patient, and focus on doing everything with 100% effort and passion.  If you don’t have good training partners, do yourself a huge favor and try finding some. The value of extra eyes to help your technique and keep you accountable is priceless, and will pay off in the long run.

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